The more I experience the effects that artificial intelligence (AI) imposes on my life, the more I see it as a parody of our native situated intelligence. Once upon a time, corporations employed humans to communicate with the public by answering phones and letters in person. Now I get to speak to or hear from a digital algorithm on a computer. An algorithm meant to serve as the interface between humans and the coded persona of a corporation now risen to the status of a person. Ha! That claim may fool the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t fool me. I can tell if I am facing off with a person or a machine.

Think of all the real persons put out of work as sacrificial victims to the technology of the day. The people who benefit from AI now get the checks that formerly went out to people who performed skilled work for a living. Men and women who sewed clothing, made cars, wrote letters, spoke with human-powered voices on the telephone. People who with just pride took responsibility for their engagement with the public.

No longer. Last January, I learned that my younger brother had died from an unsigned form letter sent out by New York Life Insurance Company trying to establish contact with the beneficiary of a policy he had taken out. For eight months my brother’s Social Security number was listed on the SS Death Index (SSDI) by  unaccountable mistake, from May 8, 2013, to January 23, 2014. After eight months of inaction, on January 23, New York Life issued the anonymous inquiry printed by a machine. On or about January 12, my brother actually did die alone in his home, so when I requested a wellness check by the local police on January 27, they found him dead on the floor from a heart attack he’d suffered after unwittingly being listed as dead for those many months. Thank you, AI, for your kind attention. While bloodless corporations are now legally counted as persons, flesh-and-blood persons have been demoted to the status of mere data.

In self-defense, I hereby issue the following reminder of the many dimensions of human intelligence activated during the course of our daily engagements, as based on my 30 years of keeping track of my own mind in its engagements with family, community, culture, and nature.

In my several families over the years, intimate contact is maintained with grandparents, parents, brothers, relatives, friends, and a variety of pets, forming the durable core of my mental life. I won’t detail any of those engagements here, but ask you to substitute your own such engagements at the core of your own mental life. Clearly, none of us would be who we are without our family engagements. I learned about marriage, birth, death, divorce, and all the other significant milestones of leading a life in my family. I experienced the essential nature of shelter in a wide variety of houses, apartments, barracks, dormitories and campgrounds lived in over the years. I learned about indoor plumbing in relation to tubs, toilets, sinks, and leaking hoses and faucets. My engagements with beds taught me almost all I know about the making and moving of them, washing sheets, moving furniture, sleep, sickness, and sex. Family closets held all sorts of delicious secrets, which I gradually discovered over the years. My families have taught me about hobbies, possessions, collections, jokes, games, birthdays, holidays, vacations, cooking, cleaning, and watching TV. The obvious truth is that none of us would be here today if it weren’t for our families. And I will point out that artificial intelligence is never tempered by having anything in its background resembling a family.

On the community level of mental engagement, where perception, emotion, and action are simultaneously active at the same focus, that’s where we learn about jobs and working for a living, about shopping, getting things repaired, going to school, the medical center, catching the train or the bus. Think how different obtaining food at a supermarket today is from hunting and gathering it in the wild, or even using crude tools to dig up the soil to plant seeds. All the communities I have lived in have police and fire stations, town offices, neighborhoods, and shingles declaring the presence of doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychiatrists, and other stalwarts of the professional class. Recycling is a community effort, as is garbage disposal. My first community introduced me to a variety of religions identified by the various architectures of their meeting places, and to the burial grounds where their former members were thought to reside.

My engagements with my culture have given me speech, reading, writing, books, poetry, numbers, roadmaps, and animated films. Banks are cultural edifices where money (enabler of many of our engagements) is housed in great vaults (think of your impression of  just the steel door, latches, and locks in your first bank). Without culture, I would be deprived of music, art, literature, and professional sports. Real estate is a product of my culture, as is the idea of ownership, travel, time and space. My experience with tools is a gift from my culture, which sponsors hardware stores, camera stores, computer stores, fabric stores, and in Hulls Cove, Maine, The Tool Barn where I recycle old tools for my own use. I am at home in my culture, and an outlander in most others.

Which leaves engagements with nature on the most fundamental level of them all. My experience of terrain, salt and fresh water, streams, lakes, watersheds, habitats, soil, wildlife, birds, primates, mammals, stars and planets, day and night, the seasons, rocks, plants, lichen, mosses, conservation, and survival itself—all these are products of my engagements with nature. We are born to the planet that brought us forth from its own flesh as Earthlings. We are indeed children of the third planet out from the sun. Its ways are our ways. Its thoughts are our thoughts. Its fate is our fate.

