Friday, 8 September 2017

Ex Machina, In Our Image

 I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.
-- Seth Brundle, protagonist of 1986 sci-fi flick, The Fly

In the children's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there is perhaps no character more tragic than the Tin Woodsman (in the book, his real name is Nick Chopper). His story is glossed over in the 1939 movie that derived from the book, but shortly, Chopper was once a man of flesh and blood who came from a family that earned its living chopping trees to make lumber for the sale in Munchkinland. Alone following the death of his parents, he eventually found a love, and proposed marriage. The girl to whom he was engaged was a handmaiden to an evil woman who feared losing her services. The old woman made a deal with the Wicked Witch of the East, who cast a spell on the ax of Chopper. Each time that the ax was swung, rather than striking its targets, it chopped off an arm, a leg, which was replaced by a prosthetic one made of tin.

Eventually, Chopper came to be made entirely of tin after quite literally, cutting away every ounce of his human form.

I thought of the Tin Man as I read this article in the New York Times, which describes a current "ethos" common here in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

The term "hustle" is making its way into the local lexicon, used to describe essentially the desire of younger "entrepreneurs" to set aside family, friends, vacations - their youth - in order to be the next internet billionaire star.

From the piece:

“Hustle” is the word that tech people use to describe this nerd-commando lifestyle. You hear it everywhere. You can buy hustle-themed T-shirts and coffee mugs, with slogans like “Dream, hustle, profit, repeat” and “Outgrind, outhustle, outwork everyone.” You can go to an eight-week “start-up hustle” boot camp. (Boot camp!) You can also attend Hustle Con, a one-day conference where successful “hustlers” share their secrets. Tickets cost around $300 — or you can pay $2,000 to be a “V.I.P. hustler.” This year’s conference, in June, drew 2,800 people, including two dozen who ponied up for V.I.P. passes.

I'm decidedly outside the target demographic, of course. But to me, "hustle" is not a recipe for success. It's not a euphemism for "workaholic".

It's a con. It's a one-word synopsis of "I'm a dysfunctional human being who cannot relate to human beings in any sort of real way, so I pretend my imitation of some pointless 'app' is going to disrupt the world to salve me missing soul."

I think a lot about so-called "artificial intelligence" (AI), and have written several times about it. There is a great fear that machines, ultimately, will replace us. I cleave to the school of thought advocated by John Searle that 'real' (strong) AI is not going to happen. Not soon, anyways. Machines capable of thinking in any real sense that can perfectly copy humanity are not on the horizon.

Of course, they do not have to be.

But this is the first time I've really thought about the opposite. Not machines that copy human beings, but humans who simulate machines.

The primary character in the 1986 The Fly film accidentally melds his DNA with that of a house fly in an experiment trying to teleport himself, with catastrophic consequences. 

The Tin Man ends up a mechanical thing longing for a heart through the malice of a witch.

But in Silicon Valley, young people, eyes wide open, are voluntarily chopping away their humanity. This, I had not considered.

Machines will not copy people; but if we ourselves become machines? 

The Tin Man is said not to have a heart, and goes off to Oz to seek one from a charlatan wizard. One of his fellow travellers, the Scarecrow, is said not to have a brain.

Menlo Park's Yellow Brick Road - Sand Hill Road - may lead to an Emerald City filled with VCs. But those who voluntarily give up their humanity are going to find that it does not lead to any wizard. Those who trade away their humanity to a false wizard's promise of worldly "disruption" are, to me, equal parts Scarecrow and Tin Man.

They are giving away their hearts - and their youth - so that they can deliver a better way for you to order a pizza and track it with your mobile phone. And as a bonus, you can do it without ever having to deal with the unfortunate nuisance of human interaction. A drone will drop it at your front door.

I was once 25 years old, living in the Valley; I worked for seven years in a "start up," and at times worked ridiculous hours in the pursuit (with my colleagues) of  'disrupting' the world (we didn't use the word 'disrupt' 20 years ago, however). Like many today, I reckon part of that was because I had few friends beyond the company, and went home (when I did) to an empty, quiet house. Work filled up a void. I suspect that this has not changed. 

The road may (for some) lead to wealth; for many others, it will not. For both, they may find (when they get to my age) that what was given up is not worth what was gained. They will discover that the world that they disrupted was their own.

In the end, the real Tin Man got his heart, of sorts. But at the end of Sand Hill Road, there is no wizard, and there will be no missed youth to be returned, magically, from an otherwise empty bag.

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