Brave New World – You’re in it!

Art, blogging, Life, poetry, Science

digital illustration Anne CorrIt needs to be said; I am scared. Very scared. The more I read, the more I am made even more anxious about the world that I have introduced new life to. Do I have a burden of guilt for giving birth to two wonderful sons, now 17 and 19?  I have to say I do, because my nervousness is for them, about them, I am parochial in my state of anxiety. There is a selfishness in the human condition and this is mine, I am far more exercised on behalf of my immediate family than I am on the behalf of humanity as a whole. I lack the humanity of Einstein and Sir Martin Rees and the like, who spend their lifetimes battling with the difficulties of the unknown in the hope that humanity is served. Still they scare me these icons, after listening to a TED lecture given my Sir Martin Rees, I am convinced that our paltry intelligence is at its infancy, and that the future of humankind depends on how that intelligence evolves. I was young once, and in that once we lived in a different universe, one that was explained with alternative pictures and language than the one the scientists describe today. I am still getting my head around the fact that there are as many universes as there are grains of sand, (or is that galaxies? I don’t even know my terms of reference). Then there is the fact that there exists as we speak (as I write) , a website dedicated to the ‘Reducing Long-Term Catastrophic Risks from Artificial Intelligence ‘ called the Singularity Institute. ( For an explanation of what they are and do, read an article from the Independent  Suffice to say that these are not fantasists, they are serious scientists looking into the likelihood of seeing the time when technological advance leads to a transformation of the human existence, whether that be by cryogenics or AI. We are moving toward a time when to be human will be substantially different than from any other time in history, because our curiosity led extraordinary examples of our species to find new explanations that have led to new weapons, new power sources, new scientific possibilities to further food production, new methods of communication. Brave New World, you’re in it.

And I cannot piece these fascinating facets of the world I live in with the everyday experience of the world I live in. My world is aeons away from theirs, I am still thinking what to have for tea and how much the car service is going to be on Thursday, remembering the documentary I watched last night where 17 year olds were living alone on less than £10 a day, and having babies. I felt guilty about that too, and happy that my sons lived a different life from theirs, although as a student, not by much. (joke – he is aware of his privilege in having a home to come back to.)

And because I cannot reconcile these two truths, these variants on what life is through the singularity of my own existence, I once again return to the poets, the philosophers. They bring me some sort of solace, that through their wrestling with these weighty questions, I can return to the wisdom of Heraclitus, and to the beauty of art as meaning. Thus I can bring to the table this thought, science and art do go together, one and the other, deciphering meaning in dissimilar ways, but learning about the same craziness of life.

Bryan Appleyard commented on AI here,

‘In the second machine age, the challenge to the human world is mental rather than physical. As the gadgets become more intimate and the scanners more powerful, it is our inner worlds that are being transformed. Perhaps they are even being destroyed. The perpetual connection and distraction of our lives now are the opposite of Stevens’ solitary thinking time or Dickinson’s isolation in her room. Connectivity is replacing creativity on Facebook and Twitter.’

Henry Miller had this to say and although he was writing much before the advent of our latest technogical wizardry, he had the sense of it,

“The cultural era of Europe, and that includes America, is finished. The next era belongs to the technician; the day of the mind machine is dawning. God pity us!”

“Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis……..

………As for that constantly vanishing point called the present, that fulcrum which melts simultaneously into past and future, only those who deal with the eternal know and live in it, acknowledging it to be all.”

( from The Henry Miller Reader)

Henry Miller recalls Heraclitus when he points us to the idea of constant flux, and this is a recurrent preoccupation of poets and artists. It may be a primal response to flux that is engaged when we look at the stars, or feel the pull of the sea, the shifting of the sand. Who can know what is inexplicable? But we don’t stop looking for explanation, demonstration, and now we don’t stop at attempts at creation. Here is one of those poets expressing the constant drive for incessant thought.

The Place of the Solitaires by Wallace Stevens

Let the place of the solitaires

Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea

On the dark, green water-wheel,

Or on the beaches,

There must be no cessation

Of motion, or of the noise of motion,

The renewal of noise

And manifold continuation

And, most, of the motion of thought

And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,

Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.

