Artificial Intelligence

On campus today we were comparing how long we could go without a computer and internet. A guy had just returned from vacation and went ten days without a computer; he said he suffered withdrawal and didn’t think he could do it, but he did. I decided I could last  two days.  At some point my computer became my work station and my filing system. Twice I’ve had a virus  trash my computer so I’ve learned not to save anything valuable on it; instead I use a growing collection of USBs.  Considering the warnings out this week about the possibility of solar flares blowing out our computer systems, I assume  that banks and  the government have all their data backed up with a bunch of government sized USB drives. Something not made in China would be preferred.

I don’t know how many people  remember Hal, the authoritarian computer on board in Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, 2001 but my stomach has a sinking feeling that the  NSA missed the movie.  Here we are in 2011;  America is handing its space program over to Russia because we’re out of money and can’t afford it, yet the Federal Government has the funds to sink into virtual spying activity and aggregating the vast amounts of information they learned about us while spying.  And it’s not just spying on the bad guys but the good guys too- but wait- it gets worse:  then they take the data,  (using even more of our taxpayer money) and try to figure out ways to read our minds and predict our behavior with that information.   Hmmm.

And this  is legal why?

The NSA’s  artificial intelligent project,  Aquaint,  “Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence,” moved into new and larger headquarters three years ago to advance their research.  From Nova’s  article, The New Thought Police:”

The National Security Agency (NSA) is developing a tool that George Orwell’s Thought Police might have found useful: an artificial intelligence system designed to gain insight into what people are thinking.

With the entire Internet and thousands of databases for a brain, the device will be able to respond almost instantaneously to complex questions posed by intelligence analysts. As more and more data is collected—through phone calls, credit card receipts, social networks like Facebook and MySpace, GPS tracks, cell phone geolocation, Internet searches, Amazon book purchases, even E-Z Pass toll records—it may one day be possible to know not just where people are and what they are doing, but what and how they think.    The system is so potentially intrusive that at least one researcher has quit, citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.”

This spring when I attended the MIT 150 Symposium: Brains, Mind and Machines I was expecting lectures on cognitive research about human brains.  Wrong.  Current research is in the area of machination: building intelligent and creative machines by generalizing information they’ve gathered from studies on people and their brains.  What interested me most, and surprised me the most was seeing how very excited scientists and engineers are about the idea of AI being the next business venture. The development of computers changed the world and the marketplace, and from the money-making side of things, it literally opened a huge new venue of products to sell. The engineers and entrepreneurs who made fortunes with computer gadgets,  expect to cause the same explosion in the marketplace with AI.   I cringed; they cheered. Literally.

During the Bush administration countless  people ranted against the evils of his Patriot’s Act. Where are these people now? Busy Facebooking their life story, complete with personal information that ten years ago we would never have released.

I am no expert on AI or brain research but based on the research I have seen,   the NSA  project  to read our minds is probable, and will happen in the very near future.  That this data is in the hands of the government that developed nuclear energy, and instead of building peace, they built weaponry. …Need I say more?

Or that governments are being hacked by Chinese Communists…. need I say more?

I don’t know why my curiosity acted in hindsight but I decided to Google NSA “Acquaint” these few years later, -odd how nothing pops up.   I’m not pleased.   When a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?


According to Sheldrake, author of numerous scientific books and articles, memory does not reside in any geographic region of the cerebrum, but instead in a kind of field surrounding and permeating the brain. Meanwhile, the brain itself acts as a “decoder” for the flux of information produced by the interaction of each person with their environment.

In his paper “Mind, Memory, and Archetype Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious” published in the journal Psychological Perspectives, Sheldrake likens the brain to a TV set—drawing an analogy to explain how the mind and brain interact.

“If I damaged your TV set so that you were unable to receive certain channels, or if I made the TV set aphasic by destroying the part of it concerned with the production of sound so that you could still get the pictures but could not get the sound, this would not prove that the sound or the pictures were stored inside the TV set. However, neurologists have discovered that the brain is not a static entity, but a dynamic synaptic mass in constant flux— all of the chemical and cellular substances interact and change position in a constant way. Unlike a computer disc which has a regular, unchanging format that will predictably pull up the same information recorded even years before, it is difficult to maintain that a memory could be housed and retrieved in the constantly changing cerebrum…..”

