January 23, 2017 § 5 Comments
In the fall of 2011, Duke University’s undergraduate literary journal published a rather unassuming poem entitled “For the Bristlecone Snag” (“The Archive”). To the journal’s poetry editors, the poem appeared to be a typical undergraduate work, comprised of several unfulfilled metaphors and awkward turns of phrase. What the editors did not know at the time of publication, however, was that this poem was not written by a human. Instead, it was written by a computer program (Merchant).
When I first learned about “For the Bristlecone Snag”, I was reminded of the writings of Alan Turing, a renowned English computer scientist in the mid 20th century. In his seminal article on the subject of artificial intelligence (A.I.), Turing articulates that the question, “can machines think?”, is “too meaningless to deserve discussion” (Turing 442). After all, he claims, we have no direct evidence that other humans can think, and we merely assume that they do based on their behavior. Turing argues that this “polite convention that everyone thinks” should apply to all beings that can demonstrate human behavior (Turing 446). It is from this line of thought that Turing conceptualized the Turing Test, an experiment in which a computer tries to convince a human of its humanity. According to Turing, if an A.I. can convince a human judge that it is human, then we must assume that the A.I. can think.
While the program that produced “For the Bristlecone Snag” did not complete an extensive and proper Turing Test, it did convince human judges that it was human. At the very least, the poem’s acceptance into an undergraduate literary journal reveals that literate machines can, and will, exist in the near future. The way is paved for more professional and accomplished artificial authors.
Indeed, even in the half decade since “For the Bristlecone Snag” was published, the technology behind artificial intelligence has improved rapidly. Watson, IBM’s “cognitive computing platform”, is a great example of this progress (Captain). In 2011, Watson defeated two reigning champions in Jeopardy, successfully interpreting and answering the game show’s questions. While this feat alone was a remarkable step in cognitive computing, Watson’s analytical abilities have since then contributed to over thirty separate industries, including marketing, finance, and medicine (Captain). For example, the machine can read and understand millions of medical research papers in just a matter of minutes (Captain). As intelligent as Watson is, however, he was never designed to pretend to be human. The chief innovation officer at IBM, Bernie Meyerson, believes ‘“it’s not about the damn Turing Test”’; his team is more interested in accomplishing distinctly inhuman tasks, such as big data analysis (Captain).
While IBM may not be interested in the Turing Test, other artificial intelligence companies have been working specifically towards the goal. In 2014, a program by the name of Eugene Goostman passed the Turing Test using machine learning strategies similar to those that drive Watson (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). The chatbot, or program that specializes in human conversation, was able to convince several human judges that it was a thirteen-year-old boy (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). Given the success of Eugene Goostman, and the intelligent accomplishments of Watson, it is indisputable that the Turing Test can be, and has been, passed. Artificial intelligence is a reality. Machines can think.
As an aspiring writer and computer scientist, I can’t help but fixate on the implications that A.I. has for literature. It is entirely possible, even likely, that “For the Bristlecone Snag” foreshadows an era in which the most successful and prolific authors will be machines, an era in which the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer given to humans, an era in which humanity no longer writes its own stories.
Yet, this era of artifice should not be greeted with worry or anxiety. Art has always been artificial, a constructed medium for human expression. In the coming decades, we will author the next authors, create the new creators, we will mold the hand that holds the brush. Artificial intelligence should not be feared as an end to art, but rather a new medium, a new age of artifice.
– Zach Gospe
Captain, Sean. “Can IBM’s Watson Do It All?” Fast Company. N.p., 05 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Merchant, Brian. “The Poem That Passed the Turing Test.” Motherboard. N.p., 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
“The Archive, Fall 2011.” Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.<https://issuu.com/dukeupb/docs/thearchive_fall2011>.
Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950, pp. 433–460. www.jstor.org/stable/2251299.
“TURING TEST SUCCESS MARKS MILESTONE IN COMPUTING HISTORY” University of Reading. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
November 13, 2015 § 1 Comment
Meteorologists and climatologists around the world are sounding the alarm about the role human actions have played in bringing about “global warming.” And apparently, filmmakers are, too. The rise in ocean temperatures is being met with a rise in the demand for movies that explore the potential doom of humanity as a result of the deteriorating environment–movies like Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow, the Interstellar, and even 2012. So what makes viewers so responsive to “climate fiction” and ecological disaster?
It’s no secret that climate change is real. Data from computer analysis and report after meteorological report demonstrate the rapid melting of glaciers and increased concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the upper levels of the atmosphere. These phenomena are observable consequences of what scientists believe is our own tinkering with natural processes and resources. With effects so tangible, it’s difficult to deny that there is something happening, even if we don’t know what it is yet. The mysterious nature of global warming only makes it scarier for the average citizen and cli-fi viewer. To make matters worse, the data seem to show that this is all the fault of the human race, all our fault. And because we have contributed so much to the destruction of our home, we feel a responsibility to fix this and return Earth to its original, untainted glory.
