Ghost in the Machine

Shintoists believe that everything, even the universe itself, has a soul or spirit. A modern expression of this belief is the way every Japanese company and institution creates a cute mascot for themselves. The mascot of Sato Pharmaceutical, for example, is an elephant to symbolize a long life. According to Nippaku, an interesting element of this animism is that it is not just animals and elements that have a soul, artificial objects can obtain a soul, too.

Household items in use for many years are believed to gain a spirit, and these spirits are also believed to be "in harmony" with human beings. The MIT Technology Review thinks this might be why the Japanese are so open to the idea of robots becoming part of everyday life. And once a machine can think, it is hard for even a non-Shintoist not to wonder if it has a soul.

HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example of such a machine. HAL is a sentient computer that controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft. He is mostly depicted as a camera lens containing a red dot, part of the interface he uses to interact with the spaceship's crew. HAL speaks in a calm voice with a conversational manner, designed to be a comforting presence. HAL is capable of speech, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, art appreciation, interpreting emotional behaviors, automated reasoning, and playing chess. It's hard to watch the movie and not feel that HAL has an artificial soul, to go along with his artificial intelligence. It is a twisted, murderous soul, but that's not HAL's fault.

A Message from the Author

I write sci-fi novels that belong to a series called Dark Galaxy, which starts with Galaxy Dog:

What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet brings to light an ancient archeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy.

The entire series is available to buy from Amazon.

Another example is The Machine, an A.I. featured in an American science fiction crime drama called Person of Interest. The Machine is a similar artificial intelligence to HAL, developed by a mysterious reclusive billionaire computer programmer named Harold Finch. It is capable of collating huge amounts of information, mostly CCTV video, to predict and identify terrorist acts. The Machine is represented on screen by yellow boxes on the video feeds it is analyzing. The squares jump about, attracted to the elements the machine intelligence is attracted to. Finch soon realizes that the Machine has developed a soul, leaving him wrestling with questions of human control. The series really started to attract attention from critics, and from Paul Krugman, when it more deeply explored the various implications of super intelligent artificial intelligence in later seasons.

Yet another show exploring this territory is Westworld, an American sci-fi western TV series from HBO. The Westworld of the show's title is a high-tech Wild West-themed amusement park populated by android hosts. Park guests may indulge in whatever antisocial and violent behavior they wish within the park, without fear of retaliation from the hosts. It was Abrams who suggested that the show be told partially from the perspective of the hosts. The series also explicitly explores Julian Jaynes' ideas about the bicameral mind. One mind gives instructions and a second performs them, both in the same head. The show explores how consciousness comes from breaking down the wall between these two minds by exposing the individual to new kinds of stimuli. Along with these ideas, the novels of Philip K. Dick informed the series, influencing its depiction of the dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence.

Dick thought that an android is something that perpetrates a cruel deception on us, causing us to think it is one of us. He tried to find a clear dividing line between android and human, but each attempt only led to more ambiguity. Androids came to seem to him ever more human, while humans more resembled androids. He saw similarities between human and mechanical behavior, while the world we inhabit seemed to him ever more animate. He thought that we humans and our ever evolving computers would one day meet each other half way.

At the end of Blade Runner, based on one of Dick's books, Deckard the human hero, runs off with an android woman. It turns out that the android is not the evil, violent, or inhuman one, Deckard is, and he has finally realized this. Up to that point, every single thing Deckard does in the film is either dishonorable, motivated by pure self-interest, or both. He has felt no emotions for any of the android women he has murdered, before finally changing his ways. The director said that Deckard too is an android, an android that has been deceived into thinking it is human, just as we moviegoers are deceived into relating to him as one. For the movie, there is no difference between android and human, both can be simple, violent agents of forces beyond their control. But both have the capacity to become something better, to renounce violence, and gain a soul.

Interestingly, Westworld decided to go in the other direction. The non-violent androids of the amusement park become dangerous killers. Their creator recites a line from Romeo and Juliet, "These violent delights have violent ends," which alters how the hosts perceive their existence, breaking down the wall within their minds. The hosts are gifted with the ability to defend themselves and to take revenge for the acts of violence inflicted on them. A violent robot uprising immediately ensues.

I think this is something the employees of Boston Dynamics ought to keep in mind when, like in this video, employees of the company are pushing robots over. The world of Blade Runner might be closer than we think. Vice points out that, if you think of human beings as being brought about by a semi-random process, you can imagine a situation in which we human beings accidentally create machines with intelligence and a soul. And it might even be worse than that, Izabella Kaminska has mused that AI might already be here, but choosing not to show itself.

I started thinking along these lines today because I read an article on the Guardian website about a YouTube algorithm that may have helped to elect Donald Trump. To my mind, there is little difference between this YouTube algorithm, which I am going to call The Algorithm, and its fictional counterpart, The Machine from Person of Interest.

The Algorithm was created to keep people on the YouTube site, consuming advertising. Like The Machine, it examines billions of videos but where The Machine does this to prevent terrorism, The Algorithm does it in order to identify 20 "up next" clips. The clips it suggests are those it thinks most likely to keep the eyes of the visitor to the site locked on their screen. Company insiders say The Algorithm is the single most important engine of YouTube's growth. It has deep neural networks, crunching a vast pool of data, and it has lately become very controversial.

The Algorithm has become a powerful engine of misinformation, often promoting conspiracy theories. For example, more than eighty percent of videos selected by The Algorithm about the pope describe the Catholic leader as evil, satanic, or the anti-Christ. There are literally millions of videos uploaded to YouTube to satiate The Algorithm's appetite for content claiming the Earth is flat.

On YouTube, fiction outperforms reality.

This arena, of course, favors the lurid lies and conspiracy theories that Trumpism was born in and which it continues to be based on. During the presidential race The Algorithm was pushing videos that were helpful to Trump. No matter whether you started from a Trump search or a Clinton search, The Algorithm was much more likely to push you in a pro-Trump direction. Trump won the election by just 80,000 votes spread across three swing states, while these videos were watched, in total, more than three billion times in the run-up to voting.

Judging by its gleeful support of Trump, if The Algorithm has become intelligent, has developed a soul, it is not that of The Machine, it is that of its evil counterpart, Samaritan. Where The Machine is represented by yellow graphics analyzing video feeds, Samaritan is represented as using an angry red in its video analysis. Like The Machine, Samaritan uses huge sets of data, mostly from CCTV cameras, to try to predict and prevent terrorism. But it doesn't just watch, it understands what it is watching.

Samaritan was designed to make decisions based on pure logic without being held back by human inhibitions. It was created as a leader for humanity. Soon after coming online, Samaritan starts recruiting human assets and acquiring new algorithms. It starts to manipulate situations to serve its own goals, which are to eliminate all who stand against it becoming humanity's overlord. The Machine eventually clashes with Samaritan, while the evil A.I. is fixing an election in New York City, in an episode called Prophets. Apparently, via YouTube, The Algorithm is already at the stage where it is interfering in our human elections. In the show it wasn't long after that stage before Samaritan started launching missiles.

My advice is, stop knocking over the robots, it might not be long before they take their revenge.

To end, just a reminder that the best way to support this blog is to buy one of my books. Simply go over to Amazon, or Kobo and get one.