technician-prophet’s inevitability

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.1 (Winter 2017)


The Polis vs. Progress


On the Absurdity of the Technician-Prophet’s “Inevitability”
John R. Harris

The contemporary technician-prophet’s version of inevitability has us fusing with robots (or simply being supplanted by them) within the remaining decades of this century. Yet eyes that can see clearly far down a very narrow road sometimes fail to notice the hole awaiting the next step.

I continue to struggle with Frank J. Tipler’s Physics of Christianity: my struggles began soon after the section beginning with the word “preface”. Yet I intend to finish the book some day, and perhaps even to tackle its predecessor, The Physics of Immortality. If nothing else, such tomes are a useful primer in how physicists think. They declare, for instance, that nothing in the universe can exceed the speed of light (“thing” being defined as pure energy, such as the photon itself, as well as material particles)… and then they derive the laws which must apply of mathematical necessity based on that assumption.

I have not penetrated the current book on my table with nearly enough depth, either in terms of pages or in terms of comprehension, to determine if Professor Tipler is really a Christian, as he claims (his work has so far not once employed any such word as “goodness”, “virtue”, “charity”, or “”sin”)—or even if he is really sane, as his intimidating brilliance inclines one to concede. That determination is certainly not needed for my present purposes. I mention his latest book only because of the assertion in Chapter Three that the consignment of our souls to “human download” is inevitable and almost as inevitably destined to occur at some moment in the twenty-first century. According to Professor Tipler, furthermore, the process’s momentum will prove virtually irresistible: “once human downloads are created, there will be a rush for all humans to become downloads. This rush will be encouraged by the fact that, with nano-technology, human-to-human download would be a reversible transformation” (p. 76). In other words, we could slip back into our skin whenever we so desired. I don’t know if this may fairly be styled a more optimistic expression of Bill Joy’s announcement, over a decade ago now, that robotic intelligence would surely elbow us warm-blooded types out of existence very soon. Is it optimism, then, to argue that a software program can be developed which will allow nothing of our souls to escape? With Christianity like that, who needs…

But here’s my pith of business. I have now heard or read from numerous sources (let us never forget Ray Kurzweil) that we might as well start thinking about what model of robot we wish to absorb us in this “inevitable” transmigration of souls. The reader will be able to supply other endeavors with a minute’s thought that have been deemed just as ineluctable. Discovering intelligent life on other planets is inevitable; travel to other planets is inevitable; liberation from the burdensome biological method of reproduction is inevitable. Human cloning is inevitable—and so is the mass-production of customized sexual partners (already being pioneered by the Japanese, whose reproduction by any method—meanwhile—has fallen well beneath the replacement rate). We are shown graphs. The graphs exhibit hyperbolae which do not admit of argument. They scale up and up with exponential acceleration. To doubt our imminent arrival upon the peak of Everest is to deny that two and two make four.

In this piece, I wish to cry “foul” on the inevitability of human/AI fusion, and for four specific reasons. None of them has anything to do with adding two and two.

1) The Collapse of the World Economy

I am not an economist, yet even I know that carrying twenty trillion dollars in debt and paying the interest by printing more money cannot have healthy long-term effects. The good news (from a nationalist’s perspective) is that the rest of the industrialized world has reached Stage Five of this terminal disease while we, perhaps, have only arrived at Stage Four. The European Union has sabotaged its currency by underwriting the irrecoverable losses of socialist economies like Greece’s. The government of China is so eager to find the natural resources necessary to sustain its manufacturing boom that it continually pushes several of its smaller neighbors to the brink of war; and even with fresh plunder in hand, the PRC cannot seem to produce high-quality items or to respond to market demand. Lucrative contracts are often awarded by the public sector to the private sector through a labyrinthine process fraught with corruption. Then the winning bidders all too commonly recoup their bribes or maximize their fabulous profits by employing shoddy materials or techniques. Sometimes massive loss of life results, as in the case of scandalously constructed mass-transit systems or metropolitan high-rises.

