Monday, May 25, 2009

Don't Shoot -- I'm Human!

Are we catching up to the future, or is it the other way around?

As I explained last year, I am a guilty fan of the Terminator series, both the movies and the TV show. But what began back in the 1980's as a fanciful exploration of time and fate has turned into a warning sign on the entrance to the Twilight Zone. It remains to be seen if the series will be able to reach its final conclusion before reality has passed it by.

The premise of the movies is that in the near future we humans (let's be more specific: American humans) will turn over control of our weapons to an artificial intelligence system dubbed "Skynet." No doubt this will be done with the best of intentions, to insure our national security. However, due to a small flaw in its programming -- it is, after all, only version 1.0, and we all know what that means -- Skynet decides that humans are the enemy (an arguable assumption) and sets out to exterminate them all. Or rather, us all. It does this by using the nuclear weapons at its disposal to wipe out all the world's major cities, and then directing its fleet of walking, crawling, and flying intelligent robots to hunt down the survivors. Fun!

Our "salvation" from this fate depends on a few time travelers keeping young John Connor alive to lead the resistance and win the war against the machines. They had better hurry up, though, because the date of the big catastrophe is rapidly approaching -- 2018 is only 9 years away -- and by that time we may actually have a real Skynet on our hands. At any rate the intelligent warrior robots are already under construction, and moralists are hastening to catch up with ways to instill values and safeguards into their artificial minds.

Just as in the movies, this is being done with good intentions. The goal, believe it or not, is "saving lives," by which the military means killing the enemy without endangering any friendly personnel. This means fewer of Our Boys will have to stand up and be shot at. But the designers also claim to believe that robots will eventually be able to make better decisions under combat conditions than humans can. With no fear of their own destruction and no emotional clutter to get in their way, they will be able to coolly evaluate threats, identify friend from foe, and minimize what is blithely termed "collateral damage," such as destroying mosques or small children that happen to be in the way.

The intentions may be good, but anyone who has a feel for the current state of artificial intelligence must have serious qualms when they look at some of the weapons-bristling hardware rolling off the production lines. Stop for a moment and think about the last time you chatted with one of those creepy telephone robots that AT&T has planted as their first line of defense against their customers:

"Hello. How may I help you? ... You can say, Pay my bill, What is my balance, Start new service, Suspend my service ...."

"Um, I want to report some noise on the line. I'm getting like a clicking--"

"OK. I understand you want rate information. Is this correct? You can say Yes ..."

"No, I--"

"... or No."


"I'm sorry. I did not understand your response. Please say--"

I say, let's give this thing some guns and missiles and send it out to the front! Maybe the Afghan tribesmen can knock some sense into its head.

This is not to say I don't believe artificial intelligence is possible. On the contrary, I think it is now inevitable, and will someday surpass our own. A wonderful detail in the novel, The Accidental Time Machine, is the distant future in which the time traveler is told that science is still studied, but not by humans because it is far too complicated.

My complaint is that we are not there yet, but the military (whose own intelligence is a notorious oxymoron) is rushing onward anyway, damn the robots and full speed ahead. There has already been at least one "friendly fire" incident when a robotic antiaircraft battery opened up on some people -- who were not even flying at the time -- at an exhibit of weaponry in South Africa. You can imagine the programmers protesting that it was just a glitch and has already been fixed in the new release.

It would be much better to wait until we can have an intelligent discussion with these manufactured minds. Once we get to the point where they lecture us on the insanity of war, then maybe it will be safe to turn things over to them. Till then, we will all be nothing but potential targets. And if it comes to a war with the machines, as predicted in Terminator, I note that we have not invented time travel yet, so my money would be on the robots.




Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Words of Few Syllables

Don't blink or you might miss something ...

It's amazing how often while we are witnessing history live, as it happens, the things we notice are small details that never go down in the history books.

For example, back when the redoubtable Oliver North was testifying before Congress on the Iran/Contra deal, I found myself spending way too much time gaping in front of the TV as ever more bizarre facts emerged. But am I the only one who heard him say this ...? Asked if he had really authorized the use of a US Navy ship to transport some of the weapons in question, the good Colonel replied, "Senator, you have to understand that at that moment there was not a ship in the entire CIA inventory that was available to do the job." And am I the only one who blinked and said, "The CIA has its own NAVY??"

In a kind of reverse phenomenon, we are told that we have only one blurry photo of President Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address because the photographer was still setting up. Apparently he thought he had plenty of time because politicians were such windbags, and he couldn't believe that Lincoln was sitting down after uttering just 256 words. In this case the photographer failed to catch the moment, but years later the words ended up carved into marble in the Lincoln Memorial and engraved into the memories of generations of school children. I wonder how many others who were present failed to hear him or to take note of the import of what he had said.

