Skipping for joy

In The Cure for Love, the first tale in H G Wells’s A Story Of The Days To Come, Wells describes the morning ritual of a Mr Mwres, a man of the far future (his forebears had been called Morris).

He did not read The Times: indeed, he did not know there ever had been a Times — that institution had foundered somewhere in the intervening gulf of years; but the phonograph machine, that talked to him as he made his toilet of a morning, might have been the voice of a reincarnated Blowitz when it dealt with the world’s affairs. This phonographic machine was the size and shape of a Dutch clock, and down the front of it were electric barometric indicators, and an electric clock and calendar, and automatic engagement reminders, and where the clock would have been was the mouth of a trumpet. When it had news the trumpet gobbled like a turkey, “Galloop, galloop,” and then brayed out its message as, let us say, a trumpet might bray. It would tell Mwres in full, rich, throaty tones about the overnight accidents to the omnibus flying-machines that plied around the world, the latest arrivals at the fashionable resorts in Tibet, and of all the great monopolist company meetings of the day before, while he was dressing. If Mwres did not like hearing what it said, he had only to touch a stud, and it would choke a little and talk about something else.

When I read this story as a lad long ago in the Upper Palaeozoic, I smiled at the mixture of naivete and insight in the technological prophet. He could foresee the stream of information that would be brought to the radio listener one day but, as I saw it, hadn’t thought things through clearly enough to see that you couldn’t reconcile a live stream with the ability to skip. After all, to skip five minutes of a live broadcast would require the listener to travel five minutes into the future. Wells seemed to be thinking of the news as being played from some sort of newly delivered wax cylinder – this was a “phonographic machine” after all – rather than as data streaming through the ether. I thought Wells had got things only half right.

Today I spend more time listening to podcasts than I do to radio broadcasts. The podcasts are eminently skippable, of course. So they fulfil Wells’s vision.

Android’s BBC iPlayer Radio app hasn’t caught up with Wells’s vision yet in one respect: the podcast version of a news programme doesn’t become available until some time after the live show has finished. So it doesn’t give me what I would really like: almost-live listening plus the ability to skip.

The corresponding TV app, called simply BBC iPlayer, offers two hours of rewind facilities, and you can likewise rewind on the Windows version of iPlayer.

What I want when listening on my phone to the Today programme, which lasts three hours and caters to many sorts of taste very different from mine, is an equal degree of skippability. After all, there are two or three sports bulletins. And the main interviews of the programme, after the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. news bulletins, are usually with government ministers or opposition ministers, so they’re dead air to me. And there’s Thought For The Day. Yes, Radio 4’s major daily news magazine still includes a religious mini-sermon.

So I would appreciate a delay of as much as half an hour in hearing Today. By the time the programme reached its fun filler items at the end, the sorts of thing that I like hearing, I would have used up that quota.

In other news … I’m still infuriated by hearing the time signal pips on the BBC when I’m listening on digital channels (two seconds’ delay) or on online channels (one minute 20 seconds’ delay). I refuse to believe that it’s technologically impractical to confine them to AM channels, and put some sort of jingle onto all other channels that would make a less precise claim than the pips. The pips’ hard-achieved accuracy is completely ruined on the slowcoach channels.




Humanity’s USP

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a prof at the Oxford Internet Institute, wonders what mankind’s unique selling proposition will be in a world of artificial intelligence. Understandably, he finds it a bit hard to identify.

It can’t be skills like arithmetic or typing, which machines already excel in. Nor can it be rationality, because with all our biases and emotions we humans are lacking.

So perhaps we might want to consider qualities at a different end of the spectrum: radical creativity, irrational originality, even a dose of plain illogical craziness, instead of hard-nosed logic. A bit of Kirk instead of Spock.


So we must aim our human contribution to this division of labour to complement the rationality of the machines, rather than to compete with it. Because that will sustainably differentiate us from them, and it is differentiation that creates value.

If I am right, we should foster a creative spirit, irreverent takes, even irrational ideas as we educate our children. Not because irrationality is bliss, but because a dose of illogical creativity will complement the rationality of the machine. It’ll keep guaranteeing us a place on the table of evolution.

But it seems a hopeless strategy to identify an area or type of activity that will remain as our own. To name some facet of our life is to mark it out as a target for machine emulation. If it has a market value, we have to assume the machines can do it better. It would be obscurantist to think that there might be some type of human cognitive activity whose workings cannot be captured in an algorithm. Suppose human beings at first excel in, say, “wacky” (ugh!) humour, to take an example of “creative spirit, irreverent takes, irrational ideas”. Here too the machines will come to excel us by studying our behaviour. And then why would we want to listen to second-rate human wacky comedians when there are stellar artificial-intelligence wacky comedians to distract us from our uselessness?

