January 19, 2018

Micro Man: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness
Sarah Bay Gachot

In 2015, Elon Musk, entrepreneur, inventor, outer space and terrestrial mogul, and someone who recently unveiled a new secret sketch pad feature in his Tesla brand of cars by Tweeting his drawing of a farting unicorn, mentioned at a digital technology conference that he believes it's highly unlikely we are not living in a computer-simulated world right now. Pause a moment, really think about it, and maybe you'll sense how this simulation idea could fly. The idea is not new; philosopher Nick Bostrom imagined a simulated present in 2003 in a paper published in Philosophical Quarterly. Basically, our technological development has advanced with such exponential force in the past forty years that if we continue at this rate, we are sure to devise a perfect computer simulation of our world at some point in the future. (Keep thinking....) If it's ever going to happen, in the scope of all infinite time, there's no reason why it hasn't happened already. I certainly get a kick out of this idea. My husband and I blame Elon Musk every time a strange thing occurs, such as encountering in an AirBnB rental a vintage deck of cards emblazoned with the logo of the Chi Chi Palm Springs, just days after our beloved elderly cat Chi Chi passed away. These unlikely details must slip through the simulation programming, we joke, or get specifically devised to manifest as lovely little coincidences.

It is a fun thought experiment. But, curiously, if the simulation idea is true, why would our simulated environment have such problems? Why would it seem that our simulated bodies are on their ways to breaking down in the face of simulated pollutants, the heat, or the economic conditions we have spiraled into in this massive game? Why are these obstacles not fixed or avoided by computer technology? But wait—why are these obstacles not fixed by computers in our real world?

Gordon Pask ignored the idea of obstacles when it came to technological possibilities in Micro Man: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness (1982), considered here. The British cybernetician, who died in 1996 and was best known for what he called Conversation Theory—his speculation on knowledge and its source—was also a theater producer, librettist, and artist. He was utterly optimistic when he wrote Micro Man in the early 1980s, a love song to chips and robotics and everything that could make our lives electronically easier in the future. But he knew there would be skeptics. After all, eight years before, in 1974, a computer had written a poem:

My head thrives on pain
Unseen by guilt
Not relaxing not seducing
Comfort if controlled

—Just one of many verses of Myself Manifest, a poem written by a computer programmed by Margaret Chisman. Her code instructed the computer to slot random words into a grammatically identified structure. But was this computer feeling pain, guilt, relaxation, or seduction, really? Could we mistake this author for human? And if this computer-author became cruel through their words, would it affect us? Would we confuse computed "emotions" for human feelings of love and hate? Pask took this into consideration.

Pask knew the most frightening thing of all is a robot that follows its own "whim" without the nuances of human morality and empathy. This fear has mythological and organic roots in folklore—the Golem, or Frankenstein's monster, or voodoo zombies. Ostensibly, humans will program artificial intelligence machines with the necessary precautions to keep robots from eating our heads off and stealing our souls. Pask quotes Isaac Asimov, who had three rules for robotics (paraphrased): robots should not harm humans; robots should follow the orders of humans unless this entails harming a human; robots should protect themselves unless this would cause harm to a human or cause it to disregard the other rules.

These are right rules—but what if a robot malfunctions? Pask laments techno-paranoia as a fear of "mental castration"—a fear that computers will become so proficient that humans are left with nothing to do, wallowing with newfound access to leisure but with no means of economic survival to enjoy that leisure because computers and robots have taken all the jobs. Thirty-five years after Micro Man was written, this forecast is getting a lot of play. Jobs are being lost to automation. But also: what exactly are we up to with all these smart refrigerators and talking Alexas? And what about the impending walking talking love dolls? What tasks will we have left for living breathing humans?

But Pask, in 1982, was not worried. He surveyed where we were and what could possibly come next. Computers were already everywhere then, and there was no looking back. Those who dreamed of the future could take the reins and Pask knew the path was going to be exciting. Options! Did we want computers to think and act for us? Could they do even more? He asks: "Is thinking the right word to describe the process of computation? That would perhaps be an easier question to answer if we had a better idea of how the human brain works and the nature of human thought processes. Can the computer think as a human being does? And if not, why not? What is there that is unique about the human brain, that makes it impossible for us to make the transition between saying that the computer simulates human thought, and saying that the computer thinks?" (p. 31) And if the computer starts thinking, will that change how we think in the long run?