Recently I watched one of President Obama's press conferences in this new age where everything is recorded and replayed and then archived to be used as ammunition in the next election campaign. My ears perked up when he said, "I was reading an interesting article the other night ..."

My first reaction was to leap with joy and say, "Thank God -- we have a President who can read!" Sorry, President Bush, but we all know that was never your strong suit. Nor, I suspect, was it a favorite activity of the first President Bush. Speaking at the Miami Book Fair some years ago, David McCullough related how both G.H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had mentioned McCullough's biography of Harry Truman in their campaign appearances. But while Clinton (who had read it while it was still in galleys) referred to it as "that magnificent biography," Bush called it "that big thick book," as if frightened it might fall on him.

But even better than the fact that Obama can and does read is the content of what he was reading the other night that he felt was important enough to bring up in his press conference. It was an account of how Winston Churchill, in the middle of the blitz during World War II, refused to authorize torture to extract information from several hundred German detainees. Obama was taking a lesson from history, learning from one of the best in the past, using it to inform his current policies and to instruct us how to best uphold our ideals.

If Churchill, with London being bombed nightly, could refrain from taking that walk "on the dark side," as Dick Cheney rightly called it, then surely we can do the same. A small thing? Perhaps. But only time will tell how big it could be.

Meanwhile, let's keep watching for more of those small moments as they emerge from the cloud of possibility and etch themselves onto the photographic memories of the future.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Solitary

As a metaphor for life, this piece of foliage isn't bad ...

My mind is engraved with an image from one of the low points in my life, one I will never forget. It comes from the midst of the kind of troubled adolescence that often breeds writers, and which we tend to write about with such gusto it almost seems like bragging.

My parents were divorced (a common situation now, less common back then) and I spent each Saturday with my father. Saturdays were like little vacations from the tedium and daily horror of life at home with my mother and sister. I won't go into why it was like that; perhaps another time. To get some idea, read The Glass Menagerie, or maybe The Sound and the Fury.

Suffice to say that the end of Saturday was always a time of emotional crash. I felt like a prisoner being returned to his cell after being allowed a day outdoors, back from the sunshine into solitary confinement. On one particular evening, sunk deep into this mood, I sat in the car during the homeward bound drive, my head leaning on the glass beside me, watching the empty fields and pine woods pass as the sun set behind them. It was that time of day when the afterglow is fading and the sky is deep purple flecked with only the brightest stars.

My gaze happened to fix on a single small tree as it drifted past, silhouetted against that cosmic backdrop. In an instant the tree and I bonded, becoming representations of one another -- the tree saddened to be heading back home, and me standing forlornly on my own at the foot of a vast and uncaring universe.

This image struck me so powerfully that I later made a painting of the tree (I thought of myself as a painter back then) to commemorate the moment, working only from memory and trying to capture the frail shape set against the color of that precise moment in the history of the sky. I know I succeeded to a degree, because everyone who ever saw the painting thought it "sad" or somehow more vaguely disturbing, though I now see it as almost comically maudlin.

So, time passed. I grew up and got a life. My father died. I bought a house and planted trees in the yard. I started a business and got married. My mother died. I sold the business, got divorced, got married again. Over the years many people came into my life, hundreds of friends and strangers, girlfriends, coworkers, clients, vendors, fellow travelers of all sorts, and now an extended family including even grandchildren.

I've raised a few cats, too, and each morning and evening I sit outside with them watching them eat as the sun rises, then sets, and the seasons change. This activity is called by the Japanese, "watching the bamboo grow."

One evening I looked up and was startled to see that one of the trees I planted almost 30 years ago, a Jamaican dogwood, has reared itself up against the evening sky in a shape that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one in my painting, the same one still emblazoned on my brain after all these years. But there is one difference. The tree is now part of my own home. And it is surrounded by others -- friends, if you will -- that keep it company and jostle with it for the attentions of the sun.

There is a "ponytail" cycad, the same one that used to live in a small pot when I had an apartment, and which I planted in the yard when I bought the house, and which now towers twelve feet in the air. There is a huge royal poinciana that I planted after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and which has already spread its canopy over most of the back yard. And there are all the other shrubs and palms I have tended, or that simply planted themselves, or were planted by the birds and squirrels that frequent the place.

My cats are not alone here. The place teems with life. Besides the squirrels there have been visits by possums and raccoons, giant toads, garden snakes, and swarms of small geckos and lizards. The common blue jays, cardinals, and mourning doves are joined by daily overflights of wild parrots, a large hawk, and others. Once a peacock even wandered in through the gate, temporarily lost from its home some blocks away.

