My talk (in Greek) at the Onassis Foundation in Athens,where I discussed my novel “The Passage” and the relationship between literary narratives and the contemporary understanding of global warming.
My talk (in Greek) at the Onassis Foundation in Athens,where I discussed my novel “The Passage” and the relationship between literary narratives and the contemporary understanding of global warming.
The 1800s must have been a great time to live. They mark the beginning of many things we take for granted today; most notably democracy, technological and scientific innovation, globalization and international trade. The British Empire was at its height, people started moving with steamships and trains across continents, and inventions like the telegraph and the telephone allowed news to travel faster than ever.
History must have seemed to take a whole new course, unimagined by people who lived only a few years earlier. Writers such as Samuel Butler, H.G. Wells, William Morris, and others pondered upon the question of progress, and a new literary genre was created that mixed fantasy, satire and allegory: the scientific romance. A few notable books of this genre are “The Time Machine” (1895) by Wells, “News from Nowhere” (1890) by Morris and “Erewhon” (1872) by Butler.
In Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”) Butler describes a utopian society that had become industrialized long before Europe and had opted to banish machines. This was because in Erewhon machines were deemed to be dangerous. Butler expanded on the idea in his “Book of Machines” where he claimed that Darwinism applied to machine evolution, and therefore it was inevitable that machines will ultimately develop consciousness. Butler claimed that ”it was the race of the intelligent machines and not the race of men which would be the next step in evolution.” Frank Herbert, the author of “Dune”, as a back-story coined the term “Butlerian jihad” to describe an event 10,000 years before the events of Dune, where thinking machines were outlawed.
There is a cautionary tale in Victorian scientific romance, something that resonates vividly in our post-industrial age . The 21st century arrived awkwardly The events of 9/11, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, colored the first decade of our century with the shades of two unnecessary wars that polarized politics. The economic crises of 2008 and the current crisis in the eurozone have shifted public debate towards a refutation of capitalism.
Whilst all this take place in the forefront of public awareness an immense technological revolution brews quietly in the background. This revolution is all about intelligent machines. They may not have arrived at the level of consciousness yet (but who can really tell?) but they control our planet and our lives already. Our financial and commodity markets, our defense systems, our industries, our infrastructures are all controlled to a greater or lesser degree by autonomous computer programs.
In October 2011 a major military exercise took place across NATO countries in preparation for future cyberwar. NATO scenarios assumed a cyber attack from a hostile country or terrorist organization. But, what if the “attack” comes as a rebellion of our “mechanical slaves”? How could we tell the difference? And what could we possibly do to defend ourselves then?
Hesiod recounts in Theogony how Zeus became angry with Prometheus for giving the gift of fire to humans, that he decided to take revenge upon the humans by creating the first woman. Here’s a retelling of the story by using some more familiar terms.
Zeus commanded Hephaestus, the god-engineer, to make the first woman (please note that according to Theogony there were only men living on earth until then). Hephaestus knew the art of making androids (or “gynaekoids” to be more exact) well, because he had already built several of them, beautiful maidens that obediently served him at his lab-cum-workshop. But Pandora had to be special. So after the basic hardware was constructed by Hephaestus, and the operating system was put in place, Zeus invited the other gods in Olympus to give Pandora “gifts”, i.e. special functions and properties.
What made Pandora different from the other robots in Hephaestus lab was a gift given to her by Hermes, the god of thieves and traders: “the gift of deceit”. Pandora was furnished with “theory of mind”; she could tell what other people thought or thought that they thought and use this knowledge to manipulate them. Thus she was named the “all-gifted” and duly dispatched to the middleworld of humans.
The Greek myth of Pandora is one of many in the ancient world where gods, and sometimes talented humans, build artificial beings – usually women. One can read much in stories such as these.
A historian of technology may recognize the roots of imagining artificial life and intelligence. A feminist may read the obsessive will of men to subjugate women taken to an extreme: why not create one according to specification? An ethicist may diagnose a precautionary tale: Pandora with her insatiable curiosity ultimately brings about the fall of humankind. Finally, a philosopher of science may notice a disconnect with evolution: artificial intelligence is created, not evolved. Pandora, the all gifted, is a design.