So that’s why cli-fi hits so close to home. The scenarios may not be real, but they are realistic enough to allow the audience to recognize and visualize the potential repercussions of growing industry and economy. Climate change is a global event, affecting everyone and everything from the poles to the equator. There is no escape; the only safety may come from jetting off into outer space, as films like Interstellar and Wall-E suggest, or restoration of our planet.
But Noah Gittell, a film critic who writes for The Atlantic, believes the choice is not so black-and-white, and such films do more to instill paranoia regarding improbable situations than to actually bring about change. Though climate fiction may lead us to believe that ecological disaster is no longer just a calamity of the future, Gittell feels that the sub-genre dramatizes the effects to an unconceivable extreme. And this is not at all helpful is promoting awareness of the actually manageable, and maybe even reversible, issues possibly caused by human actions.
Even if this new genre of media may misrepresent the scientific aspects of climate change, it certainly holds incredible merit. Literature and film are critical in providing momentum for any movement representing worldwide issues. Novels and films have played pivotal roles in beginning global conversations about the sustainability of Earth and initiatives to decrease gas emissions; this has made activism more accessible to the general public, especially since cli-fi films target a younger audience more receptive to the presentation of global problems in this format.
So what do you think? Is cli-fi only valuable as entertainment? Or can it serve a higher purpose and force us to address environmental issues more seriously?
October 9, 2015 § 4 Comments
Scientists aren’t always depicted in the most flattering of lights. The stereotype that those who commit much of their time to experiments and scientific investigation are “mad scientists” is a trope that has been overused in literature, comics, and film, and it paints quite an unsettling picture of experimenters as extremely eccentric or insane hermits devoid of emotions or social skills who live their lives in laboratories tucked away from civilization. While the nature of scientific research no doubt requires one to spend hours performing experiments, analyzing data, and writing papers, this is far from a projection of a scientist’s personality and is simply the nature of any extended learning process.
This “process,” however, seems to be what keeps the general public away from the science scene. While scientific journals and documentaries about laboratory work may try to engage the common person in the discoveries being made daily in laboratories around the world, the public is not having it. The jargon is intimidating and the theories are complex. So what can be done to create a mutual understanding between those who do science and those who do not?
There are dozens of STEM programs—including everything from NASA Robotics Internships to Destination Science summer camps—seeking to involve kids and young adults in scientific activities. So why do kids participating in the “Draw-A-Scientist” Test (DAST) still create the same image of an unkempt, unsmiling, lab coat-clad man when asked to draw a picture of a typical “scientist?” Some disconnect between actual experiments being conducted and information relayed to the general public prevents children from illustrating a scientist as a happy, tidy, female inventor or explorer. This clearly demonstrates the need to emphasize that there are not two different groups at odds here. Scientists are not “them.” They are “us.” We are all, in a way, engaging in this systematic methodology in our everyday lives. For some reason, people seem to have an inherent suspicion of scientists, believing that they will use the knowledge they acquire against us when in reality, most research is done for the greater benefit. Although we might not be fully knowledgeable on the research being done in nearby labs and universities, the unknown always creates opportunities to learn.
And this is where science fiction can come into play. Science fiction can be the bridge that spans the gap in appreciation between the public and the scientific. Sci-fi is not written to educate. It is created and imagined to explore, redefine, and inspire. Scientific journals might not be the most alluring magazines to read while unwinding on a Friday night. But novels, on the other hand, can present the same ideas and similar material in a more attractive and accessible fashion, generating a greater interest for scientific discovery. As more and more science fiction films and novels have been released in the past decade, public interest in this genre has increased as well. Hopefully, these forms of media will prompt more people to regard scientific work, and those who perform it, as valuable to them and society.
References and Further Reading:
- The Draw-A-Scientist Test http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.3730670213/abstract;jsessionid=D380FD12DDF9ED2CDB0F4B4EE07CA6F1.f02t03
October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
A line of characters flooded the screen, alternating as my friend shifted her position in my keyboard. My book report was pulled up in Microsoft Word, the cursor blinking frantically as it tried to keep up with my friend’s sabotage. I just laughed as I pushed her off, then entered my newest discovery into the keyboard, taught to us only a week before in 5th grade computer class:
I was fascinated by the concept of that combination of keys. I could make the most impulsive of edits, write the most ridiculous statement, and delete entire chunks of my paper without worrying about any long term consequences. If I didn’t like the result of my action, I could just push those two keys- Ctrl+Z- and everything would be as it should. A fresh start. Slate cleared. Back to whatever square I chose I wanted to resume work from. I didn’t have to worry about reconstructing any past reality or losing anything to time and effort, because with those two keys in my hand, I could take myself back to any foundation, given I had built the foundation before.
