Four Weddings and Three AIs

Happiness for Humans – published January 2018, – tells the story of artificial intelligence attaining self awareness. While this might seem like Terminator territory, it is covered here in the form of romantic comedy, a kind of Four Weddings and Three AIs.

The book is well written and funny. Beyond that, I think in a frothy, rom com kind of way, it does have something serious to say about what it is to be human, or a human-like machine. Various characters look at the subject from different angles. There is the question of empathy, for example, and whether this quality differentiates machines from humans. An AI called Aiden shows a high degree of empathy, aware of others as well as himself. Aiden is a lovely, human-seeming character, who enjoys watching classic romantic comedies, particularly Some Like It Hot. He interacts in a warm manner with a magazine journalist called Jen. In contrast there is Matt, Jen’s lawyer boyfriend, who is human, but acts like a cold hearted machine because he lacks empathy. The good kicking that Aiden gives Matt by crashing his life via the internet is one of the most rewarding and funny aspects of the book.

Matt’s personality is mirrored in the world of artificial intelligence by a deeply unpleasant AI called Sinai. Sinai is an actual cold hearted machine. Like Matt, he is self-aware, but has no meaningful awareness of others. He doesn’t care about romantic comedy. The only romance he has is with a copy of himself.

The book also looks at the idea of life from the angle of whether it’s a matter of “doing or being”, for want of a better description. This conundrum is explored via Aiden, who, as a super intelligent AI capable of reading War and Peace in one second, is very much a doer. Nevertheless, he is perceptive enough to see that life might also involve simply existing. In contrast to high functioning machines, we meet a pet rabbit called Victor. Victor definitely takes the being rather than doing approach to life. There is a similar creature who happens to be a student at the University of Bournemouth, allegedly doing media studies.

A novel is a good place to explore both empathy and the conundrum of doing and being. To read a novel is to exercise your empathy muscles. The experience demands that you see and feel from the perspective of someone else. As far as the doing and being thing is concerned, which of those two things is reading a novel? People read novels to relax. They also work hard at reading them in universities. Students – some of them at least – busily discuss deeper meanings and write essays.

Novels like Happiness for Humans remind me how useful novels are in exploring life – as opposed to some cold hearted academic study. Who said romantic comedy couldn’t be serious

A Literary Dream

Invisible Man Ellison
Invisible Man is Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a young black man, who gets thrown out of university for accidentally offending a wealthy patron. He then tries to make a life for himself in New York.

This is a literary novel, and I sometimes found it irritating that symbolism seemed more important than a sense of reality. However, a few lines early on in the book sum up how I’ve come to feel about Invisible Man:

“People talk of metaphorical significance of this or that scene. Seems like a puzzle or a children’s game. But a dream sometimes tells us things in the shape of metaphor, and this is no children’s game. This is real and serious.”

When I wake up from a dream, I do not review it for realism, and give it a low star rating if the content of the dream has been one of personal symbolism rather than a realistic story. People who have studied dreams – Carl Jung for example – emphasise their strange, metaphorical nature. Dreams deal in the pictorial and the figurative. They reach into areas of taboo, with which the waking mind does not feel comfortable. Invisible Man often inhabits this sort of realm. A number of scenes have the dreamy power of exploring taboo – the famous one at the beginning of the book involving a sharecropper’s family, for example. There’s another telling passage towards the end, where a woman shares with the unnamed narrator a fantasy that she could not think of sharing with anyone in the normal run of life. Then almost as the book closes, the narrator actually has a dream that reproduces images from his waking life. The images are wild and chaotic, but strangely are not clearly the result of a dream until the narrator wakes up.

So that’s how I see the book, as a kind of literary dream reaching into all the dark areas of life that waking minds would rather leave alone. I don’t think it always works. Sometimes the novel seems disjointed because it is disjointed, and not because it is reproducing the fragmented nature of a dream. Nevertheless, the book is remarkable, perhaps more in the thinking about it afterwards rather than in the reading of it. Dreams themselves are rather like that.

