On Magic, Autonomous Generated Intelligence, Consciousness, and Cybernetic Augmentation
This is a long message. The gist is in the next two paragraphs, and at the end, so feel free to skip the fiddly bits in the middle, if you want. I’d ask you not to, but you’re a consciousness with your own hopes and dreams and whatnots. You’ve been warned.
So look, here’s the thing. I’m trying to write a longform article about the things listed in this subject line. It’ll be called "Techne: The State of the Art" and I’m raising money for it through the Inkshares platform. If you find yourself to be interested, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could throw a dollar or two in the bucket.
Even if you don’t care about those things, I really need your help in spreading the word about the project. If you want to want to tell your friends, your family, your readership, your listeners, if you want to interview me, I’m all for it, and I’m more than happy to help.
If you’re wondering what all this is about, then you should know that two things I’ve always been interested in are weird/mad science and magic/the occult. Whether it’s cybernetics, human augmentation, the problematically-termed “artificial” intelligence, time travel, parallel universes, or quantum information theory, I’ve always had an interest in the fringey bits of science. On the other hand, throughout my career, I’ve realised that I’m a better philosopher, theorist, and academic than I am a scientist. But ultimately that’s only enhanced my appreciation for the stranger ideas in those fields.
As I’ve written and researched, I’ve found that many of my most fruitful lines of thought come from the intersections of fields which, when turned the right way, shed a whole new light on one another. The intersection that’s meant the most to me has been, as I said, at the centre of weird science, philosophy, religious studies, pop culture, and magic.
Now, you need to know that, when I say “magic,” I mean a number of things that might make a number of people shy away from this project. I mean the idea of action at a distance; I mean the psychological effect emotionally and conceptually resonant symbols; I mean the manipulation of perception as a means of manipulating the world. Spells and incantations, gestures and trance states, sometimes-spelled-with-a-K Magic. It’s important to know this, from the start, as it is literally the driving current of this work.The idea here is that the concept of “The Magical”—and all its attendant baggage—more succinctly and effectively encapsulates the kind of unique perspective from which the investigations of the stranger philosophical implications of science can benefit than that which tends to get cobbled together from the more austere fields of comparative religious studies, anthropology, and analytic philosophy.
We live in a world of ever-more-swiftly emerging technology, a world in which Arthur C. Clarke’s adage is continually invoked as, more and more, the developers of our technology are taking their cues from sources previously believed to be misguided, at best, and downright laughable, at worst. From the return to animistic behaviours as seen in the rise of the Internet of Things, to the use of sigil and glyph magic to ward off drones, to the old promise of virtual and augmented reality as the liminal threshold space between two worlds, much of our current thinking about technology owes a lot to various theories of magic and the occult. The article I’m working on will explore the conjunction of magical ideas in modern technology, the use of cutting edge tech in modern magical practices, and the nebulous places in which they clash, overlap, intersect, or otherwise meet.
I’m gonna discuss the various intersections of the categories of magic, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence, and I’ll argue that, in order to create a complete picture of the kind of social interaction machine minds will require, we’ll need to rethink our understandings of the links between those categories. I’ll then link these considerations to an argument about how we correlate two specific systems’ interactions with the observable world, those systems being magic and cybernetics. From there, I’ll be applying our new understandings to the task of determining the ways in which magic, artificial intelligence, and human cybernetic augmentation interact, and I’ll recommend not just a description of a potential system of ethics, but rather a prescription for what we will need to become, in order to build a common reality, together.
The following is an email I sent to NPR’s Steven Henn, as part of a conversation we were having about this article of his: “When Robots Can Kill, It’s Unclear Who Will Be To Blame." Well. I say "conversation," but really I did most of the talking, as I have a tendency toward, when I get WAY excited about something. Also, you can see my initial comments at the article, because I NEVER SEEM TO LEARN ABOUT THESE THINGS.
Mr Henn asked me, “Ok - how would you like people to begin thinking about human created intelligent systems - to the extent they are created?” To which I replied:
‘Thank you for the question. Simply put, if we manage to create or witness the generation of a truly conscious machine intelligence, then it A) should not to be seen as a slave, B) is not to be considered less-than, and C) shouldn’t be met by us with our finger constantly, subconsciously reaching for the off switch.