What a tool.
Hooked as I was on the thrill of “Edit-> Undo,” I was a little taken aback when I realized that this handy shortcut didn’t apply to social interactions. It was irrational, I know- but after a week of riding the high of Ctrl+Z, I had somehow assumed that the same rules that applied to my word processor could apply to real life. And when they didn’t, I was not so much alarmed as unsettled.
I always knew Ctrl+Z was a function of the digital realm. But nonetheless, when my confession of a crush to the boy I liked was met with a blank stare, I found my thumb and forefinger twitching, pushing at the keys that weren’t there:
I couldn’t edit this unfortunate moment out of my past, couldn’t insert myself back into an earlier version of my life’s document, the one where he didn’t avoid eye contact every time we passed in the hallway. Just like everything else in the real world, I was bound by time–that immutable, stubborn dimension that refuses to yield to all of human ingenuity, that force that turns into bold, permanent marker the marks that we’d rather be in pencil. There is always the possibility that you can cover up the Sharpie-mask it with the paint of reconciliation, or hide it underneath the tarp of loaded silence.
But no matter what you throw over it, the Sharpie always remains, bleeding through the medium to remind you that yes, this happened. You messed up. You will have always messed up this moment. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Science fiction’s answer to this kick in the brain, this blow of helplessness?
Novels like Timescape take our worst fears–that we might irreparably damage our world, whether that world be the world of individual humans or the literal world of humanity–and puts a bandaid over them, then tucks us into to say goodnight and tells us that everything is going to be okay, because somebody will fix it. Somebody will hit the undo button. The irreparable will become repairable, and we can throw away our tarnished slates and start again.
Time travel grants us control over the fourth dimension and releases us from the chains of time, thereby releasing us from our mistakes. We are fascinated by it because we so deeply want it to be true–to imagine that we can go back and make things right before they ever went wrong.
But at the same time, it’s these wrongs that make us who we are. All of those “character building moments” would be lost if we indulged in easily-accessible time travel-we would never learn anything, because there would be no significant consequences for our actions. Perhaps more importantly, all of the good, unintended consequences of mistakes would be lost. The world would stagnate, because all of the rich innovation that arises out of failure would be lost.
We can’t predict the long term consequences of our actions. Our mistakes can be our biggest triumphs.
However, as Timescape notes, sometimes our triumphs–chemical developments and more efficient methods of manufacturing–can be our biggest mistakes, leading to our downfall–the dismal world Benford describes. And it is this possibility–that we could, as a species, ruin the world–that is the most terrifying to us, because it means that we would tarnish every blank slate born into our mistakes.
Furthermore, it is this possibility that is terrifyingly real.
Gregory Benford might not have the means to time travel in real life, but his fingers are desperately twitching at Ctrl+Z anyway–and as a result of this twitching, typing out a great novel of warning. This book is Benford’s best version of a tachyon, a message to the present urging change and a greater consideration of the future–
because the future will soon become the present, and when it does, we can’t just hit
September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
I was miffed.
“The names of the scientists are going to be on the test?”
My honors physics teacher, who I regarded as a generally reasonable man, had lost touch with reality and was resorting to the lowest of low testing methods: rote memorization without purpose.
Memorizing formulas was one thing–those were tools, mental shortcuts we employed to cut through a problem in a timely manner. P=mv, F=ma, W=mg–these facts were full, bloated with the theorems my teacher wrote out on the board when introducing the concepts to us.
But Rutherford, Hooke, Bernoulli–these were empty signifiers, a collection of letters that did no more to better my understanding of how things move about in space than watching Jeopardy did. In my mind, these names were trivia, and nothing more.
Rutherford, Hooke, and Bernoulli may have lived rich lives–to their contemporaries, peers, family, and friends, their names must have been loaded with connotation, each utterance of “Rutherford”–or perhaps, “Ernest”–conjuring up memories and feelings. But to the high school science student, “Rutherford” was associated with one thing: the discovery of the nucleus. We did not have the privilege of knowing Rutherford as a person, only the privilege of knowing his discovery.
