Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

03/14/2010 (9:53 pm)

Blurring Humans With Machines

The video below is an interesting little talk by digital media artist, game design specialist, and professor Peggy Weil (Adjunct Professor of Interactive Media at USC) about how the line is blurring between humans and machines — or so claims Ms. Weil. The jumping-off point for the discussion is a web-based game called Mr. Mind which challenges you, the visitor, to prove to Mr. Mind that you are actually human. Ms. Weil claims it has never been done, but I suspect deep bias. The video embed they provided runs 10 minutes, but the full talk is just over 18 minutes, and you can reach it by clicking “Watch Full Program” that will appear in the lower right corner of the video frame once you click it. Once there, you’ll get a brief commercial message over which I have no control, sorry.

Ms. Weil gives herself away at a few points in the talk, but then I Googled “Mr. Mind prove you are human” and found this description of Web Development Fund (sponsors of the Mr. Mind site discussed in the video), with this telling quotation:

“I am convinced that computers are an emergent, evolving form,” argues Peggy Weil, co-director of the project, “but I don’t want to tell people what to think. This is a personal and emotional realization.”

Methinks Prof. Weil has been taking Battlestar Galactica reruns a mite too seriously. The thing to notice is that Ms. Weil admits no valid intellectual criteria. Her basis for calling computers an emergent, evolving form (she stops short of saying life form) is “a personal and emotional realization.” But she does not want to tell you what to think; she prefers to confront you with a rigged game that fools you into believing what she believes.

I wouldn’t trust someone who prefers manipulation over verbal persuasion any farther than I could throw a Sumo wrestler. But I don’t want to tell you what to think.[/sarc]

What’s going on here is a hard-core progressive engaging, unconsciously as usual, in the core exercise of progressivism: rebutting core Christian concepts, using their favorite tool, faux intellectualism. The concept on the chopping block tonight is the notion that humans are the crown of creation, a unique species formed “in the image of God” and commissioned with a unique purpose. The assault comes in the form of obfuscating the definition of “human,” again a favorite of progressives but one usually found in discussions of legalized abortion.

My assessment that Ms. Weil is a progressive arises first from her brief excursion into politics, basically a 30-second-long listing beginning around 5:30 of the recent global events that confront us with a need to redefine what we mean by “human.” It’s a whirlwind tour of the progressives’ “favorite horrors” list. The high point is her 2-word sneer noting “the euphemistic” phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.” All of this really has nothing to do with her talk, but that’s the point; progressives cannot help themselves, they have a reflex that turns every event political whether it applies or not. And besides, we have the piquant fruitiness of the words from the quote block, above.

Of course, the very premise of her talk, that modern events require a redefinition of what “human” means, is logically absurd. Her basis for saying this seems to be that visitors to her cute little Mr. Mind game resort to banal self-perceptions like “I can tie a knot in a cherry stem with my tongue” when faced with the artificial frustration of trying to convince a rigged computer script that they are human. If the problem is that the average web junkie has an impoverished self-perception, the cure is to improve modern education. It’s frankly simple to define “human,” especially in the wake of the Genome Project. One begins by defining oneself as a life form, using standard biological criteria: “I respire, I consume nutrients, I breed, I ambulate, I am composed of complex systems of adjoined cells with common DNA functioning cooperatively, therefore I am a complex life form.” Then you establish which type of life form by DNA analysis: “My DNA is human, therefore I am the life form that is called ‘human.'” End of proof. How hard was that?

Having said that, I have to acknowledge the more central question, which is “What is it about humanity that makes humans unique?” My thinking has been focused more on matters of human liberty, but I’m about 97% sure that the exercise here turns out to be the same as the exercise there. The object of Western philosophers has been to provide a basis for the core believe that does not require us to say “God said,” because we hate being dependent on God. The exercise is going to fail here as it has there. There will be found no sound way to define human meaning apart from “God cares,” just as there is no sound reason for human liberty that does not begin with “God declared us free.” Ultimately, all meaning for our existence derives from God’s character, and all characteristics of the well-lived life likewise derive from God’s character. We are here because He loves us, and philosophy is an exercise in guaranteed frustration until we acknowledge it.

I was not able to get the Mr. Mind web site to respond (http://www.mrmind. com) so I don’t know whether it’s actually a fair game or not, but I’m guessing it’s not truly a fair program.

I’m curious about the part of the video where she says that humans conversing with code that mimics human reactions cannot help but anthropomorphize the code, but always impute emotions and reactions. She calls this a “delusion.” I wonder how deeply she and her associates have thought through the necessary implications of linguistic and emotional speech patterns. We have no experience of communicating with anything not human, so of necessity all our linguistic and emotional forms attach to communication with humans. I don’t think it’s even linguistically possible to communicate with a machine without appearing to anthropomorphize it. Our language is so deeply tied to our emotions and reactions that it’s probably likewise impossible to communicate with a machine without feeling the feelings that we feel when we’re talking to a person. That does not mean we’re actually deluded, it just means our forms of communication do not permit such distinctions.

My guess is that they allowed this fact to convince them that all subjects actually confuse the machine with a person. I guess further that they are glad to be thus convinced, as it supports their own preferred delusion, that the uniqueness of humanity is at an end. I guess finally that they have not adequately considered the nature of the proof they’re using. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I don’t think so.

All that said, I do find the foray into machine intelligence and human self-perception fascinating, and I’m sure most people do as well. I just wish the professors engaged in it would not simultaneously engage in hellish enterprises like trying to demolish the core concept of human uniqueness. We do need to keep our core mission as a species in mind as we develop more and more powerful machines, and we do well to pay attention to our instincts.

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March 16, 2010 @ 12:42 pm #

Some thoughts occurred to me while I was reading this:

1. We seem to be political creatures by nature and it should be noted that a lot of conservatives also turn every event political as well, whether it applies or not.
2. I love science fiction but I am uncomfortable with a lot of it because it is in a sense anti God. I tell myself that God knows that I know it’s just a story, but it’s a story line that almost always excludes God. And what this woman is talking about is Science Fiction.
3. Phil, are you saying that we can’t help but to attribute human characteristics to the machines that we use; that we humanize them because we are human?

Just the other day my brother-in-law, who is a master mechanic, was telling my wife that you don’t get attached to your cars. That they are just machines that represent an investment. I wonder it trying to make anything more out of them starts one down the path of idle worship.

March 17, 2010 @ 8:27 am #

3. Phil, are you saying that we can’t help but to attribute human characteristics to the machines that we use; that we humanize them because we are human?

No, that’s what Dr. Weil is saying. What I’m saying is that it only appears that we’re attributing human characteristics because the limits of our language force us to interact as though we’re interacting with other humans. I’m saying that we actually know better, even while we appear to be treating them as human.

And keep in mind that I’m speaking only about machines that appear to communicate with us, not about all machines — though we do have a habit of personalizing equipment.

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