Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Immaterialism of Futurological Materialism

Upgraded and adapted from the still-ongoing Moot. In response to robocultist (he affirms the designation, that isn't just name-calling) Gareth's repeated declarations to the effect that "the internal [by which he means the actually-existing material, that is to say, biological] implementation [of real-world intelligence actually in evidence] does not matter" I quipped: "Some materialist you turned out to be."

Whereupon he reacted, with robotic predictability:
Bit of a non sequitur that. I say the internal implementation does not matter so long as the external behaviour still yields intelligence, in what way does that contradict materialism? If anything, claiming that it matters whether there's neurons or silicon chips implementing intelligent behaviour is claiming there's something important about neurons that goes beyond their material behaviour.
An actual materialist should grasp that the actually-existing material incarnation of minds, like the actually-existing material carrier of information, is non-negligible to the mind, to the information. The glib treatment of material differences as matters of utter indifference, as perfectly inter-translatable without loss, as cheerfully dispensable is hardly the attitude of a materialist. One might with better justice describe the attitude as immaterialist.

Once again, you airily refer to "silicon chips implementing intelligent behavior" when that has never once happened and looks nothing like something about to happen and the very possibility of which is central to the present dispute. However invigorating the image of this AI is in your mind -- it is not real, nor is it a falsifiable thought-experiment, nor is it a destiny, nor is it a burning bush, nor is it writing on a wall, and those of us who fail to be moved as you are by this futurological fancy are not denying reality, its stipulated properties -- however fervently asserted by its futurological fanboys -- are not facts in evidence. In response to this charge you will deny, as you have done every other time I have made it, that you are in fact claiming AI is "real" or would be "easy" -- but time after time after time you conjure up these fancies in making your rhetorical case and attribute properties to them with which skeptics presumably have to deal, just because you want them to be true so fervently. Just as well argue how many angels can dance on a pin head.

And then, too, once again, in this formulation you insinuate my recognition that such real-world intelligence that actually exists all happens to be materialized in biological organization amounts to positing something magical or supernatural about brains. No, Gareth: the intelligence that exists is biological and the artificial intelligence to which you attribute all sorts of pet properties does not exist. To entertain the logical possibility that phenomena legible to us as intelligent might be materialized otherwise does not mean that they are, that we can engineer them, or that we know enough about the intelligence we materially encounter to be of any help were we to want to engineer intelligence otherwise. None of that is implied in the realization that there is no reason to treat intelligence of somehow supernatural. None of it. You may need to have a good cry in your pillow for a moment after that sinks in before we continue. It's fine, I'll wait.

Now, again, a "materialism" about mind demands recognition that the materialization of such minds as are in evidence is biological. That intelligence could be materialized otherwise is possible, but not necessarily plausible, affordable, or even useful. Maybe it would be, maybe not. Faith-based techno-transcendental investment of AI with wish-fulfillment fantasies of an overcoming of the scary force of contingency in life, an arrival at omnicompetence no longer bedeviled by the humiliations of error or miscommunication, the driving of engines of superabundance delivering treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, or offering up digital immortalization of an "info-soul" in better-than-real virtuality may make AI seem so desirable that techno-transcendentalists of the transhumanoid, singularitarian kinds want to pretend we know enough to know how do build it when we do not, but that has nothing to do with science or materialism. Gareth and his futurological friends' attitudes look to be common or garden variety religiosity of the most blatant kind, if I may say so. And even if the faithful wear labcoats rather than priest's vestments, it's not like we can't see it's all still from Party City. 
The human mind is not immune from scientific investigation and understanding, and neither is the brain (the physical implementation of the mind). That should be a fairly uncontroversial viewpoint. I simply go one further and say that human brains are not immune from simulation, and simulating a brain would automatically get you a mind. 
No one has denied that intelligence can be studied and better understood. I do wonder whether Gareth's parenthetic description of the brain as "the physical implementation of the mind" already sets the stage for his desired scene of an interested agent implementing an intelligence when there is actually no reason to assume such a thing where the biologically incarnated mind is concerned. People in robot cults should possibly take care before assuming the air of adjucating just which disputes are scientifically controversial or not, by the way. When he goes on to say "I simply go one [step] further" in turning to the claim that simulating a brain automatically gets you a mind I disagree that there is anything "simple" about that leap, or that it is in any sense a logical elaboration of a similar character to the preceding (as he implies by the word "further"). Not only does simulating a brain not obviously or necessarily "automatically" get you a mind, it quite obviously does not, and necessarily not get you the mind so simulated. To say otherwise is not materialist, but immaterialist -- but worse it is palpably insane. You are not a picture of you, and a picture of brain is not a brain, and a moving picture of a mind's operation in some respects is not the mind's operation. You may be stupid and insensitive enough not to see the difference between a romantic partner and a fuck doll got up to look like that romantic partner, but you should not necessarily expect others to be so dull if you bring your doll to meet the family or hope to elude prosecution for murdering your partner when the police come calling.