In similar fashion my life has been peopled by all its friends and strangers, and has grown lush in habitat for thoughts and feelings, efforts and accomplishments, successes and failures. Like the tree, I now stand rooted in the garden of my own devising. I have born fruit, and when the time comes will wither and pass on. But one thing I am not, and will never be, is alone.

Just a comforting thought to send back in time to that distant teen I used to be.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Waiting for Time to Come

Why God is like an alien, and when we will arrive at the promised land ...

All things, it used to be said, will come to those who wait. That may have been a common attitude in Biblical or medieval times, but it is rather rare in this present age of speed and continual change. Now we are much more likely to go out and get what we want when we want it -- or better yet, place an order online and expect next day delivery by FedEx. Yet even now there are times when we have no choice but to wait.

One example? How about contacting the nearest race of alien beings in our galactic neighborhood. As you may have noticed, we haven't heard from any of them yet, unless you believe in Roswell, and the most likely reason for that is the huge length of time it takes for any information to travel between the stars.

Instead of wondering why no one has called yet, we only have to turn the question around. Why haven't we called them? Our species has only become capable of sending interstellar signals within the past hundred years -- after spending ten millennia gradually acquiring the technology to do so. And even now we are only broadcasting by accident, because our radio and TV signals just happen to go out in all directions. We have yet to organize a methodical project to aim a transmission at specific nearby stars, something that might make it easier for someone to notice us.

Our assumption is that we are much more likely to pick up signals from civilizations far more advanced than ours, because it would be so unlikely that any other planets in the vicinity just happened to come of age at the exact same time as ours. And so we are spending our time listening, and so far in vain.

But what if our nearest neighbors are more than 50 light years away? By galactic standards that's just up the road, but it still takes light or radio or any other kind of electromagnetic waves 50 years to get there, and another 50 to come back. Our neighbors may be listening to us right now, but from their point of view Mr. Marconi is still assembling his wireless and we have not invented TV yet, much less radio telescopes.

Or someone may be replying to us right now, but it will take another 50 years before we receive the answer. In Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, he imagined that the aliens' reply contained a copy of our first TV broadcast -- Adolf Hitler declaring the 1936 Olympic Games open. How's that for a greeting? Maybe if we get to try it again we could be a bit more selective in our choice of material. (There was another old cartoon gag where the aliens threatened to destroy us if we did not stop broadcasting reruns of horrible situation comedies.)

The point is that the universe, if seen as a huge calculating machine, is griding its gears as fast as it can. We don't know what the answer will be, or if the "answer" is simply the state of everything at any given moment. But some things just take a certain amount of time, and there is nothing we can do about it.

All this was going through my head recently when I turned to consider social and political change in the same perspective. I may have also been influenced by contemplating the 10,000 year clock proposed by the Long Now Foundation, and what it would mean to take a long view of our future.

Suppose we could go back 150 years and speak to two Americans in the year 1859 as national conflict was building toward the Civil War. One of them is a slave yearning for freedom, another an abolitionist working toward that cause. Suppose we told them, with the benefit of our hindsight, that their wishes would come true -- that, in fact, a century and a half later, an African-American would preside over the White House.

But then, as they jump for joy at the good news, we hasten to add, "But wait, first you will have to go through the bloodiest war yet fought, with hundreds of thousands of casualties ... You will have to endure the sorrow of losing your President to an assassin... The slaves will be freed and granted the vote, but a backlash will take it from them again and subject them to many decades of cruel oppression as second-class citizens ... A century later you will lose yet another President to an assassin, as well as the most eloquent spokesman for the cause of civil liberties, and even then more decades will pass before the true promise of freedom and equality even begins to be fulfilled."

Sobered by this, our imaginary ancestors might be expected to become philosophical about it. No doubt they would be glad to know that success would come, regardless of price, no matter the effort required and the suffering to be endured. "As God wills it," says the abolitionist. "He moves in mysterious ways," agrees the slave. And they both go back to their work.

And what of us? It often seems that no matter how hard we try we are unable to find solutions to our problems, or to find a way to settle our disputes without war. But what if we are already doing as much as we can, and it will just take time for the collective effort to bear fruit? Could it be that our prayers for peace and all of our hopes and dreams of a more perfect world are being answered right now? Can we imagine that a personal God has heard us and is sending a solution right now at the speed of light, but it will just take awhile to get here?

Suppose we knew that the perfect peaceable kingdom was only as far from us in the future as the Middle Ages are in the past? What if we knew we would get there eventually, regardless of what global catastrophes we might have to endure along the way? What if what we are asking is just so huge and complex, with so many changes to make and conflicts to play out, that the fastest it can possibly happen is a thousand years?

What if these things, like the signals from the stars, just take time?