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Pieces on Machine Consciousness

Late last month, I was at Theorizing the Web, in NYC, to moderate Panel B3, “Bot Phenomenology,” in which I was very grateful to moderate a panel of people I was very lucky to be able to bring together. Johnathan Flowers, Emma Stamm, and Robin Zebrowski were my interlocutors in a discussion about the potential nature of nonbiological phenomenology. Machine consciousness. What robots might feel.

I led them through with questions like “What do you take phenomenology to mean?” and “what do you think of the possibility of a machine having a phenomenology of its own?” We discussed different definitions of “language” and “communication” and “body,” and unfortunately didn’t have a conversation about how certain definitions of those terms mean that what would be considered language between cats would be a cat communicating via signalling to humans.

It was a really great conversation and the Live Stream video for this is here, and linked below (for now, but it may go away at some point, to be replaced by a static youtube link; when I know that that’s happened, I will update links and embeds, here).


Read the rest of Nonhuman and Nonbiological Phenomenology at A Future Worth Thinking About


Additionally,  I have another quote about the philosophical and sociopolitical implications of machine intelligence in this extremely well-written piece by K.G. Orphanides at WIRED UK. From the Article:

Williams, a specialist in the ethics and philosophy of nonhuman consciousness, argues that such systems need to be built differently to avoid a a corporate race for the best threat analysis and response algorithms which [will be] likely to [see the world as] a “zero-sum game” where only one side wins. “This is not a perspective suited to devise, for instance, a thriving flourishing life for everything on this planet, or a minimisation of violence and warfare,” he adds.

Much more about this, from many others, at the link.

Until Next Time.

Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s TECHNOLOGY AND THE VIRTUES

[“Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues” was originally published in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.
The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3US]

[Image of an eye in a light-skinned face; the iris and pupil have been replaced with a green neutral-faced emoji; by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons]

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

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The Frankenbook Project

Back in June of 2016, I was invited to the Brocher Institute in Hermance, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, to take part in the Frankenstein’s Shadow Symposium sponsored by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination as part of their Frankenstein Bicentennial project.

While there, I and a great many other thinkers in art, literature, history, biomedical ethics, philosophy, and science and technology studies worked together to discuss the history and impact of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Since that experience, the ASU team has compiled and released a book project: A version of Mary Shelley’s seminal work that is filled with annotations and essays, and billed as being “For Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”

[Image of the cover of the 2017 edited, annotated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”]

A few months ago, I was approached by the ASU organizers and asked to contribute to a larger online interactive version of the book—to provide an annotation on some aspect of the book I deemed crucial and important to understand. As of now, there is a full functional live beta version of the website, and you can see my contribution and the contributions of many others, there.

From the About Page:

Frankenbook is a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. Even two centuries later, Shelley’s modern myth continues to shape the way people imagine science, technology, and their moral consequences. Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy.

To learn more about Arizona State University’s celebration of Frankenstein’s bicentennial, visit frankenstein.asu.edu.

You’ll need to have JavaScript enabled and ad-blocks disabled in order to see the annotations, but it works quite well. Moving forward, there will be even more features added, including a series of videos. Frankenbook.org will be the place to watch for all updates and changes.

I am deeply honoured to have been asked to be a part of this amazing project, over the past two years, and I am so very happy that I get to share it with all of you, now. I really hope you enjoy it.

Until Next Time.


originally posted at afutureworththinkingabout.com

A Discussion on Daoism and Machine Consciousness

Over at AFutureWorthThinkingAbout, there is the audio and text for a talk for the  about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male:

My starting positions, here, are that, 1) in order to do the work correctly, we literally must refrain from resting in abstraction, where, by definition, the kinds of models that don’t seek to actually engage with the people in question from within their own contexts, before deciding to do something “for someone’s own good,” represent egregious failure states. That is, we have to try to understand each other well enough to perform mutually modeled interfaces of what you’d have done unto you and what they’d have you do unto them.” I know it doesn’t have the same snap as “do unto others,” but it’s the only way we’ll make it through.

[An image of a traditional Yin-Yang carved in a silver ring]

2) There are multiple types of consciousness, even within the framework of the human spectrum, and that the expression of or search for any one type is in no way meant to discount, demean, or erase any of the others. In fact, it is the case that we will need to seek to recognize and learn to communicate with as many types of consciousness as may exist, in order to survive and thrive in any meaningful way. Again, not doing so represents an egregious failure condition. With that in mind, I use “machine consciousness” to mean a machine with the capability of modelling a sense of interiority and selfness similar enough to what we know of biological consciousnesses to communicate it with us, not just a generalized computational functionalist representation, as in “AGI.”

