You Don’t Have to Be a Robot if You Don’t Want to

I started off my last post remarking on how as a species we had lost our confidence and optimism with regard to robots and AI. I then speculated that this may be connected with prevalent views of what it means to be a human being. I suggested that we thought of ourselves as destructive of our environment, neurophysiological and addicted. This view, I thought, added up to a view that we have no free will. I quoted a piece from Yuval Noah Harari where he argues that we have no free will and that the sooner we get clear about that, the better our lives will get.

When I wrote it, I must confess, I failed to see something that was staring me in the face all along. I didn’t make the strongest connection possible between the AI-phobia, our view of ourselves and the Harari quote. I meandered from one to the other, not realising that there was a straight path between them.

I only realised, when I put my post on Reddit (r/philosophy) where you generally get good discussion amongst people with an interest and varying degrees of training in philosophy. I suspected, and half hoped, that a lot of people would comment critically on my suggestion that we think of ourselves as destructive, neurophysiological and addicted. Surely that is too limited and pessimistic. In fact, most people commented critically on my swerve towards defending freedom of the will. And there was something interesting about the language they used in doing so. Here are selective quotes from four different commenters:

“I think worrying about free will only makes sense if you are holding on to some shred of dualism. The fact I can’t non-deterministically make inputs into the mechanistic universe and change its course is meaningless if I accept that I am a computational machine made of chemistry inside the mechanistic universe which is processing sensory inputs and producing behaviours as outputs. I am still an entity doing things, the pattern of computation exists and is me, that’s enough.”

“Why would an ego possibly reject the idea that it is a machine with purely deterministic outcomes?”

“Do you believe in some kind of dualism? Do you believe in some kind of physicalism? Do you believe in a deterministic universe? Depending on your answers to these questions, it seems quite obvious that you are a computational machine made of chemistry inside a mechanistic universe.”

“You can pretend that it’s a matter of free will that determines whether you are fooled by a fake article or not, but I would argue that it’s based on your brain’s ‘software,’ so to speak, the way it’s been moulded to work through the information and ‘variations of thought’ that it has experienced, and the biases it has gained along the way.”

This gives us a strand of our current Menschenbild, our view of what it means to be a human being that is probably a consequence of the trends that I mentioned but goes further. Not only are we our brain chemistry now, but we are, in the view of these commenters, “computational machines inside a mechanistic universe” running on software.

Then I realised that this is not some kind of eccentric view from people who are spending too much time online. It had been there, represented in my blog post all along. In the Harari piece that I quoted he talks about “hacking the human spirit.” In bits that I hadn’t quoted he talks about “hacking the human animal.” In order to do that, he says, you need a lot of “a good understanding of biology and  a lot of computing power.” He says we need to “come to terms with what humans really are: hackable animals.” And then he analyses how we might get some support in our predicament:

“It is particularly important to get to know your weaknesses. They are the main tools of those who try to hack you. Computers are hacked through pre-existing faulty code lines. Humans are hacked through pre-existing fears, hatreds, biases and cravings. Hackers cannot create fear or hatred out of nothing. But when they discover what people already fear and hate it is easy to push the relevant emotional buttons and provoke even greater fury.

If people cannot get to know themselves by their own efforts, perhaps the same technology the hackers use can be turned around and serve to protect us. Just as your computer has an antivirus program that screens for malware, maybe we need an antivirus for the brain. Your AI sidekick will learn by experience that you have a particular weakness – whether for funny cat videos or for infuriating Trump stories – and would block them on your behalf.”

So this is, when it comes down to it, what human beings are: hackable animals who need AI to protect our spirit from being hacked. This is really just a further development of the trends I discussed. If we are purely brain chemistry, out of control entities carrying out what the electrons in our brains require, then the idea that we’re machines is almost a logical conclusion. And that also explains why we’re so worried about the robots, or the AI now. If we’re just machines ourselves, then clearly a new, better, more intelligent generation of machines is likely to be a threat to us. At least this is the bleak picture some people want to paint of human beings. But believe it or not, alternative views are actually available.

