Ian McEwan: A Noted British Novelist Ponders Our AI Future
The title above comes from Elizabeth Winkler’s article in this weekend’s (April 13/14, 2019) Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In 2008, the Times of London listed Ian McEwan among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945,” Ms. Winkler wrote. “He is the author of 17 books, six of which have been nominated for the Man Booker Prize (“Amsterdam” won in 1998); several have been adapted for film, most famously, the Oscar-winning – “Atonement.” I refer you to this weekend’s WSJ for the full interview.
“At first glance, Mr. McEwan’s new novel, “Machines Like Me,” might seem world’s away from Charles Dickens,” Ms. Winkler wrote. Mr. McEwan’s London flat is but “a stone’s throw away from where the great 19th century novelist wrote “Oliver Twist,” and “Nicholas Nickleby.” “Set in an alternative-reality version of 1980s London, the book begins as Charlie, a 32-year old tech enthusiast, buys Adam an artificial human — one of the first generation of “Adams,” and “Eves,” to hit the market,” she notes. “What starts out as an amusing trial of the latest technology, takes on darker overtones, as Adam falls in love with Charlie’s girlfriend, Miranda, and uncovers a criminal secret from her past.”
“Machines Like Me,” “turns out to be knotted with the same kind of moral complexity found in the Victorian classics,” Ms. Winkler wrote. “It asks not only whether Adam — a handsome, dark-skinned robot, who enjoys composing haikus — should be considered a conscious being and treated accordingly; but, also whether he will make the same kinds of bad decisions that humans make — with our cognitive defects.” “When we come to build an artificial human,” Mr. McEwan says, “we’ll be able to fill it with our best side, so it’s perfectly possible that we might build beings morally superior to us.” “In that case, should Charlie let Adam make decisions on his behalf — even one’s he doesn’t like? How will our moral universe change when we live among machines?,” Ms. Winkler asks.
“Scientists like [the late theoretical physicist] Stephen Hawking have warned that artificial intelligence (AI) might spell the end of mankind,” Ms. Winkler reminds us. Mr. McEwan “demurs from such views, however, “I don’t think it will be one thing,” he told Ms. Winkler. “I think it’ll be a blessing and a curse, rather like the Internet.” “For most of us, he points out, artificial humans may not be such a shock; we’re used to meeting people who are cleverer than us.” (Maybe Stephen Hawking never met anyone cleverer than him he adds impishly, “and that’s why he was against it.)”
“I’m not cherishing this future, but it does fascinate me morally,” Mr. McEwan said. “Novelists will have a field day with it.” “At its core, as he points out, the novel is a device for investigating human morality. The genre may be 17th, or 18th-century invention; but, Mr. McEwan believes it will be “perfect to help us,” navigate moral conundrums in the coming age of artificial intelligence,” Ms. Winkler wrote.
“We’re already in transition,” says Mr. McEwan. “We’re learning to talk to devices like Alexa: I say, Alexia, play Mozart’s G Major Trio.’ I don’t even say please,” he admits, though he is intrigued by parents who teach their children to use good manners in addressing Alexa. Then there are autonomous vehicles, which will make moral decisions for us, like whether to swerve in a collision, and risk killing a pedestrian.” “One hundred and eighty people died because they were sitting in a brain!,” he said, “referring to the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10. “That’s an early, tragic, transitional moment of human-machine interface. We’re sort of in the stone age of this.”
“Machines Like Me,” didn’t require any field trips,” Ms. Winkler wrote, “but, Mr. McEwan has been interested in artificial intelligence for many years,” she adds. “He quotes Alan Turning, the pioneering computer scientist who developed the Turning test: “The moment you can’t tell the difference between a machine and a conscious being, you must confer humanity on the machine.” “Turning, who died in 1954, at the age of 41, lives on in the counterfactual world of the novel, ushering in the new age of intelligent machines.” she wrote.
“It’s so irresistible, technology’s inexorable pull,” Mr. McEwan says. “We can’t stop it. “We’ll become suckers for anthropomorphizing a halfway intelligent machine, as long as it gestures, and looks like us.” “This is Charlie’s struggle throughout the novel — the tension between knowing that Adam is only a cluster of algorithms, and feeling obliged to respond to him — as though he’s real. One version of the Turning test, which plays out in the novel, is whether a machine can fall in love. But, the ultimate sign of humanity,” Mr. McEwan says, “would be if a machine could write a good novel — not the haikus Adam churns out; but, an expansive work, showing a full understanding of what it means to be human.”
“That…..would be a very good test,” Mr. McEwan ends.
Advancements In Artificial Intelligence Are Coming Much Faster Than We Ever Expected
Indeed, a growing body of mainstream scientists now believe that our brains will be connected to computers before 2050, allowing for an Internet-of-Thoughts, that will provide instant access to information,” James Pero wrote in the April 12, 2019 edition of the DailyMail.com. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that humans and machines will merge — an event he calls the ‘Singularity,’ sometime in the 2040s. Even Mr. Kurzweil, who is known for his accurate predictions, may be underestimating humankind’s progress in this domain. Mr. Pero writes that “in a new paper published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience, researchers embarked on an international collaboration that predicts groundbreaking developments in the world of “Human Brain/Cloud Interfaces’ within the next few decades.”
“Using a combination of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other more traditional computing, researchers say humans will be able to seamlessly connect their brain to a cloud of computers, to glean information from the Internet in real-time,” Mr. Pero wrote. According to Robert Freitas Jr., senior author of the research, foresees “a fleet of nanobots embedded in our brains would act as liaisons to humans’ minds and supercomputers, to enable ‘Matrix-style’ downloading of information.” “The interfaces wouldn’t just stop at linking humans and computers,” the researchers said. They foresee the potential for a “network of brains collected across the globe, a global ‘super-brain,’ that would allow for collective thought,” Mr. Pero noted. That would add an exponential new level to “group think,” like we had on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Pretty scary thought.
I do believe Ray Kurzweil is right and that “The Singularity” is coming sooner than we think. The Netflix show, “Altered Carbon,” explores a future where one, if they have enough money, can live forever by downloading their brain to a new ‘host,’ — for eternity. However, Priests and clergy refuse to sanction those who chose to live forever; and, they are excommunicated from church and religion. In essence, if you choose to go that route — at least on Altered Carbon — you lose your soul. As will almost all difficult decisions in life — there are always trade-offs, good and bad. If you haven’t seen Altered Carbon and are interested in this subject, the show does a pretty good job of exploring the complexities of a world where man and machine have merged; and immortality — if you give up your soul — is possible. RCP, fortunascorner.com