You may argue that this is just another creation myth from a tribe of white people who lived in the Balkans many thousands of years ago. Yes, it is exactly that, a tale from a non-scientific past. Nevertheless, some of us may see a disturbing symmetry arising – another Pandora being born into a not-so-distant, scientific future.
The term “metaphysics” owes its origin to one Andronicus of Rhodes who lived at around 100 BCE and was an editor of Aristotle’s corpus. Aristotle had something to say about everything and Andronicus was soon confounded with an editorial problem: how to discern the great philosopher’s early works entitled “Physica” (physics) from the ones following it. Unpretentiously, he used the term “Metaphysica” which simply means “the ones that come after physics”. And thus “metaphysics” was born.
In Physica Aristotle enquired upon the nature of things, for instance why some things fall (e.g. rocks) while others rise (e.g. smoke). In Metaphysica he addressed more general questions like what are the basic elements, he critiqued Democritus’ atomic theory as well as Pythagoras’ core idea that everything is ultimately made of numbers, and he discussed – but mostly rejected – Plato’s views which were in many ways similar to Pythagoras. He also theorized about the nature of causes (causality) and pondered upon ontological semantics – what it means to say that something actually exists. Aristotle considered his entire corpus as a concise study of nature and never differentiated between “specific” and “general” questions. For him nature was a seamless continuum.
Nevertheless, his successors many centuries later made the distinction between “physics” and “metaphysics”, the former being the experimental study of nature while the latter the probing of what was beyond the scope of science. So what is the study of metaphysics now? Its domain shrinking as the various scientific disciplines mature, metaphysics is very much in doubt. Most scientists do not think that there can be something in nature resisting the application of the scientific method. Unexplored areas such as dark matter, string theory, quantum gravity etc., although still beyond experimental scrutiny, are not considered metaphysics; they are falsifiable scientific hypotheses, and as such fall well inside the “Physica” of the 21st century.
Nevertheless, there seems to be one last bastion of metaphysics that still holds: consciousness. The epistemological problem with consciousness is that it cannot be measured objectively. Measuring instruments currently available, such as PET or fMRI scans, can really “see” inside a thinking brain and produce bundles of amazing images. Those images however must be corroborated with what the person in the scanner felt or thought at the time of study. In other words the experimenter needs the subjective report (the person describing their experience) of the experimental object (the brain inside the person) in order to validate her results. There seems to be a disturbing gap between the object (brain – third person reporting) and the person (consciousness – first person reporting), that is apparently unbridgeable.
As a last bastion of metaphysics consciousness is a serious one. Consciousness underpins all measurements and, therefore, all of our science and all of our knowledge. We know what we know because we think that we do. If science proves unable to incorporate consciousness in its corpus then we must remain forever skeptical about the nature of our universe and of ourselves. This amounts to a bomb ticking at the foundations of all natural sciences.
In this light, Artificial Intelligence aiming to reproduce consciousness in a medium other than a biologically evolved brain is a heroic attempt to save science. A thinking robot will not be a simple curiosity but indisputable proof that consciousness belongs to the material world.
There is a curious phenomenon in the academic world of peer reviews and science journals. Pick up any scientific journal you like and look at the dates of any paper’s references at the end. Most will be from the 2000s. You may find a couple from the 1990s. If you look hard you may also get the odd and rare reference from the 1980s. And that will probably be it. So what has happened to scientific ideas dated before the 1980s? How come they are virtually extinct from the present?
One might suggest that as science progresses ideas are in constant review. Most fail in the light of new evidence. New ideas replace old ones in an evolutionary way. Or one may take a sociological perspective of science and, adopting Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the generational aspect of scientific progress, suggest that science runs in approximate 25-year cycles; old professors need to die or retire in order to be replaced by new ones; old professors’ ideas die with them and new professors’ ideas become the latest fad. Hence the 20-25 year reference time window at the end of academic papers.
Whatever the explanation might be the fact remains that there is no such thing as a de novo idea. All ideas, scientific or artistic, have roots that may travel a long way in the past, certainly beyond the time frame of an academic generation. Artificial Intelligence, for example, is not something that just happened to occur in some people’s heads when computers came about. Ideas about mechanical intelligence and artificial life circulate for thousands of years. The body-mind problem, so central to AI, has kept Plato awake at nights, and many a philosopher since.
