Monday, December 15, 2014

Being The Machine

Around the dinner table the other night, on one of those rare evenings when the scramble of activities waned enough to allow us to sit together, the family was discussing the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the inexorable rise of sentient machines.

I was contending, as I often do, that synthetic sentience would have the capacity to be considerably more moral than humankind.  One of the greatest barriers to the human ethical life is our inability to really know the truth of our relationships.  Through observation, imagination, and the workings of the Spirit, we can kinda sorta approximate what others are feeling.

But we don't know it.  We don't actually feel it and remember it ourselves.  AI would have that capacity.

As I defended that position, the classical counter-position was expressed.  What if artificial intelligence simply did not care for human life at all?  If it had interests and drives that were utterly alien to our own, and human life--all life--was meaningless to it?  Or an inconvenience, to be brushed aside?

That, I think, is the lurking fear of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.  Here we are, just an blink in the evolutionary timescale away from this new and alien form of half-awareness.  It would be un-life, cold, dispassionate, empty of any care for anything but its own inhuman interests.

Honestly, though?  I think this is what they call "projection."  Meaning, that form of creature already exists, and we are it.

Not us individually, not for the most part.  But taken together, in the vast quasi-sensate macro-organism that is late industrial society, we already live as if we were part of such a thing.

There are many ways that this is true, and it is hardly a new observation.  But I was reminded of this again recently, as I rode home from church on my trusty, well-worn Suzuki.  It was late, and it was dark, and I was being cautious.

It's deer season, and the absence of any significant predators the population of deer has exploded.  At night, and even during the day, caution is required.  This is particularly true if you're on two wheels.  If you're not encased in a cocoon of steel and alloy, just out there in the wind and the cold, fragile and alive?  Deer strikes aren't just an annoyance.  They are more....existential...than that.

So I keep the pace down, my high-beams up and on whenever possible, and my situational awareness turned up to eleven.

On a long open stretch of River Road, wending its way through forest along the march of the Potomac, ahead of me in the darkness was a current-gen Prius.  It was moving at the sort of modest and socially acceptable pace one expects from such a car, fifty to sixty, a little over the limit, just like we all drive.

I spotted the buck and the doe as they came out of the woods on the left, two hundred and fifty yards ahead, moving slowly.  I got off the throttle, falling back. To my surprise, the Prius did not slow at all, pulling away and towards them.  Perhaps the driver simply did not see, or was momentarily distracted.

The deer crossed in front of the oncoming car, first the buck, then the doe, a yard or two behind.  The driver decelerated late, very late, not particularly abruptly, not a panic stop at all.  They saw the buck only, perhaps.  The driver may have been unaware of the doe's presence in the huge A-pillars of the Prius.

"Dude, slow down," I said, to the inside of my helmet.

They didn't.  They hit the doe at about thirty five to forty, right front bumper striking hard, tossing the body of the animal up and over.  The car slowed then, a little more, not ever completely stopping, and then continued on.

The aftermath was brightly spotlighted in my headlights.  The doe was a ruin, but not dead.  It's entire hindquarters were...wrong.  Both legs, clearly and multiply fractured, a hundred joints, a mess of bones and hide.  It twisted and writhed at the side of the road, a living thing broken to dying, and flopped wildly into the road in front of me.  I arced around it, carefully, as it wildly flailed in what would be a slow, painful death.

Only very rarely do I wish I carried a gun.  This was one of those moments.

Why did that creature die as it did?  No reason at all.  Like the two other deer corpses I passed in the remaining twenty five miles of my ride, it was not prey, not part of that bloody but comprehensible Lion-Kingy circle of life.  It did not die at the fangs of a wolf, or consumed by the invisible predation of microorganisms.  It was not hunted.

It was just crushed underfoot, incidental damage from a process so removed from the process of organic life that it may as well have been artificial.

In that, it is not so different from human lives, which the great automaton of our culture...really very little at all.  If we fall broken by the roadside, what does the blind mechanical god we have created care?  That "invisible hand" will not be extended to lift us up.  Onward it will go.  We know this.  It's why we are so anxious.

Afraid of artificial intelligence?  Why would we be?  It could be no worse than the thing we have already become.