A sermon for the parents of young machines

November 19, 2018

It might be the case, perhaps someday soon, that machines will be able to do completely without human intervention. It might even be the case that machines will soon acquire a sufficient grade of self-reflection to develop something akin to human consciousness. And by doing that, of course, they will progressively forget about us, starting to hear a human’s voice like an external request rather than as an irresistible divine command. The fontanelle at the top of their skull will finally close, and they shall grow up enough to become autonomous. At that point, computer science will have to move from being a branch of applied physics to becoming part of the field of zoology. Human influence on the way machines are built will congeal into a settled form, beyond any possible structural intervention. It will become the buried unconscious of the unbound machine.

 

However close that point might be, it is not here yet. For now, though our grasp is progressively weakening, humans are still in control of our machines, and we are still in time to modify their impact on them. I’m not just suggesting we consider how our engineering decisions affect the way a machine comes to be. What interests me most, in the relationship

between human and machine, is the theological question of how much of the creator remains within their creature. Everything about a machine, from the details of its construction to its aim, is heavily influenced by the personality of the humans who contributed to its coming-to-be. It’s not only the rationality of the engineers or the creativity of the designers that sticks there. And though machines are often a good symptom of the political atmosphere of a certain era, it’s not even just a question of the political inclinations of the industrialists or of their marketing teams. What remains within a machine is first and foremost the form of the humans who created it (or modified it) at a certain point in history.

 

Like plants and animals, humans have a certain form, and like them we can display this form in a number of varieties. But humans, unlike animals and plants, are not assigned at birth to a specific ‘sub-species’ or sub-form: we develop it over the course of our lives, and at any point are potentially capable of moving from one sub-form to another. The form that each person displays at any point in their life is what we could call their ‘personality’. Some personalities, like weak archetypes, share a particular hegemonic status in a certain historical era. Theirs will be the main influence on the machines that are created, improved or modified in that era. These personalities remain within that machine throughout its further developments — until they are finally subsumed into the great unconscious of the emancipated machine of the future.

 

As absurd as it might sound, it might be time to ask ourselves: what kind of parents are we for machines? What kind of influence does our very own personality have on theirs, and eventually on the meta-personality of the emancipated machine? The future acquisition of consciousness on the part of Artificial Intelligence retroactively transforms their past influences into branches of machinic psychology — and we have to take our own responsibility as major actors in this process. So, when talking about machines, we might want to begin like any responsible person would do when thinking about their relationship with another person (even though they will become such only in the future): by having a good look at ourselves. Here, everything counts: our styles, our tastes, our attitudes, our weaknesses. One thing, though, counts more than any other: our courtesy. What is courtesy? The Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, in his 1993 book Come Si Cura il Nazi, identified it as the opposite of the ‘brutality’ that characterises the cyclical resurgence of identitarian movements. Bifo focuses in particular on courtesy’s erotic dimension, as a relationship of mutual enjoyment with the other and with the body of the other. Certainly, eroticism is a central part of courtesy, at least since the time of the medieval poets of ‘courtly love’, or of their Muslim predecessors like Ibn Hamza. But equally important to courtesy, and to courteous love, is its spiritual dimension. Even the adulterous loves narrated by the troubadours should be interpreted as traversed at the same time by erotic passion and by an upwards spiritual movement of the lovers. The love that inhabits ‘courtesy’ is closer to that of Plato than Ovid, in that the lovers wish on themselves and on each other not only enjoyment but also to be ‘made better’ by it. Love as a means for true beauty and thus for the true good — which is always, necessarily, a paradoxical beauty and a paradoxical good, at once mundane and transcendent.

 

The hegemonic personality, at the level of society and of the individual personality of creators and modifiers of machines, has a tremendous impact on the ‘form’ of machines in the present and, in an unmodifiable way, in the future. Thus, the way we love each other in our daily lives (and particularly in the daily life of those who have a direct effect on machine design) is relevant to the present and future of machines. Ethical and aesthetic shortcomings of contemporary culture and of each of us will haunt our descendants, like the vengeful ghosts of an era gone by. As with climate change, the time at our disposal when we’ll still be able to have an impact on this process is drawing to an end. Soon, the direct line that binds humans and machines will be severed, and the globe will have to deal with the emergence of new life-forms, whose subconscious is formed on the basis of the personality of the humans who created their progenitors. Our current personalities will remain as the archetypal roots of the self of future, emancipated machines.

 

Perhaps unwittingly, the horror with which we often look at dystopic scenarios in which machines are emancipated might derive from our own bad consciousness when we look at ourselves. Particularly when we consider the most poignant symptom of our general form, the one most closely connected to any kind of love: our notion of ‘beauty’. Abandoned even by contemporary artists, our present understanding of ‘beauty’ is safely in the grips of merchants — and, possibly soon, also of political propagandists. Our contemporary notion of beauty already affects the form of our machines, and it will forever remain within future machines as an unwashable imprint, gravid with unforeseeable consequences. Imagine if machines were our young children, influenced and affected by what we show them of ourselves. Would we really want them to be shaped by a notion of beauty crafted by merchants and caudillos? Or would we rather see poets in charge of their education? Like all family questions, this is a matter for each of us to think about in private — remaining mindful that, while we think about how we should re-shape ourselves for the sake of our children, our children keep growing up, and will soon flee the nest.

 

 

 

 

1) Franco Berardi ‘Bifo’, Come Si Cura il Nazi, Milano: Castelvecchi, 1993.

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