That is a brief summary of the engagements with the outside world that stoke our native intelligence and make us who we are as conscious beings. We are not intelligent in and by ourselves. We depend absolutely on such interactions to stimulate, shape, and hone our human intelligence, each in keeping with the influence of nature, culture, community, and family.

By comparison, artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. It is simply another tool—actually a weapon—corporations have devised in preparation for coming wars, hoping to gain an edge over other warring nations by taking the initiative of starting the last battle. With the result that the autonomy we have won over the past ten-thousand years is being taken from us by stealth in the name of technological progress. AI, I think, makes no improvement in our life situations. Rather, it is rapidly diminishing our remaining days on this Earth. Human consciousness itself is being demeaned as second rate, as human values are being demeaned, along with human skills, human emotions, human strivings, human priorities.

This post is a reminder that this is happening in our brief span on our home planet. I offer it now that we realize what we are about to lose. We’ve come all this way, for this. This travesty of human ignorance in triumphal guise as artificial intelligence while it is just the opposite, the dehumanization of the planet that has borne us this far. When it comes to intelligence, ours is made possible by such goings-on as I have tried to suggest in these last two posts. AI isn’t even in the running. An aberration, it is the end of the road.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Great Seal State of MaineSome years ago, Farmer and Sailor met at a bar in Augusta. After downin’ applejack and rum for couple hours, they went separate ways.

Seems to me,” said Farmer as they parted, “if you’d drop some seed in that furrow you plow out to China, you’d have something to show for it on the way back.”

Maybe so,” said Sailor, “and if you’d hoist some canvas on that rig of yours, add helm and rudder, you’d make better headway than plowin’ back and forth in that field every day.”

Our lives—what we do in the world—flow from our biological values mapped onto events, and in turn our categorizations of events flow from the lives we have led up till now. That is, a (sometimes winding) path runs between our values and categorizations (how we see the world), and that path is the life we have led. Or what personal memory draws from walking that path, and consciousness maps onto here-and-now awareness through acts of in-formed categorization.

There is no particular logic that applies to the course of our lives other than the ad hoc logic of salient events we actually witness and participate in. In that sense, we keep casting the same old categories onto the world, and the world keeps making the same old response—giving us back more of what we already have in mind. The world does not so much turn in orderly fashion as that we who turn with it are set in our ways of looking at the world. So when unique events occur before our eyes—such as a new Congress wrestling with what a national health plan might look like—we see it as a variation on a theme and treat it as if we’ve been there and tried that, with no forward motion whatsoever. We are stuck because we hold tight to the same tried-and-true categorizations we’ve always projected onto such situations—even if what’s on offer has never been tried before.

The world keeps moving ahead, and we keep pulling it backwards in conformity with formative events in our lives drawn from yesteryear. Resulting in change without progress. We spend most of our energy spinning our wheels because we are unable to step off our customary route and see the current situation with new eyes. The star at the top of the Maine State Seal is the North Star by which landsmen and seamen steered their way through woods and across dark oceans in the early nineteenth century. Dirigo, the state motto, translates from Latin as “I lead.” That is, the State of Maine depicts itself as leading the nation. Thus do we all see ourselves on the forefront of experience, when in fact we attire ourselves in the traditional garb of farmers and sailors of long ago. We lead by clinging to our traditional image of ourselves, not by freeing our bodies of such baggage and stepping unburdened ahead.

Another example is the granting of “personhood” to corpora-tions as if they had individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution as amended. While it is perfectly evident that, though corporations may be steered by people, in themselves as chartered by the several states they are fictional entities given a certain legal standing to make profits for investors having a monetary stake in their operations. Corporate bodies are invariably collectives made up of individuals; as such, they are never of one mind. One person, one mind, that is the law of consciousness. If a corporation claims to be of one mind, that can only be if one mind—the CEO’s, say, or chairman of the board’s—asserts itself and comes to dominate the thinking of corporate employees as if they were clones—which they aren’t—and worked in single-minded harmony. Granting personhood to corporate bodies empowers those at the top to manipulate events to their liking.

CEO salaries and bonuses in the field of financial services provide all the evidence we need to prove that corporate leaders act and present themselves as unique individuals, not corporate leaders. Corporate consciousness is an oxymoron, as is categorizing corporations in legal jargon as “persons” in their own right. Corporations present themselves collectively as persons when it suits them, as deserving individuals at other times. Corporation law lets them have their cake whole, and to enjoy slicing it into pieces for unequal distribution at the same time. If the top-to-bottom salary ratio within a corporate body is, say, 400 to 1, then the personhood of corporations is clearly a myth.

