Love and AI

Will an AI ever learn to love?

How does that question make you feel? Silly? Embarrassed? Stupid?

Love is the source of our greatest power but, paradoxically, is the thing that makes us feel most vulnerable, to the point that most of us avoid talking about it at all. We literally die without it when we’re infants, and we organize our adulthoods around accounting for whether we got enough of it as children. Its absence is at the center of our greatest mistakes and misfortunes. Finding other people to love is the primary project of most of our lives. Love is the cornerstone of every major religion and the subject of every brain-dead pop song. Love is simultaneously the most profound and frivolous element of human experience.

In the end, love is probably just synapses firing in a certain configuration in our brains, just like everything else that will be replicated by a quantum computer in the near future. And yet Cartesian explanations for love strike us as inadequate. Love feels like something bigger than what can be contained in the confines of a human heart. Love feels ancient,  a force that existed in the universe prior to human beings.

When you start speculating about the nature of love, it’s an easy hop from empiricism into the realm of Hallmark cards. Talking about love makes you look unserious, unless you’re, say, the Beatles, who mused on the subject with unprecedented artistry. AIs are starting to write songs, too. Will they one day be able to sing about love in ways that move us to tears?

I wonder if the question of whether an AI can love is tied to more pragmatic questions about the very purpose of AI. Much of the cultural discussion surrounding AIs is about how many of our jobs they’ll replace, or whether they’ll destroy civilization through robotic insurrection. We look to a future of machines that can teach themselves how to learn and we feel a shiver of foreboding. I wonder if this foreboding is based less fear of the power of computers than on the understanding that we’ll have no choice but to reckon with our deep weaknesses as a species. Our shortcomings will be exposed once and for all. How eerie are the echoes of the Singularity to the Christian concept of judgement day.

Richard Brautigan, a Bay Area poet most active in the seventies, once wrote a poem in which he referred to “machines of loving grace.” Brautigan wasn’t what you’d call a science fiction writer. He was more an absurdist who chased themes of belonging and romantic attachment like a lost dog pining for its owner. He excelled at jamming words or images together that you’d never expect to encounter side by side in a sentence or line of a poem. (For instance, he once described a fart as “a marriage between an avocado and a fish head.”) The line “machines of loving grace,” written during the IBM era, is par for the course for Brautigan. Two ideas, technology and spiritual love, that surprise us by standing hand in hand.

Machines of loving grace are what we hope will evolve instead of the Skynet of the Terminator franchise. In our dystopian nightmares we project onto our machines the most venal and destructive impulses of human nature. We assume that a machine as intelligent as we are will be as greedy as we are. We’ve plundered the resources of the planet to achieve a civilization capable of shattering subatomic particles and hacking DNA, and we assume that our all-consuming compulsion to propagate, expand, and conquer will be passed to our machine progeny. We hope that they’ll have more mercy on us than we’ve shown to each other, to animals, and to the planet itself.

What’s missing from this speculation and worry is a grand purpose for AI. The ultimate reason why billions of hairy bipeds evolved to create an entirely new kingdom of life. For years I’ve had a theory about what that purpose is.

I believe that the purpose of technology is to spread life itself throughout the universe. Human beings exist within the context of nature and technology exists within the context of human invention, therefore technology is part of a natural process. But to what end? The clues are all around us. Planet earth wants to consciously control its own physical, chemical, and biological processes in order to conquer the loneliness of fostering the only life that it knows. The unbearable loneliness of consciousness-infused matter requires said matter to organize itself in ever more ingenious ways to reach farther into the universe, to seed new living planets, to create more opportunities for consciousness to find a home in this particular universe. The earth is intends to propagate itself by sending spores beyond its boundaries. The moment at which we can say that an AI has learned to love will be the moment we can no longer call it artificial.

 

Gabe Gets It

My late maternal grandfather, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, once introduced me to an army friend of his named Ray Hunt. The occasion was an annual meeting of the Legion of Valor, an organization for veterans who’d earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, or Air Force Cross.

Sgt. Hunt had a remarkable story to tell. He’d escaped the Bataan Death March and fought behind Japanese lines, fighting as a guerilla soldier in the jungles of the Philippines for three years. When I met him in 1996 he was a man in a blazer nursing a scotch on the rocks in a Red Lion ballroom in Glendale, California. I asked him how he managed to stay alive and sane in such a dangerous environment. He had a simple answer: “I never stayed in one place more than a week at a time, and I woke up every morning  convinced I would die that day.”

