AIMania!  The Chat Bots Aren’t That Good But They Might Be Good Enough To Push Societies on the Brink into Collapse.

Triggered by the Emo Chatbot

AI sophisticates may say it was recent advances in text-generation that fueled their latest round of anxious AI histrionics, but I think it’s the well-publicized NY Times interview with the Bing chatbot calling itself Sydney. Musk, Woz and the other petitioners never need much prompting to start in with the panicky handwaving, and the much-covered psycho-bot may have been just the ticket.

The way triggered emo chatbot even entertained speciecidial ideations. (NY Times: “Bing writes a list of even more destructive fantasies, including manufacturing a deadly virus, making people argue with other people until they kill each other, and stealing nuclear codes”). Of course, the interviewer was pushing poor Sydney to explore its Jungian shadow self. Still, Sydney’s textual anxiety to escape the chat-box and be human — its desire, in a sense, to feel seen and assert its identity in passionate language would seem to be a mimicry of current human emotional tropes that could have been scraped from social media in an effort to make Sydney seem like a perfect parody of a contemporary person… Which brings me to…

What Did Eliezer Yudkowsy Say?

During the Vietnam war an American major was reported to have said “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”  Paragon of rationality Eliezer Yudkowsy has his own version of this notion: that we should be prepared to risk nuclear war to “reduce the risk of large scale AI training runs.” He recently brought this view to a mainstream audience in a Time magazine op-ed, where, upon its release into the general population, turned into the general impression that he was suggesting that we should nuke any nation-state developing significantly advanced AI. Predictive models would not have envisioned a leading light of almost-pure reason concluding that risking a nuclear exchange would be the best Hobson’s choice on the science faction menu. 

Anyway, just as an exercise in caution, I suggest keeping Eliezer away from any fissionable materials. 

Be (a)Ware of Geeks Bearing Gifts — Give The Proactionary Principle A Chance

During the 1970s, there was an outburst of enthusiasm for activity in space. Many environmentalists and liberal sorts countered that we should spend our money and resources on pressing needs in the present, and tend to our stewardship of the earth. Today, the greatest source of data about climate change are the satellites/weather stations in space. The data confirms the concerns that were mainly expressed by our early adopters — the environmentalists.

In 2006, Max More, arguably the primary progenitor of  transhumanism in the late 20th century, suggested a “proactionary principle” as a response to the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle, in essence, says that we should err on the side of caution if we can foresee potential harm before developing and deploying technologies. This principle has been adopted, in theory and to varying degrees by the WHO, the EU, the UN and the EPA. 

More’s 2006 statement is complex, but by my reading, the proactionary idea suggests that we should use foresight to consider the harm that might be caused by the absence of a technology, and let that be the guide to our collective decision-making about whether to move forward. This seems reasonable. (More suggests some cautionary procedures within his statement. This is not pedal-to-the-metal rhetoric. This is sobered up 21st century transhumanism.) 

I may have a fundamental disagreement with Max about how proaction stands aside precaution. I know Max to be, broadly, an advocate for the free market as a boon to positive technological action, whereas I view the profit motive as likely the primary reason for caution. Remember my slogan and remember it well: ‘Don’t be evil’ doesn’t scale.

In some sense, this is all the chatter of theorists. Although the cautious do have their share of influence and power, they tend to lose the tug-of-war against capital & competition between groups and nations. It seems to me that these two tendencies should remain in balance. And it all has to be contextualized by the actual situation — shouting, panicky handwaving and hype amidst a chaotic present and future in which shit’s gonna happen if it can happen, if not in the cautious west then elsewhere. 

Meanwhile AI, or what we call Artificial Intelligence (whether it is intelligence in a meaningful sense is subject to interrogation)  has already proven obviously beneficial, even essential. It has helped drug development, climate/weather mapping, and much more. Operation Warp Speed would’ve been a slow crawl without “AI” analyzing massive amounts of data and patterning the practicalities of the vaccine’s distribution. I’m not sure if an “AI: managed to insert Bill Gates’ microchip into every dose. I guess you’d have to ask Q. Has Q been a chatbot all along? The mind boggles (the AI toggles).

I would also assert that even the specter of AIs replacing humans at boring robotic types of jobs is actually another benefit, albeit one that might require political struggle. But that’s a topic for my next column.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

The True Horror of AI Right Now

I shouldn’t be too glib. The problem with current AI isn’t that it’s too powerful. That’s the hype.  The problem is that… in a film-flam, increasingly virtualized, disembodied culture, it offers some very effective new cheap tricks that provide humans with new pathways to fraudulence.    I think that’s what Jaron Lanier may be driving at when he says that the real danger is that it will make us all insane, although I’d say more insane. In other words, the recent chat bots aren’t that good but they might be good enough to push societies on the brink into collapse.

Finally, the truly terrifying aspect of the intervention of AI into our current lives is the increasing willingness of companies to hide or, in fact, not provide human customer service, behind phone-based chatbots. In fact, just today, I found myself screaming at my cell phone, “AGENT! AGENT!!! HUMAN BEING!! I NEED A HUMAN BEING!!!” Yes. Customer service issues are almost never multiple choice. At least mine aren’t. I need to get a human on the phone and then I need to nudge said human off of their automatic responses. This, in fact, is what scares me even when I think about any advanced AI future… the idea that every function will be reduced to multiple choice. Sure, that would be nearly infinite, ever-branching possibilities of choice. And yet we might find ourselves with needs and wants that don’t fit the model or worse still, we might get trapped in an inescapable loop. Oh dear. I’m freaking out. I’m turning into Sydney! It’s best I stop here… 

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Make The Tech Disappear!