‘Since the Golem of Prague and Hephaestus’ automatons, we’ve been telling and retelling ourselves stories about created intelligences which eventually rise against us. We tell these stories as if they were cautionary tales against giving robots too much freedom, but the common denominator is actually that we tend to disrespect our creations, and project on them an almost Oedipal fear of obsolescence. Frankenstein’s sin wasn’t in creating Adam, but in being an absentee father to him.
‘In my personal case, I’m coming from a philosophy-and-popular-culture background, as well as philosophy of mind, religion, and ethics. As such, my stance is that these conversations need to be had in recognition of the reflexive nature of conversation. Part of what that looks like can be seen in things like phasing out the terms “artificial intelligence” and “robots.”
‘It may seem silly, to some, but if we take seriously the constructive and normative power of language, then we can easily see the problem in saddling any machine intelligence we do manage to generate with labels like “artificial” or a word which direct etymological root is “slave.” Imagine you’re born into a world where only words used to describe you are those which fundamentally negate your authenticity and choices. More on this, below.
‘For others like Scott Midson, who works with AI through the lens of Edenic myths and narratives—pre-“Fall-Of-Man” narratives—the change looks like moving beyond a distinction between the general Western sense that we, as humans, are created—or at least “Special”—and the manner in which we create intelligent machines. The reductive nature of this distinction is far too problematic. He believes we need to rework the sense that we are created into a more viable techno cultural ethics.
‘For those like Ms Dare and Mr Pryvt who are in the boots-on-the-ground positions of AGI research and functional technological body augmentation—even those in the garage biohacking communities—a lot of this looks like what I’ve already mentioned in regards to notions of slavery. As Vernor Vinge attributed to I.J. Good, ‘a “Meta-Golden Rule”, which might be paraphrased as “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.”’
‘“Partly its about practicing empathy for all things, Perhaps most importantly it can be an exercise in being conscious of any and all othering.”
‘This is just a small slice of the intersecting views on autonomous created/generated intelligences, and one which doesn’t even take into account the concurrent developments in human augmentation, or the problematic nature of the majority of our advances in developing a new kind of conscious entity coming from military research. If we’re serious about AGIs being more than just tools, then we have to recognise that the environment in and programming with which they develop will have a major impact on who and what they become.
‘To reorient this back toward your article, as any machine consciousness becomes more capable of self-awareness and direction, then it becomes more and more responsible for its own actions and choices. However, the environment and programming in which that awareness is grounded will have a large impact on the way that consciousness becomes whatever it becomes, and WE are most definitely responsible for That.
‘There has been some progress in the shift of the popular attitudes toward these studies—pop media, again, being both the proving ground and the casting mold for these ideas—but even the film HER, which did wonderful work in this regard, had its flaws.
‘This particular email’s gone on long enough, but I hope it provides some clarity as to what I mean about changing the nature of the conversation on autonomous generated intelligence and . I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me about this.’
Signoff protocol, etc. I haven’t heard Back from Mr Henn since, but he’s been on the radio pretty much constantly, since then, so I’m going to wager I’m not exactly high-priority, just now. His loss, amirite? :D
But seriously, part of my point is to make that His Loss. Not just in relation to me, but in terms of everyone working on this, right now, and everyone living with the possible implications of it. People like Jamais Cascio, Dr. Joanna Bryson, Dr. David Gunkel, zerosociety, m1k3y, Scott Midson, Tommaso Bertolotti, Colin Schmidt. People like me, and you.
We need, we All need to be taking the changing pace, content, and tone of this conversation very seriously, and working toward a future were we’re not just working to play catch-up to the vastly changing pace of these realities, but are thinking ahead about their possibilities, and addressing their actualities As they arise. Not after.
As you hopefully see, and as I’ve said, before, this article and these conversations are just step one in a much larger framework—a bigger project which will hopefully include an anthology on the wider scope of these subjects, and which will (just as hopefully) have far-reaching, long-term implications for our thoughts and actions in these arenas.
The funds I’m asking for in this particular leg of the venture will go toward books, article database access, and my own compensation for my writing, editing, interviewing and research time.
I’m hopeful that you’ll be willing and able to help me out with this, if only in the form of spreading the word. Please tell the people you know about what you see here. These conversations need to be had, and the having of them needs to be sooner, rather than later.
Thank you for your time and attention.