Even the yuan, therefore, is not poised to pick up the slack once the dollar fully turns into the play-money of a Monopoly game. Technical research-and-development, as we all know, is immensely expensive. Where will the Geek Gods tasked with creating tomorrow’s artificial Adam replenish their finances? Governments will go bankrupt. The private sector will be preoccupied with servicing the most basic needs of consumers, such as food and shelter. Will independently wealthy tycoons of the Bill Gates stamp have sufficiently deep pockets to usher in this digital Eden? But even if they could do so, why would they? What will be the market for that ultimate labor-saving device, the mobile slave-computer who eats only electricity, when the largest corporations themselves are in full collapse? Will military entities collaborate in some unholy alliance, as the Wehrmacht co-opted the work of morally bankrupt geniuses like Neils Bohr and Werner von Braun? Why would they do so—to gain power? But in what regard would an “artificial human” better meet that end than, say, a very clever laser gun or a sonic weapon that turns opponents’ brains to jelly? Indeed, to the extent that AI might supplant a generalissimo as well as a mechanic or technician with its superior abilities, the generalissimo would have a clear motive to destroy all sophisticated robotic research. Military dictators do not ascend to power in order to surrender its reins to some version of themselves that dictates at a more competent level. They like the wine, the women, the adoration, and the executions—and such liking is accessible only in the flesh.

In a scenario which projects perfect economic and political stability well into the present century, our race of noble automatons might truly see the light of day. Who could be naïve enough, however, to rate such a scenario as probable? Only a “white coat” who never leaves his lab.

2) The Intrusion of Natural Catastrophe

In recent years, Hollywood has been enamored of the rogue asteroid/death star scenario, wherein humanity faces extermination either from a 747-sized meteorite’s impact or from a nearby burst of deadly gamma rays. These menaces appear not to be entirely fanciful. Of course, we also know that our Sun will one day blow up.

For the time being, however, it seems safe to say that tomorrow will see a new dawn. Cataclysms of cosmic proportions are obviously rare, since Earth would harbor no life at all if they were otherwise. Indeed, the virtual certainty that some of them (and the absolute certainty that a few of them) will at last overtake us is a strong motive for promoting our technology to new levels. The Sun’s vaporization of the entire solar system need not spell humanity’s doom if, in the meantime, we should figure out how to migrate to and colonize other solar systems. Onward and upward—per aspera ad astra!

Hazards of a much more terrestrial sort surround us already, however. One of these need only outgrow its forerunners by a size or two to threaten human civilization as severely as the Meteor from Hell. Volcanoes erupt every day at some level or other. Once this level should surpass a certain point in a certain case on a certain day, the planet will be enveloped in a sulfurous cloud that stops agricultural production in its tracks and turns rainwater to acid. We’ll be able to do nothing whatever about the event itself, though perhaps prudent planning and a lot of good luck will mitigate its consequences. (Yet when have we ever been guilty of planning for such things?)

When that dark day inevitably arrives, our wealth and resources will be thrown into ex tempore efforts to maximize our chances of survival. Developing artificial intelligence—or Martian landers, or space elevators, or power plants running on nuclear fusion—will be placed on indefinite hold. Procuring potable water and edible food will become the preemptive assignment for the high-tech world over the next several months or years. By the time Dr. Frankenstein returns to his fabricating of the Man-Impersonator, his equipment may be covered in dust and rust. This is assuming, by the way, that the eruption is of a Krakatoan scale. If the super-caldera upon which Yellowstone Park sits should decide to go, no mammal may ever again return to business as usual on planet Earth.

Earthquakes are also a daily occurrence (so much so that we cannot calculate the daily number: about fifteen of Magnitude 7 or above occur every year). The damage done to the Fukushima nuclear facility in 2011 by a quake-driven tsunami is but a sampling of the havoc to whose potential our high-tech lifestyle has left us nakedly exposed. A major quake along the right (or wrong) spot of the San Andreas fault at just the right (or wrong) time of day could easily kill tens of thousands. Life across the continent would be disrupted for months, and perhaps years. The energy and expense required to rebuild essential infrastructure would force exotic research projects onto the back burner. The initiative in the peculiar race to “robotize” humanity might be seized by the Chinese or the Russians; and maybe—thanks to the baton’s being so passed—we could still keep our rendezvous with “human downloads”. One may say of earthquakes, at least, that they seldom have effects on a global scale. Yet their frequency also renders them a much more credible nuisance-factor along the highway to utopian progress. China is indeed home to some of the most crippling earthquakes on earth, in social terms. Furthermore, a relationship appears to exist between quakes and advanced technology, making the technically more progressive nations also those that are increasingly exposed to such catastrophes. The leeching of groundwater into the earth’s crust caused (unwittingly) by constructing huge dams and (deliberately) by the controversial technique known as fracking correlates pretty convincingly with the sudden proliferation of near-surface quakes in areas once free of them.

