Thursday, July 19

Another look at Artificial Intelligence

Of course defining artificial intelligence is important and my references in this article assume we are talking about the performance of tasks  previously only associated with human beings. Such things as visual perception, speech recognition, and complex decision-making which involves inter machine communication dependent on the adoption of a universal language.  

The more sinister view, until fairly recently confined to the realm of science fiction, is that futuristic idea artificial intelligence may exceed human intelligence. This was Hawking’s fear, which no doubt for most would be dismissed as fanciful. After all a machine can’t know itself can it?  

I’m not that pessimistic about AI yet,  nor do I necessarily subscribe to the more dire predictions. But I do think it makes for some interesting discussions.

Principally the existential dangers it poses might be summarised as follows: That is, the outcome of smarter and smarter machines to ultimately reach superhuman level of intelligence. So that, for most, except for a tiny elite few, we risk becoming entrenched in our existential mud pool due to the limited mentation of the masses. They (the superhuman machines) become the rulers and the slaves represent the masses unable to fathom their depths or compete with these super machines. Hence we surrender our existential control. What could in effect be the surrender of our freedom?  

In the 21st century in my opinion it not so much just the weapons of mass destruction (of which we are reminded) we need to fear, but more so that of likes of knowledge-enabling destructions in cyberspace. The wars that will be fought in the internet as in virtual reality. I think we underestimate the potential attacks on our democracy and the freedoms that could be held hostage under this onslaught. So the  philosophical question is, is this the existential crisis point in human existence as Hawking suggested?  Heidegger talks about being in the world and what being is as in self- reflection. But this kind of inner awareness as suggested by Heidegger could be a programmable search within a specialised language based digitised version of say trillions of downloaded thoughts. A form of computational machine consciousness might ensue. How would that work. ? So, we might direct a question in the form of a requirement or desired end result which then searches the vast data storages to come up with automated results which impact our lives. The way we operate becomes subservient to the computations of the machine whose outcomes are automatically applied throughout society. 
But based on what ethics?
Is this then the cusp of a new era of the perfection of yet another more assiduous form of evil?

Still in its infancy the early signs (confined more to do with machine learning) are not that encouraging, with some of the largest tech firms involved in stealing new technologies and unauthorised selling of private data on a large scale. This inhibits start-ups and is anti-competitive to reduce equitable outcomes. There is a litany of deceptive and unfair business practices enhanced by their flat business structures. Of course we need to separate fact from fiction and ensure accountability of tech giants. That is, in my view, already an existential problem of some magnitude or at least has the capacity to be one in the future. 

People of course, don’t want to think about it. I daresay raising such questions would be met by most seeking to dismiss it as yet another lecture from the elites. But I can’t help but think people also didn’t want to talk about existentialists warnings to society so long ago and which were largely ignored to our detriment.   
But as philosophers we also need to talk about the joys involved. The other side of the argument with some wonderful outcomes for humanity. Such is the nature of our continued existence

