Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Long History of A.I.

"Time is, time was, time is past," quoth the Brazen Head.
I recently had occasion to discuss medieval legends of oracular heads (brazen and other) in the context of the history of artificial intelligence. Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II), according to William of Malmesbury, made an oracular head using astral science that would answer questions "yes" or "no." Gerbert asked the head a question about the circumstances of his death, but misinterpreted the head's answer, and so died anyway. It's possible that William's proximity to Wales accounts for his tale of the oracular head; previous versions of this legend suggested that Gerbert had summoned a demon, using necromancy, to question about his death, and, according to Celtic legends, the decapitated heads of one's vanquished enemy could be used as oracles.

A few centuries later, John Gower transposed elements of this story to Robert Grosseteste, the Franciscan scholar and Bishop of Lincoln. In Gower's version, Grosseteste used astral science to make a brazen head that would foretell the future; unfortunately, Grosseteste slept through the head's pronouncements. At roughly the same time (late fourteenth century), Albert the Great, Dominican scholar and Bishop of Cologne, was credited with having used astral science to make a prophetic statue. In this version, found in a text on Christian morality (Albert exemplifies wisdom), one of Albert's brethren happens upon the statue and destroys it out of fear and ignorance. And just over two hundred years later, Roger Bacon, Franciscan scholar, was immortalized in an Elizabethan play as the "conjuring friar" who used necromancy to summon a demon who forged him a brass head, and which Bacon then animated via celestial magic. Like Grosseteste, his fellow Franciscan--and his intellectual forebear--Bacon, exhausted from his unceasing labors, slept through the head's pronouncement. 

A few common strands emerge from these different stories. In all instances, the man responsible for the head was known--in his lifetime, as well as after--for surpassing wisdom and skill in astral science, and interest in scientific instruments. Furthermore, in all instances, the purpose of the head is either prophecy or a more nebulous "secrets of nature." Additionally, the knowledge that the head provides is "out there"--that the future is already written, that the secrets of nature are not secret to all, but not vouchsafed to human intellect. Finally, and this may be the most salient point, the artificial intelligence is successfully created--the head tells its secrets, but humans are too weak or foolish to understand: we display confirmation bias and cannot correctly interpret what the head tells us (Gerbert), we have weak bodies and need sleep (Grosseteste, Bacon), or others prevent us from realizing our goals due to their own ignorance and fear. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Mirror of History

"Medieval is the new modern" is the tagline of this blog. I came up with it five years ago as a shorthand to signify both that many of the hallmarks of "modernity" have a long history stretching back to the medieval period, and to highlight the persistent medievalism in contemporary culture. 

Walters MS W. 34, fol. 15v.
Of course, "modernity"--just like "the West"--is an ideological construct, and it relies on "medieval" as the pre- or anti-modern category that defines its opposite. "Medieval" is the term that describes the primitive, ignorant, barbaric era that preceded the "Renaissance," the period of rebirth that banished slavish devotion to authority with inquiry and pursuit of intellectual novelty. This established, comforting narrative goes all the way back to (where else?) the medieval period, with Petrarch's lament that he lived in a "dark age." The medieval period undergirds the the narrative of progress; the period is the naive, uncivilized era that "the West" escaped or matured out of with the Renaissance (the individual), the Scientific Revolution (rationality over religion), the Enlightenment (liberalism and secularism), and the Industrial Revolution (wealth of some nations). The medieval period--a vast span of time over the globe replaced by a false, unitary time and place--reminds the philosophers, politicians, and scholars of "the West" of how far we've all come, and becomes a shorthand for what separates us from people living in other places, rather than those living in another time.

But in light of recent events, the Middle Ages are more important than ever. They offer an example of what cataclysmic demographic, political, religious, cultural, and economic change look like. Both halves of the Roman Empire provide object lessons in the perils posed to stability when the ruling elite becomes corrupt and sclerotic, and when abrupt demographic change occurs. By studying the medieval period we can see what happens--on a large scale--during a period of sustained climate change. The Middle Ages offer a mirror of what it looks like to live outside of the paradigm of progress. Medieval is the new modern.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robots: Will Either Kill Us or Help Us to Death

Greetings, humans. Lots of medieval/robot news to share.