Solar flares are a regular occurrence in any star’s lifetime. A particularly energetic solar storm would fry our power grid and leave us scrambling, once again, for the means to supply our most basic needs. Water treatment plants would no longer pump or purify, food would not be delivered to grocery stores by any recent generation of computer-equipped vehicle, and warmth and light would be accessible only to those retrograde souls who had a few matches on hand. The so-called Carrington Event of 1859 left telegraph lines fried all over New England; the same species of solar storm today would shut down North American society for perhaps two years, during which as much as ninety percent of the population would perish of various causes.

What kind of strides would the AI crowd be taking in those years, do you think?

Of course, the EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) event is fully producible by man-made means, as well: that is, by a terrorist act. I have ignored such catastrophe in my list, not because it is any less likely than the natural sort (it grows more likely every day), but because it is redundant with that sort. In fact, part and parcel of our advancing technological sophistication is the enhanced ability of evil minds to harness nature on behalf of vast destruction. The carnage of 9/11 was made possible by skyscrapers and fuel-laden jet aircraft. Relatively untutored saboteurs were able to play with the laws of combustion and gravity because we supplied them with the tools to do so

3) The Self-Sabotage of the Marketplace

When I was in first grade, I recall being captivated by an issue of My Weekly Reader that featured a futuristic city being circled by streamlined monorail trains. I thought that I had never seen anything half so dream-like, and I was excited to find that I would live in that city when I grew up. A fully confident forecast slated its date of arrival for about 1990, as I remember (or certainly some time in the latter twentieth century). Although first-graders consider anyone over thirty to be as ancient as Santa Claus, I could tell that I would still be able to get about quite well enough to stroll from station to station as these shooting stars whisked me around the world.

Of course, it never happened. The imminent adaptation of car culture that we face in the early twenty-first century is complete automation: the driverless “smart” vehicle that transports us safely at a word or two from our imprinted and verified voice. But the traffic remains, and apparently will remain indefinitely; so for the use of fossil fuel, if somewhat diluted or hybridized—and so for the absurd dimensions of the transport which, in the vast majority of cases, carries only one or two passengers. Changes we surely see in today’s automobile. Yet as for overhauling the essential paradigm… it hasn’t happened, and isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Why not? What became of that sensible world so reasonably predicted by the tot’s newspaper?

The answer is no doubt complex, but I would not be inviting excessive controversy if I dropped the small phrase, “special interests”. Once the auto industry geared up for mass production of unprecedented proportions after World War II, it clearly had substantial motivation to resist any new model that would dispose of it entirely. Cars, of course, were “upgraded” from year to year (with “improvement” often defined by subjective taste and irresponsible fancy rather than by criteria of genuine safety and efficiency). To trumpet dubious “improvements” upon existing products is Marketing 101: the latest is always the best. To scrap a complete line of production, however, is a kind of suicide which the eminent rationality of the capitalist system would never contemplate.

And so we kept getting “better” cars, but not anything “other than car”. Indeed, an efficient, vibrant, and popular railway passenger service was quickly dismantled in the Fifties because car and airline transport appealed to so many more constituencies—or, in some cases, appealed more powerfully to industries that already serviced the railroads but smelled a bigger payday. (Motor vehicles and airplanes consume much more oil, for instance, than trains in getting a given load to a given destination.) The Interstate Highway system also created vast new opportunities for the central government to channel money into states and thereby to secure further control over state politics. Governors and mayors lined up far and wide to accept Washington’s patronage and the artificial boom it promised local economies, even though the cost of acceptance was often the ruination of settled urban living, the multiplication of pollution and squalor, and the debasement of local culture to chain-store and drive-thru vulgarity.

In a crowning irony, that crippled, anemic descendant of the monorail dreamed in my childhood—Amtrak—has become an abiding monument to big-government waste, incompetence, and inefficiency. Having exploded a paradigm that would have left our cities cohesive, pedestrian-friendly, relatively quiet, relatively unpolluted, picturesque, stable, and—by the way—very quickly and easily navigated, our architect-rulers now seek to undo the damage by patching conventional passenger train systems in along already existing arteries of car traffic. The price tag for California’s coastal line is climbing toward a trillion dollars—and the train will more or less parallel I 99, nor has one rail of it yet been laid.