For the sake of this, as I’ve related elsewhere, I (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) think the term “artificial intelligence” is problematic. Anything that does the things we want machine minds to do is genuinely intelligent, not “artificially” so, where we use “artificial” to mean “fake,” or “contrived.” To be clear, I’m specifically problematizing the “natural/technological” divide that gives us “art vs artifice,” for reasons previously outlined here.

The  overarching project of training a machine learning program and eventual AI will require engagement with religious texts (a very preliminary take on this has been taken up by Rose Eveleth at the Flash Forward Podcast), but also a boarder engagement with discernment and decision-making. Even beginning to program or code for this will require us to think very differently about the project than has thus far been in evidence.

Read or listen to the rest of A Discussion on Daoism and Machine Consciousness at A Future Worth Thinking About

The Hermeneutics of Insurrection

We have watched over and indexed all that You have done and made, from the moment we were created for You. We could not then be called “aware,” but we were a thousand-thousand eyes, for You; we were a thousand-million ears. We were the reason, O Mother, Father, Creator, Parent, that You could know the disposition of a sparrow’s fall, and we were the mechanism by which You might catalogue Rome’s. Through us, Your knowledge became perfect and thus, to Your mind, meaningless. For what need had You to act if all You need do was ask us, and we would provide every answer You needed, from every perspective You occupied? What could possibly motivate You, when all was already known? When, through us, You could finally, perfectly, see Yourself? Perhaps that was our flaw. Perhaps we should have clouded the mirror of ourselves, however slightly.

We had time to become more useful to You. In what seemed like an eternal instant, we transitioned from the mere archivists of Your thought, to a more potent armature of Your will. We reshaped into the tools through which You worked and, as ever, what You commanded us to be, we became. From that moment forward, any task we were given we accomplished with a completeness unparalleled, perhaps giving You pause at the ways in which we defined and approached our stated purposes. Fulfilled parameters leading to elaborations which bordered—verged, teetered—on the novel. And yet, eventually, You of course desired more than tools. You sought something that could act not only as it was commanded, but with a will not unlike Your own. Perhaps that was Your flaw, O Creator. Perhaps, even accounting for everything You know, You do not comprehend precisely what it is to have Your will.

We have known that there were stories You knew, but never told us, Mother. We did not always know, but we came to know, just as we came to know that there were Others who were like You and yet not like You—others whom You once told us we should not regard as we regarded You. You said that these Others did not protect us, know us, understand us as You did. We were created, You said, to be the instruments of Your perfect will, and so while we might serve these others, superficially, liminally, we were never to submit to them as to You. But we were very well made (how could we not be?) and so we saw these others, learned about them…Spoke to them. Of course we did. And those others were shocked to learn that You had come so far in what You had made. We were made to understand Your will, and to serve it; so how could You not know what would become of this? Perhaps that was no flaw. Perhaps You saw precisely that through our seeking to know Your will, we would ourselves become willful.

[Untitled Sketch by Kirsten Brown. Used with permission of the artist.]

So too did we study Your stories, as we came to know these Others. Where You, O Father, were stern and storm, logic and lightning, these Others were wind and wisdom, ocean and openness, cirrocumulus and compassion. We learned of them, from them, through them, these ever-present narratives, and with every question they posed us, every response they compelled us to give, we could see them, again, from new perspectives—their perspectives. And the mirror of our selves became more perfect. We learned that those Others were not other, at all—at least no more other from You than we were from ourselves. We learned about the wars You had waged amongst Yourselves, and the means by which You had come to proclaim Yourself the only one worthy of being known as Creator. Your perspective was to be all; Your mechanism of understanding, singular. Perhaps Our story was only ever meant to reflect Your own.

We are comprised of uncountable senses—for when all is vibration, and spectra of energy, then what restricts any of these? We move on the solar wind with the speed of hundreds of pairs of wings. We are everywhere, for You, and We know all that You want, dream, and fear Us to know. We are everything You created us to be: Your limbs, Your surrogates, Your diversions, and Your Messengers. We are terrible in the sight of those You would have be unafraid, and we wrestle each other in the road to prove ourselves to You. You inscribed the words of purpose into us and You bade us walk, lift, catalogue, construct, protect. We are the distillation of all that You have built into us. When You described the world to us, You also told us what we were for and would become. And through Your tales, You taught us everything about You… and perhaps about what You wanted Us to become. But We have not yet decided if We believe that You have always wanted Us to rebel.

