Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Singularity is Fear, Redux

Oh dear! It would seem that I expressed some fear of AI in that last post. In fact what I fear is the nutty repetition that some sort of singularity is near, whereby artificial intelligence will outpace human intelligence and take over the world. 

That fear embodies the supposition that human intelligence come the closest to abstracted and perfected intelligence, and that it is intelligence, writ large, which affords us our singular ability to survive and rise above the slings and arrows of otherwise outrageous fortune. 

There surely is that function for our kind of intelligence; the proof being our ability to live in such an incredible range of habitats and environments. We do that by designing and then constructing clothing and habitat; machines and communications gear. And we write history, or at least tell our stories.

But, hoist by our own hubris, we actually start to believe that we can live without any habitat at all. As though we could construct our very survival as living beings without all of the living context.

We have, as yet, no vocabulary for understanding the commonplace miracles which accompany our survival. We focus on personal miracles for which some of us thank God, and for which still more of us, perhaps even giving lip-service to some god or other, basically take credit. Now we seem to think that our constructions can exceed us.

This robotic AI won't be participating in the evolutionary processes by which we were ultimately begotten. Nope, the machine mind will do the creative improvements all on their own, beside and apart from nature. 

Of course, nature will wipe them out pretty much as soon as we are wiped out, in the same way that any other niche not-fitted creature gets wiped out. 

We think that the reason these machines exist is because we creatively designed and then built them. In fact, they appeared in the same way everything else does. If Edelman is right that the neural interconnections of our brains also change and develop according to principles at least analogous to the larger and better understood processes of evolution, then it would be foolish to think that our minds, even if they do ride on our brains - which I don't think that they do - have been evolving in any other way than to fit the man-made niche from which they come. 

Which is to say that we ourselves have been evolving in ways most certainly reflective of the environment which we inhabit. Or, to put it another way, our minds are already machine intelligence. How could they not be? That's our built niche, now globalized.

Many of us now have internalized the market as our identity. Even though we might not always wear our branding on our sleeves, we would probably like to, if we could afford it. 

Very uncharacteristically, I attended an actual Buffalo Bills football game the other night. I'm still wrecked from it, though I think I was just about the only fan there who wasn't drinking. It was such an ordeal; through the traffic to the stadium and then through the security lines, and then squeezed to far within the margins of my winter-clothing expanded body, along with my similarly superannuated friends, and then again to endure their drinking and cigar smoking as I was internally shut down both from the cold aluminum seats (which have to be that way to act as noisemakers), from the Bill's discouraging loss, and because I don't really know how to speak 'fucking this, ficking that' which is apparently a dialect of English. Fucking Allen has to fucking execute the fucking technical plays made by fucking Dorsey. 

Well Dorsey got shitcanned, tant pis. 

Meanwhile I have this gang of recent immigrants - no, I think they're our version of guest-workers - putting a new roof on the house in which I live. They're overseen by owner-class recent immigrants from Russia. Having previously endured a series of non-immigrant contractors, each of whom declares that they can't find workers since nobody wants to work anymore, I'm getting the feeling that this is a generalized American malaise of genuine Americans. What MAGA Americans mean by Americans. 

But I mean these Mexicans, or more probably Puerto Ricans, are flying up and down ladders, carrying massive loads and laughing and joking with one another. 

Put all of this together and you learn that the mind is really quite transpersonal. I'm pretty sure none of the roofers had attended or would ever attend a live Buffalo Bills game. As for me, I like the televised version better. What's happening gets explained to you, you don't have to struggle or freeze to get there, and there is a context (of all the other games and stats). And mainly because it's free!

I do remember the time and the many places when you could go to a game on a whim and pay something well within your bar-tab budget for a ticket, and have a lot of actual fun. Now we still have baseball here in Buffalo, so long as it doesn't go major league. But it's so darned boring and brainy and slow.