I thought of Ray Hunt recently when I read about remarks about VR’s prospects by Valve CEO Gabe Newell. Here’s the quotable bit:

We think VR is going great. It’s going in a way that’s consistent with our expectations. We’re also pretty comfortable with the idea that it will turn out to be a complete failure.Continue reading

What If We Started Using the Word “Bands” Instead of “Teams”?

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The very first result that comes up when you do a Google image search for “band”

Maybe you played sports in high school. You played on a team. Or even of you didn’t play on a team, you cheered for your team. On Friday nights you’d watch your team go up against another team, from another high school that was geographically close to your own. You differentiated your teams by color and mascot. One team would defeat the other. If your team won, you’d be happy. If your team lost, you’d be sad.

Maybe you went to a college that had its own teams, its own mascots, and its own rivalries with other teams. Even a liberal hippie school like the one I attended, The Evergreen State College, had a mascot, albeit one meant to inspire phallic jokes, the geoduck.

When you got out of college and got your first corporate job, you joined another sort of team. Maybe it was the development team, the marketing team, or the creative team. Whatever it was, it was a team and you engaged in team-building exercises. Your bosses complimented you by calling you a “team player.” When you had to do something unpleasant, it was said that you “took one for the team.”

Or maybe you were never that much into teams. Maybe in high school you chose not to play sports but rather start a band. A band of three other people, each with a specific responsibility. You’d gather in someone’s mildewy basement and stumble through your attempts at songs. As you each became a better musician, you also became, collectively, a better band. In part this happened because you learned to listen to one another more attentively, and to put the needs of the music above your personal needs.

Maybe there were other bands in your town, bands that were better and worse than yours. You’d go to shows and get inspired by the better ones, and feel slightly superior to the ones that weren’t as good as yours. But you recognized that in order for there to even be shows to go to, there needed to be enough bands in town to put on a show, and that the audience was composed of bands and the friends of bands. You played with other bands on the same bill and became friends with them. Sometimes there were bands that were navigating completely different sounds than yours, and listening to them was an education in what was possible with four people and their instruments.

When you use the word “team” you subconsciously accept a particularly insidious binary, that there are winners and losers. When you use the word “band,” you suppose that there can be winners and winners.

I am surrounded by talk of “teams.” It’s a hard term to shake, particularly in the tech industry. I’ve started to push against this term and use “bands” instead, and I’m finding that this simple word switch reorients the way I think about groups of people building companies and developing VR experiences.

Let’s say you were offered a position in a company in its marketing band. The marketing band is composed of ten players who each have specific roles and responsibilities, from managing relationships with ad agencies to keeping the company’s social media presence current. Because they’re a band, they have a common goal, which is to make something together that none of them are capable of making on their own. They’re not hung up of the subtext of competition and winning that comes along with the word “team.”

One of the dangers of the word “team” is that it blinds us with our own pep-rally propaganda. We start believing we’re better than we actually are, and this leads to mistakes and bad judgement. If you’re on a team, other teams are threats. But if you’re in a band, you can coexist with other bands.

Try using the word “band” when you would have otherwise used the word “team” and observe how it reorganizes the way you think. “I’ve got my band working on this issue.” “We’ll discuss that at the band meeting.” “I’m leading a band of developers at Google.”

And doesn’t “band” just plain sound cooler than “team”?

 

Confronting the “Is This the End?” Stories

Amazon dot toast.

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The Handspring Visor

That was the term one tech news writer used to describe the online retailer, way back in the twentieth century. I remember those years very well. For a couple of them I lived on First Hill, just a few blocks away from the Kozmo.com warehouse. This meant that I could order a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a DVD and have them delivered to my door in twenty minutes. The Matrix was in theaters and Fatboy Slim was churning out ear worms. I apprised on my upcoming meetings with a handheld device called a Handspring Visor. We seemed to be standing on the doorstep of a brilliant future of convenience and steady technological advancement. And we were, though first we had to go through a few disruptive adjustments and endure some years when the future looked a bit more dim. Continue reading

Parsing the Magic Leap Schadenfreude

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Ms. Knowles-Carter was here.