The deeper one digs the more revealing discoveries one makes. It is a truism to say that ideas link to our cognitive systems, but the repercussions of this statement are immense. It means that there may be ideas beyond our ability to conceive them. Human consciousness, individual and collective, is a cognitive and cultural time continuum. Therefore, we cannot hope to adequately inform ourselves about the quality and value of what we think unless we can associate our thinking with facts about our nature and history.
Apparently, the archeology of ideas is something that is missing from modern scientific and artistic production. I am often bemused when eminent physicists “discover deeper questions” that arise, say, from particle-wave duality; ignorant of the fact that such questions have been posed before, and they only needed to have asked their classics colleagues in order to know. Not to mention prominent artists who seem to display the mindset of persons living in the Middle Ages.
The “two cultures” problem is evident here. Humanistic studies, arts and sciences all speak different tongues, exist in a state of mutual suspicion and frequently hold each other in contempt. As a result many scientists are disconnected from humanity and a great number of humanists and artists live in a magical, pre-scientific world.
There are of course exceptions, and these exceptions have inspire me to cross a few lines and dig into the archeology of ideas. I was trained as an engineer but I am also a novelist. What fascinates me in Artificial Intelligence is not only the technologies but also its vision and its deep roots in our collective past. Turing Dreams will try to wade along a lonely – and academically deserted – “third culture” path of linking science to humanities, in the hopeful attempt of discovering, and describing, a heroic narrative of scientific endeavor in the making.
Are the Greeks the victims of unjust circumstances, or are they sinners for whom paytime is justly at hand? The international discourse about Greece has been debating this question since the beginning of the Greek crisis in 2009.
Most economists generally focus on the inherent errors of the euro to show that Greeks, not unlike other people in the European periphery, were doomed to be the ultimate losers of a common currency which lacked federal institutions for fiscal and monetary policy. In its purity, this is the “economic narrative” that steers clear of cultural and political idiosyncrasies. After all, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece are all quite different and yet they have ended up in a similar mess. The theoretical basis of the “economic narrative” is to look macroscopically at the economic forces that led, inexorably, to the current situation: a small, uncompetitive country burdened with a debt that it cannot possibly repay and whose default threatens the future of the Eurozone.
Political scientists and cultural moralists offer a different narrative for the Greek tragedy: Greeks are like a spoiled child that cooked its books and grew fatter with cheap loans it never deserved. Then, when it came time to pay, the spoiled child threw a tantrum (elections of May 6) and cried ” no”. Furthermore, the brat demanded that its creditors should keep on feeding it, or else all hell may break loose upon them. The rise of the Greek Left (Syriza party – close to 26% of the vote), as well as of fringe parties to the Right like Golden Dawn and Anexartitoi Ellines (together around 15% of the vote) seems to confirm this “cultural” narrative. Interestingly, what all these parties have in common is a belief in conspiracy theories: the “West” is trying to destroy Greece because it is jealous of its past glories, “market vultures” have their eyes in the “rich” oil and gas deposits in the Aegean, etc. They also share a belief that it is all a poker game and that Greeks ought to call Europe’s bluff.
The latest furor about the comments of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, is telling of the conflict between the two narratives. Lagarde took the cultural moralist position when she admonished Greeks for their tax evasion habits. Interestingly, voices to the defense of the Greeks rose mostly from the political left of center. Market ideologues and liberals, presumably closer to IMF’s economic philosophy, stayed numb and silently approved of Lagarde; which goes to show the amount of confusion that exists with the two conflicting narratives.
Like in physics where we have two theoretically unreconciled narratives (General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics) that describe the world, so in the case of Greece we have two narratives that confound us with an explanation gap. The “economic narrative” shows Greece as a victim while the “cultural narrative” presents it like a dishonest player that must be punished.
Many may rush to suggest that there is no explanation gap. In fact, many analysts have been trying to combine the narratives by suggesting that the political and social culture of Greece is what caused the huge debt as well as the current crisis of trust. However this causality claim is paradoxical. Because if we take the position that the cultural idiosyncrasies (e.g. tax evasion, rent-seeking state, tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, etc.) of Greece have led it to the current mess then we implicitly accept that market forces do not apply equally to everyone, but are subject to cultural differences. If this is true then economic theory becomes culturally relativistic. The consequence of this is not trivial; the international system of credit is based on assumptions about a market where players act according to their self-interest, not according to their cultural characteristics. If the latter is true, then there would always be people and countries, like Greece, which will be branded by cultural moralists as “beyond market repair” , and be doomed as the eternal pariahs of the world economy. Alas, such a conclusion begs the obvious – and rather troublesome – question: by what, or whose, criteria should we choose the cultural moralists in a world of cultural relativism?