The law of the land is a fairy story corporate lobbyists and legislators keep telling us to keep us asleep, while they sack the treasury. Corporate personhood is a fundamental category error. Yet the Supreme Court cast it in bronze in a recent 5-4 decision removing restrictions on how the good fairies can insert money into political campaigns on behalf of issues and concerns as seen from very specific points of view. The majority opinion sides with corporations as if they were persons speaking with one voice to express a personal concern arising within a personal mind—magically backed by corporate funding and legal expertise. The funding gives the lie to all claims of personhood.

When I dig into my pockets, I do not dig into yours, and yours, and yours. Each digs for her- or himself. Money is money, not speech, just as language seen as a medium of exchange is not speech. There is confusion in making such claims, confounding the capacity for speech in general with individual speech acts exemplifying such a capacity on a specific occasion within a limited situation involving particular individuals. Corporations do not speak for themselves qua corporations. They make noises soothing to the ears of the powers-that-be behind doors that are shut. Corporate speech is not free, it is crafted to a particular end—the making of profits for a band of investors.

Categorizations are invariably thrust onto the world from a particular standpoint or perspective. They are first-person singular acts, not motions moved, seconded, voted, and enacted by corporate bodies. When farmers and sailors come together in a bar, they think and speak for themselves, guided by personal habits and experience. When boards of directors come together in a board room, they conduct business in a disciplined manner according to Roberts’ Rules of Order. Members can be recognized or not by the chair. The secretary records comments in the minutes—or not—as he so decides. Speaking out in a meeting is a political act. Submitting to majority opinion, members will, if they want to keep their jobs, abandon the right to free speech. Much as members of Congress surrender to the will of their party for the sake of speaking with one voice, thereby stifling their personal take on things to stay in the good graces of those having control over committee appointments and distribution of party funds.

Friction between different ways of looking at things wears us all down in the end. That is the nature of corporate decision- making and governance. Frustration smoothes our rough edges as we seek the lowest common denominator we can all agree to. Alternatively, if nobody speaks up or does anything—like the farmer and sailor standing mute on the Maine seal—we can pretend we are all of one mind. To know my own thoughts in writing this blog, I must keep to myself much of the time in order to preserve the integrity of my personal consciousness and the ideas which flit through it from one instant to the next. On my own authority, I can say anything I want without glancing at faces around me. As a result, I now write words I could not have put together a few months ago because, in remaining true to my conscious thought processes, I essentially pull myself up by my own bootstraps (a figure Gerald M. Edelman keeps using to describe our efforts in achieving consciousness for ourselves).

Detailed communication between unique minds is always a challenge. Initially, our differences excite and draw us together; but on second thought, they compel us to retreat to avoid surrendering more than we bargained for. We thrust our categories back and forth as in a duel, seeing whether the other nods or shakes her head. Thrust together in a marriage, say, or a foxhole, we quickly discover how much work it takes to stick together instead of withdrawing to respective positions of safety. The chief danger is overlooking our differences for the sake of family or community. My own upbringing consisted in large degree to being told, “Don’t be conspicuous!” meaning, don’t draw attention to yourself. That is, don’t be original. Such is the challenge many New Englanders face in growing up in families with deep roots.  Knowing from personal experience that over-concern for what neighbors might say is the kiss of death for honesty, transparency, and integrity, I seem to have turned out otherwise.

More commonly, we cease to be conscious for ourselves and become conscious for the larger group, surrendering individuality for the sake of living in a state of oblivious peace. If Sailor did as Farmer suggests, he would be dead, and vice versa. We must be our own selves, yet cannot admit it out loud. Which is the human dilemma, the corporate dilemma, the Congressional dilemma. Are we to shout with Billy Budd, “Farewell, Rights of Man!” every time we enter the public or corporate arena? Is life without a personal voice worth living? As a people, we seem to have decided in the affirmative. Or might it be that the Supreme Court has made that decision in our name, and we are too stunned to object?

Seeing the moose lying beneath the pine tree on the Great Seal of the State of Maine at the head of this post, I am reminded of Ferdinand retiring from the bull ring to seek a life of content-ment in a flowering meadow. Neither farmer nor fisherman, that moose is what we seem to have become, happy to take the world lying down in the shade of a tree.

Moose and Pine