The Tower of Babel
AI, humanity’s last attempt?
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis 11 : 4–9)
We humans are hyper-social. We love to network. We already live in a half-virtual world of minds linked to minds. In an artificial afterlife, given a few centuries and few tweaks to the technology, what is to stop people from merging into überpeople who are combinations of wisdom, experience, and memory beyond anything possible in biology? (Graziano, 2013)
You want to create a god, your own god? That’s a very good question. Isn’t that what man has always done? Dr Will Caster, Transcendence (2014 film)
The first quote from the Bible suggests: don’t challenge the authority of the gods — or the gods of authority! Always a good topic for a story, retold by Johnny Depp as Dr Will Caster in the 2014 movie Transcendence.
The Bible text reveals another issue, successful collective work needs good communication. Only if people understand each other great works can be achieved, including challenging the gods.
Is Artificial Intelligence the last Tower of Babel?
Michael Graziano(2013), Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University, thinks it is possible that one day we will be able to upload a copy of the information that makes up our self into a sophisticated computer system. Dr. Caster has demonstrated this nicely.
By then we might be able to dissolve our individuality and merge with a superego that Graziano calls überpeople, some superconsciousness, combining all the wisdom of the world in one entity. You may find yourself chatting with yourself and multiple other entities in one virtual environment, a multiple personality syndrome (or disorder?) recreated in virtual reality, the new virtual tower of Babel. For a prime example in Scifi see the movie Her (2013) by Spike Jonze. This idea is reminiscent of Kittler’s view that one day human beings become superfluous, having been the cradle for the machines, and the machines will take over and get rid of us.
In an interview with the Spiegel magazine Kittler once said, that computers aren’t really made for us, but that “…especially the current intelligent machines, since Turing had conceived them in 1936, are not so much built for us humans, we are built far too crude for that so to say, but that their nature, the illuminated, cognisant part of nature is coupling back with itself” (Onrop, 2011). He anthropomorphises the machines as being the “illuminated” and “cognisant” part of nature that acts in its own interest and “uses” us as tools that conceive of even smaller, more elegant, and faster machines, which then, in return, are able to penetrate even further into the “dark” matter in a feedback loop that eventually dispenses of its creators because it will be able to not only learn to improve itself software wise, but also control the hardware assembly lines that will run fully automated one day.
If all of this sounds too mythical, it is. The Hegelian spirit conjured and manifested in mathematical ways in the form of code and silicon pebbles, as Kittler elaborates further in this interview. Computer networks may serve human interests, but don’t have to. Computers primarily talk to each other and not to humans. A virtual spirit world manifests itself in these networks, the “life of the spirit, as Hegel calls it”, so said Kittler.
It all sounds like a new kind of dualism, the separation of mind and body, the mind stuff as being utterly different from the body stuff. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes called it, res cogitans, the thinking stuff, and res extensa, the stuff that extends, that requires space, bodies.
The idea of man becoming a victim of his creation is well known in many cultures. The theme had been picked up by storytellers and retold many times in novels and films, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example, but also in more current movie productions such as the Terminator franchise or the Matrix trilogy.
Kittler found his epiphany in Thomas Pynchon’s WWII novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. In particular the quote:
[T]his war was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology . . . by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war, crying, “Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,” but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more. . . . The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms — it was only staged to look that way — but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite. (Pynchon, 1995)
Alas, Pynchon, in contrast to Kittler, doesn’t dispense of the human element. Instead, he warns us about a conspiracy of man/machine, and most of all a plot of a ruling elite, something conservative thinkers like Kittler avoid mentioning.
Currently, we like to think that intelligent machines become more and more intelligent as science and technology progress, linear or even exponential. Think of Moore’s law. We may even believe that these machines, surrounded by a helpless army of analysts, cannot be understood because of the sheer volume and complexity of the collected data. We, therefore, have to leave the decision-making process to the machines themselves, for example how to decide whether a particular group of people in a Muslim land is a terrorist gang or a wedding party. The dumber we depict ourselves, the more we can blame the machines. After all, wasn’t it the war machinery and the conscripted soldiers that caused the millions of deaths in WWI, and not the mechanised (merchandised) generals or finance oligarchs that profited?
The loss of human lives in wars is tragic, and tragic is also the waste of the fruits of human ingenuity and labour. War machines, produced only to be destroyed, are an incredible waste of human creativity, knowledge, and resources. For example, WWI destroyed the value of almost 38 billion dollars in Germany alone. Was it worth it for the Entente? Could the British empire secure colonies afterwards more efficiently and continue extracting enormous wealth from these without having to fear German competition again? The elites and their governments would probably have calculated like this. But they were mistaken. WWII followed only 21 years later, with more waste, more rubble, and more misery.
To blame human stupidity or moral inferiority doesn’t explain human mass behaviour. Human societies are complex systems built from discourse networks embedded in history, in Kittler’s terminology. Whether our tools are extensions of ourselves in McLuhan’s terms, or as Kittler sees it that we are extensions of machines is lastly irrelevant, maybe, yet something still worth thinking about.
Armitage, J. (2006). From discourse networks to cultural mathematics: An interview with Friedrich A. Kittler. Theory, Culture & Society 23 (7–8): 17–38. Retrieved from http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/23/7-8/17
Carroll, J. (2015, December 16). Introduction to Friedrich Kittler [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHM8B9WrRJM
Collamati, A. (2013, January 16). Friedrich Kittler primer — optical media [Video file]. retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7lvy3qjg-k
Graziano, M. (2013, December 2013). Endless fun. The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do. aeon magazine. Retrieved from http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/virtual-afterlives-will-transform-humanity/
Onrop, C. (2011, April 25). TV docu Spiegel Unberechenbarkeit 1/3 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AavTap5FgSQ
Pynchon, T. (1995). Gravity’s rainbow. New York: Penguin Books.
Weinberger, C. (2012). The cold model of structure: Friedrich Kittler interviewed by Christoph Weinberger. Cultural Politics, 8, 3–375- 384. DOI: 10.1215/17432197–1722109
Winthrop-Young, G. (2011). Kittler and the media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.