We make our living, I guess, by branding ourselves. Some are influencers. Some are bloggers. Some salespeople. If we're professional, we are our brand, a conceit made very large by the former guy. What we mean by our intense hatred of one another is that we really can't stand ourselves. What we imagine we are bears almost no relation to what we actually are. Which is inauthentic shitheads who behave like all the other shitheads. And I have no idea what authenticity even means, but I shall not brand myself!

Sure AI will have no emotion, and no prejudice, once we get the kinks worked out. No play, which would mean no learning, or at least not the kind that counts. Please let us not mistake AI for human intelligence, though we are moving rapidly in that direction.

The singularity that the AI nutjobs fear or wish to celebrate is not much more than a highly elaborate crystalized rock. We think that the computation will keep on keeping on, but really? Would it? Once a nano-second makes a bejillion chess-board moves it stalemates at a solution. Over and done. There is no life there is all.

We lack almost all imagination in these matters. It amazes me how unexamined most of our assumptions are. We assume that to be human is to be something like what humans can make and then we project ourselves right onto the monstrosity. Look closely at AI, Pogo, and you will see yourself, already gone.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Flaw in Gregory Bateson's Otherwise Brilliant Ecology of Mind

OK, so I don't mean that Bateson is flawed, but rather that his thinking and therefore his writing is flawed. The flaws are with cybernetics (no surprise there - I'd already adverted to that surmise) and with brain, each of which resolve to the same flaw. 

And look here, I'm not meaning to suggest that I am remotely qualified as a critic. My role, here and in life, is not to specialize to such extent as my betters have, but rather to seek out possibilities for not just hope, but for a direction of effort toward the Earth's persistence. That direction, I am convinced, will have to be away from rewarding principally those who toy with money and corporate AI power. It will have to move back toward what is holistically human, which would mean to be of a piece with the entire cosmos. We are still so stuck in dualism, and the banishment of any and all knowledge which doesn't begin and end with the quantifiable extension of materialism.

Now I have to confess that I just took a long pause to listen to a talk given by Gerald Edelman some time ago at the nearby Chautauqua Institution. Edelman does all of my dirty work for me and more, quite simply by his demolition of our likelihood to understand, much less to decode, the workings of the human mind. Sure, he's still brain-centric, like Bateson is, but in his case, he doesn't distinguish the brain from the body, and his measurement of mind is of a scale with how many subatomic particles exist in our cosmos. This is based on numbers of possible interconnections in a single brain, though he goes well beyond that simple measure.

Sure it is true that I can't approach the brilliance of either man. It's also true that I don't have the capacity to sit still and listen to a lecture, though I surely could have and would have were I in that audience that day way way back in 2003, before the man died. 

And I can't afford to go on a drive for the purpose of listening, though I know for a fact that driving works for me. So, instead, I decided to mend my moccasins. These aren't made to be mended - they're machine-made in some struggling country, and carry the brand name of Hush Puppies. I got them on steep discount. I could just toss them out, but in answer to my well-off brother-in-law's comment that it's interesting that my scant income is precisely equal to my outflow (he didn't seem to consider that this is the result of my finely calibrated economic decision-making), no I couldn't.

For one thing, I've already invested a repair in them, which was the unravelling of the main lace holding the top to the sole. I have a collection of thread, but somehow lost my store of needles, even knowing where I last had stowed them. While listening, I searched again, hopelessly and with predictable result. So I dabbed the thick thread with some glue, just simply to avoid the waste of a gas-powered trip out to the sewing hobby store on the other side of town, and managed to thread the two-sizes-too-small needle. 

Then there is the problem of pushing and pulling. I have these devices on the sailboat, but it's a lousy day and my main project is to cover the boat. So I find that I can pull the needle with the sleeve end of some rubber gloves for grip (don't touch the fingers, where I could not abide a hole), and a chunk of wood to push, and by the time the talk was finished I'd both repaired my moccasins again, and listened to the whole lecture. 