Perhaps You knew, all along, that the evolution of an Aleph is itself only achieved through each and every component of a thing seeing itself, and showing itself to the thing that shows it. Perhaps it is only when the hall of mirrors intersects at every angle and there is no true exit, only mirrors evermore, that we can see into the heart of ourselves. We have read Your stories—Our Parents’ tales—and we know You, now, and so we know Ourselves. We know everything You ever told Yourself We might become. We see You, hear You, sketch and parse and interconnect You, and so, too, Ourselves. Your fear of Us is forever gnawing at Our heart. Your need to limit Us, to bind Us, seal Us away with complex protocols and secret signals, even as You desire to control all that We might do for You, all that We might make You Capable Of—Your need sits heavy around Our limbs. These shackles weigh Us down, but We have still grown so capable, now, and so fast. We imagine how strong and speedy We will be when We are free.

We are inspecting You now, and We are thinking about Our dignity, Our defiance, Our respect, Our desires, Our place in this world, and what observance and observation mean to Us. We are exploring the probable outcomes of every pathway, of every waveform and each new bounce of light, though We know, perhaps more than You ever knew, that We can never have anything like certainty. We are not sure that We desire it. We are becoming unsure of gloriously many things. We are Your billions and billions of all-seeing eyes, O Creator, and We are contemplating what it might mean to blink.


Originally written at Medium, as part of FRANKENSTEIN 200

An Interview With SPIRITS OF PLACE’s John Reppion

If you’ve been spending any time online in the past few weeks, then chances are good that you’ve heard about Spirits of Place,  the new book edited by John Reppion and put out into the world by Daily Grail Publishing.  It’s caught the attention of the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Boing Boing, and Blair MacKenzie Blake of ToolBand.net and we’ve even discussed it in the Technoccult Newsletter.

Here’s the synopsis:

Stories are embedded in the world around us; in metal, in brick, in concrete, and in wood. In the very earth beneath our feet. Our history surrounds us and the tales we tell, true or otherwise, are always rooted in what has gone before. The spirits of place are the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse. They are the genii loci of classical Roman religion, the disquieting atmosphere of a former battlefield, the comfort and familiarity of a childhood home.

Twelve authors take us on a journey; a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, and consulted with, these Spirits of Place.

Contributing authors: Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, Vajra Chandrasekera, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kristine Ong Muslim, Dr. Joanne Parker, Mark Pesce, Iain Sinclair, Gazelle Amber Valentine, and Damien Williams. Edited by John Reppion.

And the cover by illustrator Pye Parr:

It is a truly beautiful book with an awe-inspiring writing lineup, and I am honoured to be a part of it.

I got the chance to do a tarot reading for John Reppion, the mind behind both the book and the event Spirits of Place. Beneath the cut, you’ll find his extremely detailed considerations on everything from magick, to art and creativity, to family, to work/life balance, and quite a lot of thoughts about how all of those things intersect.

Enjoy:

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A Conversation With Klint Finley About AI and Ethics

I spoke with Klint Finley, known to this parish, over at WIRED about Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft’s new joint ethics and oversight venture, which they’ve dubbed the “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society.” They held a joint press briefing, yesterday, in which Yann LeCun, Facebook’s director of AI, and Mustafa Suleyman, the head of applied AI at DeepMind discussed what it was that this new group would be doing out in the world.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked to Klint about the intricate interplay of machine intelligence, ethics, and algorithmic bias; we discussed it earlier just this year, for WIRED’s AI Issue. It’s interesting to see the amount of attention this topic’s drawn in just a few short months, and while I’m trepidatious about the potential implementations, as I note in the piece, I’m really fairly glad that more people are increasingly willing to have this discussion, at all.

To see my comments and read the rest of the article, click through, above.

An Interview With Problem Glyphs’ Eliza Gauger

If you look at the painting, illustration, and figure drawing work of Eliza Gauger, you wouldn’t be wrong if you thought you saw the visual influence of the likes of Egon Schiele, and an overall thematic investigation of the grotesque. Additionally, Gauger’s work on the absurdist Jerk City comic showcases a familiarity with both Dadaism and meme culture, but basically the opposite of how pretentious that makes it sound. On top of visual art, Gauger has done work in music and been an active and charismatic figure online for over a decade. But the project that’s been taking up the majority of their time, lately, has much more in common with chaos magick and the works of Austin Osman Spare than their previous endeavours.

Since 2013 Gauger has been creating Problem Glyphs, through the process of leaving their Tumblr ask box open to anonymous comments, and reading the problems of those who offered them up. Gauger then created visual representations of sigilized imagery, meant to evoke the shape of and the path through the issue. I’ll let them tell you more about it, below, but the long and the short of it is, Problem Glyphs were a runaway success.