PS: In Section Three of Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains I connect such pathologically robocultically extreme, immaterialist ideology as I ridicule here to more prevailing, mainstream neoliberal futurology in which immaterialist ideology plays out in, for example, celebrations or at any rate justifications for fraudulent financialization in global, digital developmentalist corporate-military think-tank discourse.


jimf said...

> Once again, you airily refer to "silicon chips implementing
> intelligent behavior". . .

Go, chips!

So there was an obit in today's paper for actor Robert Loggia,
who died at 85 after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
The article listed many of his well-known roles, but
omitted his appearance 22 years ago in _Wild Palms_, that
over-the-top mashup of cyberpunk and transhumanism.

From my e-mail archive, a year and a half ago:

I've been reading this book about William Gibson by Gary Westfahl --
a volume in the "Modern Masters of Science Fiction" series published
by the University of Illinois Press. . .

Anyway, Westfahl mentions Gibson's cameo appearance in the 1993
TV miniseries _Wild Palms_, as well as Gibson's contribution to
a coffee-table volume about the show. Westfahl mentions that _Palms_
wasn't well received at the time, and has since been largely
forgotten. But it crossed my mind to look it up on YouTube and
sure enough, there it is, in its entirety. So I watched it over the
weekend. I didn't manage to catch all of it at the time it was
broadcast, so this was the first time I'd seen it from beginning to end.

It's kind of silly, and more than a little nasty (Angie Dickinson as a
cold-blooded killer), but it's **stylishly** so. It's set in 2007-2008,
about 15 years in the future from the POV of the original broadcast
(21 years ago! I'm getting old!) It's a paranoid tale about
a megalomaniac billionaire -- Senator Tony Kreutzer -- who has a
scheme to take over the world **and** achieve (literal) immortality.
The Senator seems to be a pastiche of L. Ron Hubbard, Ted Turner,
and Newt Gingrich. He's an erstwhile SF author (can't remember
whether I actually caught that in the show or read it in a cheat-sheet), and
the founder of the "Church of Synthiotics" (transparently based
on the Church of Scientology) together with a philosophy called "New
Realism" (the name seems like an homage to Ayn Rand, but in
the show it seems to be based on recognizing virtual reality as
just as valid as "real" reality). He's also the leader
of an authoritarian political movement called the "Fathers" --
he's running for President in the 2008 election --
and he's the founder of a tech company called "Mimecom" which
plans to get everybody hooked on holographic TV (via
Los Angeles "Channel 3"s new holographic TV show,
"Church Windows" -- a really cheesy sitcom whose only two
characters we ever see are Bebe Neuwirth and Fred Savage's
little brother Ben, trading really lame one-liners, while sitting
on **your own living-room sofa**! Wowie!)

The ostensible protagonist is Jim Belushi as a (not very
appealing) materialistic, upper-middle-class patent attorney
who suddenly finds out he's related to all these nasty people
(his mother-in-law is the Angie Dickinson character -- the
Senator's sister and hit-lady). He tools around LA in a 50's
Corvette watching people on the sidewalk getting beaten
up by mysterious Men in Black (this also happens in a
restaurant where he's having lunch with his best friend,
and nobody seems to care). His kid (the Ben Savage character),
turns out to be a little psychopath, gets cast in Channel 3's
"Church Windows", and later turns out to be getting groomed
as the child prophet of the Church of Synthiotics (complete with
a little sailor uniform, and an entourage of similarly-outfitted
bodyguards right out of Scientology's "Sea Org".)

jimf said...

The show gets weirder and weirder as it progresses.
The Jim Belushi attorney character quits his job at the
law firm and goes to work for the Senator as the business
director for Channel 3, but later, after his best friend is
killed and his wife and daughter are abducted, is
recruited by the "Friends" (the "libertarian" underground
opposition to the authoritarian "Fathers").

In addition to fostering the wholesale adoption of virtual-reality
technology (holoVCRs and holophones, as well as holographic
TVs -- apparently all you need for the latter is an adapter
you buy from Radio Shack for under $1000), Kreutzer's
Mimecom company makes available an illicit drug
called "mimezine" that people take to be able to **feel**
holographic images -- mimezine junkies can then live
in VR and have sex with holograms, etc. The half-baked idea
is that once the population is hooked on VR and mimezine,
Kreutzer will be able to implant himself with something
called the "Go chip" that will allow him to leave his physical
body and live forever as a hologram inhabiting the dreams
of the mimezine-addled population. So he's really keen
to get his hands on this "Go chip".

It's a hoot to see the near-future fantasies (**heavily**
Gibson-influenced, of course) from 1993. The Web,
of course, was brand-new then. The show even mentions
"the Web", but they seem to think it has something to
do with getting holograms over phone lines. Since then,
of course, we've had 3D movies and TV (not holographic,
though), and the public reaction has been -- meh!
But we do have Google and Amazon and eBay and Wikipedia
and Facebook and Twitter and fondleslabs and smartphones.
And YouTube. ;->

So check it out, if you're inclined. It's a mess, but it has its moments.
It does have a lot of gratuitous violence, including **two** (count 'em)
scenes where people have their eyes put out a la
Roy Batty putting out Tyrell's eyes in _Blade Runner_
(which I'm sure is no coincidence).

"Hello, I must be going. . ."