Pask doesn't have the words for the internet that we do today—there's no mention of the Singularity, the Internet of Things, or even the World Wide Web, or e-mail. And neither does he mention Leonard Kleinrock and his network connection made on October 29, 1969, between Kleinrock's base at UCLA and Stanford, a blip of a message we know now to be the birth of the internet. (Kleinrock and his students succeeded in transmitting the "l" and the "o" of the word "login.") But Pask was fascinated with what was known as Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations, or PLATO—a system of computer terminals across North America and Europe all linked to the same mainframe computer that offered demonstrative learning programs to teach everything from the biology and reproduction of fruit flies to instruction in corporate sales techniques. Pask also marvels at the now-legendary-for-its-failure computerized reference library Xanadu, a massively ambitious project dreamed up, and scrambled after for decades, by the mathematically-challenged computer scientist Ted Nelson. "Suppose (to cite one of Nelson's examples) you are writing or reading about New York," writes Pask, "a subject on which both text and graphics are available on the Xanadu system. You might imagine yourself to be on the second floor of East 86th Street, and wish to explore your surroundings, moving in any direction, up or down, north, south, east, or west. You could look at pictures of the buildings or read about them. Alternately, you could examine historical links, to see what went on in the past..." (p. 124) To read the description of Xanadu in Micro Man now, it's hard not to compare it to what we know as the internet, though the lineage is not quite right. Pask writes, "If Xanadu takes off, it is easy to see that it might rival books and even television as a powerful mass medium." (p. 125) How true, but with such different players today.

Note the subtitle Pask chose: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness. After Pask tallies up the state of computers and their inventors in the 1980s, he conjectures about the future—his ideas on how we will navigate the world emotionally and intellectually in a computerized world—the future of the micro man, the human who is aided and fueled by the microprocessor. Pask "reports" from the years 2000, 2026, and 2150 and more. By 2150, human beings are not limited to existing in one place at one time, in one head and body, he wrote, but spread across space and time as they feel necessary. They make love from afar and without moving. Taking an "imaginary" couple as an example, he writes: "The development of computing has led to a revolution in our concept of time. We no longer see time as we did, as a single track, heading in one direction only, straight for the future. Today Gordon and Susan conceive their loves as having a far more complex time structure, a structure which makes use of more than one dimension. We are now used, for instance, to living our lives in parallel, repeating parts of our own time pattern, and tying in to passages (not necessarily synchronous) from other people's lives." (p. 190) Perhaps most intriguingly, Pask sees the future as a time when the "linear-destructive paradigm is being replaced by a paradigm of creativity as the main pursuit of mankind." (p. 211) Pask is, at heart, a creative being.

Yet, here it is 2018 and many advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality are quite creative, but also come across as somewhat foreboding, creepy, and prone to predicaments of privacy. In 1982, Pask was certain of a future we could not ignore. Any fear we had was only "the fear that would face tadpoles, if they had the wit, presented with the prospect of froghood; or a caterpillar, told a tale of butterflies." (p.208) But are we dying in our cocoons? Have we lost the ability to really click forward to the next level? What is holding us back creatively that Pask did not see?

Werner Herzog (of all people) made a documentary about the internet in 2016 titled Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. (As Anthony Lane points out in his review of the movie in the New Yorker, Herzog is enough of a luddite to "hardly be bothered with a cell phone," but who has enough "innocence and bravado, plus a pinch of madness" to convince us that shouldn't matter.) Herzog interviews the above-mentioned Ted Nelson, Leonard Kleinrock, and Elon Musk, among others. In discussing the future of artificial intelligence, Musk considers AI, saying: "I think that the biggest risk is not that the AI will develop a will of its own, but rather that it will follow the will of people that establish its utility function, or its optimization function, and that optimization function, if it is not well-thought out—even if it's relatively benign—could have quite a bad outcome. For example, if you are a hedge fund or a private equity fund and you said, 'All I want the AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio...,' then the AI can decide the best way to do that is to short consumer stocks, go long on defense stocks, and start a war—and that would obviously be quite bad." Does this sound familiar?

I blame money for the obstacles that hamper creative technology. Fiat money is old fashioned, imaginary, and really, really prone in unfortunate ways to being good for a just few who truly have the wherewithal and gumption to amass it across this uneven playing field of world economics—proven already in ways reminiscent of what Musk proposes in the quote above. Perhaps cryptocurrencies are enough of a disruption here to cut back on some of these obstacles, though blockchain technology may prevail more in its applications for privacy overall.

Pask avoids the topic of who-makes-money-off-of-what in computing. It's not surprising. At heart, he really is an artist, despite his accolades in computer science. This is a book that wants us to evolve, to become the butterfly in a computerized world—because of the computerized world. That is what Pask's future had in store. To Pask it was going to be inevitable. If only this had been the case. If only economics and profits hadn't become an obstacle. How is that for a simulation?

Sarah Bay Gachot is a writer, curator, educator, and artist who lives in Los Angeles. Her book Robert Cumming: The Difficulties of Nonsense was published by Aperture in 2016 and her exhibition Robert Cumming: The Secret Life of Objects was on view at the Eastman Museum in 2017 and will travel in 2018.

View Micro Man: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness in the catalog here.

Read other Word Processor essays.