I think this diminishes the importance of the claims of Tim Worstall in a typically Pollyanna-ish posting to the Adam Smith Institute blog of 31 March. Concerning the argument that new technology will create jobs to replace those that are lost, he writes:

The claim isn’t that technology creates jobs at all. It’s that technology frees up labour. Which then applies itself to sating some other human want or desire. It’s not the technology creating jobs, it’s those unmet human wants which do. And as long as we don’t run out of them then there will be jobs – and if we do run out of unmet needs then that’s not a problem.

But those unmet human wants might be better met by AGIs (artificial general intelligence systems) than by human beings. Then Worstall’s picture of people continuing to be of value to each other has to be revised. Apparently even service to human beings will be better done by machines. That will be just fine as far as material well-being is concerned, provided that all the human possessors of those wants can be matched with the machine suppliers of wants. But it doesn’t touch the question of how human beings who lack economic value will find self-respect.

The “caring professions” are often cited as the last bastions of specifically human endeavour. But it’s not clear that we wouldn’t prefer to be cared for by skilful algorithmic systems rather than by lovable human bunglers. The caring profession I most frequently come in contact with is hairdressing. It’s a bit of an effort to make conversation with whichever barber I get, and I’ve never heard or said anything memorable there. I don’t think I could resist the temptation to go to an AI barber that would do the job better, faster and cheaper, while keeping up a steady flow of enlightening and well-informed conversation free of any reference to holiday plans.

And yet, I suppose I would come away from that encounter feeling … lonely. Not more lonely than when I went in, but without any loneliness being assuaged.

I can think of only one thing that makes a human being irreplaceable: namely, the quality of being human itself. Only another human being can speak to me with authority and authenticity about … I’m not sure what – just life, as it is for human beings, I suppose.

What can give an entity that authority?

Having a human form. Being of woman born. Having gone from birth through the same exigencies of human life that the community of human beings go through. Being like me.

I keep thinking of this analogy: of the value of an authentic Vermeer as compared with that of a van Meegeren fake. If you name any feature of a Vermeer, aesthetic or physical, you can imagine van Meegeren equalling it or excelling it. If van Meegeren happens to copy an existing Vermeer exactly, I don’t know how you can say his replica has any less value than the original, save that physically it hasn’t actually been touched by Vermeer’s hand. And that’s not something that I value much at all – though many people do, and that accounts for much of the market value of the original over the copy.

Now suppose that van Meegeren creates a new composition of his own in the style of Vermeer. Once again we can suppose that every definable quality found in Vermeer’s paintings is imparted to the new painting. Perhaps van Meegeren includes some item never actually used by Vermeer, although it’s just the sort of thing that Vermeer would have used; or every item in the new painting might be something found in some Vermeer or other, but never in this particular combination.

This creation lacks one thing that a Vermeer has: the quality of being an authentic communication from the 17th century. “Communication ” is the best word I can think of for what we look for in an original. This creation of van Meegeren is a communication from him. And it’s not him but Vermeer I’m interested in.

And the creations of the super-capable AI systems of the future will be communications from them – if we come to view them as communications at all, which will depend on how we come to view their creators.

So just as original Vermeers will continue to hold their value at auction, for so long as we can distinguish between originals and copies, so we’ll continue to value human beings, just for being like us. (I think we’ll be able to distinguish between human beings and AI systems, because it seems futile to create humanoid robots.) So perhaps we will continue to value human bunglers over skilful algorithms, in some small areas.

It’s a thin straw to clutch at. Is this the long-term fate of the human race: to sit in our luxury AI-serviced reservations, with our imperfect haircuts, saying to each other Tell me about it and I know how you feel, while all the worthwhile work is done elsewhere?

Digital life – personal oblivion?

I’ve become interested lately in questions concerning mind “uploading” – digital “immortality”. Such questions are unavoidable when you’re thinking about the implications of artificial general intelligence, as I was doing for an MA dissertation recently. Easy steps lead inexorably from the ideas of bodily enhancement by electronic prostheses, through brain enhancement and supplementation, and thence to brain emulation and other forms of mind-copying.

