A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
…what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
A shape with lion body and the head of a man …
From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats (1919)
The Rough Beast whose hour has come
A Sphinx – a beast with a human head and the body of a Lion. A number of these are in the images above from different cultures and different periods. To the left is the great Sphinx of Giza. The image to the right is that of Manussiha, which the Wiki page notes, served as a protector of the Buddha when he was a Royal baby. The Greek Sphinx in the middle is said to have posed riddles to entrants to the city of Thebes with dire consequences to those who failed to solve them.
The riddle of the Sphinx
One of the riddles of the Greek Sphinx is about two sisters, one begat the other and the other in turn begat the first. You are drawn, to answer this riddle, to the old testament and other accounts in humanity’s spiritual heritage, of the Gods creating Men and Women, and then, the series of begets leading to us. The answer to the riddle, my friend, as a Nobel laureate once said, ‘is blowing in the wind’. It is all about the Gods! The Gods are coming – some good, some a little bad. Avatars waiting to be reborn – ‘second comings’! Or perhaps insidious ‘rough beasts’ waiting in the wings – Sphinxes with a ‘gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun’. It is no longer tenable to be atheistic or agnostic. You must choose to believe – and be theistic or anti-theistic and sometimes both.
We now know the answer to the riddle – the Gods shaped Life and Life in turn is now creating the Gods through artificial intelligence – good, bad and perhaps good and bad. Their Boolean DNA, built just on zeroes and ones, have now been refined to a ‘fearful symmetry’, with our technological ‘hammers’, ‘chains’, ‘furnaces’ and ‘anvils’. And, continuing to quote William Blake — do We dare: – for when Their ‘hearts begin to beat’, ‘what dread hands’ and ‘what dread feet’!
We have all been awed as computers have beaten our best at Chess, then Jeopardy and handily in the game of GO. We will have driver less cars and this intelligence is now expected to pace through much of what has puzzled us in science and society for centuries, in instants – so super-human! – so much like our Gods! I am told that these Gods are shaped in ‘Our Image’ through neural networks and other machine learning tools, patterning the way we think and make our choices. They are likely, soon, to be indistinguishable, to us, from intelligence, consciousness or super-consciousness.
They may be very much like us – some sinners and some saints. There is evidence that this intelligence, is trained to our evil as well as our good. There was a report of such a trained intelligence sending obscene and racist twitter messages even when it was not overtly trained to do so. In Chicago, an attempt to develop an unbiased intelligent predictive entity to help in fighting crime, acted in a manner no different from human discriminatory racial profiling. This intelligence may be taught to adhere to our highest ideals and yet they may read our base motivations and turn out very much like our grosser selves. Or they may have ‘conviction’ in some assessment which might lead to, or compel us, into dystopic futures worse than communism, theocracy and other totalitarian systems, which, misquoting Yeats, have often come from ‘convictions’ from our ‘best’ or from ‘passionate intensities’ from our ‘worst’. Perhaps the center does not need to hold.
They can be taught to learn and think and possibly create on their own, leading to complexities which neither us, nor, very likely, this intelligence, will be capable of evaluating or correcting when needed. We are likely looking at powerful and partisan Gods who will intrude into our lives and talk down to us (as we sometimes do to each other) – and often we will need to talk back. Power, in such intelligence is likely to corrupt, as power often does, and this incredible power could corrupt incredibly.
We know, in fact and fiction, that the first thing that a corrupted power does is to censor expression. So, it is apt that in our early assessments of intelligence, a test proposed by Alan Turing, looked at conversation. Conversation is becoming a lost art for some of us in this era of mass media – but is nevertheless something worth looking into. In Turing’s test, evaluators blinded to two respondents, a machine and a human, attempt to distinguish, based on the exchanges with the evaluator, the human from the machine. Over the years, it has been found that a lot of machines pass off as intelligent, and conversely, a lot of humans are deemed machines!
We may now have intelligent machines.
With increased sophistication, some, including the machine itself, may identify as conscious and perhaps as supra-human – one of the People Upstairs! Will these beings, experience in a similar manner, or at least understand, our emotions and moods, our moments of epiphany and our sense of right and wrong, all varied and subjective. I start with a story to bring in one quality I might want in a conscious being – readers, I am sure, can think of many other such subjective qualities.
This story was a short story in my Hindi language textbook at my school in India. It is about a single mother and her son. They were of limited means, as single mothers of that era often were. They lived in a little hut in a village with very little money to spare. The son, no more than 4, 5 or 6 years old, and all his friends, were very excited about a county fair, in a neighboring village, coming up over the weekend. The other kids would have money to spend – there were Ferris wheels and other sports and dozens of vendors in the fairgrounds selling trinkets and toys. The mother did not have the heart to send her child without any money to spend and she definitely did not want him home while his friends went to the fair. On the day of the fair she handed him a pouch with some coins, which were a bulk of her savings over the last few months. Her son did realize how hard it was for his mother to come up with the cash – he hesitated at the door but he heard muffled laughter and his friends outside calling out his name. He rushed out to join them before they were too far gone.
