The Nuts and Bolts of Droids and Drones, Bots and Borgs

Since the recent announcement of the opening of a research centre at Cambridge University in the UK for the study of the potential threat posed to human beings by Artificial Intelligence, I’ve been musing on the meaning of “artificial intelligence” — less the hows of it than the whys and wherefores.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) has also been dubbed “The Terminator Centre”, although the potential existential threat to the human species posed by artificial intelligence is only one of its mandates. Others include the risks posed by climate change, nuclear war, and biotechnology.

Oddly enough, these four existential risks invite comparison to the Four Riders of the Apocalypse in their number, and by extension perhaps even to the activities of William Blake’s four Zoas. What these threats share in common is that they are all potentially perverse outcomes of human intent and formative mental activity itself — the shaping power or faculty. In that sense, the truer purpose of the centre is the study of all those things which I earlier named, following the insights of Jean Gebser, as the signs of the mental-rational consciousness structure functioning in deficient mode — perverse outcome, unintended consequence, blowback, or revenge effect — and which I identified as collectively belonging to the problem of “ironic reversal”.  So, this fourfold pattern of perceived risk or threat is quite meaningful in itself.

That we are here dealing with a singular pattern or dynamic of “ironic reversal” is attested to by the language used to describe the purpose of the centre. The anticipation of a ‘Pandora’s Box’ moment invokes the role of Epimetheus. And, you may recall, I earlier named Epimetheus (whose name means hindsight or afterthought), the contrary brother of Prometheus (whose name means foresight or forethought), as the true spirit of Late Modernity or post-modernity. In addition, there is a very close correspondence between the symbolism of Epimetheus and Pandora with that of Adam and Eve. The trajectory from Promethean Man to Epimethean Man describes the arc of ironic reversal, just as the passage from Parsifal to Don Quixote describes the arc of ironic reversal marking the beginning and ending, rise and fall, of the High Middle Ages. In Parsifal, we have the fool who becomes a knight of the Grail. In Don Quixote, we have the knight who becomes a fool once more, the anachronistic aristocrat who is mercilessly ridiculed and mocked by the ascendant bourgeoisie. Le ridicule tue.

Epimetheus and Pandora, as Adam and Eve

Epimetheus and Pandora, as Adam and Eve

It is easy to identify the beginnings of our own process of ironic reversal and the onset of the Epimethean age, as it were. It is the First World War and the disillusionment of the Age of Reason and the premisses of the Enlightenment. It is, after all, Prometheus who steals the fire of consciousness from the gods and bestows it upon man, setting the world alight. The Enlightenment was this fire in the mind, and was the self-consciousness of Promethean Man. But that light appeared to many to have been snuffed out by the War and its consequences. After the world wars, no one could take seriously the optimism of a Condorcet who earlier announced the Enlightenment faith in “the infinite perfectibility of man” through the judicious application of universal reason.

Which brings us to the why of AI. It is not entirely a new concept, as it has its roots in old  legend and ancient magic, as the golem, for example, and of the magical animation of the inanimate. Goethe’s tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is often invoked as a cautionary tale about the perverse outcomes and unintended consequences of wayward magic or magical malpractice. There is, in this sense, a very close association between what is called “techno-science” and what Gebser calls the “magical structure of consciousness” whose common denominator is will to power, and the desire to command powers and forces to do one’s bidding. The problem arises when one is not fully conscious of either one’s own true motives and intents or of the full nature of the forces and powers one seeks to command. Interestingly, the latter-day sorcerers who do achieve full mastery and command of such powers and forces, such as Castaneda’s don Juan or Gurdjieff, have virtually no interest in exercising it, dismissing it as mere “tricks”. Power, for don Juan, was after all one of the “four enemies of the man of knowledge“, along with fear, clarity, and old age, that had to be overcome in order to arrive at the true goal — total freedom realised in the awareness of the “totality of oneself”. Power was a diversion and distraction from that goal.

So, there is a large dose of mysticism and old magic underlying the motivations for pursuing artificial intelligence of which those who pursue such goals are virtually oblivious, yet which, ironically, animates them and which subliminally guides their thinking and their activity. That becomes evident when you watch promotional videos such as “2045: A New Era for Humanity”.  It may be “new” but that doesn’t necessarily make it “good”. Means and ends remain confused. The pursuit of newness in itself — innovation as an end in itself  — has become a kind of mental automatism or trance-like march of the zombies. The constant pursuit of the new without having even completely penetrated, digested, or understood the “old” is a formula for trouble. It is, in fact, what got the sorcerer’s apprentice in trouble.