Harari argues that “if governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.” This, I think, is up for discussion.

I think those who believe that they are just machines running some virus-vulnerable software, relying on an AI sidekick, will be much easier to manipulate. They would find it easier to make excuses to themselves for their own behaviour. They are subject to the limiting belief that they are not in charge of their own choices. The person who believes that he or she is making real choices for which he or she is responsible, I would say, is more likely to reflect on whether to click on something and whether to buy what they see. They are more likely to pause and reflect before acting, rather than acting on auto-pilot.

There are big questions around the Harari-style view of human beings and the world: Software is usually written by someone to make a machine perform a certain task. In this image, which clearly is more than a limited metaphor, who wrote the software, and to make the machines perform what purpose? And since we must assume that the human beings who are working for and leading the governments and corporations that are hacking the human spirit have no free will either, what programme are they running, and on whose behalf, when they are manipulating others? And if it’s the human spirit and human ingenuity that builds the AI to protect themselves from being manipulated, why can’t they just protect themselves? And what drives this titanic clash between the manipulators and those who build the “AI sidekicks” to protect the human spirit? What decides which side any given individual is on? Harari doesn’t need to have a good answer. It could all be random and pointless and just happening. It could be driven by selfish genes, or by energy and matter on the move since the big bang. But the whole scenario is full of assumptions and consequences that are far less obvious, scientific and factual than the initial description pretends.

Once again, like I said in my previous post: There are many alternative views we can take of human beings and their (our) place in the world. Some of them do not see us as outdated technology. Some of them do not see us as mere machines. There are more hopeful views we can take of our nature. And I believe, that our beliefs about ourselves very heavily influence what we do and ultimately what we are. But that will have to be for another blog post.

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Homo Sapiens – the Pathetic Species?

I never was that much of a science-fiction aficionado. But I’m sure as a child I occasionally borrowed some sci-fi literature from the library and watched the odd episode of Star Trek – ok, lots of episodes of Star Trek. I’m sure there was a time when it was generally thought that robots would be our kindly household helpers, machines would instantly cure diseases and generate whatever food we fancied.

In contrast, these days, we tend to tend to read more about how robots, or rather, their upgrade, artificial intelligence (AI), will be making us jobless, oppressing us and quite possibly killing us. I happen to think that we shouldn’t be quite that worried about AI, for any number of reasons: I think we switch them on, so we can switch them off. I think that even if we create them to teach themselves and to learn things, we give them the algorithms by which they “decide” whether something is a good move worth learning, repeating and developing, or not. I think that we tend to do ok in creating governance and codes for the development of science and technology. I think that even if they end up doing our jobs better than we could ever do them, they will create greater prosperity and it becomes a question of the distribution of the goods they create, rather than a fight of human beings against machines. (I also think we should stop talking about them as “they” as if they were the other grouping in an “us and them” situation, and only talk about them as “they” in the sense that we would talk about, say the contents of our toolbox as “they”, as in “I don’t know where I have left my hammer and nails, maybe they’re in the cupboard under the stairs.”)

I may be right or wrong about AI, but that’s not the point right now. Hannah Arendt wrote about “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction” that “unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves [to it] as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” And so the thing that really interests me here, is not whether AI is going to leave us out of work, and quite possibly extinct, or not, but what it says about us a species, humanity, that we are so lacking in confidence with regard to our future machines. The mass sentiments here are fear, pessimism and a lack of confidence in our future as a species. This has replaced the mass desire with regard to future machines that they should make us creatures of leisure and comfort. We’ve gone from “the robots will do the work, which is nice” to “Oh my God, the AIs will do our work, we’ll all be jobless.”

A German compound noun that deserves to be as well known as those others, Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude and Weltschmerz, is Menschenbild. It means the image man has of himself. Or – since we should be wary of being unclear in languages where the word for “human being” and “man” is the same – the image human beings have of themselves. I generally find it difficult to say what the prevailing humanity-wide view is on anything, but it’s worth thinking a bit about the image we have of ourselves these days and whether our mass sentiment of lacking confidence with regard to our future and the unfriendly robots is founded in it.