While the NYT reports that the Pentagon is confronting the reality of autonomous killing devices, a new center dedicated to ethical, computational, engineering, and social dimensions of human and machine intelligence just launched at Cambridge University. Meanwhile, San Jose airport has just installed new employees--robot "greeters" to help bewildered passengers. But why do they look female? Laurie Penny explains it all. Finally, fans of the original "Westworld" who had hoped that the new tv show would include Medieval World can continue to keep hope alive...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Creating Lives in "Black Mirror" and "Ex Machina"

Netflix has just announced that it will produce another dozen episodes of "Black Mirror," hallelujah. The brilliant series interrogates later-capitalist techno-modernity and the shifting boundaries between self and object--specifically, our personal computing devices. This broad topic--humanity's relationship to intelligent computers and robots--has been explored recently in the new tv show "Humans" on AMC and Alex Garland's Biblically inspired film, "Ex Machina." But "Black Mirror" tackles gender in ways that complicate and enrich the narratives of human-machine relations, and that are not replicated elsewhere.

Daniel Mendelsohn, in a superb essay out this summer in the NYRB, explored "Ex Machina," Spike Jonze's "Her," and the lineage of sentient machines in the western cultural imagination, arguing that the current crop of films and tv shows are less about machines that become like humans, and more about humans that become like soulless automatons. Mendelsohn used examples to describe both what he calls the "economic" kind of robots--machines that replace or augment human labor--and the "theological"--sentient objects made in their makers' images. Both groups of objects include those gendered as male (Talus, Frankenstein) and female (Haephestus' handmaidens, Ava). 

Many tales of the sentient machine have an erotic charge. Ava, the SAI droid in "Ex Machina," was made, like her "sisters," to fulfill her creator's sexual fantasies. Of course, this goes all the way back to Pygmalion's statue of Galatea, whom Pygmalion created, adored, and used sexually before she was "brought to life" by Aphrodite. In fact, in every example that I can think of, when this story--of the creator and his uncannily life-like creation--appears with erotic elements, the creator is male and the created object is female. 

Like "Ex Machina," "Be Right Back," the first episode of the second series of "Black Mirror" also takes up the limits of the human creator and the human-machine relationship. But unlike the other examples, the machine-being in "Be Right Back" is male, and the creator who calls him into being is female. Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson)* move to a new house; Ash, addicted to his smart phone and social media updates, dies in a car accident; Martha discovers she's pregnant. She pays a service that mines Ash's entire online presence to create a simulacrum of him, first as a disembodied AI program, and then fully embodied in a synthetic form that is almost identical to Ash. As Martha, pregnant with Ash's child (we see them having pretty banal, and--to Martha--unsatisfying sex earlier), prepares to create a new life, she practices by bringing an old life (Ash) back. The synthetic version of Ash is eerily servile and literal-minded, but he is also an improvement on the "real" Ash in some ways. For example, he is a much more satisfying and skilled lover, something that delights and also discomfits Martha. 

By making the creator figure a woman and the object a man, Charlie Brooker, the writer, highlights the importance of gender in creation stories in a way that is ultimately far more interesting than Garland's patriarchal "Ex Machina." Martha "creates" Ash just after she discovers that she is pregnant, and key moments of bonding with the synthetic Ash occur alongside hallmarks of her pregnancy, like when she shares the first sonogram image with the disembodied AI Ash. Brooker juxtaposes the narrative of natural creation (pregnancy, baby) with artificial creation (synthetic human replacement) and asks, how are we responsible for what we create? Martha grows to regret her synthetic creation, but she cannot destroy or abandon it. Part of the reason why is hinted in the poignant coda, which shows that the synthetic Ash is still "alive," but banished to the attic, where he is visited once a year by Martha's other creation, her daughter. This "father" is the only father her daughter will know. 

*Of course, Domhnall Gleeson is the sacrificial Caleb in "Ex Machina."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Animals & Machines

St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa contra Gentiles, compared animals to machines--lacking reason, animals behave in a prescribed sequence of actions, much like how a crossbow bolt is propelled forward by the force of the bow. What, I wonder, would he make of these animals, from various species, that attack drones? 

I suppose he might take it as further evidence for the similarity between animals and machines. But then there are the cats who have figured out how to use Roombas as mobile cat beds. Crows aren't the only animals who've figure out how to use tools...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Six And A Half Ways of Being Undead in "Game of Thrones"

Is Jon Snow really dead? That is the question that has been on everyone's minds since the finale of Season 5 (or since the end of ADWD)--including President Obama's. D. B. Weiss has said that Snow won't be back--"Dead is dead," quoth he. But of course, the learned reader knows that this phrase appears on the first page of A Game of Thrones, spoken by Gared, one of the Rangers. Royce responds, "But are they dead? What proof have we?"
In fact, there are a number of ways to come back from the dead on GoT, as we've seen since the pilot episode. 
1) Wights, the risen dead in thrall to the White Walkers.
2) Mirri Maz Duur's resurrection of Khal Drogo.
3) Beric Dondarrion's resurrections by Thoros of Myr.
4) Those who seek death in the House of Black and White live again when the Faceless Men use their identities. 
4.5) Qyburn "saves" The Mountain from death (or brings him back?) and turns him into something...else.

