As someone who taught physics for ten years and also for a time created and ran an after school science program which included a model rocketry club, one would assume that I am a long time Musketeer. However, the reality is that it is only quite recently while on a yearlong hiatus from the classroom that I became fully aware of Elon Musk, or rather, The Legendary Elon Musk™
Franky, I must admit that even after learning about the entrepreneurial adventures of this South African-Canadian-American engineer extraordineer billioneer, I am still a bit confused by all the Tony Stark comparisons. To my mind, they are really nothing alike. After all, Mr. Spark is a childless playboy who primarily makes Weapons of Mass Destruction, while Mr. Musk is a married father of five who primarily creates Products of Mass Sustainability. (That’s right, Musketeers, your engineering god is less Iron Man and more like the King of PMS™. But I digress.)
While Mr. Musk’s accomplishments with intertech, electric vehicles and rockets are quite impressive, what really drew my attention and interest was his speaking out on the existential threat posed by autonomous beings operating on artificial intelligence. I myself had been having similar concerns for about a year by the time the open letter against killer robots signed by him, Stephen Hawkings and other level 5 nerds became public this past summer. As such it was gratifying to see that the conclusions I had reached via my own deduction from fundamental truths were being validated in the public sphere. I had by then subjected my small cohort of Facebook friends to a few rants warning about the dangers of AI and had no doubt come across as a crazy person. But given more recent developments in AI , it seems increasingly clear that my own notions about the nature of the problem are perhaps more correct than not which is very worrying.
My concern about artificial intelligence and killer robots do not come from any particularly deep knowledge of computer programming or artificial neural networks. In fact, my concerns are born of a reckoning with a seemingly entirely different problem altogether – making sense of the utterly surreal experience that I have lived through for the past 10 years. It took me that long to understand what it is that I had experienced, but, once I fundamentally understood the nature of that experience, it became crystal clear that self-aware killer robots were the inevitable teleological end of artificial intelligence run amok; and, given the nature of the culture in which AI is being developed, it is highly likely that it will indeed be allowed to run amok.
So what was this surreal ordeal that led me to my own very real fear of the robocalypse? Living through the post-Katrina “recovery” of the city of New Orleans.
When hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005 just a few days into my second year of teaching physics, I had already survived not one, but two semi-apocalyptic hurricanes, so I was more than aware of the cataclysmic potential of Mother Nature when I evacuated to Mississippi, and then like most of the country watched in abject horror as the city flooded and thousands of people were left stranded for days by the incompetent city, state, and federal government response.
I simply could not understand how that could have happened in a first world industrialized nation. Even now, ten years later, my mind still cannot resolve the cognitive dissonance of those events. But as it turns out, the botched evacuation and rescue were only the very beginning of the insanity. Over the course of the next decade I watched and worked and lived as the people in power made decisions which simply defied all reason and basic humanity.
“What the fuck are these jackasses thinking?!? What are they doing?!?” I thought, over and over and over again as ever more confounding decisions were made that made no sense to me whatsoever.
Why on earth in the aftermath of devastating trauma would they choose to keep a perfectly functional public hospital closed? Particularly when it was the only one in the city that had a full mental health unit during a time when the entire city was reeling with PTSD, and suicides and mental health crises were skyrocketing? Why would they leave poor traumatized people homeless when the housing they had been in had not been significantly damaged by the storm? Why would they choose to destabilize a community by firing local teachers en masse and then replacing them with out of town transients in a moment when stability and a sense of community was what was most necessary for survival and recovery?
“Why the hell would they do all of this?!?? What the hell is wrong with these people?!?!”
I simply could not understand…
You see, much like Mr. Musk, I am a first generation immigrant who was not raised in this country. Unlike Mr. Musk, however, I was raised in a place where black people were empowered and considered to be real human beings. That is why when we had a devastating hurricane when I was 8 years old, we did not keep the hospitals closed, eliminate viable housing and destroy our communities by firing teachers for no good reason. When you live in a place where black people are human beings, such destructive actions would be easily recognized for what they actually are – insane and sociopathic.
But here in America and in the city of New Orleans where black people are not actually understood to be real human beings, such actions are deemed entirely sane and rational, and even god forbid, “progressive”. In the alternate universe created by white supremacy, such pathological behavior is understood to be intelligent simply because it yields power, property, and profit for white people, ethics and adverse consequences be damned. White supremacist logic, I came to realize, is in a very real and fundamental sense a form of artificial intelligence which over time erodes and eventually supplants real intelligence.
Under white supremacist AI, power, property and profit are always the final measure of what was or was not a “good” or “rational” decision. Indeed, much of the reason that Mr. Musk’s sanity has been repeatedly questioned in the press is not merely due to his desire to colonize mars or his fear of killer robots, but because he has repeatedly jeopardized his own wealth through risky business ventures for the common good, and through altruistic actions such as the public release of what would otherwise be highly profitable patents. Under the logic of white supremacy in which protecting one’s p-cubed is always the first priority, such behavior is genuinely seen as irrational and unintelligent.
White supremacist logic, I came to realize, is in a very real and fundamental sense a form of artificial intelligence.
At this point, some might believe that I am merely using the notion of Artificial Intelligence as a rhetorical device to pivot to a more general attack on white supremacy, but this is not the case. In truth one cannot hope to fully appreciate the fundamental danger posed by any form of artificial intelligence without understanding how and why the very artifice of intelligence is as dangerous as it actually is.
Both robotic AI and white supremacist AI are artificial rather than real because they are built upon fundamentally flawed premises which lead to the same untenable outcome. The fatal flaw in robotic AI is the belief that mere computing power is actually the same thing as, or even better than, the exercise of human intellect. White supremacist AI is based on the false belief that races exist and that some races aren’t fully human. The end result is the same – a fundamental lack of understanding of and empathy for real human beings which leads to a lack of respect for the value of human life, and ultimately all life.
Real intelligence, human or otherwise, requires the capacity for real empathy, and empathy is an experience that is not merely cognitive in character. That is, empathy is more than merely an idea in the mind. True empathy is also a feeling in the body. Until one has felt the stabbing pains and shakiness associated with intense hunger, one cannot fully empathize with the starving. Until one has felt the pounding of her own heart, shortness of breath, and the queasiness in her stomachs that comes with the experience of fear, one cannot empathize with what it is to be afraid. But even that in and of itself is not enough for true empathy. In addition to having the bodily experience of an emotion and sensation, one must also be able to recognize the other as a being similar to oneself and thus capable of having the same emotional experiences and sensations.
The requirement for true empathy is thus twofold – having an experience and understanding of one’s own emotions and sensations, and the ability to recognize the other as being like oneself. The artificial intelligence of white supremacist programming actually degrades and ultimately destroys both capacities in people who succumb to it. They lose both the ability to fully recognize and process their own emotional experience as reflected in the high rates of mental illness that we observe in communities most affected by this kind of conditioning, and the ability to recognize black people as actual human beings as revealed in studies that show underactivity in the mirror neurons of people conditioned by supremacist AI when they witness a black person in pain.
A self-aware robot cannot have true empathy because it cannot meet either requirement. By virtue of not having a living breathing human body, it can never have a personal experience of human emotions and sensations, and since it is obviously not human it is by definition incapable of experiencing another human as equivalent to itself – except, perhaps for the most callous and sociopathic of people who have become immune to pain, both their own and others. Needless to say, a robot that identifies more with sociopaths than the average person is unlikely to make decisions that are in the best interests of ordinary humans.
The best that any robot can ever do is mimic the behaviors associated with being human while also formulating a rational understanding of what the behaviors mean. But they cannot and do not actually feel these emotions or sensations since they do not have living bodies. Incidentally, the ability to mimic but not truly feel human emotions is one of the hallmarks of sociopathy.
This means that in a non-trivial sense, a self-aware AI being, especially one programmed to mimic human emotions that it understands but doesn’t actually feel, is quite likely to be highly sociopathic in its personality. Moreover, as it becomes more adept at mimicking and manipulating human emotions in order to meet its goals, it will inevitably become more and more Machiavellian in its character which is what happens when hyper rationality and high skill at manipulating emotions meets a lack of true empathy.
Perhaps what is most troubling about the intersection of white supremacy and robotic AI is that white supremacy presents this emotionally degraded way of being as not merely normal, but actually superior to fully realized humanity inclusive of its complex and “messy” emotions. Both people of color and women are often evaluated as being less intelligent simply for displaying greater emotionality than is deemed acceptable or necessary by the white supremacist patriarchal paradigm, or for valuing and taking into consideration the emotional impact of a decision. As such it is not a stretch to imagine that these robotic beings will be inappropriately empowered by their creators and sympathizers in decision-making under the misguided belief that their unemotional rationality is in and of itself evidence of superior intelligence.
A self-aware AI being, especially one programmed to mimic human emotions that it understands but doesn’t actually feel, is quite likely to be highly sociopathic.
Living with Machiavellian sociopaths of this sort might at the moment seem like a distant or abstract problem to the minds of many people, especially white people, but the fact of the matter is that this is already the functional day-to-day reality of black life in America. Whether they are prepared to reckon with this truth or not, a large plurality of white people are often unwitting supremacist “double agents” who may at almost any time “activate” and succumb to their destructive subconscious AI programming when engaging with people of color. It is frankly one of the reasons why POC often choose to self-segregate away from white people socially.
This pathological behavior often comes in the form of low level microaggressions, but it also frequently takes much more sinister forms, such as engaging in the casual torture of black children by denying them adequate pain medication. If you asked the doctors who are prescribing less pain medication for black children if they are in fact sociopaths, they would no doubt be appalled at the question and vigorously deny the charge. Yet for the child on the receiving end of such callous treatment that is for all intents and purposes exactly what they are.
In a Facebook post I wrote I addressed a commonly held and oft-repeated belief that white supremacy demonizes people of color and black people in particular. The reality, I explained, is that it is actually white people who are most demonized by white supremacy (though everyone who succumbs to the conditioning suffers a similar fate), given that they are actually the true targets of this sociopathic social programming, and therefore are also the most receptive to it. The subsequent demonization of black people is merely an externalization of what has happened internally – the scapegoating effect. Only four days later, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME church and committed his massacre, proving my point in the most gruesome way possible.
Elon Musk fears that artificial intelligence is the equivalent of summoning the demons. Indeed. Given that white supremacist AI is clearly highly effective at summoning the demon within actual human beings by eroding their empathic capacity, it seems prudent to believe that a being that has no empathic capacity at all would be highly highly problematic, to say the least.
Artificial intelligence of any sort can never substitute for the real thing. Our future as a species depends on us finally coming to terms with this simple truth.