Wednesday, July 11

A Philosophers Guide to The Crying Game

IRA member Fergus bonds with Jody, who is a British soldier in their   custody, despite the warnings of cohorts Jude and Maguire. Jody makes Fergus promise, should he be executed, he'll visit his girlfriend, Dil in London. When Fergus flees to the city, he seeks her out. Hounded by threats of retribution by former IRA colleagues, he finds himself now in love with her, only to be shattered by the truth. The violent ending is reminiscent of the fabled ending to the frog and the scorpion; a lack of regard to the nature of things and in revealing that truth.   
The Crying Game story and its themes.
The Crying Game is a meditation on issues facing society and has layered levels of existential themes ripe for discussions. An action packed beginning portrays the betrayal of a local soldier Jordan, seduced by the IRA member Jude, who is then scurried away, to be held captive to be exchanged for the release of one of their members held in custody. Fergus is the far less militant member, and has the task of standing guard over the hooded prisoner Jordan in their hideout. He is totally different to cohorts Jude and Maguire. There are limits to how far he will go to achieve the revolutionary aims which are played out in the film.
Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion.
Jordan introduces the story of the frog and the scorpion to Fergus. The scorpion hitches a ride on the back of the frog to cross the flooded stream on the basis the scorpion tells him he will not sting the frog as both will then drown and perish.
But the scorpion cannot help himself, so he stings the frog halfway across and the frog asks the scorpion why he has stung him as both will now perish. The scorpion replies it is in his nature.  He cannot help it.
One might say the frog is to blame because it was known it is in the nature of a scorpion to always sting those in close quarters. But what of the Scorpion ?, The answer to the fable is the Scorpion says it is in its nature to sting, so that one might think it is not his fault. But as the scorpion said it is in his nature to sting and he cannot help himself, surely he also was at fault because he was untruthful in saying he would not sting the Frog. Even so the disaster was not because he did not tell the truth, but rather the frog relying on the scorpion when he knew it was in his nature to sting. This is one of the underlying themes to the film.
An unlikely Bond.
Jordan convinces Fergus to take off his hood, complaining he cannot breathe, to which Fergus agrees, after conferring with the other terrorists.  Already we see the essential essence of Fergus, who feels for his prisoner’s discomfort, to ignore the consequences of possibly being identified later.
A deep relationship is then established between the two who talk about common interests in life, cricket and the like, whose images then recur throughout the film. Fergus agrees (taking Jordon’s photo) to tell his sweetheart Dil, he is thinking about her in this dark moment in time, if he was to subsequently loose his life.
The is in stark contrast to the other members of the group who become worried Fergus may lose his commitment to the IRA cause, for in the morning he will probably have to execute Jordan. They shield themselves from the emotional impact of what they are doing with the hooded face and by treating the personage of Jordan as a disposable object subservient to their unlimited commitment to the IRA clause.
However Jude is well aware of the nature of Fergus. But where Jude goes off course is in thinking she will be able to sway Fergus into adopting her way of thinking where there are no limits to her commitment to the cause.  
In the morning Fergus takes Jordan out to be executed, but he runs ahead knowing that it is not in Fergus’s nature to shoot him in the back. The ensuing result is Jordan is killed as he runs in front of an oncoming army vehicle and the two central IRA members escape as their hideout is discovered and bombed. 
Relationship with Dil
Fergus flees the scene and in due course makes contact with Dil  to whom he finds himself both romantically inclined and at another level her protector. So, just as Jordan was, so now he feels that responsibility and his feelings are reinforced by the prior shared images that flash before his eyes. But the love he feels is subject to a dramatic end in an explosion of shock and horror when he realises Jill is in fact a man. This raises all sorts of questions about love and how we relate to that from an existential basis. At the very least it provides ample room for discussion on both the physical and mental aspects of both and how it plays out in societal attitudes. 
Fergus finds an uneasy way through the relationship just as his two cohorts from the IRA  again make contact and force him to agree to execute a judge as otherwise they will seek retribution.
Fergus has told Dil about his past association and she becomes aware of the plan and ties him to his bed. In the closing scenes Maguire guns down the judge, but is killed in the cross fire with police. Jude, on returning to the flat is killed by Dil but Fergus takes the wrap and is sentenced to prison. The film closes with Dil visiting Fergus in prison.
This evocative film shows the Satrean idea that our lives (essence) are the product of our life choices, and, during this time there are endless transformational possibilities.
The different layers to this complex film take one into a brief foray of racial issues to the political (IRA versus English) to pose many existential questions. There is ample opportunity to discuss these existential themes outside of the usual black and white categories, the physical and mental aspects to love and the fable of the frog and the scorpion.  

Saturday, July 7

A phlosophers guide to 'It’s a Wonderful life'