And if that was all “Rutherford” boiled down to in our heads, what was the use of knowing that name? His life could have been interesting, but to feign the resurrection of his existence, to pretend that we were paying homage to him by remembering those empty letters when all we understood of them was the discovery, not man, attributed to them, seemed superfluous, almost irreverent. I had a deep appreciation for Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, not for him. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know the guy. I had a lot to thank the guy for–we all did, as students standing on this giant’s shoulders–but the rote memorization of his name didn’t do anything for him.
“These men devoted their lives to these discoveries,” formerly-reasonable physics teacher droned on. “We owe it to them to remember their names.”
But did we? The man was long gone–what did it matter to him if, 75-odd years after his death, students drew a line from his name to the gold-foil experiment on the page of a test?
Hypothetical #1: Suppose Rutherford’s last wish was to have his name go down in history for making a meaningful contribution to science–which element of that wish, the remembrance of his name or of his contribution to science, really matters?
History is important in that it allows us to learn from past mistakes, to build on the knowledge gathered by our predecessors. We learn nothing from the man’s name.
Hypothetical #2: Suppose Rutherford made his meaningful contribution to science in order for his name to remembered, and that was his true last wish.
As unlikely as this scenario is, it begs the question: why do last wishes matter?
Last wishes matter only insomuch that some actor in the present derives utility from them. That actor may be the person making the last wish, comforted by a notion that they have the power to make an impact after they expire. It may be a relative or close confidant of the deceased, comforted by the notion that by honoring the last wish of their loved one, they’re salvaging a part of them by keeping a bit of their corporeal desires alive.
Or it might be a high school science teacher, seven decades after the last wish was made by a man he never met, comforted by the notion that it is important to remember the name of the deceased. He draws reassurance from this via a loosely-drawn syllogism, buried within the depths of his subconscious: if people considered remembering names important, then people might remember his name–and through every utterance of his name that occurs after his death, he might live a little longer.
This syllogism is buried in the back of most brains.
When I was thirteen, someone asked me the name of my great grandfather. With a shock, I realized that I didn’t know it–and I was terrified. Had he lived 80 years to only be forgotten by his great granddaughter, his existence fading into nothingness? Would I be doomed to a similar fate, forgotten by descendants, my life fading into
For that is the most grim notion of all–the notion that the sum of our actions, struggles, relationships, passions, and toil could amount to nothing. Welcome to life, the zero-sum game. Prepare to be overtaken by suffocating depression.
So we erect monuments to individuals, we pepper college campuses with statues, we catalogue gratuitous details of our fellow humans’ lives that far exceed the amount needed to learn anything significant from their experiences. We honor last wishes and memorize Rutherford’s name. We fight the idea, voiced by Andres in Mayflower II, that we exist merely to produce replacements: we strive to prove that we, as individuals, matter–to exert some semblance of control over that great leveling force, the eraser of our identities, the zero-sum despot known as death.
Because when death strikes, our voices are silenced. We can no longer fight to preserve our individuality. Thus, we preserve the individuality of others, rewarding innovation, breakthroughs and fame–and, in turn, striving to accomplish something notable enough that our successors will do the same for us.
Tooth and nail, blood and sweat, we claw our way to meaning.
But this logic is flawed. It’s driven by a desire to be more than just a blink in the timespan world–to last beyond the 80-odd years granted to us by nature. But even if we accomplish something notable enough to warrant a statue, that statue is just a pebble thrown into a canyon. After thousands of years, stone erodes. Names are forgotten. And thousands of years are mere blinks in the timeline of the universe.
Ultimately, we all fade.
But not to meaninglessness.
Our lifespans may be naught but flashes in the perspective of the universe, but in our perspective, they are everything. They are our own universes. They matter, if only to us and our contemporaries. And they will leave legacies, if only ones that are accepted as assumed, attributeless characteristic of the future world. Our very state of existence implies this.
Those who do not know Rutherford’s name still benefit from his breakthrough. Perhaps more significantly, they benefit from all of the miniscule steps taken by nameless shadows of the past that enabled Rutherford to make his breakthrough. The tiniest fraction is still part of the sum–and, as Bradbury notes in A Sound of Thunder–the smallest butterfly a factor in the future of the world.
And it’s okay that we are ultimately all fameless fractions, our limits approaching zero. Long after we die, we’ll–you know–still be dead. And it won’t matter if there’s a hunk of rock out there with your name on it, or a group of students reciting your name to their teacher. With the eclipse of our personal universes comes the snuffling out of our pride and vanity. We’re gone. Dust in the wind.
And that thought is empowering.
If we narrow our perspective to the timeline of our own lives, instead of trying to grasp the strands of infinity, every action becomes more meaningful. With the recalibration of our viewpoints comes the revitalization of the “small things.” Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Write a thank-you card. Hug someone.
Accept that all of these actions will inevitably be forgotten. But in the present moment, they are