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Superfluous humans in a world of smart machines


Remember Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian short story “The Veldt” (excerpted here) with its nightmare vision of a soul-sapping high-technological future where monstrously narcissistic — and, as it turns out, sociopathic and homicidal — children resent even having to tie their own shoes and brush their own teeth, since they’re accustomed to having these things done for them by machines?

Remember Kubrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL, the super-intelligent AI system that runs the spaceship Discovery, decides to kill the human crew that he has been created to serve, because he has realized/decided that humans are too defective and error-prone to be allowed to jeopardize the mission?

Remember that passage (which I’ve quoted here before) from John David Ebert’s The New Media Invasion in which Ebert identifies the dehumanizing technological trend that’s currently unfolding all around us? Humans, says Ebert, are becoming increasingly superfluous in a culture of technology worship:

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.

Bear all of that in mind, and then read this, which is just the latest in a volley of media reports about the encroaching advent, both rhetorical and factual, of all these things in the real world:

A house that tracks your every movement through your car and automatically heats up before you get home. A toaster that talks to your refrigerator and announces when breakfast is ready through your TV. A toothbrush that tattles on kids by sending a text message to their parents. Exciting or frightening, these connected devices of the futuristic “smart” home may be familiar to fans of science fiction. Now the tech industry is making them a reality.

Mundane physical objects all around us are connecting to networks, communicating with mobile devices and each other to create what’s being called an “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Smart homes are just one segment — cars, clothing, factories and anything else you can imagine will eventually be “smart” as well.

. . . We won’t really know how the technology will change our lives until we get it into the hands of creative developers. “The guys who had been running mobile for 20 years had no idea that some developer was going to take the touchscreen and microphone and some graphical resources and turn a phone into a flute,” [Liat] Ben-Zur [of chipmaker Qualcomm] said.

The same may be true when developers start experimenting with apps for connected home appliances. “Exposing that, how your toothbrush and your water heater and your thermostat . . . are going to interact with you, with your school, that’s what’s next,” said Ben-Zur.

MORE: “The Internet of Things: Helping Smart Devices Talk to Each Other

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Will Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ be a Lovecraftian ‘2001’?

In the latest installment of Stained Glass Gothic, my intermittent column for SF Signal, I raise the question of whether director Ridley Scott’s forthcoming science fiction/horror film Prometheus will be, in effect, a hybrid film of ideas that invokes and resonates with themes previously explored by Stanley Kubrick (and Arthur Clarke) in 2001: A Space Odyssey and by Lovecraft in his cosmic-literary mythos of ancient extraterrestrials and other-dimensional beings who interacted with humans in prehistory and, as Lovecraft frames it in At the Mountains of Madness, may even have created human life. It’s a column full of film trailers, discussion, and speculative analysis.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s been a long time since I’ve so eagerly anticipated an upcoming film. Prometheus, which is slated for a June 8 release, feels to me like a cultural, psychological, and philosophical landmark even before I’ve seen it. And its profound resonance with two other cultural, psychological, and philosophical landmarks in the history of science fiction is become more clearly evident with each passing day and each newly released marketing item.

[…] It feels awesomely relevant, as if it’s set to channel the psychic energy of the epic Age of Apocalypse that we collectively entered with the dawn of the 21st century. To merge the Frankensteinian theme of Promethean overreach with the real-world crossover theme of the imminent discovery of human life’s ultimate origins, and to wrap it all in a horror-leaning take on the ancient alien hypothesis that channels the implicit but definite presence of H.P. Lovecraft and his mythos of cosmic monstrousness, seems, well, epic.

Full column:Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’: A Lovecraftian ‘2001’?“, Matt Cardin, SF Signal, April 23, 2012

NYT: Computer scientists are worried about AI usurping human control

2001 Still

Sounds like a science fiction idea, doesn’t it? Well, of course, it is a science fiction idea, and a venerable one at that, with roots that reach back to the early 19th century, when Mary Shelley processed the cultural fears and fascinations of an entire era by writing Frankenstein — an act which was, notably, inspired by a hideous nightmare, and which in turn inspired an apparently immortal cultural fascination (plays, movies, etc.) — all of which means the novel, with its ur-story of a human creation achieving consciousness and then turning on its creator, stands as an eruption from the unconscious mind.

(“Naturally, of course,” one might say, if one is aware of the deep roots of Western science and religion, which are on open display right there in the undisguised fact of Ms. Shelley’s direct inspiration by, on the one hand, Paradise Lost, and on the other hand, modern science’s emergence out of a crucible of quasi magical/mystical ideas with cultural roots predating the birth of civilization itself.)

But what happened earlier this year wasn’t fiction — or at least it wasn’t openly so. As reported by The New York Times on Saturday (“Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man,” July 25), a group of computer scientists held a meeting in February, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, to express and address authentic fears that “further advances [in AI] could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.”

The Times article starts with this:

A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones, which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously.

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

It goes on to report that most of the assembled researchers — “leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California” — said they don’t expect the creation of “highly centralized superintelligences” or the spontaneous eruption of artificial intelligence through the Internet, but they did agree “that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.”

The iconic camera eye of HAL in <i>2001</i>

The iconic camera eye of HAL in 2001

The good news: We’re not even close to developing something like the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The bad news: There is, right now, “legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.”

Here’s where I would suggest something to all interested parties: If you haven’t read Frankenstein, or haven’t read it for awhile, go back and brush up on it. Then read a good deal of the worthwhile literary and cultural criticism that has been produced about it and its legacy. Renowned science fiction author Brian Aldiss called the Frankenstein story “the first great myth of the industrial age.” Philosopher and culture critic Theodore Roszak, who for 40 years has been so apt at diagnosing many of our cultural ills, has called Frankenstein “the richest (and darkest) literary myth the culture of science has produced.” Joyce Carol Oates has characterized the novel itself as “a parable for our time, an enduring prophecy.”

This all means we may find some necessary guidance, or at least a warning, in the Frankenstein myth.

What I’m saying is simply this, to quote my own words from the concluding paragraph of a paper I wrote a few years ago that offers a reading of Frankenstein as a nihilistic parable about the fate of Western civilization:

We can find in Frankenstein a parable about what it means to commit ourselves to the quest for power over nature through scientific objectivity. One does not have to agree with Mary Shelley’s dire prognosis . . . . But I do think that we cannot afford to ignore “the first great myth of the industrial age,” “the central myth of western culture,” and I suspect that in the future, as we Westerners continue our journey through the dark night of psychic alienation in the urban-industrial technological landscape we have created, we may find ourselves turning more and more to it, in the form of further critical studies and additional literary and cinematic reworkings, as a subject for entertainment and reflection, and even guidance.

That paper won’t appear in my Dark Awakenings collection later this year (although it did appear in Penny Dreadful #14 in 2001), but given the dystopian SF-like nature of the report about AI scientists convening to share their fears, I think I’ll post the paper at my Website when it’s fully built in the near future, since it looks at the philosophical and spiritual side of such developments.

In the meantime, for a not-so-spiritual but much more entertaining consideration of the same issues (more or less), please consider the following trailer for a movie that I still love after nearly 25 years, no matter how trashy it is: