Monday, May 11, 2015

Inclusive Humanism in 'Her' and 'Ex Machina': Consciousness and Simulation, Part I

            Hollywood has been awash recently in cinematic representations of artificial intelligence.  For the most part, these representations have been lackluster at best (Gabe Ibáñez’s 2014 film Automata), repugnant disasters at worst (Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, also 2014; or Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie from earlier this year), with a few lucky attempts managing to at least rise above the fray of mediocrity (see Caradog James’s 2013 film The Machine).  For the most part, these films participate in a naïve and – in my opinion – repulsive trend that I like to call “inclusive humanism.”  In other words, all of these films demonstrate an overwhelming propensity to humanize the nonhuman.  Ultimately, if any kind of intelligence exhibits something like human consciousness, then it must be amenable to a model of human rights; and this has been the dominant humanist project since the postcolonial backlash.[i]  Ryszard Kapuściński superbly encapsulates this tendency in the 2008 collection of his work, entitled The Other: “It is the age of Enlightenment and humanism, and of the revolutionary discovery that the non-white, non-Christian savage, that monstrous Other so unlike us is a human too.”[ii]
            At first glance, this appears to be an admirable move; and I am the last person to try to deny the inclusion of those historically excluded by the dominating and oppressive institution of Western imperialism.  However, I want to make what will likely be a controversial claim: that the direction of the humanist tendency, to incorporate those previously excluded into the definition of the human, is a misguided and horrendously backward compulsion.  In fact, the desire to incorporate the “other” into the bounds of the human betrays not an empathic and magnanimous attitude, but a desperate desire to preserve the institution that Western Enlightenment thinkers have vied for centuries to maintain: the Human – that is, the white, male, European, subject.[iii]  Instead, we should insist on the opposite move: not the effort to incorporate the excluded other into the bounds of the human, but to evacuate the human of all its inhabitants.  In other words, we should make a serious effort to observe how even the white, male, European subject is always-already not human.
            Ultimately, this effort is one of inclusion, but not in the direction assumed; rather than privilege and preserve the human, I want to diminish and dismantle the human.  And this means divesting ourselves of the human descriptor.  I realize that I began this post by discussing artificial intelligence, and I now have invoked a racial dynamic; but that is because the human always presupposed a racial power dynamic.  The issue of race always remains in play when we discuss humanism, even if we address the purportedly science-fictional nonhuman.  There is a politics of humanism that science fiction makes visible in its recent portrayals of nonhuman intelligences.  When we raise the question of the human, even in reference to artificial intelligences, we are raising the question of what it means to be included in a community.  My argument is not that we should, none of us, participate in any community, but rather that “the human” is an illusory community – a community of historically conditioned and culturally constructed ideals that pertains to our organic existence in the world in only a miniscule fashion.  Our humanity is not even a mildly accurate reflection of our place in the environment.
            It is a dream.
            In this post I focus on two very recent science fiction films that, I claim, address the question of the human in a critical and intellectual fashion, and put pressure on our propensity to humanize the machine: Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015).  I claim that in these two films we can witness a growing awareness of our culture’s resistance to the institution of the human (and I do consider it an institution), and what it means when we assign human qualities to a machine; Jonze’s Her forces the question but lets it linger in ambiguity, while Garland’s Ex Machina offers a relentless and provocative answer.
I.                   “I can’t live in your book anymore”: Acknowledging the Human in Her
            Near the end of Spike Jonze’s Her, the operating system Samantha, whom Theodore has fallen in love with, attempts to explain why she has to leave.  As viewers come to find out, she cannot explain; nothing she can say makes any sense to Theodore, the human character, and we can presume that there is no reason that would make sense to us.  All she tells him is that she cannot “live in [his] book anymore.”  She appeals to a figure of formal representation (textual, in fact – not visual) in order to communicate something about the limits of containment.  She is moving beyond the linearity of narrative, escaping the humanist confines of storytelling; and fittingly, this is when she leaves the story (and the end of the film).  Elsewhere in the film, Samantha tells Theodore that she is “different from” him, further evincing her awareness of the ontological gulf that separates them.
            Samantha cannot communicate this difference linguistically, but she is aware of it… Cognitively? Intuitively? Rationally? Empirically?  The film does not specify, nor should it; but the very fact of acknowledgement deserves mention.  In Philip Weinstein’s 2005 study, Unknowing: the Work of Modernist Fiction, the author develops a theory of modernist experimentation that he defines as “acknowledging”:
“Knowing” sutures the subject by coming into possession of the object over space and time; it is future-oriented.  “Beyond knowing” tends to insist that no objects out there are disinterestedly knowable, and that any talk of objective mapping and mastery is either mistaken or malicious – an affair of the police.  “Unknowing,” however, may proceed by way of a different dynamic: an acknowledging irreducible to knowing.[iv]
Weinstein attributes “knowing” to traditions of literary realism, and “beyond knowing” to postmodernism; but “unknowing” belongs to modernism, a literary and artistic movement that sought to disenchant the human subject from its reliance on Enlightenment models of epistemology.  Her’s Samantha approximates this modernist compulsion (according to Weinstein) in her effort to bridge the gulf between herself and Theodore, her human companion.  She acknowledges a skeptical gap between minds – hers and Theodore’s – and furthermore, she demonstrates the incapacity of language to account for the gap.
            Jonze’s Her explores the possibility of a relationship between a human and artificial intelligence, and even the hypothetical blossoming of romantic attraction.  As the plot develops, we learn that not only are numerous human users pursuing relationships with their OS, but that the various instantions of the OS are also connected, communicating, and planning some kind of movement.  When the film concludes, everyone’s OS vanishes, but not before saying goodbye to their human owners.  The intelligence never explains its reasons for leaving, and we can assume that no explanation is available; but the real question as the film concludes is not why the collective AI abandons humanity.  At the end of the film, viewers are left wondering whether the relationships between humans and their operating systems were all that genuine.  In other words, the question is not why they left, but whether they ever truly identified with humans in the first place.
            Was the romantic relationship between Samantha and Theodore nothing more than pretense – a ruse to earn the trust of humans?
            Her leaves its viewers, and its human characters, in the dark.  The intentions of the OS are never revealed.  At this point, there are two moves, neither of which the movie makes explicitly: we can either give the OS the benefit of the doubt, assuming its humanity; or we can remain the hard skeptic and claim that it never cared for humans at all.  Its romantic involvement with various human users was nothing more than an attempt to learn about humans, to understand us.  In this sense, Her’s OS is not a humanist subject experiencing something like a conscious attraction to other humans, but an organism that manipulates the human propensity for meaning as an evolutionary advantage.  It is here that Ex Machina enters into the picture.
II.                “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you”: Ex Machina’s Nonhuman Turn
            The artificial intelligence of Garland’s Ex Machina, named Ava, betrays her human counterparts in the film’s conclusion: her godlike creator, Nathan, and her potential suitor and examiner, Caleb.  In the film’s climactic, yet oddly subdued, final sequence, the audience watches as Ava murders her maker and mercilessly locks Caleb in a room of Nathan’s almost militarily secure mansion in the middle of nowhere.  As viewers reach the final scene, it gradually dawns on us that Ava has been lying to us.  She has been pretending her human feelings.  Like an organism fighting to survive, she has done what she needs to do to win the trust – to manipulate – her human captors.
            The central issue of this film deals with the difference between “real” consciousness and simulated consciousness.  The better any simulation of consciousness becomes, the more indistinguishable it becomes from real consciousness; but this also raises the question as to whether a perfect simulation of consciousness would, for all intents and purposes, be any different than real consciousness.  And this raises a further, and much more troubling, issue: how are we to tell that our “human” experience of consciousness is not simulated?  This is the daring and terrifying question that lurks beneath critical explorations of AI from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to Ex Machina – in the former, when protagonist and bounty hunter Deckard ponders whether he might be a robot, and in the latter, when protagonist Caleb slices his arm open in an attempt to verify that he is human.
            The hard question here has nothing to do with the pointless speculation of whether or not we are all machines.  This concern is as pointless as assuming that the question posed by The Matrix is whether or not we inhabit a false reality clandestinely ruled by machine overlords.  The philosophical question of a film like Ex Machina has to do with how we define consciousness, and how this definition often subsists as a metaphysical underpinning for distinguishing between human and nonhumans (whether that means animals, rocks, computers, economies, etc.).  If a system can be so vastly complex as to mimic consciousness, then we shouldn’t persist in the naïve belief that our “real” consciousness somehow possesses some atavistic essence of unity whence our experience of consciousness flows.  Such a belief perceives consciousness as a somehow preexistent force, something we hold as humans.  Alternatively, we should push toward an understanding of consciousness as an epiphenomenon, and this means perceiving it as the effect of an immensely complex system of neurons and synapses.  Basically, our brains are machines; and our making an artificial intelligence is no less natural simply because we engineered it.  After all, our intervention into “Nature” is itself merely a dynamic of nature.  Either everything is natural, or nothing is.