Book bonus:
5) Aeron "Damphair" Greyjoy serves the Drowned God as a priest, after he was drowned and resuscitated. 
6) Varamyr Sixskins, a warg, who lives on after his human death in his wolf One-Eye.

Any other examples?


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Out of Time: Outlander's Medievalism

"Outlander,"* the captivating historical fantasy/romance based on the series by Diana Gabaldon, has a lot going on: a charismatic, capable hero; a gorgeous love interest (or two); a terrifying villain; serpentine political machinations; textile porn; lush scenery; sex; and an unprecedented commitment to the female gaze. And something else: medievalism. 

The medievalism of "Outlander" is there from the outset. Thoroughly modern Claire Beauchamp Randall and her urbane, ardent husband, Frank, venture to the Scottish Highlands for their second honeymoon. In the pilot episode, Claire's (and Frank's) modernity is emphasized over and over again...and especially when she suggests, with a few glances and a tantalizing lack of undergarments, that her husband go down on her in an abandoned castle (he agrees with enthusiasm). Their egalitarian partnership--sexual and otherwise--and Claire's full autonomy are highlighted against the gloomy medieval backdrop, which itself dates from a time when, supposedly, women were little more than chattel and had no autonomy of their own. 

Later, Claire steps through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun and is thrown back in time, to 1743. The first thing that happens to her in 1743 is that she's almost raped by a British soldier and the second thing that happens is that she's rescued by a Scot and then taken prisoner--confirming the notion (for the audience and for Claire) that the past is a dangerous place for women. A mysterious local woman, Geillis Duncan, later warns Claire that the Highlands are no place for a woman alone; this warning stands in stark contrast to Claire's memories of the work she did as a nurse on the front lines in WWII, separated from her husband by their respective war duties. By the end of the episode, she ends up at the same castle--Castle Leoch--where she and Frank had their intimate interlude. Only now, Castle Leoch isn't abandoned. It's the bustling seat of Clan Mackenzie and Claire's new home/prison.

Claire's an Englishwoman in the Highlands, a sassenach (foreigner), and her Scots hosts (or captors) are suspicious of her for that reason. Her asynchrony is her secret, something that only she--and the audience--can know.** Claire's "out-of-time-ness" drives much of the plot: her attempts to escape her Scots guards and evade the sadistic British captain who tried to rape her and return to Frank, and her knowledge of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which virtually destroyed much of the distinctive Highland culture. The audience learns, through voice over and flashback (or is it flash-forward?), that after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Highland clans were broken and their language--Gaelic--forbidden by the British. For Claire and for the audience, the outcome of the Rising is both history and foreknowledge, and Claire's anachronism gives rise to nostalgia for a way of life that will soon be lost.

That way of life, which Claire--and the audience--get to know over several episodes, is distinctly medieval, uninterrupted for centuries. Collum Mackenzie, the laird (or lord) of the clan lives in a castle; his brother, Dougal, is a war-chieftain. Collum has a harper in his service, just like in days of yore. Claire acts as a healer, or Beaton, to the residents of Castle Leoch, and her disgust at the filthy and barbaric implements and remedies that her predecessor used highlights the "medieval" medicine available at the time. She attends the Gathering, when all of the laird's tenants come to the castle to pledge their fealty with solemn vow, and celebrate with games, drinking, and a boar hunt, and she saves a young boy from the clutches of the fanatical and benighted Father Bain by diagnosing him with accidental poisoning rather than demonic possession. Dougal and the men-at-arms (including Jamie) collect the annual rents from the laird's tenants. Despite the fact that specie is widely used, the Mackenzie tenants often pay their rent in livestock, grain, or other goods. The women in one of the settlements chant songs that have come down through generations of women, going back hundreds of years. The laird's man of law, Ned Gowan, admits to Claire that he came to the Highlands from tame, civilized Edinburgh in search of wilderness and adventure. The English soldiers that Claire meets in Brockton call the Scots uncivilized, brutish, and wild--not because they live in the Highlands, but because they live in the past. Their loyalty is to their local laird, not their distant king; they wear kilts instead of trousers; they speak Gaelic instead of English; they live in crofts and villages, rather than towns and cities. 
The trope of the Scottish Highlands as an untamed, uncivilized wilderness goes back to the Middle Ages, when Latin writers posited that Scotland (and Ireland) were at the far edges of the inhabited world, and were home to monsters, wild men, and forbidding topography and landscapes. "Outlander" dramatizes that trope and updates it, so that the Highlanders become medieval people living in the Georgian period, just as out of time as Claire.

* Talking about the tv show in this post, not the books.
** For now.