Our Menschenbild has famously made a long journey over the last few millennia from one where we were at the centre of God’s universe to one where we are at the margins of a chaotic, sprawling and expanding universe full of dark matter and other uncharted waters, from one where we were put in charge of God’s creation to one where we have randomly evolved from matter that was coincidentally brought to life, and from one where we were the masters of our fate, to one where we’re barely in control of our minds.

I am interested in what further staging post on this journey we have reached. It’s genuinely difficult to judge what “most people” believe about these big questions. But I’ll speculate that a feature of our most up-to-date image of ourselves we are three things: a) we are destructive of the world, our habitat, and other species, b) we are our neurophysiology, and c) we are addicted. (Spoiler alert: I’m not arguing that these views are correct.)

Destructive of the World

There’s nothing new about apocalyptic phantasies, and nothing new about the idea that human beings can’t control the powers and technologies that we created (see the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But I think we’ve generally lost confidence in our ability to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. But even if we haven’t, there’s still plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, overpopulation and other problems. It seems to us that our lifestyle is destroying the planet with its natural resources that are also the foundation for our lifestyle. Our self-image now is less that we’re the crown of creation and more that we’re a virus that is making our host sick in order to multiply and support ourselves.

Neurophysiology

Plato thought that there are three parts of our soul (the appetitive, the spirited and the rational) that need to be brought into balance and the right kind of hierarchy in order for us to be good. Freud believed that the psyche was made up of three parts (super-ego, ego and id). So there’s nothing new about the idea that our minds have different parts. What’s new in our current image of ourselves now, is that we no longer talk about the soul, the psyche, the mind, but about the brain. This brain has different systems, each with their own functions, depending on the evolutionary stage at which they emerged. There is no hierarchy between these systems, just neural pathways, synapses and electrons firing between them. It’s not so much that we have brains, but that we are brains.

Addicted

Closely linked to our neurophysiological nature, our natural state is to be addicted. Dopamines in our brains have the strongest control over everything we do. The same mechanism drives heroin addiction, a penchant for cupcakes and any habits we may have acquired (like brushing our teeth after eating cupcakes). But then, the range of things to which we can be addicted has massively expanded to include social media likes for our selfies, shopping, and thinking. As über-guru, Eckhart Tolle says:

Compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterises an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.

And brain-scans show that the brain that isn’t in a meditative state, is in an addicted state. (It so happens that meditation teachers describe the neurophysiology as a way of explaining that we could be more aware and intentional about our actions, but the description of our neurophysiological nature sticks more strongly in the public consciousness than the idea that we could gain control over it.

Fundamentally Unfree

This combination of beliefs results in the most limiting of limiting beliefs: the belief that we are fundamentally unfree. We are set on our self-destructive journey by our brain chemistry. And because we basically are our brains now, there is nothing we can set against it.

And so someone like Yuval Noah Harari, the chronicler of homo sapiens, tells us:

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free.

[…]

If you believe in the traditional liberal story, you will be tempted simply to dismiss this challenge. “No, it will never happen. Nobody will ever manage to hack the human spirit, because there is something there that goes far beyond genes, neurons and algorithms. Nobody could successfully predict and manipulate my choices, because my choices reflect my free will.” Unfortunately, dismissing the challenge won’t make it go away. It will just make you more vulnerable to it.

It starts with simple things. As you surf the internet, a headline catches your eye: “Immigrant gang rapes local women”. You click on it. At exactly the same moment, your neighbour is surfing the internet too, and a different headline catches her eye: “Trump prepares nuclear strike on Iran”. She clicks on it. Both headlines are fake news stories, generated perhaps by Russian trolls, or by a website keen on increasing traffic to boost its ad revenues. Both you and your neighbour feel that you clicked on these headlines out of your free will. But in fact you have been hacked.