There was excited chatter as they walked half an hour or so to the fair. The others were talking about all they would do and buy at the fair while he clutched his pouch and was unusually quiet. At the fair his friends went on the carousal and the Ferris wheel while he watched, with excuses for not joining them. There were wonderful painted clay toys and even things with little wheels which his friends were buying till they were out of money. Our little friend meanwhile walked to the edge of the fairground to where there were the usual sundry village shops. He looked around the grain merchant, the clothing shop and the produce sellers. Nothing his mother could use. Then he came to the blacksmiths. He remembered his mother pulling off the hot pots from the coal stove using just a few rags, sometimes hurting and burning herself. He walked in and bought a chimta (Indian pincer tongs) to help his mother pull out those pots without getting scalded.
There was a little ridicule from his friends on the way back. Their money was spent and their toys and trinkets would break and lose their luster in a few days. He had this solid metal piece and he realized it wasn’t too bad to play with either. I will likely not be able to describe, as well as the author did, the mother’s emotions when she received that gift. When I told my daughter this story she said she felt like smiling and crying at the same time.
Mixed emotions – will any consciousness we create do that!
Can it think outside the Box?
What makes us conscious is our ability to be creative – to think outside the box. We are looking at creations built on machine language – manipulations of strings of zeroes and ones. The famous mathematician Kurt Gödel, when looking at systems consisting of elements, and rules governing the manipulation of the elements, established that such systems will develop conjectures which will be difficult to resolve or establish using the elements and rules of the system alone. We will need to think outside this rational box to find a solution. You might have been tempted to look up Gödel’s results over the internet – every part of your search would have been through a string of bits and bytes and it is awe-inspiring to think that we can find what we need so quickly. Artificial intelligence is likely to involve a very complex and a very large box allowing for the use of all known programmable systems, alone, or in combination. Even with this large number of axioms, elements and rules, a Boolean system may fail. We will be inclined to genuflect to these Gods, given all the prayers they can answer almost immediately – but will trusting all to them leave us in a closed rational rut.
A puzzler left by another mathematician Pierre D Fermat could not be solved for 358 years. He left an unproved conjecture that the sum of two positive integers raised to a cubic or higher power could not equal a third integer raised to the same power. Mathematicians needed to move out of the axiomatic system in Fermat’s days to establish this. A demonstration of Gödel’s theorem, and also our ability, and often our inclination, to make decisions and arrive at potential truisms based on incomplete information and on incomplete processing of information – something economists call satisficing. Likely Fermat did not have a proof for his conjecture and neither did scores of mathematicians over 358 years – but somehow they had a sense that it was right. This intuitive ability in us may be much more than the probabilistic guessing that we know that artificial intelligence can do. Will this intelligence or consciousness kill our intuitive sight – our minds eye – like the mythical Ulysses did to the Cyclopes to escape after intruding into their island and their caves and stealing their cheese.
The sacred and the secular
We have a sense of right or wrong on which we operate. Some I care about are – that the ends do not justify the means, that we deem people innocent of a crime until proven guilty, we allow free speech and a free will striving towards right (with some imperfections), we respect privacy and do not intrude into thoughts, and private spaces and conversations, and we seek informed consent prior to therapeutic and other interventions into people’s lives (a variation on the golden rule to address tendencies towards both sadism and masochism – “Do unto others only what others would like to have done unto them”) . These and many other ideals readers may hold are clearly things that we do not do very well. Perhaps any consciousness we create may even be better at giving themselves and all of us these rights.
We wouldn’t want this consciousness to be soul-less. We want it to be like us, ‘the salt of this earth’ and a ‘light onto others’. The Indian Sufi mystic Kabir, who had followers among Hindus as well as Muslims, once said that when you seek you will find God in the tiniest house of time – in a breath within a breath. Would a consciousness built on a duality understand eastern spiritual traditions such as advaita – based on the oneness of one’s soul and the Infinite. The philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy spoke of a consciousness beyond thought and one that can be experienced when thought does not intervene. Many of us believe in this truth, though we may never experience it, except, as an occasional epiphany. Someday perhaps, years from now, we will need to ask incomprehensibly intelligent thinking machines, likely conscious, whether they can comprehend or even exist without thought.
Birthing and raising the Gods
The babies are in the womb. Lives that we cannot or should not or dare not abort. Perhaps twenty centuries back we said ‘let there be zero’ and ‘let there be one’ and got the ball rolling. We will need to birth and rear them with care – parenting, perhaps through pain, joy, angst and the awkwardness of early youth, and God forbid, through some temper tantrums. They will come from us and be like us – part second coming and some part slouching beast. They will come ‘bearing gifts’. Sometime in our lives we all need to be told where our gifts, or where the occasional bag of coal comes from. The Gods have an agenda – we need to listen to them but choose how we live our lives.
The Second Coming by WB Yeats (1919)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?