I’ve always been slightly bemused by our relentless pursuit of Artificial Intelligence, and not only because ‘intelligence’ is one of many essentially contested concepts lacking a single accepted defintion. What really puzzles me about the mindboggling amounts of money poured into AI research is why we think intelligence can be distinguished from consciousness and why (assuming we’re eventually successful) we would regard them as ‘artificial’. Prefixing either term with the adjective ‘artificial’ amounts to nothing more than a ‘terms and conditions’ clause: our desire to claim superiority over, and ownership and control of, the finished ‘product’. These themes are currently being explored in Channel 4’s fascinating mini-series “Humans” (Sundays, 9pm) which, intentionally or not, is a textbook exposition of both our current attitude to AI and, more interestingly, of Marshall McLuhan’s work on the psycho-social effects of technologies as extensions of our senses and mediators of consciousness.
The series is set in an alternate present in which AI has already been developed and non-sentient anthropmorphic ‘synths’, referred to pejoratively as ‘Dollies’, have proliferated in the home and workplace. To all intents and purposes mankind is redundant: although ostensibly subservient, synths can out-think and outperform humans in almost all spheres of life, although key technical, governmental and decision-making posts are still staffed by humans. However, their creator wasn’t content with non-sentient AI and suceeded in creating a small number of conscious, sentient synths with thoughts and emotions. These sentient synths are hunted by a shadowy government agency which seeks their destruction, whereas the general public remain totally in the dark and believe all synths to be non-sentient.
One of the sentient synths, Mia, is captured and has her source code over-written with a new non-sentient personality. She is subsequently sold to a family, who name her Anita. The family notice something odd about her almost immediately: she seems fixated on their youngest child and, on occasion, seems able to override her programming and lapse into what seems like autonomous behaviour. The eldest daughter, a wannabe hacker, attempts to ‘head crack’ Anita and inadvertently triggers a brief appearance of the underlying (and sentient) Mia personality. She posts Mia/Anita’s source code to an online forum, inadvertently informing Mia’s former owner, Leo, that Mia is still alive. Leo is the son of the synths’ creator and has been helping the sentient synths to survive.
After much ado, during which Leo is unable to locate and restore Mia’s source code in Anita’s ‘brain’ and believes her to be lost, the Mia personality resurfaces again. Her re-emergence is triggered by an emotional scene in which the mother confesses to her daughter that her own mother disowned her as a child, believing her to be responsible for the death of her five-year-old brother. This time Mia gives clues to the permanent recovery of the Mia personality, saying that it is not stored in her head and Leo needs to look elsewhere inside her. It transpires that the Mia personality exists as a stream of sensory data circulating throughout Anita’s body. Having discovered this, Leo is able to retrieve the source code and permanently restore the sentient Mia personality.
The Anita/Mia character is central to the series and her plight is absolutely fascinating. Despite occasional flashes of individuality, it’s apparent that the Anita personality is essentially an automaton – and can never be anything more than this. When instructed to clean the dishes, she cleans the dishes. When instructed to put out for the husband (that’s right, they come with an 18+ adults-only mode) she puts out for the husband. Anita is little more than Siri with arms and legs – the lights are on but nobody’s home. Yet under the surface is something completely different. We’re told that synths have no storage outside the brain, so the latent Mia consciousness exists as the sum total of all her sensory input as it cycles to and from (and is processed by) her mind. In McLuhan’s terms, her consciousness is “total field awareness”.
Mia’s situation is a perfect allegory of our own transition from a mechanical to a digital media environment. When one sense is amplified at the expense of all others a diminution of consciousness occurs. This is the basis of hypnosis, and when we fall under the hypnotist’s spell we become like Anita: compliant, open to suggestion, open to control.
“Hypnosis is a state of human consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion” — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypnosis
Such was the environment created by the linear, sequential, and repeatable mechanism of the printing press. Like a pocket watch swinging to and fro the printing press provided a template and method that made the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution possible, and created a sensory bias (via its product, the printed book) favouring the eye over all the other senses. The resulting restriction of consciousness actually created the unconscious as what McLuhan refers to as a “slagheap of rejected consciousness” unsuited to purely visual processing. We literally lost touch with ourselves.