Unfortunately the myth that “scientific reality” suggests that there is nothing beyond genes, neutrons and algorithms is much more likely to make us helpless against the commercially exploitative, criminal or malign actors who, according to Harari, are hacking us. When we believe that we are helplessly exposed to the signals we see online, that we can’t help but click on what is marketed to us, can’t help but believe, buy even, what we read and can’t help but act on what we’ve been sold, we are less likely to pause and reflect on the different courses of action that are open to us, to read critically what we see and to feel responsible what we do next. Much as Harari sells us this “scientific” unfree image of the human being, he is giving us a description of people who have already imbibed the self-limiting belief, not a description of what human beings could be at their best. Hopefully, the leaps from the image people clicking on links online to the conclusion that we have been hacked and have no free will seem to most people to be so full of non-sequiturs that we need not be overly worried by it. And ultimately, who are the agents who are hacking and manipulating us? Other human beings. How come they have the necessary agency, alongside their ingenuity and technical skills to hack us and implement their evil plans, when we can’t even decide what (not) to click on?

The neurophysiological, addicted, destructive self-image, widely held though it may be, is limited and limiting but fortunately it is not the only one available. Exploring more positive alternatives will be a matter for a future post!

[This post has had a great response. I wrote an addition to it reacting to some comments here.]

Determinism 14 – Prometheus, Determinism and the Unfree Will

Over the last 13 posts on determinism and free will (starting here), I’ve changed my mind a few times about a number of things concerning the determined nature of our existence and the free will we can exercise. Recently, a Greek myth popped into my mind as having relevance and the idea of deducing a few things by examining physical freedom as a close parallel to freedom of the will.

Looking to a Greek myth for inspiration should be uncontroversial: The Greek myths, and Greek tragedy in which they are often presented, have a good grasp on what it means to be a human being in this universe. They present pointed case studies for various aspects of the human condition. While they form part of the ancestry of our culture, they stem from a time before other important aspects of our culture emerged. And so, for example, they are untouched by things like Judaeo-Christian monotheism and the ethical framework that comes with it, the consumer society, not to mention the internet of things. And so they contain raw material without the overlay of some of the things that shape our daily experience.

Treating physical freedom as informative for freedom of the will shouldn’t be equally uncontroversial. Just because the word “freedom” is involved in both contexts doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take for granted common meanings and characteristics of the concepts. The parallel is something that needs to be investigated and argued for, rather than taken for granted.

The story of Prometheus takes place after Zeus and his family of Olympian gods overthrew the previous generation of gods, led by Zeus’ father Kronos. Prometheus was a titan who helped Zeus in this palace coup. But when Zeus wanted to wipe out mankind and populate earth with a new generation of better creatures, Prometheus helped human beings by giving them fire – a symbol for technology -, arts and sciences, as well as all sorts of practical skills.  He also, according to the tragedian Aeschylus, “caused men no longer to foresee their death” and cured their misery by planting “firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness.” (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about that cure for misery, but let’s not get sidetracked.) For this service to humanity, Zeus punished Prometheus. He was punished by being tied to a cliff at the end of the world, underneath him the Ocean, which in Greek geographical thought surrounded the earth. Aeschylus describes in detail how the divine blacksmith Hephaestus is forced to tie Prometheus’ arms to the cliff, as well as his legs, and for good measure to put a bolt through his chest into the rock. To ensure that Prometheus could never quite enjoy any kind of peace of mind, Zeus’ eagle visits him daily to chew his liver. This, we are assured by reliable sources, is a painful process.