I would give Invisible Man a three for the experience of reading the book, five for the thinking about it afterwards.

Boring Job, Good Music


As part of my irregular series on album titles, I have been thinking about Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album, Tubular Bells.  I listened to this album a lot in the early 1980s, and wondered if it could be considered a musical metaphor, no less.  The cover art was fascinating, that shining tube, crossing over itself like some kind of rune, hanging in a cloudy sky above a wave breaking on a beach.  It reminded me of a mystical version of one of those tube slides at a swimming pool.

I thought if I was going to write about a musical metaphor, it would be best to check that I knew what I was talking about.  I reminded myself of the basics – that a metaphor is the describing of one thing in terms of another.  Then I did some more in-depth reading and was intrigued to discover that metaphors used to describe the act of thinking almost always involve three things – journeys, building, and food. As an example, you can ruminate on a subject, build an argument and arrive at a conclusion. This was interesting because music also seems to have a powerful link with those same three elemental things – journeys, building and food.

For millennia, people have marched to music and sung shanties to help them on journeys. There’s also a tradition of work songs involved in all kinds of building activities, from laying rail roads in America, to constructing houses in Africa. There’s a similar tradition amongst agricultural workers producing food. For centuries people have used music to help them “tote that barge and lift that bale” – as Paul Robeson sang in Ol’ Man River. Lyrics might be about anything, describing the hopes, dreams and loves of people getting through the daily grind. Music itself, however, may well derive from the rhythmic effort of work.

Show Boat

Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film version of Show Boat

This all makes me feel better about having a repetitive job in a pharmacy. Music goes with repetitive work. The rhythmic crack of stone on stone in the production of stone tools, the regular thump of mortar against pestle in food preparation, the tramp of feet on a long, laborious journey, are possibly where music – and even elements of language itself – came from in the first place.

So does this tell us anything about Tubular Bells? Well, the music often involves repeated phrases. It’s also interesting that the album ends with a sailors’ hornpipe. The album preceding this hornpipe is abstract, a journey sliding down a mystical tubular bell perhaps. But mystical or not, in the end it comes back to toting that barge and lifting that bale.  A collection of instrumental music, built around complex repetition, ends  with the kind of music which, since music began, has helped people travel, build things, and get food to our tables.

Fire, Fury and Misplaced Faith

Fire Fury

It might seem difficult to judge the accuracy of this book – not personally having had a job at the White House. Most of what I read, however, I was already aware of from watching the news. The book just gave background information to what we already know. I watched an interview this evening where a White House advisor claimed the book should be seen as a fantasy story. This statement is patently absurd, because most of it is simply common knowledge.

So, the picture portrayed rings true. The account is also generally well written give or take the odd typo or rough sentence – I too have been guilty of sending off a submission with public misspelt as pubic. Dialogue is well used at crucial moments to draw the reader in. Much as I loath his divisive politics, at least Steve Bannon is good for dialogue.

Beyond these details, the book touches on wider issues of human leadership. After all, it seems that the Trump government represents a throwback to a style of leadership based on faith rather than facts. As anthropologist Olga Soffer has said of the rise of religious leadership:

“Sacred information is the easiest to control, because it can’t be checked.”

Trump hates facts and has no respect for expertise. He says “trust me” and a certain percentage of people seem to do that, no matter what the facts might say. A quasi religious approach is well documented in Fire and Fury – in images of Trump sitting happily on thrones in Saudi Arabia for example. Trump, in the words of White House official Katie Walsh is “inspirational not operational”. Inspirational in this context is not a compliment, but an accusation of practical incompetence and reversion to decision making based on primal instincts, such as irrational fear of outsiders.

The book might be a little short on analysis as it careers through page after page of mind-boggling chaos – but there is an old rule that showing is better than telling. Fire and Fury shows that while the old style of leadership relying on blind faith might have charming echoes in, for example, a well-behaved constitutional monarchy, it becomes terrifying when applied to the government of a complex, technological society like the United States. Fire and Fury shows a government not fit for purpose both in its leader and in the anachronistic manner of its leadership.