But, of course, techno-science dismisses such comparisons between scientific innovation and the sorcerer’s apprentice. We are assured that there are built-in safe-guards against such activity running amok. But there is an essential self-negating contradiction in that assurance in relation to Artificial Intelligence. The incentive for pursuing technological and practical applications of artificial intelligence is the need for new devices that can coordinate and operate in an information and social environment that has become mentally unmanageable. As we discussed earlier, one aspect of “deficient rationality” as it has emerged is that the mind or intellect is no longer capable of mastering its circumstances, circumstances it has largely generated from its own activity. The linear, syllogistic, cause-effect oriented intellect is ill-suited to “everything all the time” and the all-at-onceness of the global era. Artificial superminds are seen, therefore, as a solution to the problem of coordinating and managing everything-all-the-time. So the very thing that techno-science assures us is impossible — loss of command and control — is actually the very thing which exists in fact as the motivation for designing artificial superbrains in the first place.

And that self-negating contradiction is what actually came to the fore in the recent market meltdown, in which AI-type algorithms used in the finance sector, performing millions of transactions per minute, ran amok. And as these devices progress in complexity, we can be quite certain they will escape and overrule similar built-in safeguards, because the very assumptions underlying their development, or which provide the rationale for the development of artificial general intelligence overall, negate the self-conscious, ostensible intentions or motives of their designers. And it’s hard to understand how that contradiction can be overlooked unless it is deliberate deception.

In the next post on this subject of the nuts and bolts of bots and borgs, I’ll want to address in more detail the symbolism and psychology behind artificial intelligence, as well as the abuse of the meaning of “intelligence” that is implied in the phrase.



11 responses to “The Nuts and Bolts of Droids and Drones, Bots and Borgs”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    I have just begun reading the article, and as soon as I read “Oddly enough, these four existential risks [artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear war, biotechnology] invite comparison to the Four Riders of the Apocalypse in their number, and by extension perhaps even to the activities of William Blake’s four Zoas.” I had to stop and post this excerpt from Seth’s “The Way Toward Health.”

    “I do not mean to imply that you necessarily deal with opposite kinds of behaviors, for there are endless variances — each unique — as consciousness expresses itself through physical sensation, and and attempts to explore all of the possible realms of emotional, spiritual, biological, and mental existence.” (p. 290).

    Back to the article for me…

    • Scott Preston says :

      I haven’t yet begun reading The Way Toward Health, so I’m glad you’re keeping tabs on it.

      “I do not mean to imply that you necessarily deal with opposite kinds of behaviors, for there are endless variances — each unique — as consciousness expresses itself through physical sensation, and and attempts to explore all of the possible realms of emotional, spiritual, biological, and mental existence.” (p. 290)

      Very good that you threw this out, for those are the four Zoas — mind, body, soul, spirit. The whole man or woman is the fifth, who is the restored integrity of the four and is called “Albion” in Blake. You sometimes hear people say, “just trying to keep body and soul together” or something similar. (My mother says this all the time), but it’s an authentic confession of the disintegrate state of the human which she experiences, but of which she is otherwise quite unaware. In that sense, it is a legitimate statement of the condition resulting from “the fall of man”. The fall of man is the disintegration of the human into these near autonomously functioning components — emotional, spiritual, biological, and mental. And these, of course, correspond to Gebser’s four structures of consciousness also in their disintegrate state, but where the prospective “fifth” or quintessence is their restoration through the integral consciousness. The mandala is the symbol of that restoration.

      When Seth mentions that consciousness “attempts to explore all of the possible realms of emotional, spiritual, biological, and mental existence”, this corresponds to Gebser’s historical scheme or taxonomy of civilisations as structures of consciousness, you see. They are likely the four beasts of the Book of Revelation who surround the throne of God, but which are, equally, in their deficient aspects, the four riders of the apocalypse. These are, equally, the Guardians of the Four Directions in Oriental lore and the same as the four evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John in their Zoomorphic aspects) in Christian lore, with Jesus being the quintessence or unifying “fifth” as Buddha is the unifying quintessence of the four Guardians. In this sense, Buddha or Jesus are Blake’s Albion. They are the true human. They are the Self. Likewise, the four nafs or “animal souls” we find in Islam, most expressively in Rumi’s poetry, are these same four — body, mind, soul, spirit — in their degraded, disintegrate, or fallen state. These also correspond to the metabolic system, nervous system, circulatory system, and respiratory system of the body, so the body is, in effect, a representation of the cosmic whole — actually, it’s very embodiment.