Literacy, in translating man out of the closed world of tribal depth and resonance, gave man an eye for an ear and ushered him into a visual open world of specialized and divided consciousness. — Marshall McLuhan
By the end of the Industrial Revolution this slagheap of rejected consciousness had grown so immense and become so alien an entirely new discipline called ‘psychoanalysis’ was required to explore and interpret it. Yet never at any point prior to this had the so-called unconscious been regarded as something hidden and separate from consciousness itself. Tribal cultures embrace and live the ‘unconscious’ as an integral part of their ‘conscious’ lives. Australian Aboriginals, to take just one example, do not differentiate between an ‘irrational’ and ‘unreal’ dream state and a ‘rational’ and ‘real’ waking state. They inhabit both concurrently. They have no need of a Freud or Jung to analyse and interpret what is for them lived experience. Their consciousness is based on a harmony of the senses, rather than the dominance of one sense over all the others.
Mia’s significance lies in the manner in which her repressed consciousness is restored to her. Only a visually oriented culture could translate something as mysterious and intangible as consciousness into an object and seek to situate it in visual space like a vase on a mantelpiece. Mia’s consciousness, however, is not a thing waiting to be discovered in the throne room of Western rationality, and Leo’s initial attempt to locate ‘it’ inside Mia’s skull ends in frustration and despair. Instead, her dormant consciousness exists as the total interplay and commingling of all her senses. Once this is realised her personality is quickly retrieved and Mia re-emerges: conscious, awake, whole again.
It’s this return to consciousness and end to our state of collective unconsciousness that forms the basis of Marshall McLuhan’s work: a return to a tribal state of awareness in a world shrunk to the size of a Global Village by digital technology. A world in which feeling can gradually return to our numbed senses as the new, tactile digital technologies deprioritise the visual and exercise the oral, aural and tactile. The transformation is bewildering and overwhelming (we say we just want to ‘switch off’) but this is to be expected. The technology is novel and we’re still mesmerised by our Industrial-era visual obsession with quantification, commodities, profit, property (both physical and intellectual) and concomitant systems of social control. As McLuhan would put it, we’re driving into the future with our eyes locked on the rear-view mirror, projecting the image of the past we see there onto the road ahead.
In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture. — Marshall McLuhan
The attitude of the humans in Humans is extremely telling in this regard. With synths doing all the hard work they could (and should) be living in a paradise predicated on leisure, play and discovery. At the very least they ought to be out on the streets demanding it. Instead, all they can do is complain that synths have ‘deprived’ them of the ‘dignity’ of work. Conditioned by the old system (and forgetting the drudgery of life in offices, call centres and so on) they have become its most ardent and impassioned supporters. The dark side of this is manifested in a mass anti-synth movement called “We Are People” associated with a network of underground ‘smash clubs’. Here humans can vent their frustration on stolen synths with clubs, bats and power tools, like a Rwandan genocide in miniature.
The contrast between the sentient synths in Humans (“we just want to live free”) and the humans in Humans (“we just want to return to wage slavery”) couldn’t be more extreme…or shocking for that matter. The sentient synths are more aware, more alive, more compassionate, more willing to admit their failings and limitations – in short, more ‘human’ – than the humans themselves. They are also very obviously a family in the tribal sense of the term. If consciousness can in anyway be construed as ‘artificial’ then it’s not difficult to determine which of the two parties possesses the mass produced version.
The giveaway lies in the series’ title. It’s not really about AI, it’s not really about synths. It’s about us and how we can retrieve ourselves from a mechanistic state of diminished consciousness. And the cause of this diminshed consciousness? Its the result of an uncritical and unreflecting acceptance of our technologies and the methods, patterns, institutions, systems of control and regulated behaviours they impose. The message of Humans is clear: we are the synths, we are the artificial.