Is Anyone There? On her and Transcendence

Cinema is our most viable and enduring form of design fiction. More than any other medium, it lets us peer into possible futures projected from the raw materials of the recent past, simulate scenes based on new visions via science and technology, gauge our reactions, and adjust our plans accordingly. These visions are equipment for living in a future heretofore unseen. As video artist Bill Viola (1995) puts it,

The implied goal of many of our efforts, including technological development, is the eradication of signal-to-noise ratio, which in the end is the ultimate transparent state where there is no perceived difference between the simulation and the reality, between ourselves and the other. We think of two lovers locked in a single ecstatic embrace. We think of futuristic descriptions of direct stimulation to the brain to evoke experiences and memories (p. 224).

Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)
— Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)

Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers. This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.
— Miles Harding reading from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984)

Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s’ PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles Harding (played by Lenny von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive 30 years on. As Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s her,

Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about (and that is the central theme of Barry Ptolemy’s movie about my ideas, Transcendent Man), namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person. In her, the AIs get together and recreate 1960s philosopher Alan Watts (whom I remember from my teenage years).

Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).
— Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).

I’d say “her” is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology. — , Tweeted on February 16, 2014

in her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives. He condenses stories from the vapor of their nuances. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in his operating system (“Samantha,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

In many ways, her can be read as a response to Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Jonze’s wife at the time, Sophia Coppola, who, like Jonze did for her, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That movie is in part about the dissolution of Jonze and Coppola’s relationship. Where Giovanni Ribisi plays a goofy, self-involved Jonze (“John”) in Lost in Translation, Rooney Mara plays an ununderstanding, judgemental Coppola (“Catherine”) in her: mere caricatures of themselves played out in bit parts. Where others have no problem with it, ex-wife Catherine has no truck with Theodore’s new OS love. He nonetheless remains incredulously committed.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “The most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them” (p. 158). ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms” (p. 158). To wit, in Chapter One of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011; specifically pp. 24-25), she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “And true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are” (p. 25).

More germane to her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman‘s first and only conversation with Kari (see Pettman’s Look at the Bunny, 2013), there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers.

Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).
— Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).

Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition (for another early example, see Stine, 1979). NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever (p. 166-167).

Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Trancendence (2014).
— Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Transcendence (2014).

In Transcendence (2014) Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife (“Evelyn,” played by Rebecca Hall, who almost seems to be filling in for an unavailable Johansson) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

If Kubrick and Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) can be read as an allegory for gays being accepted by their parents (see Kraus, 2004, p. 182), what sociological anxieties can we superimpose over her and Transcendence? I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence master’s program several years ago. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. Mix a love story in there and you’ve got questions and quests for a lifetime. As Jonze himself puts it, “… a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory” (quoted in Michael, 2013). Love and technology willing, when one of us has to be leaving, we won’t let that come between us, okay?

References:

Hofstadter, Douglas. (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Jastrow, Robert. (1984). The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Michael, Chris. (2013, September 9). Spike Jonze on Letting Her Rip and Being John Malkovich. The Guardian.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Stine, G. Harry. (1979, July). The Bionic Brain. Omni Magazine, vol. 1, #10, pp. 84-86, 121-122.

Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books

Viola, Bill. (1995). Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

The Human Factor: Animals, Machines, and Us

Before we all take the nonhuman turn, perhaps we should revisit what being human means in the first place. The debate has a rich pedigree. Situating the humans among the animals, as well as among our machines, is as fraught a philosophical position as one is likely to find. What separates us? Language? Self-awareness? Consciousness? Suffering? The machines themselves? No one, from Descartes and Kant to Heidegger and Levinas, seems to have a defensible answer. Two recent books explore the animal question in very different but interesting ways.

The human is a pointless and treacherous category.
— Kodwo Eshun

Burroughs to Ginsberg: “Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable.” — Tweeted by Steven Shaviro, November 28, 2009.

Building an elaborate three-way bridge connecting animals and humans and machines (a.k.a. “the cybernetic triangle”), Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines by Dominic Pettman (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) is a wildly engaging exploration of what it means to be human. From the philosophies of Agamben, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, and Heidegger to documentaries like Grizzly Man (2006) and Zoo (2007) and from songs like Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer to God” to Aerogramme’s “A Simple Process of Elimination,” Pettman swings wide in search of the lines we draw as well as the ones we cross.

Animals came from miles around
So tired of walking so close to the ground
They needed a change, that’s what they said
“Life is better walking on two legs!”
But they were in for a big surprise
‘Cause they didn’t know the law!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

Pettman writes, “In Descartes’s time, the beating of an animal was, in most cases, the beating of a machine, akin to thrashing an unreliable car that would complain by beeping its horn. Compassion for animals was seen as a misguided and extravagant anthropomorphism” (p. 114). He cites Jean Baudrillard arguing that animal cruelty, specifically the late medieval ritual practice of hanging a horse, makes us more human by equalizing the two. He continues, “Today, we have widened the circle of empathy, depending on our cultural and individual sensibilities, although not yet to the extent that we would throw our arms around a photocopier were we to witness it being assaulted by an overworked librarian” (p. 114). The argument continues, citing a sort of Turing test of suffering, as if each species must prove to us (humans) that it is in pain.

