Crowing Cocks, Barking Dogs, and Artificial Intelligence

I recently read Jeannette Winterson’s book on artificial intelligence (AI), 12 Bytes: How AI will Change the Way We Live and Love.  Winterson believes that comprehensive AI is inevitable (surely she is correct in this), but that the perfect “AI Mind” could be structured to be free of bias, prejudice, illicit or mercenary purpose.  This beneficent intelligence could replace God for us as the “all powerful” solution – or so hopes she.  Winterson produces little evidence that it is going in that direction – mostly she just scares me and makes me glad I am at the end of life, rather than the beginning.

As has often been noted, technology, in itself, is amoral, leaving it open to good uses and atrocious uses.  But it will be used.  John von Neumann warned us decades ago: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.  It is true that we have the atom bomb and have never used it since Hiroshima and Nagasaki– but that is a technology with obvious risks, while AI is much more subtle.  And seductive.

Winterson recommended Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which I am currently reading. The question again is whether we control the technology or it controls us.  Zuboff tells us that “surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.”  And with the behavioral data, surveillance capitalists (think Google) can predict and manipulate our behavior – think of Skinner (ugh).   I am not happy with the thought of becoming “raw material” – it was bad enough when we were just “markets.”  Zuboff posits that we all have an “unbearable yearning” for the old world that is slipping away and gives us a Portuguese word of homesickness and longing to capture the feeling: saudade.   I have saudade– I imagine all old folks have it.  I have saudade for the way life used to be, and I have it increasingly as we race further and further from the world I grew up in – that imagined Eden.

The question that keeps being posed is: whether technology can be slowed down or redirected? As far as civilization and culture goes, technology seems to be a juggernaut.  No one seems to be willing or able to stop it.  But can an individual step aside?  Not easily of course.  There is still the need to interface with the computer to make travel reservations, with AI to get through to my doctor, with e-mail to keep in touch with children who seem to have forgotten that the postal service exists.  But can we carve out a place where we, at least, do not feel assaulted?  Our virtual Walden where we are not checking for messages or responding to beeps all day long?  Winterson herself has written forcefully about taking the importance of asking the question  ‘How shall I live?’ and describes that question as being “fierce.”  It is.

The premise that we do not have to use all the technology that is invented and marketed sounds self-evident, but it is not that easy.  Like Swift’s ancient Struldbruggs, we soon feel like we are not speaking the same language as those around us.  What is the answer?

The answer, for me, is that I do not speak the same language anyway.  And in my more pessimistic moments I think of another quote from Von Neumann’s discussion of how humans will use the technology at their disposal: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

 And yet, I still have hope.  There is the model of the Tao.  I post the eightieth section of the Tao here (“Crowing Cocks and Barking Dogs”).  Written two and a half millennia ago, the Tao addresses technology, over-population, peace:

A small country has fewer people.

Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster

     than man, they are not needed.

The people take death seriously and do not travel far.

Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.

Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.

Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.

Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,

     their homes secure;

They are happy in their ways.

Though they live within sight of their neighbors,

And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,

Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

One is reminded of some fictional utopias – notably those of William Morris and Samuel Butler – where technology is suspect and carefully controlled. In Butler’s Erewhon, society determined to make the cut-off point for technology 271 years before the present time.  The Amish sometimes use newer technology (like phones) for business, but not for other parts of their lives.  Why does it seem so difficult to do this in our own lives, especially since older people do not have to face the demands of a job or career?  At least, we  might disregard the machines that “are not needed” and the absence of which might contribute to our peace as we “grow old and die.”  I know, easier said than done.  Any assistance in where and how to draw the line would be greatly appreciated by this old lady.

If you would like to look at a piece of my fiction that considers the challenges of technology to life, you might try “Two New Apps.”

2 thoughts on “Crowing Cocks, Barking Dogs, and Artificial Intelligence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s