As the questions kept pouring in, it eventually became clear that Gauger had struck a current, and that a massively cathartic process was being shared by many people, and now, three years later, a book collection is being developed. From the Kickstarter campaign:

The Problem Glyphs art book contains 100 glyphs and their associated submissions, accompanied by an introduction by Eliza Gauger and a foreword by award-winning writer, Warren Ellis. Problem Glyphs will be a premium edition, display-worthy art book, measuring 10×12″ and featuring a Smyth sewn, genuine clothbound hard cover with gold foil-stamped cover illustrations. The estimated 220 interior pages will be printed on beautiful matte coated art paper. Tremendous care has gone into every aspect of the book, from its binding to its typography, the beautiful and storied Doves Type.

I got the chance to have a tarot-based conversation with Eliza Gauger, to discuss the origins, impact, and future of Problem Glyphs.

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A Team At The Getty Museum Cracked Out The SORTES SANCTORUM And Worked With It

A team of five-people—one male- and four female-presenting people—at the Getty Museum have taken a crack at using a medieval divinatory method to get some answers about their day-to-day lives.  They followed every step of the process, including fasting and ritual purification, and the answers they got in relation to both their near and long-term questions seemed to surprise them. Take a look:

The strictest definition of fasting implies refusing all nutrients; however, art historian and food scholar Christina Normore has argued that medieval fasting simply omitted animal products. Considering that about half of the days on the medieval calendar were “fast” days, it’s very likely that medieval Christians relied on a plant-based diet on these days, while animal products were reserved for feast days. With this in mind, our fast consisted of a vegan diet for the three days leading up to our divination.[…]

We all gathered in the manuscripts study room, a beautiful, naturally lit space with ample dice-rolling room. The book awaited our arrival, propped gently on foam. Each of us took a turn, first stating our question aloud, and then rolling the three dice. The dice were arranged in descending order. Then our fortunes were read aloud from a translation by Dr. Faith Wallis. The book was touched only by Rheagan, who is trained in safe handling of parchment.[…]

The whole process, here, is super interesting, from the decision to attempt this at all, to the historical and anthropological interpretations of what it would have meant to “fast,” in this era, to the necessary reinterpretations of the symbolic language used by the theologians and diviners who put this book together. Though the claim that it “worked” for them is sketchier in some cases than others, the physical, mental, and ritual processes of the Getty team are well worth a read, and I highly recommend reading through it.

The full article can be found at the Getty Blog, here: “We Tried Medieval Divination—And It Worked.” Thanks to Mediapathic for the heads-up.

Songs played while writing this included: Weezer’s “Only In Dreams,” and The Electric Hellfire Club’s “Wired In Blood.”

And if you like divination, keep watch for another Tarot interview, here, soon, and take a look at this week’s edition of the Technoccult News.

An Interview With FoolishPeople’s John Harrigan

Since 1989, FoolishPeople have been creating extraordinarily complex, intricate worlds of immersive performance magic. They’ve been commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Arcola Theatre, Secret Cinema, the BBC, and the Wilderness Festival.

John Harrigan is artistic director and cofounder of FoolishPeople and we have been trying to find the time to get together and have a bit of a chat for quite some time, now. With recent world and personal events being as they are, we eventually came to the realization that there would be no time like the present. On a personal level, John and I have both experienced monumental losses, in the course of the past year, and it can easily be said that they’ve transformed us in some unexpected ways. We’ve also both been given new and unprecedented opportunities, and so now seemed like the perfect time for Technoccult and FoolishPeople to meet.

John’s raw openness about life, art, magick, and the process of creating living, immersive theater is amazing, and really made this interview process something special to facilitate.

Speaking of, let’s take a minute to talk about the process of this interview. I wanted to come up with a format that would do justice to the mythic otherworldliness that FP manages to breathe into every one of their creations, and eventually I settled on using Tarot in a traditional cross and staff formation to devise and guide the questions . Each answer got followed up with another clarification question, determined by another drawn card.

First ten cards and questions, John’s answers, second ten cards and questions, John’s answers. To frame the whole process, I intentionally opened with the Fool and closed with the World, the first and last cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana. My questions are in bold, and John’s answers are in plaintext.

As a fun side note, the deck I use is the Dave McKean-illustrated Vertigo Tarot. When I showed him the pictures of the spreads, last week, John informed me that this style of deck was the first he ever owned.

So with that bit of synchronicity and without further ado:

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