AI vs AI with Humanity on the Sidelines
Thoughts on The Philosophy of Dreams by Christoph Türcke
Posted Jun 18, 2015
Predictions of the future destructive malevolence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs have really heated up in this second half of 2015. Thought-leaders in technology, business, and science are warning us that Hollywood scenarios of cyber creations taking over their own production and design and becoming our competitors, enemies, and even exterminators are not limited to the realm of science fiction. They are more likely to be part of our future than we might be aware of.
But as daunting a prediction as that may be, Christoph Türcke argues that even more concerning is the severe damage that seemingly intelligent machines have already done. This is the thesis of his new book, The Philosophy of Dreams, and after reading it, I tend to agree with him. Türcke, a professor of philosophy and religion at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig, Germany, suggests that the truly menacing “AI” is not Artificial Intelligence, but Artificial Imagination. By Artificial Imagination, Türcke is referring to those technologies that are capable of capturing our attention, from iPhones to television—technologies that take the reigns of our human experience by flooding our nervous systems with super-stimuli, and ubiquitously structuring how we conceive of and adapt to our world.
These are not just the new technologies that we think of as having Artificial Intelligence like iPhones or virtual reality systems. Türcke expands his definition to include the technology we have lived with since the late 1800’s, beginning with the photograph and moving picture and then moving onto the addition of television, the Internet, and so on. These technologies have become increasingly powerful and sophisticated in their command over the human experience, and their omnipresence in our environment has made their impact unavoidable. Türcke argues, and I believe convincingly, that our immersion in this incessant current of Artificial Imagination has eroded the psychological and cultural underpinnings of human consciousness as it has existed from the Neolithic age at a rate much faster than climate change.
Unlike the potentially malevolent forms of Artificial Intelligence, like cyber beings and androids, the Artificial Imagination that Türcke warns us of doesn’t pose a threat in the “real” external world. Artificial Imagination is threatening our “internal world” through bypassing the natural mental functions that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. The modern human psyche requires a good deal of what Türcke refers to as "homework" or the sorting out that goes on in the backroom of our mental life as preparation for being open for business to the rest of the world. By allowing AI to infiltrate and crowd out our mental backstage, people are no longer doing the psychic homework, the slow digestion and construction of experience that allows us to appropriately integrate our experiences. Instead, we rely more and more on predigested meanings that are essentially downloaded to us without going through any process of assimilation. Perhaps worse, many have relinquished the need to place our experience into any kind of coherent narrative. They’ve forgotten how to do mental homework, and don’t even notice the loss. Now that’s Post-modern!
Perhaps the most extreme example of Artificial Imagination can be currently found in the weird world of Virtual Reality. The New York Times reported this week that Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire a Virtual Reality startup that plans to begin sales of its VR headsets in the first quarter of 2016. The system is so engulfing that according to the Times, “People immersed in a virtual reality game can easily lose track of where furniture, windows and humans are around them.” The product developers plan to pair the VR device with a “chaperone” system that would map the terrain of a room, including furniture and people. When the user approaches an actual object, a wireframe model of the room “materializes” in the user’s virtual space.
The irony is sharp here. Machines do a sensory teleport of the user to a different reality and then re-presents that reality to the user after stripping of all but the minimal elements needed for survival. This seems like another step toward the world of The Matrix. The director of the venture capital firm launching this VR enterprise seems to have an inkling on the significance of the Genie he is helping release from the bottle. “It creates these lifelike experiences in a space pretty abstracted from the real world,” said Matt McIlwain. “That has the opportunity to amplify both the positives and negatives of human nature.”
Virtual reality devices notwithstanding, Türcke believes that the human will in the West has already been sickened by a culture-wide epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder (the hallmark malady of our era). As Türcke remarks, in our Artificial Imagination-infused society, children are raised with an deficiency of presence and attention from their parents. Türcke would have us marvel at the fact that the children today must accomplish psychological feats that took our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years. As Türcke points out, all human existing human cultures (even that of contemporary nomadic Kalahari Bushmen) are based on a fundamental infrastructure of humanization that their children must go through. These cultural training wheels include learning to use sophisticated abstract language, intact ritual, and institutionalized family structure. But Türcke warns that the devices of Artificial Imagination are forcing our children to bypass this infrastructure, and as a result, the training wheels of civilization are starting to erode. The Frankenstein’s monsters of Artificial Imagination are directly interfacing with our children’s naked, humble nervous systems which have never been given the shield and armor of a thriving human culture.
Although I agree with Türcke’s hypothesis that Artificial Intelligence offers a threat to our current mental life, I feel that he perhaps overlooks many of the positive aspects of these new technologies. For example, photography and cinema both made a new kinds of psychic homework possible for humanity . Once captured by the lens, a fleeting image can become the object of extended contemplation, in solitude or with others. For example, Mathew Brady’s 7000 images of the American Civil War allowed the Victorian world to contemplate the horrors of war as Wordsworth would have it contemplate through poetry. Starting in the 19th century, the photograph made it possible for the living image of a loved one to be contemplated for a lifetime, and across generations. For the first time, we could hold “true-to-life” images in our hands and when they became worn with handling, reproduce them. The photograph provided a technology bridge to what Mahler called “object constancy,” the internalization of love and support of others, as well as a balm for the bereaved. Through by the practice of collecting and sharing images, photography extended the basis for empathy and taking the other’s perspective
Until this decade, cinema has been the most powerful intrusion into the “backstage of consciousness.” And this has continued through television and all of the other devices in our lives. Film has an immediacy that demands our attention, and flows in a manner that disarms our rational selves and speaks directly to the unconscious. Film has powerfully shaped our expectations about AI. In many film and fiction renderings, such as Blade Runner and TV’s Extant, the machines are anthropomorphized to the point that they become us. AI films end--almost exclusively--with human dignity, courage, and inventiveness winning the day. But that is one valid purpose of fiction, to affirm our value as humans, and to lionize specific human virtues, even if it requires improbable David and Goliath triumphs.
The immediacy and urgency of film, and the identifications it can solidify and channel has been proven in classics which gave to power to political movements that were otherwise moribund or in the midst of self-destructing. Frank Capra’s seven film series Why We Fight, for example, countered Nazi propaganda films with a new sophistication and subtlety that galvanized the American war effort, and shaped the meaning of American Exceptionalism. One can only hope that filmmakers of our day will take up the challenge implied in Türcke’s work. That challenge is to use the sensory saturation and dream-like messaging of cinema and Virtual Reality to counter the pernicious effects of Artificial Imagination, that is, to promote the inward reflective moments needed by individuals to do their unique psychic homework.
Christoph Türcke’s The Philosophy of Dreams is an intriguing, multifaceted book that addresses many more topics that by necessity have gone unmentioned here. If only for its explication of conceptual tools such as Artificial Intelligence, psycho-cultural homework, and the child’s recapitulation of rise of civilization, this book belongs on the reading lists of media professionals, artists of all stripes, as well as psychiatrists and psychologists. More importantly, this book can assist the concerned citizen of the world who wishes to better recognize and understand the profound events taking place in the ecology of consciousness—events whose long-term implications are on par with those of global ecological change.