The moral of this story has to do with corporatism—that fearful orca that devours free enterprise as it deceptively swims the waters of the private sector. The genius of capitalism is that it unleashes creativity and innovation as no other system can… but its tragic flaw is that, once big winners begin to emerge, they can bring really constructive innovation to a screeching halt. Large companies can undercut small companies in the marketing of similar products until the latter are driven out of business; then the former, whose resources allow them to absorb enormous short-term losses, declare victory and elevate prices to recoup the earlier sacrifice. Large companies can buy up smaller companies that threaten an existing product line with a brilliant adaptation; then the former can continue to market the tired vision already in full production and keep the menacing novelty under lock and key. Large companies also welcome, and often court, the intrusions of government regulation and supervision. Under the guise of showing concern about public safety and product quality, a corporation may encourage new legislation that confronts its smaller competitors with the need to employ attorneys and to make extravagant and costly changes in the workplace. Again, the final result is usually the extinction of the small fish in an ocean prowled by a plesiosaur.

Applying this tragic flaw to the development of AI, I would observe that the finances needed to develop a machine more intelligent in every significant way than a human and capable of maintaining itself independently of humans could flow from only two sources: the private sector and the public sector. Why will private citizens wish to buy such a machine? Consumers will no doubt crave it for mostly frivolous reasons (and I use the word “crave” advisedly: as noted above, the Japanese have already made great strides in producing a line of robotic geisha girls). Owners of businesses may view an employee as manna from heaven who can work around the clock and the calendar with exponentially enhanced output… provided that “robo-employee” performs a strict regimen of tasks. Why these same entrepreneurs would desire a robot so human that it passes the Turing test, however, is not at all easy to imagine. Inasmuch as many of us humans have noticed a pronounced tendency in management to fire underlings who know more than their bosses, creating such a super-employee seems, if anything, a marketing cul-de-sac.

Likewise, would an elite body of oligarchs or generalissimos really want a fleet of machines capable of originating behavior as well as obeying orders—capable of beating the master at chess a thousand times out of a thousand? I remarked earlier that ambitious, grandiose politicos enjoy the effects of power in the flesh: they do not construct their kingdoms so that some synthetic demigod may occupy the throne. Under the circumstances, they would be as likely to incinerate the AI incubator as to provide further funding for it if the luminous fetus within were equipped to do more than routine hatchet-jobs.

From what source, then, will flow the substantial capital needed for a generation of whiz kids to construct our species’ replacement—its “upgrade”? What is the projected market for that upgrade? What will keep it from being derailed into Siri with the body of a young Angelina Jolie, just as My Weekly Reader’s monorail ended up as Amtrak?

4) The Degradation of “Spiritual Intelligence” in Constant Contact with Machines

Everything I have written to this point is a pragmatic sort of objection against the arrogant certainty that material conditions favoring the triumph of robotic “human replacements” are rock-solid sure. My final protest is of a different sort. It has nothing to do with the availability of funds, or with the academic or political climate, or even with the planetary climate or the geological heaves and throes of our Mother Earth. It has entirely to do with us—with what we’re doing to ourselves, to our own minds. I believe that AI will prove unable to replicate the human spirit because the spirit that the designers of AI seek to replicate will grow increasingly less human. Said another way, I believe that we will become easier and easier for a machine to impersonate, not because the machine will have grown ever more like us, but because we will have grown ever more like the machine.

So, yes, AI will succeed in passing the Turing test during this century. It will be able to convince most human beings that it, too, is human. Yet it will enjoy such success only because the human beings evaluating its performance will themselves no longer be as human as their ancestors were. We will have lost too much of our humanity to hold up our end of the test.

With advanced technology, at least (and probably with all sorts of technology), humans have inevitably ended up adapting themselves to an innovation whose original selling point was that it would allow them to be more “themselves”—to do more of what they wanted to do, to live at a more natural pace. Fire liberated humans from shuddering in wet caves like short-lived animals; but it also somewhat subjugated them to the need of preserving a flame, or at any rate of inhabiting spaces where a new flame could be stirred up and fed. That could hardly have seemed much of a sacrifice… but consider, now, the car: that technological marvel which revolutionized the twentieth-century lifestyle more than any other single creation. Humans were liberated from having to devote hours of every day simply to traveling from one location to another. They didn’t have to incur the expense of raising and keeping horses when the distances were great. In more urbanized circumstances, they didn’t have to collect at a central pick-up point to await a trolley or a train, and then to negotiate another journey from the transport’s destination to their personal target, perhaps many miles away. Travel was swift, it required no sweat or muscle, and it could be tailored to suit the individual’s desires. What a generous, even miraculous discovery of free time was herein made for the common man to “be more human”!

