Automatons – Life Inside the Unreal Machine
a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being.
a machine which performs a range of functions according to a predetermined set of coded instructions.
used in similes and comparisons to refer to a person who seems to act in a mechanical or unemotional way.
“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”
He laughed. “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We have been giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Are we turning into a mass of unaware sleepwalkers? Our eyes are seemingly open and yet we are living as if asleep and the dream becomes our waking lives. It seems that more and more people, in the highly technologized nations at least, are in danger of succumbing to the epidemic of uniformity. People follow cycles of fashions and wear stupid clothes when they think it is the ‘in thing;’ and hyper-budget films take marketing to a whole new level forcing parents to rush out to buy the merchandise because their kids are screaming for it. And if one child in the class doesn’t have the latest toy like all their classmates then they are ostracized for this lack. Which means that poor mummy and daddy have to make sure they get their hands on these gadgets. Put the two items together – zombies and uniformity – and what do you get? Welcome to the phenomenon of Black Fridays, which have become the latest manifestation of national Zombie Days.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere (or living a normal, peaceful existence) then you will know what this event is – but let me remind you anyway of what a Black Friday is. It is a day when members of the public are infected with the ‘must buy’ and ‘act like an idiot’ virus that turns them into screaming, raging hordes banging on the doors of hyper-market retailers hours before they open. Many of these hordes sleep outside all night to get early entry. Then when the doors are finally opened they go rushing in fighting and screaming as if re-enacting a scene from Games of Thrones. Those that do survive the fisticuffs come away with trolleys full of boxes too big to carry. This display of cultural psychosis, generally named as idiocracy, is also a condition nurtured by societies based on high-consumption with even higher inequalities of wealth distribution. In other words, a culture conditioned to commodity accumulation will buy with fervour when things are cheap. This is because although conditioned to buy, they lack the financial means to satiate this desire. Many people suffer from a condition which psychologists have named as ‘miswanting,’ which means that we desire things we don’t like and like things we don’t desire. What this is really saying is that we tend to ‘want badly’ rather than having genuine need. What we are witnessing in these years is an epidemic of idiocracy and its propagating faster than post-war pregnancies. And yet we are programmed by our democratic societies to not think differently. In this respect, many people also suffer from a condition known as ‘confirmation bias.’
Confirmation bias is our conditioned tendency to pick and choose that information which confirms our pre-existing beliefs or ideas. Two people may be able to look at the same evidence and yet they will interpret it according to how it fits into and validates their own thinking. That’s why so many debates go nowhere as people generally don’t wish to be deviated away from those ideas they have invested so much time and effort in upholding. It’s too much of a shock to realize that what we thought was true, or valid, is not the case. To lose the safety and security of our ideas would be too much for many people. It is now well understood in psychology that we like to confirm our existing beliefs; after all, it makes us feel right!
Many of our online social media platforms are adhering to this principle by picking and choosing those items of news, events, etc that their algorithms have deemed we are most likely to want to see. As convenient as it may seem, it is unlikely to be in our best interests in the long term. The increasing automation of the world around us is set to establish a new ecology in our hyperreality. We will be forced to acknowledge that algorithms and intelligent software will soon, if it isn’t already, be running nearly everything in our daily lives. Historian Yuval Harari believes that ‘the twenty-first century will be dominated by algorithms. “Algorithm” is arguably the single most important concept in our world. If we want to understand our life and our future, we should make every effort to understand what an algorithm is.’1 Algorithms already follow our shopping habits, recommend products for us, pattern recognize our online behavior, help us drive our cars, fly our planes, trade our economies, coordinate our public transport, organize our energy distribution, and a lot, lot more that we are just not really aware of. One of the signs of living in a hyperreality is that we are surrounded by an invisible coded environment, written in languages we don’t understand, making our lives more abstracted from reality.
Modern societies are adapting to universal computing infrastructures that will usher in new arrangements and relations. Of course, these are only the early years, although there is already a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability. As it is said, industrialization didn’t turn us into machines and automation isn’t going to turn us into automatons. Which is more or less correct; after all, being human is not that simple. Yet there will be new dependencies and relations forming as algorithms continue to create and establish what can be called ‘pervasive assistance.’ Again, it is a question of being alert so that we don’t feel compelled just to give ourselves over to our algorithms. The last thing we want is for a bunch of psychologists trying to earn yet more money from a new disease of ‘algorithmic dependency syndrome’ or something similar.