Frank Capra’s film has become a warm favourite firmly ensconced in western pop culture. But on further analysis one finds any number of implicit philosophical existential themes.
We are introduced to the likable protagonist, George Bailey, who as young boy rescues a younger brother from drowning. George outlines his future dreams which are thwarted by a series of obstacles which see him opting to make choices always in the best interest of the citizens of Bedford Falls. His choices prevent the ruthless slum landlord and hard nosed banker, Potter, from gaining control of the local Building and Loan firm. George has to give up his grand plans to see the world to run the firm, after his father has a stroke, to wrestle control away from the acquisitive desires of Potter. So that the condition of the board to back George is contingent on George staying on to run the firm.  Subsequently he faces a series of hurdles that culminate in the climax to the film as George experiences deep feelings of despair. Contemplating jumping from a bridge to end his life, Clarence, an angelic figure, yet to earn his wings, appears on the scene. He knows if he jumps into the water George’s good nature will prompt him to follow and attempt to save him. So the two end up in the water and Clarence later listens to George as he despairingly says he wishes he never would have been born. Clarence grants him his wish and shows him all that would happen in what has become of his renamed town now called Portersville in his absence. George realises the shocking results in his absence. That contrasts with all of the positive effects his choices have made and finally shouts in jubilation. I am alive. I want to live! I want to live! as the film ends on this high note     
Analysis of existential themes
George’s future aspirations
 I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know . . . and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long . . .
But Georg’s plans are thwarted as he rushes in to prevent a proposal by Potter to take over the firm following his father’s stroke which will end the more generous policies to the folk at Bedford falls.
Although George wins out it is conditional on George staying on and to run the firm. With a heavy heart George reluctantly agrees and gives the money he has saved for college, to his brother Harry.
Here we have an example of what Jean Paul Satre meant when he talked about experiencing anguish. George feels compelled to be true to himself and the citizens of Bedford Falls, so he must accept that responsibility. We can also draw a parallel to the story of Abraham referenced by Satre and Soren Kierkegaard. Both conclude Abraham must choose on the basis Abraham is the law maker for both himself but also for all of his people, to whom he feels a deep responsibility.
Subsequently, in the film there is a run on the firm just as George is about to set off on a honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary. Potter offers 50 cents in the dollar to shareholders of the firm to take it over.  George uses the $2000 saved for his honeymoon to partly satisfy some clients and quell the fears of the angry mob.  
You’re thinking about this place all wrong, as if I have the money back in the safe. The money’s not here. Well, your money’s in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours. And the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Maitlin’s house, and a hundred others. You’re lending them the money to build, and then they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can…. Now, listen to me, I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets a hold of this Building and Loan Company , there will never be another decent house built in this town…. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten, what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed, remember last year, when things weren’t going so well, you couldn’t make your payments? Well, you didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would’ve let you keep it? Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Potter isn’t selling, he’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not…. Now, we can get through this thing all right; we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
Whilst George is again successful in turning the tide against Potter he nevertheless laments the decision. He realises Mary has left and their honeymoon money is gone. He also would have liked to have given all of the money owed to the people of Bedford Falls but that is outside of his control. This illustrates Sartre’s point about our freedom and the angst that comes with it in the decisions we are free to make. For this is not something human beings relish as we prefer stability, and only seek out that freedom when we feel it is comfortable to do so. So Satre talks about how people search for strategies that avoid the inevitable anguish of freedom experienced by George deciding to remain true to his authentic self and to continue to have a deep responsibility to the citizens of Bedford Falls.
A further scene occurs on Christmas Eve which gives rise to a feeling of despair. This is the films climax as citizens welcome home George’s brother. Harry was a heroic fighter pilot who saved a troop transport by gunning down a Bomber. But meanwhile a crisis is looming since Uncle Billy absentmindedly mislays $8000 to be banked.
George, in desperation, asks Potter for a loan, but he refuses.
But Potter discovers George has a life insurance policy.
“Why, George, you’re worth more dead than alive!”
The chilling moment of despair is depicted in the scene on the bridge as George thinks about jumping into the raging water below.
At that very moment, guardian angel Clarence Odd body appears and jumps into the river knowing George’s good nature means he will try to rescue him.
George carries out the rescue and learns Clarence is really a second class wingless angel sent to help him and in the process also earns his wings.
Then George tells Clarence he is wasting his time since he wishes he’d never been born.
This inspires Clarence to grant George his wish. George then gets a guided tour of Pottersville (what Bedford Falls has become) in his absence and sees all of the shocking outcomes first hand.     
George then begs Clarence to give him back his life and in the emotive scenes that follow he jubilantly returns prepared to embrace life, good or bad, with a new sense of gusto. On returning home he is astonished to find the townsfolk have raised the money he needed. The film depicts George as finally believing he has indeed a wonderful life.
In these later scenes we can see how George struggles for life affirmation as in Nietzsche’s questioning of the state of the spirit.
Rather obviously George in his statement that he wishes he was never having been born is lacking in spirit. But the intervention by Clarence, convinces George he should return from whence he wished to exit. So that George wants to return to life and accept the good with the bad. This is in accord with Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ so that we return to the same state that preceded all of our life experiences. In a life to be lived to the fullest, in life affirmation that gives us that zest for life. ‘Whatever cannot kill me can only make me stronger.’     
So this the film is not just very popular western pop culture but rather one that gives graphic support to the ideas of those existential philosophers we seek to understand.