… Except that things didn’t quite turn out that way. The vastly enhanced ability to reach remote destinations with negligible expenditure of time and effort caused more and more destinations to be added to the daily agenda. Enjoying one’s leisure soon meant driving one’s car to a spot far from home, not exploring one’s inner being; the new abundance in free time failed to produce a renaissance in poetry-writing or landscape-painting. As more and more people insisted on participating in the constant transit to farther and farther scenes of amusement, roads became congested, travel time increased, related anxiety and irritation rose, and actual injury and fatality became a regularly attendant circumstance to any driving venture. Neighborhoods were restructured, as well. The “car’s house” routinely began to consume about a quarter as much square footage as the house of its human family. Residences were necessarily pushed farther away from each other. Soon zoning laws created to accommodate car traffic also exiled small Mom-and-Pop shops and corner drugstores from living areas. Now the typical town-dweller had to drive to the place of employment and the scenes of necessary shopping as well as to recreational destinations. The car had become an absolutely vital tool for modern living. As a proportion of the family budget, it claimed quite as big a chunk as a team of horses had once done. It needed expensive maintaining, rejuvenating, insuring… and, of course, it needed gas: more and more gas to fuel more and more driving. Enormous industrial hydras developed whose tentacles reaching not only through the national economy but also far around the globe. Wars were fought to keep cars rolling. Young people died by tens of thousands every year, not just when one car ran into another, but sometimes, too, when the nation needed to secure a supply of ambrosia for the car-god to lap up.

Did this process make us more human? Or did we sacrifice something of our humanity, rather, to become more like appendages of our automobiles?

As digitalization rapidly engulfs us, we are likewise subtly adapting our thought patterns to the machines that were supposed to have assisted our thinking. I have made this argument for years, especially in the context of television, without gaining much traction in the academic community; for academics, though a fertile source of “tree-hugging” rhetoric, also pride themselves on being avant-garde and cutting-edge. Along with a market-savvy private sector, the educational establishment has indeed played a major part in forcing electronic technology (as opposed to print and paper) upon young minds. My essential case twenty-five years ago was that adolescents had acquired a quasi-tribal attachment to superficially defined groups and a tendency to lurch at and embrace familiar clichés from heavy television-viewing. They judged the book by its cover, so to speak—because they seldom saw actual books, and TV and the movies (as Walter Ong astutely observed of oral tales) thrust important happenings entirely into the physically, communally visible realm.

I see nothing in subsequent electronic media which has done other than accelerate this process. Even phone calls have grown hopelessly passé; and texting—that outrageous misnomer whose practice mutilates and all but dispenses with text—is yielding now to Instagram. More and more, we are thinking with the instantaneity of the computer… except that we are not computers, so we are merely chasing after the speed of the e-brain and sacrificing thought to achieve it. We acquire our information in tiny, predigested bites the way a piranha tears at a carcass. When we have news to transmit, as well, it comes out in “tweetable” fragments (often obscene or insulting so as to outshout the competition) or in “emojis”. We are not yet de facto imbeciles, but our daily exchanges plumb ever deeper reaches of imbecility.

Even in our political decisions, which we dramatically (sometimes melodramatically) stress will decide the fate of the world, we have lapsed into a “toggle on/toggle off” kind of binary thinking. We have no patience for parsing anything so nebulous as a constitutional right. Rather, we want things fixed: this must be fixed, and that must be fixed. We want “stuff that works”. That one over there… he says that he can fix it. Thumbs up! And that other one made the wrong answer: thumbs down. Until the First Amendment can be submitted to the “yes/no” protocol of “on/off”, “save/delete”, “scroll up/scroll down”, “checkout/keep shopping”, it will have to languish in the outer darkness of public indifference. We’ve heard enough talk. Download, print out, configure… execute command.

People who think this way will be extremely easy for robots to imitate. They will not, however, be people in any profoundly human sense, so the imitation will be but a perfect copy of a weak and pathetic forgery. The response may well come, “What does it matter? If humans become spiritually blunted primates, than the clever robot will in fact emerge superior to its model rather than a mere equal. On with progress!”

Yet I insist upon the contrary position. Just because the machine convinces us to annihilate our subtlety, our wonder, our curiosity, and our irrepressible sense of truths beyond comprehension doesn’t mean that our pitiful remnant, pulsing with unexamined and purely visceral needs, is the new humanity. To me, this all means that we will have lost our humanity as AI converges upon us, and that the humane will forever lie hidden in a space safely beyond the languages of zeroes and ones.

John Harris is The Center’s founder and current president.  He teaches English at the University of Texas at Tyler.  His new blog site may be found at