It needs stating that by automating the world we also run the risk of being distanced from our own responsibilities. And this also implies, importantly, the responsibility we have to ourselves – to transcend our own limitations and to develop our human societies for the better. We should not forget that we are here to mature as a species and we should not allow the world of automation to distract us from this. Already literature and film have portrayed such possibilities. Examples are David Brin’s science-fiction novel Kiln People (2002 – also adapted into the film Surrogates, 2009), which clearly showed how automation may provide a smokescreen for people to disappear behind their surrogate substitutes.
Algorithms are the new signals that code an unseen territory all around us. In a world of rapidly increasing automation and digital identities we’ll have to keep our wits about us in order to retain what little of our identities we have left. We want to make sure that we don’t get lost in our emoji messages, our smilies of flirtation; or, even worse, loose our life in the ‘death cult’ of the selfies. Identities by their very nature are constructs; in fact, we can go so far as to call them fake. They are constructed from layers of ongoing conditioning which a person identifies with. This identity functions as a filter to interpret incoming perceptions. The limited degree of perceptions available to us almost guarantees that identities fall into a knowable range of archetypes. We would be wise to remember that who we are is not always the same as what we project. And yet some people on social media are unable to distinguish their public image from their personal identity, which starts to sound a bit scary. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard, not opposed to saying what he thought, stated it in another way:
We are in a social trance: vacant, withdrawn, lacking meaning in our own eyes. Abstracted, irresponsible, enervated. They have left us the optic nerve, but all the others have been disabled…All that is left is the mental screen of indifference, which matches the technical in-difference of the images.2
Baudrillard would probably be the first to agree that breathing is often a disguise to make us think that someone is alive. After all, don’t we breathe automatically without thinking about it?
We must not make the human spirit obsolete just because our technological elites are dreaming of a trans-human future. Speaking of such futures, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that in the 2030s human brains will be able to connect to the cloud and to use it just like we use cloud computing today. That is, we will be able to transfer emails and photos directly from the cloud to our brain as well as backing up our thoughts and memories. How will this futuristic scenario be possible? Well, Kurzweil says that nanobots – tiny robots constructed from DNA strands – will be swimming around in our brains. And the result? According to Kurzweil we’re going to be funnier, sexier, and better at expressing our loving sentiments. Well, that’s okay then – nanobot my brain up! Not only will being connected to the computing cloud make us sexier and funnier humans, it will even take us closer to our gods says Kurzweil – ‘So as we evolve, we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world – it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.’3 It’s hard to argue with such a bargain – a few nanobots in our brain to become godlike? I can imagine a lot of people will be signing up for this. There may even be a hefty monthly charge for those wanting more than 15GB of back-up headspace. Personally, I prefer the headspace that’s ad infinitum and priceless. I hope I’m not in the minority.
Looking at the choices on offer so far it seems that there is the zombie option, which comes with add-on idiocracy (basic model), and the trans-human nanobot sexy-god upgrade (pricy). But then let’s not forget that in an automated world it may be the sentient robots that come out on top. Now, that would be an almost perfect demonstration of a simulation reality.
Life in Imitation
There are those who believe that self-awareness is going to be the end game of artificial intelligence – the explosive ‘wow factor’ that really throws everything into high gear. The new trend now is deep machine-learning to the point where machines will program not only themselves but also other machines. Cognitive computer scientists are attempting to recapture the essence of human consciousness in the hope of back-engineering this complexity into machine code. It’s a noble endeavor, if not at least for their persistence. The concern here is that if machines do finally achieve sentience then the next thing that we’ll need to roll out will be machine psychologists. Consciousness, after all, comes at a price. There is no free lunch when it comes to possessing a wide-awake brain. With conscious awareness comes responsibilities, such as values, ethics, morality, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, goodness, and good old-fashioned love. And I personally like the love part (gives me a squishy feeling every time).