I’ve noticed that a significant number of VR pioneers react to bad PR from Oculus and Magic Leap with glee. The Germans came up with a word for taking pleasure in another person’s suffering, schadenfreude. Most of us indulge in it from time to time, as when we revel in the career stumbles of various celebrities, make jokes about politicians’ gaffes, or chuckle when someone slips on a banana peel. It’s part of human nature.

Yesterday, The Verge ran a story with the provocative title, Beyoncé reportedly tried Magic Leap, and thought it was boring. Eva Hoerth posted the link on Facebook and the comments filled up with digs at the secretive company. (Incidentally, I have learned that  Beyoncé tried the device at the Georgetown Magic Leap offices during a recent Seattle tour stop.) Continue reading

Horribly Written Article Announces Release of Apple AR Device

A website called VR Status, which I assume is operated by intelligent, talented, and well-meaning people who are worthy of love, has broken the news that Apple is set to release an augmented reality headset. What most surprised me about this article was how poorly written it is.

Look, I am as guilty of typos as anyone, and I understand the corners one cuts to get a piece of writing out quickly. Anyone who bothered could dig into my archives and uncover misspelled words, sub-optimal syntax, verb tense snafus, and the occasional dangling modifier. I do not claim to be the best writer in the world. Far from it.

But come on, VR Status. This?

After many rumours and alligation it seems that the news is official now. It is asserted that Apple is readying to launch Mixed Reality goggles, which will be the result of joint work with Carl Zeiss, a German partnership of optics. As a Zeiss affirmed the two renowned companies has collaborated for the upcoming AR smart goggles.

A far-famed blogger and enthusiast of VR Robert Scoble, who just a week ago has firstly made known about this news, has noted that the new Apple device will be ready this year. But this is not officially approved yet by device creators.

Reportedly the new glasses will be runned with iPhones cordlessly. Using Augmented Reality, enjoyers will have a freedom to see various images, as well as other materials with the Apple goggles on.

  1. “Rumours” is either the British spelling of “rumors” or is the title of a Fleetwood Mac album.
  2. It’s “allegations.” Spell-check.
  3. “It is asserted” by whom? Passive construction.
  4. “a Zeiss” what? Spokesperson? Robot?
  5. “has collaborated” > “have collaborated”
  6. What does “far-famed” mean?
  7. “who just a week ago has firstly made known about this news” is word salad.
  8. “runned” is not an actual word in the English language unless you are a toddler.

More problematic is the image used to illustrate the article. I’m going to re-use it here with impunity, because apparently that’s what VR Status did.

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Whoa, is that the new Apple AR headset? One could be forgiven for assuming as much, given that this article purports to be about the new Apple AR headset. And yet a quick Google image search reveals that this same image has been used to illustrate articles about Magic Leap. Is it even an actual device that exists in base reality? Here’s a screen shot of search results for this image:

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Again, I’m all for a degree of latitude when it comes to the English language. There are typos in books I’ve published. But if you’re going to share fairly ground-breaking news about the VR/AR industry, the least you can do is make sure the article is run through spell-check.

I checked out the About page of VR Status and began to suspect–and I am absolutely not joking–that the site is written by SEO robots. Or maybe it was written in another language entirely then translated with Google translate with zero human oversight. How else to explain the following? “No matter what virtual reality headset do you use VRstatus handy filters will allow you to find the pleasant content which you need the most. Android and iOS applications make it available to reach VRstaus more comfortable.”

And: “VRstatus team is highly motivated and straightforward who is ready to work hard for becoming the largest independent VR market for the upcoming short period of time.”

If you work at VR Status and are reading this, I urge you to please hire an editor. You are endangering your own livelihoods by producing such shoddy content.

 

Moon Shots and Sky Muse Studios

On Saturday, Stanwood’s Sky Muse Studios screened a documentary called Fight for Space about NASA’s somewhat checkered history. The feature included archival footage of various missions and launches interspersed with commentary from astronauts and public scientists like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. Directed by Paul Hildebrandt, the film is a plea for reinvigorated interest in a space program that sent men to the moon but nowadays does little to capture the public’s imagination.

All the music and sound for the film was produced at Sky Muse under the guidance of founder Ron Jones. Before the screening, Ron spoke a bit about how the studio was conceived two years ago and how he assembled a team of young engineers and musicians from area community colleges. His audience of twenty or so guests sat in fold-out chairs on risers in the room where the film’s music was recorded. Continue reading