So Prometheus stands (or hangs) pretty much for the least free person in the world. 13 generations later, the hero Hercules, frees him. Let’s assume that this was a piecemeal process. Perhaps, first of all, Hercules shooed away the eagle and told him in no uncertain terms never to come back to pester Prometheus. Prometheus already feels a bit freer. Without the daily pain and the constant threat of pain, he can focus at least for a while each day on planning for greater freedom. Let’s say Hercules then takes out the bolt from Prometheus’ chest. This is another increase in freedom. It may not sound like much if you’re not hanging from a cliff above the ocean, but for Prometheus at the time, we must imagine, it was nice just to be able to stretch his upper body a bit. Then let’s assume Hercules creates a little ledge in the cliff and unties Prometheus’ arms and legs. While Prometheus is now a man with the freedom to lie, sit, stand and walk at most a few steps in either direction on a ledge in a cliff, he still feels immeasurably freer than he felt before. But then let’s imagine Hercules lifts him up out of the cliff and puts him on firm ground, maybe gives him some clothes and a little villa – because Hercules is nice like that and wants Prometheus to be able to enjoy life after a few hundred years on that cliff. Obviously, with each step Prometheus’ freedom is increased.

Now, Prometheus has a brother, Epimetheus. While Prometheus is generally regarded as the clever one (his name means “forethought”), Epimetheus is more often seen as the dumb one of the family (his name means “afterthought”). While Prometheus was imprisoned on the rock, Epimetheus was roaming free. At one unfortunate point he caused Pandora’s box to be opened, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s imagine that the two brothers meet up shortly after Prometheus was set free. Epimetheus complains about their lack of freedom: “We’re tied to this Earth and can’t even fly up into the air like birds, let alone jump over the moon or travel to the planets. We’re limited to having this human body and can’t grow wings, or reach the size of an elephant. We can’t just decide to run on all fours at the speed of a cheetah. We really are wretchedly unfree creatures, determined to live with the limitations of our bodies and the physical constraints of this Earth.” To which we must imagine Prometheus calmly responded: “Listen, why don’t you just enjoy the freedom you do have, to move around freely, go about your business, change your environment, create things of beauty, help your fellow creatures, rather than whinge about things that are impossible. At least you’re not tied to a rock.”

What does this have to do with freedom of the will and determinism? I will take out a number of points to expand upon in future blog posts:

  1. Prometheus and Epimetheus have a different understanding of the same condition. Prometheus feels free following a long time tied to the rock, Epimetheus feels unfree because he is physically restricted by his nature and that of the world, including the laws of physics. For Prometheus, the opposite of being free is being tied to the rock. For Epimetheus, it is being restricted in what he can do. I think it is possible that there is an opposite to free will that is unfree will, as well as an opposite that is determinism.
  2. Prometheus’ fate suggests that you can be more or less free. Epimetheus’ perception suggests that you can be completely free, but that doesn’t mean are not subject to certain constraints which make up the human condition. In the same way, I think it is possible for free will to be a matter of degree, rather than a binary “either you have it or you don’t” issue. However, arguing that we have free will, does not commit one to the view that there are no constraints. (Sometimes, the fact that one cannot just will any old thing, is taken as an argument that we don’t have free will.)
  3. The things that make Prometheus unfree are the shackles on his arms and legs, the bolt through his chest, the eagle tormenting him and the lack of space in which to move. The things that make the will unfree are things like addictions, phobias, bad habits, reactivity in action, acting on unconscious motives, psychological compulsions and so on. The things that make Epimetheus unfree are his nature as a certain kind of creature, a titan, but we can pretend he’s a human being, and the nature of the universe. The things that make the will determined could similarly be about the nature of life as a conscious, rational being and the universe we’re in. It is possible though that the factors that cause unfreedom of the will can be present to different degrees in different people, or can be added or removed over time, whereas the factors that cause determinism universal constraints.
  4. This “unfreedom” is not the same as determinism though. The things that make the will unfree can be removed, even in a deterministic universe. With Prometheus and Epimetheus, where the lack of freedom of being tied to a rock shares some broad features with the lack of freedom that is a general feature of the human condition – a lack of being able to do just anything, a restriction of room for manoeuvre – the “unfreedom” stemming from the shackles is much more restrictive than the lack of absolute freedom that Epimetheus bemoans. In the same way, the “unfree” will may be much less free than is required by general determinism. How restrictive determinism really is may only become clear when the factors that make the will unfree are removed as far as possible.