It may not actually be the sentient robots we need to worry about; it’s the mindless ones we need to be cautious of (of course, we could say the same thing about ourselves). One of the methods used in training such robots is, in the words of their trainers, to provide them with enough ‘intrinsic motivation.’ Not only will this help the robots to learn their environments, it is also hoped that it will foster attention in them to acquire sufficient situational awareness. If I were to write a science-fiction scenario on this I would make it so that the sentient robots end up being more human than we are, and humans turn into their automated counterparts. Funny, maybe – but more so in the funny-bone hurting sort of way rather than the laugh-out-loud variety. Or perhaps it’s already been done. It appears that we are attempting to imbue our devices with qualities we are also striving to possess for ourselves. Humans are naturally vulnerable; it is part of our organic make-up. Whatever we create may inherit those vulnerabilities. However, this here is not a discussion on the pros and cons of smart machines and artificial intelligence (there are many more qualified discussions on that huge topic).
While we are creating, testing, worrying, or arguing over machines and their like we are taking our attention away from the center – ourselves. The trick of surviving in the ‘unreal machine’ of life is by becoming more human, the very antithesis of the robotic. Technology can assist us in interacting and participating to a better degree with our environments. The question, as always, is the uses to which such tools are put – and by whom. Such tools can help us realize our dreams, or they can entrap us in theirs. Algorithms, smart machines, intelligent infrastructure, and automated processes: these are all going to come about and be a part of our transforming world. And in many respects, they will make life more comfortable for us. Yet within this comfort zone we still need to strive and seek for our betterment. We should not allow an automated environment to deprive us of our responsibility, and need, to find meaning and significance in our world. Our technologies should force us to acknowledge our human qualities and to uplift them, and not to turn us into an imitation of them.
Another metaphor for the simulated ‘robotic’ creature is the golem. The golem legend speaks of a creature fashioned from clay, a Cabbalistic motif which has appeared frequently in literary and cinematic form (such as Frankenstein). The Cabbalistic automaton that is the golem, which means ‘unformed,’ has often been used to show the struggle between mechanical limitation and human feelings. This struggle depicts the tension that combines cogs and consciousness; the entrapment in matter and the spirit of redemption and liberation. This is a myth that speaks of the hubris in humanity fashioning its own creatures and ‘magically’ bestowing life upon them. It is the act of creating a ‘sacred machine’ from the parts and pieces of a material world and then to imbue them with human traits. And through this human likeness they are required to fulfil human chores and work as slaves. Sounds familiar? The Cabbalistic humanoid – the sentient robot – is forever doomed, almost like the divine nature of Man trapped within the confines and limitations of a material reality. They represent the conflict of being torn between a fixed fate and freedom.
Our material reality may be the ultimate unreal machine. We are the cogs, the clay golem, the imperfect creature fashioned by another. Our fears of automation may only be a reflection of our own automation. We struggle to express some form of release whilst unaware that the binds that mechanize us are forever tightening.
We have now shifted through the zombie-idiocracy model (basic), the trans-human nanobot sexy-god model (pricy), to arrive at the realization that it is us – and not our sentient robots – that are likely to be the automaton (tragic). And this is the biblical fall from grace; the disconnection from our god(s). We have come loose from Central Source and we have lost our way.
We are now living in the hyperreal realm where zombies, cyborgs, and golem robots all reside – but it is not the place for the genuine human. Things are going to have to change. Not only do we have to retain our humanity, we also must remain sane. With our continuing modern technologies, our augmented reality and bioengineering, the difference between fiction and reality will blur even further. And this blurring is likely to become more prominent as people increasingly try to reshape reality to fit around their own imaginative fictions. Staying sane, grounded, and balanced is going to be a very, very good option for the days to come.
We are going to be sharing our planetary space with the new smart machines. I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who! that has the refrain, ‘a person’s a person no matter how small.’ Size doesn’t count – but being human does. And staying human in these years will be the hard task allotted to us.
About the Author
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of Bardo Times: hyperreality, high-velocity, simulation, automation, mutation – a hoax?, The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion, and Consciousness, and The Sacred Revival: Magic, Mind & Meaning in a Technological Age, available at Amazon. Visit him on the web at http://www.kingsleydennis.com/.
1 Harari, Yuval Noah. 2017. Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Vintage, p97.
2 Baudrillard, Jean. 2008. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, p144.
3 Miles, Kathleen, ‘Ray Kurzweil: In The 2030s, Nanobots In Our Brains Will Make Us ‘Godlike’’, Huffington Post, 10th January 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-kurzweil-nanobots-brain-godlike_us_560555a0e4b0af3706dbe1e2 (accessed 28th June 2017)