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Friday, June 5, 2015

deus ex machina

deus ex machina, ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, god from the machine.

In drama it's a plot device by which through some contrivance a seemingly unsolvable problem is resolved. Euripides started it, Aristotle described it, Shakespeare used it and so did Molière in their plays.

Ex Machina, the feature film by Alex Garland that we saw last week portrays great video techniques, excellent acting, and intriguing plot development. The story (which I will not divulge less I spoil it for someone who hasn't seen it) stars Ava, an artificial female or android with intelligence. The fundamental question that the protagonist Caleb, a young male computer programmer, must judge is whether Ava passes the Turing test to determine if she can think as a human thinks.

I found the film fascinating and unsettling. In the process of determining whether Ava thinks humanly, I am confronted with many of the questions I have been dealing with in these blogs. What is being human? What is thinking? Are we moving to another stage of evolution: the transhuman? What do we want to be? What are the values that will guide us in our development and that we want to keep in any further development of our species or beyond. Where do these values come from? How can we ensure that these values will be sustained?

As the film reveals Ava as Caleb interacts with her, we ask: is she human? No, clearly not. She is not of the genus homo, an organism with organs that have evolved in primates through natural selection. But just as clearly, she is very intelligent insofar as she has assimilated all the information that has been collected electronically through every internet search engine. Not homo, is she sapiens? Can she think like a human, like us?

Here I refer back to the characteristics of my own Turing test as to whether a machine can think.

  1. Ava is portrayed as behaving symbolically, using her body to gesture with meaning including the verbal gestures of the spoken language. She is sexual and uses her sexuality to communicate with Caleb.
  2. She innovates even to the extent of drawing pictures that she imagines and to manipulate Caleb and perhaps to dissimulate. She seems to be able to have a "theory of mind," that is the ability to understand what is Caleb is thinking and intending. 
  3. Because she tries to get out of the prison in which she finds herself and to avoid termination, she develops a plan to do so, she imagines a future for herself including another life and a death. This demonstrates a sense of time which implies an awareness of the self as a unity and a possible continuity.

All of these are evidence for Caleb that she has the ability for human thinking. She is conscious and she is a person; or, as a philosopher would say in earlier times, she has a soul. To terminate her would be murder for Caleb.

But as portrayed in the film, questions remain that might cause a doubt as to whether Ava is fully human in her thinking and therefore has a human soul.

  1. Does she have a moral sense, an awareness of good and evil, a conscience? She certainly has culture in the sense that all the memes of history have been downloaded into her, does she have a culture, her culture with its morality, religion, perspective, story, and interpretation?
  2. While she has a "theory of mind," does she have the ability for empathy, that is, to experience the other's pain or pleasure? Enough that it affects her behavior.
  3. She seems to have social skills; but does she have the sense of the respect that is achieved through social interaction and the building of relationships?

I don't see her having these. But it could be argued that she is wired for them but needs to be out in the world interacting with many humans (as she seems to want) in order to have a culture, to realize the desire for recognition and respect, and to develop empathy for others. In other words, she is like a brilliant newborn, who is ready to communicate and be communicate to, even to love and be loved; and only in the process of inter-communication will she acquire a sense of self as well as a sense of other in a world--interconnected.

V.S. Ramachandran with many other neuroscientists have defined a human as a "model-making machine," by which they mean symbolic thinker and actor, an organism that can construct forms through which they can deal in and with the world. These neuroscientists also allow that early man who like Neanderthal Man was homo sapiens, but they postulate further development to a higher level of functioning through culture to homo sapiens sapiens. So perhaps we could say that Ava is sapiens, but not yet sapiens sapiens. She may become so as she acquires a culture.

If she does, she will be the first of the transhumans, i.e. super human, more than human. She will be ex-homo super sapiens sapientis.  Is she the new Eve as her name suggests? Is she who we want to become--a super mind in a super body, a god from a machine, deus ex machina? Or is she a sociopath like Nathan her creator? We better start thinking about that because it could happen.

A few years ago, I sent to a former colleague an essay on my "new ethics of integrity" in which I raised the ethical issue presented by our exponentially increasing technology on the horizon of artificial intelligence and the development of transhuman existence. He pooh-poohed the idea and thought it worthy of science fiction not serious ethical inquiry. I believe he was shortsighted then and I am only reenforced in my opinion by what I continue to learn. I reemphasize the urgency to think about who we are and who we want to become as we evolve--even towards the ability to select our own successors.

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