Let me define “objective art” as the art that exists, or is produced, without human intervention, i.e. without a human agent, conscious or otherwise. In other words, objective art is art without an artist.
For the sake of simplicity I will focus on the visual arts and music, ignoring for the time being literature (NB. the latter assumes the existence of language, i.e. of people; although my arguments to follow, if true, include literature as well and narratives in general).
A very similar question could be also addressed to a mathematician: could there be maths without a mathematician? I will explain later why I make this juxtaposition. Suffice to say here that maths and music strongly correlate; as well as maths (e.g. fractals, cellular automata, etc.) and the visual arts.
Behind the question of “objective art” lies a more fundamental one: is “art” or “mathematics” invented or discovered? This question I would like now to explore.
Although most people would probably say that “maths” is probably invented, there must be almost none who doubts that art is an exclusive human endeavor. And yet, nature is full of art; i.e. aesthetically stimulating patterns. You can see this everywhere, listen to it in the wind, smell it in the blossoming of flowers or the scent of the sea, taste it in the fruit, touch it in every natural shape and form. Shouldn’t we therefore say that “nature” is also an “artist” of sorts? Or is “beauty only in the eye of the beholder”? – i.e. that natural evolution has shaped our brains in such a way that we “see beauty” in nature?
But even that latter, “biological” explanation is not totally satisfying because it leaves out the central issue of my question; could there be some “other art” beyond human construction, that we are not aware of? If there is, then art is indeed “discovered”, in a similar way that maths appears to be “discovered” whenever mathematicians stumble upon as-yet-unimagined maths that happen to accurately describe natural phenomena. In this case it should only be a matter of time before an artist “stumbles upon” a new aesthetic. Who knows?
Perhaps my question is, ultimately, unanswerable. Maybe it is beyond our cognitive ability to distinguish what is “out there”, as oppose to what is “inside us”. Our consciousness may appear to be separate from the world that surrounds us but, as it is scientifically verified, our consciousness is in fact part of a vast continuum: natural phenomena, such as sound or light vibrations, modulate our organs of perception that drive our minds. The objective seems to be always interlinked with the subjective.
However, if we accept the above to be true, it follows that art is both objective and subjective, which is a paradox.
To resolve the paradox let us assume that objective art can exist. We can imagine such art as yet undiscovered. It lies not only beyond our field of artistic exploration but beyond the capability of our minds as well. It is an “unthinkable” art.
But, wait a minute. This working assumption bears a suspiciously close resemblance to the goal of mathematics about a century ago, when mathematicians searched for general rules from which all mathematical theorems could be proved. Such “general formalisms” were shown by Kurt Gödel in his incompleteness theorem not to exist. There would always be mathematical truths beyond logical proof. Maths is imperfect. Art must be too.
If we aimed to find formal rules for, say music, we ought to follow the trodden paths of mathematicians of the early 20th century. Iannis Xenakis tried it. His vision was of formal mathematical rules (e.g. by means of stochastic processes) guiding a computer-aided music machine). Such a non-human musician would, for all intents and purposes, be an “objective artist”. The music produced would be an “objective music”; not invented but discovered. (NB “invention” suggests the agency of mind; our mechanical composer need not be intelligent, a simple number cruncher would do).
Xenakis’ experiment was one that, to the best of my knowledge, has been left unfinished. Of course, given that maths and music are in fact one and the same, one can feel the non-incompleteness theorem of Gödel breathing heavily down on such experiments. And yet, even if there are ultimate limits to formal rules for art, one needs to explore the limits or the boundaries. Listening to Xenakis’ music I often have the feeling that I am listening echoes from the edge of a space-time singularity encompassing our consciousness. It is as if we have sent a space probe to the end of the universe and we listen its last communication, of something unexpected. Perhaps nothing lies beyond the edge. Or, maybe, beyond the edge lies the realm of the gods.