I usually open my lectures with the premise that the brain is very similar to other electronic devises such as a television, radio and a computer. And then we discuss how the brain is different from those devices. Sheldrake’s theory is interesting and brings up a premise I had not before considered, and should have.  The computer does everything the same every time like clockwork, but the human brain retrieves differently at different times, places, situations and context.

I hadn’t thought of this as one of the key differences between computers and people but it is indeed one of the variables that makes people “human” and why researchers and engineers in their attempt to make a robot, or a computer chip more human, will find that the variable of emotion and context is not something that can be programmed, at least not authentically. Responding to a surrounding, for a human, is always in the context of individuation- which is vast and not all that predictable as much as behavioral scientists would like it to be.

But conditioned as we are to believe that thinking is contained within our heads, the idea that memory could be influenced or exist outside our brains  or links to a greater collective appears at first to be somewhat confusing; but in the same manner that a photo or a series of words travel from one cell phone to another along an EM wave, and could be lost, or dropped or diverted or spied on,  so too do our thoughts travel and then it doesn’t seem unreasonable at all that our thinking might be  somewhere out there traveling too.

Artificial Intelligence or Transmigration of Thought, Mind and Soul?

The movie, Avatar to some students, is a boring movie with blue smurfs cast in a repetitive theme reminiscent of  Pocahontas. Childish. Inconsequential.  In other words, both thumbs down. To them I say, when you’re a little older- watch it again. And then again.

I agree with them that elements of the movie are taken from Indian culture- the naturalists’ idea of love the earth that feeds you and provides for you,  the inter-dependence  that exists between nature, man and beast.  Beyond the American Indian theme, it reminds me of the Buddhist dogma of “do no wrong”  as well. I  love the movie. Two thumbs up. -And not because of the all too obvious jab at capitalist lust and greed for limited resources, and thus the creation of perpetual war -I’m not that snarkey or pessimistic-or political, but because it’s a story of the struggle for courage and morality achieved through the unlikely means of transmigration- from one state of mind and existence to the other, from one reality to another.

In a very subtle but artistic manner, Avatar introduces to a young audience the big ideas that have been debated for centuries. When we dream do we escape the reality of our very ordinary life, travel to distant lands and return to ourselves, and maybe as a better person?  Or are dreams just memories and a reprocessing of the days events; are they a creative means of escape that is otherwise not possible?

In a bed with who-know-what wired to his brain, Sully falls to some kind of sleep or coma condition and his mind connects to its avatar. Is he  dreaming a dream and in a dream state, or is he alive and awake and actually in an avatar body and enjoying all the freedoms and sensations the same as his human body? Philosophically,  this is a good example of Descartes’ Cartesian dualism, and being captain of the ship, but separate from the ship body.  Which life is real? The one in the bed, or the avatar?  Is he human or is he machine? Scientifically, when I ask the class if they think this transmigration of sorts is possible, the majority answer, yes. Indeed.

I attended the MIT symposia, Minds, Brains and Machines hoping to learn new ideas and data about how the brain works. Instead I learned more details about the direction for AI. Artificial Intelligence had been on my mind but usually in reference to robotics. I think robots will settle the moon for example, not humans.  But there was little talk of robots and what their function will be throughout society. Not putting intelligence and programming into robots, the future seems to be the opposite- putting intelligence and programming into us. We are moving toward an AI integration, not sooner or later, but sooner. To that point, is science and research merely following Hollywood scripts?  Will we be Sully someday, in two places at the same time , enjoying life and all its freedoms, living two different experiences? It appears that we are  moving toward that frontier.  As super-humans we’ll be machinated and immortal, but will  we forget we once thought without programming? Machines, robots and AI  have a place in an industrialized economic society, but we are humans, not machines.  We are a unique species and we should embrace our mortality and all our imperfections and leave it to the machines to be machines.