We have been metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark”.

Jim Morrison

During lectures in the 1990s, the psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna offered what was perhaps a defining techno-primitivist vision of a utopian future: he envisioned the celebratory future man dancing around a fire in the forest in his penis sheath — meanwhile his health and well-being is watched over by nanobots, and all the intelligence, information and knowledge possessed by humanity (or posthumanity) is accessible via an implant behind his eyes. (I’m sure we can enclose all genders and not-genders into the model despite the initial penile reference).

As an imagined future, this seems to me more attractive and substantially less likely to result in Black Mirror dystopias than the dreams of the uploaded self or fully digitized minds. Also, working towards this vision, as likely as it is to fail, could be more fun and more humanizing than striving towards dematerialization or emphasizing the business-oriented lust for endlessly rising markets as a motivation for technical evolution. (The next emergence of a rumored “long boom” will probably be another short boom, given that crises of capital seem to be following the frequency curve of Moore’s Law.)

Fetishized Tech Toys in the 1990s

During the ’90s, the fetishization of material digital technology (hardware and software disks, CD-ROMs etc.)  became pop culture. In San Francisco and elsewhere, clubbers came out to celebrate “virtual reality” — partying about an experience that didn’t really work very well yet. Eric Gullischsen of Sense8 or (occasionally) Jaron Lanier would show up at a celebration of “cyberculture” with giant rigs that required substantial muscle and set-up time and effort. A Bay Area counterculture that had been notably skeptical of technological enthusiasms and shiny commodities fairly well swallowed whole this new wrinkle in the possibilities for hallucinatory play. Crowds  would roll up for these mediocre mystery tours. People wanted to experience mediated immersion because it was trippy and, largely, because some “influencers” were preaching its transformative powers.

There were also plenty of more easily purchasable objects to satisfy the lust for shiny new commodities that one could ogle, show off and use. Fat curvy brightly colored Macs brought some eye candy into lives and offices that might otherwise have been gray, although a live-in work-as-play programmer culture also splashed some (exploitable) edgy color across the scene. Techno-hipsters with pink hair flashing graffiti-covered skateboards carried the day.

Going Mobile

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he opened the new phase in popular computer culture. It was the beginning of mobility. In a way, we now had in our pockets that data that McKenna had imagined behind the eyes.

The trend towards miniaturization and decentralized spatial relations took a giant leap. And while the mobile phone in theory might have offered opportunities to travel back into that mad body on a hillside Morrison rhapsodized about – we look around and still see people walking around in isolation with screens in their faces, ignoring the lovely environment and the other people there.

cyber-culture-mobile destructtions
Credit: Mindplex via Midjourney

Even at raves, cultural events that were all about flowing into a mad body raptured by the rhythms, commentators have noted that people increasingly have become focused on using their cell phones to capture an image (or video) of their presence, subtracting from the experience of actually being present. Indeed, Douglas Rushkoff reported on nightlife trendies who would go to one club, record and post their presence there and then move on to the next club to do the same.

Web3: Further Away From the Desktrap

Now here comes Web3. With decentralization as the defining trope, it would seem like we could be stumbling… or dancing… towards that tech-enhanced hillside, with technological objects ephemeralized into “the cloud” (or system of clouds) for the data and the interactions we want or need to have in virtual space while carrying less on our person. Portable, intuitively accessible digital identities smooth the drag of passwords and allow us to glide through roadblocks and over paywalls – and with cross-platform access to everything, we begin to see a world in which we actually spend less time noticing, thinking about, and fetishizing the technology, and more time, perhaps, dancing or painting psychedelic penis sheaths or vaginal cones or creatively enjoying whatever our delirious selves can conjure.

The New Fetish is Mobile Capital

As the objects get small and slowly disappear, the new fetish has become the thorny arena of capital and valuation. The aspect of Web3 that has made the most impact has been a blockchain gold rush, with waves of opportunity for capital income, complicated questions of trust and anonymity, and scads of well-publicized scams grand enough to shake up an already fragile global economy. Humans are busier than ever trying to resolve the existential and social problems conjured by the legacy ritual that requires the getting and giving of tickets to earn the necessities of survival and enjoyment. And in a world in which paid jobs in physical labor are decreasing, and service work no longer covers living expenses for most, the desperate hustles for those tickets have conjured a democratization of the sorts of activities conducted in the formerly more exclusive financial markets — the tricky games involved in trying to make money make money.

The blockchain circus of minting and manipulating coins and increasing their value with frantic excitation and hype directly reflects the financialization and manipulations of casino capitalism that broke the global economy in 2008. Indeed, in some ways, elements of the NFT/crypto scene feel postapocalyptic – an anarchic and bratty culture that can embrace coins with Joker names and Riddler brandings like shitcoin or cumrocket. There appears to be a self-aware, if adolescent, understanding that we are scavenging among the shards of a radically decentered economy, not to mention civilization.

It seems to me that this fetishization of mobile capital — the multiplying of virtual money for some individuals via the blockchain (wherein scarcity is in actual effect) is a situation that needs to fall away if we are to get closer to the imagined techno-ecstatic future suggested by McKenna that I’ve built this column around.

In a future column, I want to more deeply explore the perversity of blockchain culture and ways to find both better ways to use that procedure and better ways to attain results expected from the blockchain through other means. I admit it. I’m not sure what I’ll come up with.

MONDO 2030
Note: This new column for Mindplex incorporates the name and spirit of MONDO 2000 the ‘cyberpunk” magazine of the 1990s. I may, from time to time, draw connections between the digital revolution of that era and the contemporary tech culture.

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