The rules are written in the stone
Break the rules and you get no bones
All you get is ridicule, laughter
And a trip to the house of pain!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”

Donkeys are stoic in their suffering, forever keeping their cards close to their chests. They would pass the Turing test of animal suffering in only the most extreme cases. In The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World (Walker & Co., 2008), Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked. Head veterinarian Dr. Mohsen Hassan posits that most donkey mistreatment comes from ignorance not cruelty, and that most of the donkeys collective problems seen in the clinic could be avoided “with sensible handling practice and informed care” (p. 187). In short, respect for the donkey. The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

Merriman’s book follows his travels elsewhere through the southern regions of France and through many fictional tales of humans and donkeys and donkey treatment. They do not respond well to the prodding and beating they get. Donkeys need patience and gentle encouragement. Often their circumstances do not afford them this. Saying the same about us, Merriman writes, “Global donkey inequities mimic the human world’s inequities” (p. 191). Or, as Pettman puts it, “To err is human; to forgive, equine” (p. 110).

————–

Special thanks to Ken Wark for recommending Merriman’s donkey book.

References:

Elfman, Danny. (1983). “No Spill Blood”  [Recorded by Oingo Boingo]. On Good For Your Soul [LP]. Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.

Eshun, Kodwo. (1998). More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books.

Merriman, Andy. (2008). The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. New York: Walker & Co.

Pettman, Dominic. (2011). Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:

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If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).

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Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

WALL-E: Here to Save You All

I’ve been holding off on writing about WALL-E as I felt it needed to marinate for a while. There are so many things to comment on, I scarcely know where to start. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and it could definitely stand several more viewings. The accolade is often used recklessly, but WALL-E is the very definition of an “instant classic.”

Though I don’t care for Disney otherwise (or particularly any other animation outfit), I’m a dedicated Pixar fan. After last year’s absolutely abortive and formulaic Ratatouille, WALL-E is a welcome return to form and one of their very best films to boot. One aspect of the genius that is WALL-E is the well-developed characters, and the fact that they’re sculpted in such relief with some of the sparsest dialog to hit the screen since 1981’s Quest for Fire. As painfully adorable and engaging as WALL-E himself is (some say he’s the direct descendant of Johnny 5 from 1986’s Short Circuit), even the minor characters (the feisty M-O being my favorite) have depth and appeal.

Thematically, WALL-E takes several modern memes and pushes them to extremes. WALL-E‘s is a world where our destruction of all the resources on Earth, our leaving it behind, and robots patrolling the planet after we’re gone are reality. The big-box retailer (Buy n Large) has grown so big as to replace the government and eventually moved us all off-world aboard its all-inclusive space community — the “Axiom” — where our every need is provided by machines (e.g., hoverchairs, ubiquitous screens, meals in cups eaten through straws, etc.).

The idea that our time on Earth is limited due to our own negligence is not new. The late George Carlin once quipped, “Humans are like a virus. Earth will shake us off like a bad cold and continue on its path.” Dave Allen calls WALL-E, “a parable for our eventual extinction,” and while eschatological themes are disturbingly rampant lately (Children of Men, I Am Legend, Cloverfield, Southland Tales, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening all toil similar thematic soil), I’d much rather watch a movie laced with global misanthropy than selective racism (as seen in Kung-Fu Panda, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and The Love Guru. I mean, really… WTF?).

Of course the idea that our replacements will be of our own creation isn’t new either, but neither of these themes are necessarily integral to the central plot or appeal of WALL-E. To me, breaking out of our technologically mediated, workaday trances is the most subtle but most pointed theme in WALL-E (admittedly, that’s my lens), while doing so by way of connecting with each other is its most direct. WALL-E is a lonely collector, and, spurred on by scenes from the 1969 film Hello Dolly, is searching for love. On his quest for companionship, WALL-E nudges everyone he meets out of their normal path. Like the Harlequin in Harlan Ellison‘s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (who deliberately knocks a clockwork world out of its scheduled whack), WALL-E breaks everyone — human and robot — out of their routines and shows them a different way, his intentionality notwithstanding.

Pixar has always been infamous for their easter eggs, but they’ve outdone themselves this time. There are WALL-E appearances in most previous Pixar films, and artifacts from past films in WALL-E!

In the age of the long tail, it’s refreshing to see a movie that holds appeal for everyone and is still well-crafted in every aspect. Seriously, be wary of the person that doesn’t like WALL-E.

Mind Wide Shut: Recent Books on Mind and Metaphor

Scientists have used metaphors to conceptualize and understand phenomena since early Greek philosophy. Aristotle used many anthropomorphic ideas to describe natural occurrences, but the technology of the time, needing constant human intervention, offered little in the way of metaphors for the mind. Since then, theorists have compared the human mind to the clock, the steam engine, the radio, the radar, and the computer, all of increasing complexity. Continue reading “Mind Wide Shut: Recent Books on Mind and Metaphor”