Flux Anne   Corr


Bots can’t quine a Qualia. Quan you?

culture, Life, poetry, Science, Thoughts

So just how clever are we?  Watching Skyfall last night, I was enthralled by the escapades of the villain, the extent to which he was prepared to go to exercise his will, his purpose.  It occurred to me that I was watching a fictional character display the pathological traits of a person who lacked any humanity.  It was like watching a film of a videogame where it didn’t matter about the carnage or the destruction.  Skyfall is just another Bond film where we can sit back and be entertained  but it provoked some thought in me.  Are we changing our experience of being human to such an extent that it will become less surprising when socio-paths wreak havoc and unleash their dogs of war?

Of course history can attest the existence of human terrorists , human dictators and brutality is as old as the hills.  What is more concerning to me, is the manner in which our ordinary experience of being human is changing.  Over the progression of time we have seen civilizations appear, and disappear and the overall direction of human knowledge has tended to be progressive, building on what has gone before, adapting our behaviours and our environments to generally benefit humankind.  That is a very simplistic statement, but since homo sapiens has been around, its ability to adapt has secured its future.  Is the next adaptation to include the introduction of Artificial Intelligence?  Brian Christian reminds us that’

‘We forget how impressive we are. Computers are reminding us.’


What Brian Christian explains to me in his article , is that it is the minutiae of life, the absurdities of being human that separate us from Artificial Intelligence, and it is the marvel of human experience that we need to maintain our connection with to withstand the onslaught of an automated environment separating us from it.  We have to reconnect with the ability to make special, as Ellen Dissonayake expresses the creative impulse.  We need to produce in order to fully live, wherever and however that impulse takes us.  We need to sculpt, compose, paint, build a garden, build a boat, sketch , photograph,  we need to engage our senses with our environment in order to feel our lives are full and valuable.  One of the downsides I see of the last couple of generations is the way that we have celebrated excellence in lots of fields, and removed ourselves from the possibility of doing things for the sake of it.  So now we listen to artists play music , knowing they are far more easy on the ear than ourselves. It is the same in all walks of life.  In celebrating excellence we often refuse to partake ourselves, believing the pursuit to be worthless because it will never resemble the professionals work.  I don’t want to turn back time and not enjoy the brilliance of Radiohead or Mozart playing over my headphones, but I do want to allow my impulse some expression too.


I have included some of Brian Christians article here, because it is so interesting. And scary. And hopeful. Can we embrace some of the neglected thinking that is generated by the part of the brain engaged with emotion, rather than logic? Will this more sophisticated understanding of intelligence lead our species to a future that celebrates connection, ritual, and expression as much as acquisitiveness?  We can but hope.

‘Indeed, it’s entirely possible that we’ve seen the high-water mark of our left-hemisphere bias. I think the return of a more balanced view of the brain and mind—and of human identity—is a good thing, one that brings with it a changing perspective on the sophistication of various tasks.’

Brian Christian

The computation theorist Hava Siegelmann once described intelligence as “a kind of sensitivity to things.” These Turing Test programs that hold forth may produce interesting output, but they’re rigid and inflexible. They are, in other words, insensitive—occasionally fascinating talkers that cannot listen.
Who would have imagined that the computer’s earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity once held to be what made us most different from everything else on the planet? That it could fly a plane and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That it could create plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it could translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-discernible essays on postmodern theory before it could be shown a chair and say, as most toddlers can, “chair”?
As computers have mastered rarefied domains once thought to be uniquely human, they simultaneously have failed to master the ground-floor basics of the human experience—spatial orientation, object recognition, natural language, adaptive goal-setting—and in so doing, have shown us how impressive, computationally and otherwise, such minute-to-minute fundamentals truly are.

Here’s a poem from one of my favourites, expressing the ineffable mysteries of ordinary , extraordinary life.

A Note
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it’s not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
something important.
— Wislawa Szymborska