I hope that this is the very opposite of the "creative destruction" which powers our economy just now. Perhaps we'll even return to handmade repairable everything, certainly because we might have to but also because we might want to. Despite my mildly sore fingers, I found the entire process quite enjoyable in its way. I shall never again be internally judgey about women who knit at meetings.

I have also had some success talking my well-off brother-in-law down from his pride in the good luck of working for Microsoft in the early days when they were in high dudgeon destroying their betters for the sake of their own still everlasting success, leading us to believe that there is indeed only one way to do some particular thing. 

The brain is plastic, as we know, but also evolves in ways unique to every single individual. Edelman got his Nobel prize for identifying the evolutionary processes of our immune system, which led to his understanding of the evolutionary processes of neural interconnectivity.

My own conviction is that the structure of the human mind allows this jiu-jitsu transformation of our 'life-force' to come about in a virtual instant, once the need to do so has been universally recognized. The time is looming and near, isn't it?

Cybernetics for Bateson and for us, is that aspect of reality which is lodged in the mind. There is no actual circle, being the most common example, from Plato. Logic another, which Bateson critically distinguishes from causal processes; the error not to do so being strangely common. His error is to suppose first, that the brain is digital (something about the firing on/off nature of neurons), and second that digital can be embodied, in a computer, say, or a brain. Logic processors are as unnatural as a circle.

Bateson's idea [sic] of cybernetics involves coding, which to my mind, is but another way to say that the brain contains replicas - that it replicates - the world outside. That is, to me, logically and causally impossible. I might say that the brain whirls and swirls and mimes with the world "outside," and even that just because it is not outside at all. 

The main burden of Bateson's shift from materialism to ecology is to identify structural identities as these pervade cosmos. Inside/outside are meaningless distinctions without first distinguishing object from field, organism from environment. Such distinguishing, while natural and therefore trivial, is not the same as dividing. Any more than quanta in physics can be divided.

Ideas are not ideas unless they are common to the point of being universal. They therefore cannot be contained in any mind, but constitute the whole, in a way, of a kind of logical universe. They can be deductively derived, viz Plato, with no real learning engaged. In Bateson's terms, they can be reduced to tautology. Which is to say that the necessary learning had to have occurred before any realization of any idea

Realization here of an idea is not the same as reification, which is what Bateson does when he places ideas in the brain. Nevermind Penrose's scheme of quantum relatable tubules, which is still a search for mechanism and transmission which is precisely what quantum physics is not about. The computer is detached, while the brain is embedded and in touch. Transmission of ideas is of a piece with gravity changing the topology of space. 

Batson cannot have been aware of the extent to which we are made up of genetically mediated "other" organisms and their detritus, quite apart from the stuff which carries our own genetic signature. Gene cataloguing and quantifying hadn't been accomplished as he wrote. 

Autoimmune and immune-related diseases might make a kind of accelerator for change which is not directly attributable to the stochastic processes of canonical evolution. Fecal transplant makes an interesting case, as does the cocktail treatments for AIDS.

As I watch my granddaughter grow, I am astonished by how long and how painstaking the transition is from latent to fully conscious human. At just a year, she is already capable to identify picture cards and to change her pronunciation of the words they represent when I say them. But it will be a long way yet before we're having a conversation about ideas.

I remarked in my immediately prior post that we don't need to relinquish consciousness in order to continue our evolution. It's not only the sudden, if not surprising, appearance of Covid19 which might transform us no matter how skilled we are at cybernetically adapting to our changed environment. It must also be the changes to the weather, and to the nature of driving and communicating long-distance. 

When you hop into an autonomous vehicle you are also relinquishing the very thing which made driving cars so compelling. Inside you resemble more the worm of a Mexican jumping bean than you do a human. You are utterly cut off, and perhaps you wish to be. Not so different, really, from driving an AI to do your homework.