      This is what Blake means by saying that the body is the garment of the soul, and that they body is the outward form of the soul. In Seth’s terms, also, Framework 1 is a mirror of Framework 2.

      So, in broader terms, the fact that CSER has identified four existential threats or risks is not arbitrary or random. It reflects the disintegrate state of the human whole.

      • Scott Preston says :

        By the way… I might be getting a little bit ahead of myself here, but “intelligence” is the integral functioning of these four factors. This is why artificial ‘intelligence’ is such a misnomer. It’s a debased understanding of intelligence. This is exactly what the dystopian science fiction films get right about the threat of AI. It is the human reduced to mind alone. And as such, it will not be much different from what we call “insanity”. In that sense, artificial intelligence will be, actually, artificial insanity.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    “body is the outward form of the soul”

    The $15 American Heritage Dictionary that I bought some 25 years ago is the most valuable monetary investment I have ever made in my entire life, for it still keeps on giving whereas I don’t know of any similar amount I have spent so long ago that has given so much in return. By the same token, that sentence that I have quoted above has been the most valuable realization I have come away with from the pages of TDAB, Seth, and Chrysalis up to this day — which keeps on giving and adding happiness to my life. Because it effectively obliterates the idea of one as ‘a victim of circumstances’, and replaces it with a ‘planned expansion in understanding’, if I can call it that, for which one’s soul carries the sole key intent and responsibility.

    And if this project 2045 comes to pass — and I don’t think it will because most people are poor and growing poorer and won’t be able to participate in such technology — then, it may be because our collective conscioussness has a design to acquaint us with an understanding of how bizarre it can get to steer away from an integral consciousness and instead focus only on one of the four forms. It seems to me any of the four structures of consciousness by themselves are deficient — only through integral consciousness we can become the true humans like the Christ or the Buddha. For now, the human race is just playing and learning from various games.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    By the way… are you familiar with David Bowie’s great song “Saviour Machine”? Here it is performed,

    And here are the lyrics to it,

    Now consider… in some ways, “artificial superbeings” like “the Economy” or “the Nation”, Church or State, are conceived in just such terms, as “saviour machines”. Hegel had already conceived of the State as the incarnation of Reason, and Hobbes, as Leviathan.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      I hadn’t heard that David Bowie song before, but it illustrates your point clearly.

      Drones surely save pilot lives but make wars more palatable for those nations that have them. Not to mention the food and medicine industries that have made use of sophisticated machines to produce genetically engineered food products and make doctor visits more necessary for a “healthy” life style. If it was up to my dentist, he would X-ray my mouth every year to “save” my teeth. I’ve had to decline his request –in every cleaning visit — that, no, I don’t need to be X-rayed every so often.

      I entirely agree with you that “saviour machines” is the only logic with which they can sell project 2045 to people. Still, 2045 seems too short of a time span for all that the video shows to come to pass…perhaps “project 2145?” 🙂

      • Scott Preston says :

        There is already significant progress being made towards the kind of technology envisioned in 2045, so it may be a relatively realistic target date. It certainly has money behind it — lots of money. The recent announcement about three days ago of the invention of a rudimentary learning artificial brain at Waterloo in Canada has caused quite a stir.

        Waterloo… sounds ironic.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          I hope I’ll be around to see something good for the humanity to come out of the endeavor. Only time will tell.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    After I posted this, I began reading my copy of Norbert Wiener’s God and Golem, Inc, and was surprised to discover the same themes and warnings about techno-science, magic and artificial intelligence. Wiener was one of the pioneers of the science of cybernetics.

    As fortune would have it, a copy of Wiener’s classic is available online and if you have an interest in this subject, you may want to read it, especially chapter V (5) where Wiener makes explicit reference to the similarities between techno-science and magic. The book is only 95 pages long, but chapter 5 is the key chapter and begins page 49

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Thank you, Sir. It was put on my list of books to purchase when you mentioned it in the last article, but now I have saved the book on my machine 🙂

  5. LittleBigMan says :

    I was just reading your next article, and I noticed that you have already outlined the reasons why no good can come of the project 2045, the cyborg mind, and the hand of the “gadget worshippers.” That pretty much dashes the foolish optimism I expressed above. In that case, the only hope may be to introduce a “Neo” type balance to the equation where “Agent Smith” has decided to take control. Machine versus machine. A sort of battle between “Transformers.” I loved that cartoon!

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