I take exception to the term “uploading” to describe this digital copying and dissemination. The word suggests the movement of something compact, localizable, persistent. It’s misleading even applied to the copying of a text file; we use it because we so often want to preserve a single relatively unchanging, localizable text. Any future “uploading” of personality will be more like circulating a text and having several people work on revising it, so that the original text and authorship dissolve. For the person-successor produced by  “mind-uploading” will be intended to go forth and have a history: its many copies will be taking advantage of all the possibilities for interaction and development in a world of many other intelligences. So “mind-uploading” will in reality be the dissolution of the self into the cyberworld.

Well, I don’t fancy that. I don’t want to say goodbye to this single, compact, circumscribed self.

I talked last week to Brian Micklethwait’s monthly libertarian-inclined meet-up. I don’t often give talks, and I overran wildly on the basic concepts of AGI, and only gave brief, hurried afterthoughts on the implications for libertarianism. One – and just one – of the points I was trying to make somewhere in the talk was that I don’t think that personal identity can survive translation from meat to metal. And I rather cherish such identity.

The prospect of a digital destiny for humanity makes me feel rather better about not having taken any steps to ensure my own immortality. I’m just going to let my carcase be cremated, like most other people.

My lethargy in this respect couldn’t be justified otherwise. For I don’t have any respect for physical ageing and dying: I don’t think these things are a necessary part of the best of all possible worlds. I don’t think there’s nobility in the human race being resigned to these things. There is a nobility in being resigned to what you really can’t change; none at all in acquiescing in what could and ought to be changed.

I feel that I and my generation have narrowly missed the indefinitely prolonged lives of youth and vigour that our descendants will know. Perhaps my grand-daughter, now rising three, will have such a life.

Our view of such a life without a predictable end is distorted by another misnomer – this time, the misnomer of “immortality”. Trying to live healthily and vigorously isn’t trying to live for ever. Accident and violence will still exist to rescue us from the horror of endless life, if horror it be. And if neither of these contingencies happens along, there will always be suicide. Suicide must always be an option.

But actually, life with no end in sight holds no terrors for me. I see no reason to fear Bernard Williams’s “tedium of immortality”. It seems to me that human beings are defined by their projects, in Sartrean style. As long as vigorous life persists, there can be further projects and further reason to live. Not to mention simple enjoyments to carry us from day to day.

But indefinitely prolonged health and youth are not going to arrive in time for me. I live under the same worse-than-death sentence that we all – except, perhaps, the infants – live under: the threat of dementia, or cancer, or some other of the horrors.

It’s a very real dread.

Our human descendants will become cyborgs But as long as they live, the cyborgs will find themselves challenged by the silicon-brained pioneers. Can’t we assume, a priori, that a pure-machine intelligence can excel an animal–machine hybrid? So that means that the longest-range future is fully machinic: meat people and hybrid meat–metal people must be outclassed by the pure-blooded race of all-metal entities. As far as I can see, we can’t hope to keep up by merging with the machines.

It will be no salvation to go into the brain-scanning chamber in order to bring a hardware simulation into the world. If the scanning process destroys the original brain, I would be terrified by the process. I don’t know what could convince me that this wouldn’t be death. If, by contrast, the process left meat-me intact and merely created my noetic double, I wouldn’t be able to regard the creation as in any sense me as long as I lived. And I’d take it amiss if anyone else did.

And as I wrote above, the double wouldn’t remain identifiable for long. There would be payoffs in having it disappear into cyberspace, dissolving, replicating, fetching rewards, being revised and revising itself, getting things done in countless places … it would digitally disperse while meat-me was still blundering around.

So I can’t look forward to the next thousand years of human destiny, even though I’m a techno-optimist. I literally can’t look forward because I can’t get a glimpse of what that destiny will be like. David Roden wrote a whole book called Posthuman Life, and it just comes down to: not only haven’t we got a clue what it will be like, we couldn’t possibly have a clue.

Still, it would be nice to last a century or two to see what the prospects look like then. Things are bound to be so unforeseeably different that present-day speculation isn’t worth much.

But that just means that I ought to be breaking open the piggy-bank to buy myself some cryonics. And what’s stopping me from doing that is just a combination of lethargy, incredulity about the prospects of cryonics being successful and the thought of having to persuade my loved ones to join me in the venture. I would have to convince them not only that we are all on the Titanic – which we all know perfectly well – but also that they should really stop the merrymaking and like me make the effort to get one of these expensive but unconvincing-looking lifejackets called “cryonics”. And first I’d have to convince myself.

Really, there’s so much else to do …