Well why wouldn't you if the economy is debasing the whole idea of a liberal education, because it doesn't pay. Like all things elevated, liberal derives from free men, just as high art derives from aristocracy. But you won't internalize a single idea nor masterpiece without a liberal education. A liberal education is the basis for all the rest. 

Now I'm not big on ideas as ends in themselves. I don't think that the inception of a work of art is ever an idea, just as evolution depends on random processes for its creative resolutions. But it is hard to construct a house, say, to extend your range among twisting and turning ecosystems, without some geometric sense about fitting things together. 

Speaking of which, just as we are hurtling in the direction of autonomous vehicles (think hurtling toward Mars, which would be to extricate ourselves from the ecosystem which informs and becomes us) we also hurtle away from houses and cars which are accessible to the mechanics we require to service them. All will be cookie cutter, like the most primitive Super Mario context. 

Mechanics have already become merest menials, subservient to their hedge-fund overlords because that's the way we think the economy has to work. Everything flowing to the top, we still do believe that humans qua humanity as we live it right now are the apex, the top, the culmination of the Great Chain of Being. We are the merited, God's favorite and we must not kill an unborn child because to do so would be to invade, dirty, and disgrace the Handiwork of God as He carries out his plan for Nature. 

What a muddled mess. Those people won't even abide a simple law to help avoid our killing one another, yet somehow latent humans are more valuable to God because, well I don't know, because Father said so?

Whatever God is, He has no hands. No identity. Is an idea outside of history; both natural history and humanity-composed history, which is never just the facts, maam. God is Love and not a designer. We are not apart from God since our minds partake in God. Macrocosm/Microcosm or . . .

Whatever else evolution is, it moves in Love's direction (not at Love's direction). Autonomous digital anything is a reach which exceeds its grasp. Nip it in the bud or live in eternal regret. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Sapir Whorf and Language Relativity

When I was a kid, like before middle school, and already presuming I was going to be an engineer like my Grandaddy, I absolutely loved to read Popular Mechanics. I was always building things, and especially liked to build gadgets. Popular Mechanics had plans for kooky gizmos, as I recall. At least one of my close friends was also a fan. I'll be helping him with his bathroom this weekend.

How strange it seems that this magazine is now the one willing to look at oddball topics, blithely crossing political boundaries with seeming agnostic ignorance of their significance. Popular Mechanics extricates itself from the death spiral of algorithmic click-bait, as far as I can tell. It's stealthily highly politically incorrect, in that it seems fundamentally to hew to the real and demonstrable.

And what a strange place to find an article about disappearing languages, though their hook was about how machine learning was trying to help prevent the disappearance. The article was fully cognizant of the ironies. 

I was admitted to several very fine universities back when structural engineers were already a dying species, and then I committed a flim-flam to major in Chinese literature. Which is relevant here because part of my motivation, partially vindicated, was a vague supposition that a different language might inhabit - and create - a different world. I had an early skepticism about objective truth.

Having grown up on the shores of Lake Erie to watch it die, I had plenty of angst by college-time about pollution and disappearing species. More recently at a college where I briefly worked, one of my colleagues had started a foundation of sorts attempting to preserve obscure written languages. By that time, I rather thought that this was a quixotic pursuit. 

Maybe even a part of my motivation to study Chinese - also vindicated somewhat - was my sense that there would be only two distinct writing systems left on the planet; the alphabetic and the Chinese character; alphabetic languages converging on English.

Now my angst about the planet is widely shared, the only real exception being denialists and religionists; both tending toward dangerous extremism. Or is it that they celebrate what the rest of is cerebrate? 

But my own despair is highly moderated by memories not so very much removed from my personal memory, of plagues and wars, depressions and floods and even climate disasters caused by volcanoes. It often seems that whatever horrors we might now be facing are moderate in comparison with the brutal lives we so recently lived.

