Frankenstein wept: Algorithms unleashed, Matrix rising
Here’s British author and journalist Steven Poole, writing for Aeon magazine in an article published just today and titled “Slaves to the Algorithm“:
Our age elevates the precision-tooled power of the algorithm over flawed human judgment. From web search to marketing and stock-trading, and even education and policing, the power of computers that crunch data according to complex sets of if-then rules is promised to make our lives better in every way. Automated retailers will tell you which book you want to read next; dating websites will compute your perfect life-partner; self-driving cars will reduce accidents; crime will be predicted and prevented algorithmically. If only we minimise the input of messy human minds, we can all have better decisions made for us. So runs the hard sell of our current algorithm fetish.
. . . If you are feeling gloomy about the automation of higher education, the death of newspapers, and global warming, you might want to talk to someone — and there’s an algorithm for that, too. A new wave of smartphone apps with eccentric titular orthography (iStress, myinstantCOACH, MoodKit, BreakkUp) promise a psychotherapist in your pocket. Thus far they are not very intelligent, and require the user to do most of the work — though this second drawback could be said of many human counsellors too. Such apps hark back to one of the legendary milestones of ‘artificial intelligence’, the 1960s computer program called ELIZA. That system featured a mode in which it emulated Rogerian psychotherapy, responding to the user’s typed conversation with requests for amplification (‘Why do you say that?’) and picking up — with its ‘natural-language processing’ skills — on certain key words from the input. Rudimentary as it is, ELIZA can still seem spookily human. Its modern smartphone successors might be diverting, but this field presents an interesting challenge in the sense that, the more sophisticated it gets, the more potential for harm there will be. One day, the makers of an algorithm-driven psychotherapy app could be sued by the survivors of someone to whom it gave the worst possible advice.
What lies behind our current rush to automate everything we can imagine? Perhaps it is an idea that has leaked out into the general culture from cognitive science and psychology over the past half-century — that our brains are imperfect computers. If so, surely replacing them with actual computers can have nothing but benefits. Yet even in fields where the algorithm’s job is a relatively pure exercise in number-crunching, things can go alarmingly wrong.
Here’s author and cultural critic John David Ebert, writing in The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake (2011):
Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words . . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities . . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.
Here’s science fiction legend Brian Aldiss, writing in the first chapter of his seminal 1973 study Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, titled “The Origin of the Species: Mary Shelley“:
For a thousand people familiar with the story of Victor creating his monster from selected cadaver spares and endowing them with new life, only to shrink back in horror from his own creation, not one will have read Mary Shelley’s original novel. This suggests something of the power of infiltration of this first great myth of the industrial age. [emphasis added]
Here’s literature scholar Christopher Small, writing in his (likewise influential) 1972 book Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth:
The Monster is not a ghost. He is not a genie or a spirit summoned by magic from the deep; at the same time he issues, like these, from the imagination. He is manifestly a product, or aspect, of his maker’s psyche: he is a psychic phenomenon given objective, or ‘actual’ existence. A Doppelganger of ‘real flesh and blood’ is not unknown, of course, in other fictions, nor is the idea of a man created ‘by other means than Nature has hitherto provided’, the creation of Prometheus being the archetype. But Frankenstein is ‘the modern Prometheus’: the profound effect achieved by Mary lay in showing the Monster as the product of modern science; made, not by enchantment, i.e., directly by the unconscious, an ‘imaginary’ being, but through a process of scientific discovery, i.e., the imagination objectified.
Here’s the late, great cultural critic/historian and philosopher Theodore Roszak, writing in his fairly legendary 1973 book Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society:
Long before the demonic possibilities of science had become clear for all to see, it was a Romantic novelist who foresaw the career of Dr. Frankenstein — and so gave us the richest (and darkest) literary myth the culture of science has produced.
Here’s Agent Smith, the artificial intelligence program in charge of keeping order within the simulated human reality of The Matrix (1999), speaking to the captured Morpheus, leader of the resistance movement against the machine civilization that has enslaved humans (in a film released in 1999):
As soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization, which is of course what this is all about. Evolution, Morpheus, evolution. Like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You’ve had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time.
Here’s Victor Frankenstein in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, lying on his deathbed and lamenting his former obsessive quest to create and “perfect” life, which led not only to his own utter wretchedness and destruction but to that of everybody he loved:
My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.
. . . Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me — let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!
If one is looking for a guiding thread of supervening meaning or moral insight here, I might be inclined to borrow and recontextualize the words of legendary and visionary music producer Sandy Pearlman — from the liner notes to Blue Öyster Cult’s epic 1988 concept album Imaginos, about the centuries-long efforts of a transcendent pantheon of “Invisibles” to intercede in human history and guide it to a preordained conclusion — by suggesting that this whole situation portends, indicates, and represents “a disease with a long incubation.”