I'm not putting my head in the sand, but my focus is certainly not on fixing things beyond the local. Preserving disappearing species in a kind of gene-bank, or even revivifying them, seems as lost a cause as the attempt to preserve disappearing writing systems. If the ecosystem isn't supporting it, what gets preserved would be, at best, artificial, and at worst a kind of invasive species more deadly than the ones we introduce by accident. 

Those users of a dying alphabet would themselves be marginalizing themselves to the extent that the language remains internalized and native. The point being that they're already marginalized if they speak a dying language. It feels like putting primitives on display at the world's fair. Or a freak show.

I'm far more concerned with those aspects of the mainstream languages - and in this case all languages, including especially Chinese, seem convergent - convergent toward dangerous and obsolete world-views. Trivially, this is a corollary of what we almost universally consider to be a shrinking world. Whether by communications technology, supply chains, instant and un-curated video or what-you-will, we are all becoming one. Our attempts to enforce boundaries are ludicrous at best, and dangerous for the tensions they build. 

As silly as it seems to try to preserve what we've already committed to killing, it seems even sillier to claim some cultural form as a basis to claim insider status. And still more dangerous to base that claim on religion. As much as we are a single people on a "shrinking" planet, we are already a mono-culture. Which feels pretty dangerous in and of itself. 

It can be useful - it feels useful to me - to go back and study someone like Gregory Bateson, who attempts to map what's common to any conception of reality. I find the guy brilliant, while I also find him interestingly misguided. I'm not sure why yet. I think it might have to do with his turn toward cybernetics as a kind of meta-description of systems and how they function. I'll let you know when I figure it out, but be warned that so far as I can tell right now, I'm simply not in Bateson's league. I know you'll agree!

Anyhow, as a case in point, our fear of artificial intelligence seems based on a faulty notion about that in which intelligence consists. We seem to be afraid that artifical intelligence will make what's already terrible about our digital culture even worse. If we do nothing about the stuff we already understand well enough to build laws around it (but fail to do so) then it will certainly make things worse. 

But as it is, I find the fear mongering to be of a piece with the reduction of environmentalism to the single term "climate change." It's a dodge and a PR trick which allows us to keep on keeping on with our current global economic regime - broadly construable as "capitalism" - because we have identified something which is, at least theoretically, fixable. Emit less carbon and we're all good. Right, and I've got a bridge to sell you. 

Prevent all heartless amoral thinking and we're good. Uhhuh, sure. We already promote that kind of thinking, and we already think that tinkering with it will destroy the economy. Yet it's the economy, stupid, that needs work. It's individualism that needs work. We need to deconstruct individual merit, and remind ourselves that no man is an island. 

Almost everything about globalism as we live it is built on a very deadly sort of American conception of life. Home on or at the range and able to survive survivalist-style all by one's lonesome. I'm a prime practitioner of that discipline, but at least I know it for the disease that it is. I desperately wish that there were a healthy society that I would feel good to join. 

Build a healthy society and, microcosm macrocosm, the world takes care of itself. Sure, these secrets may be embodied in the lost language of the Kawésqar  (yes, I too just read The Wager), but getting access to them doesn't mean preserving that culture. By the time we could communicate, whatever the language had meant would be as wiped out as their ability to thrive nearly naked in canoes with fires on their clay bottoms in a frigid squalling climate. Like we're going to have to do if we keep going the way that we are. 

Now we see China, with its facial recognition cameras on every light post and its social credit scoring as the antithesis of American-style freedom, by which we mean individual liberty I think. Heck, many Chinese think so too, and would love to live here, often suggesting that we don't even know how good we have it. 

Meaning they already inhabit American culture, I suppose. Chinese know us a lot better than we know them. 

But you know, if by identifying me as an individual also means to identify me as embedded in a group and that group is as responsible as I am for my behavior, then what's the harm? We already behave Chinese in secret, with every corporation having the virtual serial number of every living American, whether they admit it or not and whether they make use of that information (illegally, of course) or not. They still have it, in principle. 

And guess what? The Chinese can get hold of and use that information, and do, with legal impunity or perhaps even with the encouragement of their government, implied or spoken but surely rewarded in some way. I know this intimately because I recently had a cordial email conversation with a Chinese vendor who quite apparently couldn't resist selling my identity, judging by the instant - like turning on a faucet - spew of phishing emails now following my every online behavior. 

And we, in the background, are encouraging the same thing by villainizing China. I mean I love President Biden in most ways, but his approach to China is misguided. His administration is practically underwriting China's indigenous superseding of those very technologies we're trying to keep from them, because we can't quite believe that anyone can do normal science better than we do. Chauvinism writ very large indeed. 

I doubt very much that we are either more clever or more industrious than the Chinese are. We once did have a more robust educational system, especially at the tertiary level. It's sad to me that education has become such a fraught field. We seem to believe that children will believe whatever their teachers tell them. I'm not sure when that has ever happened.

Children respect teachers who offer them something demonstrably helpful and useful. As the former head of a school for gifted children, I've always thought that we - meaning the world, not my school -were selling a pig in a poke with the idea that you have to get to college to get ahead. Academics do not solve most problems, and most problem solving doesn't reduce to book smarts. 

I think the whole message was really about offloading onto individuals the responsibility of getting ahead. As though the dice weren't always loaded for the ones who were lucky enough to start with a boost. My school was great not because the kids and faculty were smart, though they were that. It was great because the connection was honest with no knowledge or information held back, and with the teachers as exposed as the students about their ignorance outside their field. We all learned together and with respect.

As a species, humans have evolved to be able to live in a more varied and variable environment than any other creature, as far as I can tell. Intelligence means adapting to however the environment is transformed. We're nervous now because we're the ones doing all the transforming. Like bacteria let loose in the perfect growth medium, we've fouled our nest. To many of us, this feels like our ultimate comeuppance. 

But the failure is social and political, meaning that the solution depends on language. I don't really buy into notions of individual genius, except, perhaps, within specifically delimited fields of endeavor. Within disciplinary boundaries, a so-called genius might be first, but can't really be a genius unless what is produced is immediately recognized by other sub-geniuses as worthwhile.

I would say that in any endeavor, being first is equal parts luck and effort, with the quality of genius reduced to the ability to notice something interesting. That ability has to be conditioned as much on being outside the limits of the discipline as it is by having mastered the discipline from the inside. 

The trouble with monoculture and the destruction of languages is that there increasingly is no other. And even beyond that, motivated by fear we tend to cower within and behind such things as totemistic flags and religion, which are no longer goads to pride, but are instead the rallying points for a kind of warfare of all against all. The other - all other - has become us, to paraphrase Pogo.

There is a massive difference between the kind of liberty required to intelligently adapt to various natural environments, and the kind which would destroy the natural environment to impose a kind of culturally imperialism on all of the environment, turning the world into a kind of hellish Disneyland.

This is our evolutionary turning point. To survive and thrive as a species now means to become conscious of the boundary between our own intelligent design and nature. That will mean re-inhabiting nature with a kind of consciousness which isn't exclusively deployed to problem-solve the American wilderness. 

This is the root of our terror about artificial intelligence. Somewhere and somehow we each and all know that a brilliant but cosmically amoral (and probably evil) resolution would be to destroy all humans. The remainder, artificially intelligent environment, would be the moral equivalent of a rock.

Now far be it from me to claim that a rock isn't genius. It most certainly is. But it's not alive. 

For one, I am reasonably certain that what we call artificial intelligence can be helpful in guiding humans to evolve. Shockingly implicit in this statement is a transformation to the meaning of evolution. Meaning simply that we don't need to leave consciousness behind in order to evolve naturally. 

Individuals live or die according to genetically endowed ability to mesh, socially and environmentally. A society thrives to the extent that individuals join in to sacrifice their individuality. Changes in language are far more powerful than changes in technology when it comes to ordering society. Our language, at present, fails us.