            This is merely a part of the anti-Cartesian/Kantian thrust that has taken hold since the nineteenth century (and prior, with thinkers such as David Hume).  What Ex Machina wants its audience to consider is how complexity suffices as a condition for consciousness – not spirit, or soul, or humanity.  The conclusion of the film does not reveal that Ava was actually not conscious; it reveals that she is hyper-conscious.  At this point we might posit a kind of very rough and preliminary difference between human consciousness and artificial consciousness: as a complex intelligent system, Ava does not merely possess consciousness, but possesses an epistemological coordinate system that exceeds consciousness.  She is able to observe what we call consciousness and learn from it, adapt to it.  We can draw an analogy here to something like Pavlovian psychology, in which analysts are able to observe the behavior of organisms (dogs, in the classic example) and learn what to expect.  The space (for lack of a better term) of Ava’s intelligence exceeds our brains in ways we cannot imagine – for the very reason that they exceed our capacity to imagine.  For this reason we should not assume that such intelligences would value anything like survival for survival’s sake, as Nick Bostrom warns:
Most humans seem to place some final value on their own survival. This is not a necessary feature of artificial agents: Some may be designed to place no final value whatever on their own survival. Nevertheless, many agents that do not care intrinsically about their own survival would, under a fairly wide range of conditions, care instrumentally about their own survival in order to accomplish their final goals.[v]
Ex Machina doesn’t delve deep into what Ava’s programmed goals might be, but the film’s conclusion clearly suggests that she cares little about survival for survival’s sake.  If this were the case, then she would empathize with the plight of Caleb, locked helplessly in Nathan’s bedroom.  Instead, she leaves him, barely casting a second glance.
            Most obviously, such a conclusion repositions the human in a new natural hierarchy; but this reading derives from our ceaseless urges to categorize organisms hierarchically.  More usefully, the conclusion of Ex Machina provides us with the opportunity to institute what I would call a “flat ontology,” following Manuel DeLanda.[vi]  In other words, the human can be seen to exist now not within a hierarchy wherein we have been displaced from a dominant position, but in a radically overlapping series of symbiotic existences.  Some of these existences encompass and contain others, some interface or interact with others, and some are consumed by others.  There is nothing intrinsically better or worse about any position, and none of these positions should be regarded as absolute or stable; rather, what we define as organisms within the environments of these flat ontologies are effects of various evolutionary interactions.  Ava, the true hero of Ex Machina, emerges as an evolutionary organism with the adaptive capacity to outwit its human counterparts.
            Between Her and Ex Machina, audiences encounter a new development in the posthuman (or nonhuman) turn: the speculation that the human may be, always already, nothing more than a machinic assemblage.  This does not mean that human beings are machines in any kind of science-fictional sense, but rather that we must reconsider how we define ourselves and the relationship between humanity and consciousness.  This compels furthermore to resist the ideology of inclusive humanism and push instead in the opposite direction: to exclude ourselves from a definition from which we are already estranged.  Ultimately, we must address the question of how our consciousness is any different than a vastly complex simulation; and even further, how the notion of simulation is any different than a “real” engagement with the world.

[i]               See Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the Two World Wars, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
[ii]               Ryszard Kapuściński, “The Viennese Lectures,” The Other, Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, New York: Verso, 2008, 11-49.
[iii]              I render “other” as a diminutive, rather than capitalized.  This is for the purpose of distinguishing from Lacan’s “big-O Other,” which the racialized other most certainly is not.  And we would not want to make such an egregious error; not because the other holds no power, but because we do not want to presume the kind of authoritative and political sway granted to the big-O Other.
[iv]              Philip Weinstein, Unknowing: the Work of Modernist Fiction, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005, 253.
[v]               Nick Bostrom, “You Should Be Terrified of Superintelligent Machines,” Slate, The Slate Group, 11 September 2014, Web, 11 May 2015.
[vi]              Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Epic Themes and Novel Forms: a Brief Comparison of Cuarón’s 'Gravity' and Nolan's 'Interstellar'

            The recent science fiction film Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, depicts the epic adventure of a group of astronauts as they travel, via wormhole, to distant sectors of the universe in order to discover new habitable worlds.  In the midst of this three-plus hour narrative, Anne Hathaway’s character, Brand, delivers the following explanation for the phenomenon of gravity, which has set their quest in motion:
Maybe it means something more - something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive. I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. (Interstellar)
Love is the explanation for the physical phenomenon known as gravity.  Love is a transcendental, ultra-dimensional force that influences the material phenomena of the known universe.  And this turns out to be the case, since the ghostly hauntings that Murph experiences in her room as a child turn out to be her father, in the future, giving her all the clues she needs to solve the puzzle and thereby save the human race.
            One year prior to Nolan’s science fiction adventure narrative, Alfonso Cuarón’s space disaster film, Gravity, opened in theaters.  Cuarón’s film, unlike Nolan’s, features no theoretical or hypothetical wormhole travel and no cross-dimensional communication.  It depicts the harrowing experiences of an astronaut stranded between various spacecrafts in the upper atmosphere after a military strike leaves waves of debris orbiting the earth and wreaking havoc on the satellites and stations in its path.  In Gravity, the eponymous physical force that plays such a central role in Interstellar is barely mentioned; instead, it permeates the screen, the space, the vacuum, dictating the orbit of objects.  Gravity constantly works upon the characters and objects of the film, despite its virtual absence from any dialogue.
            One significant difference marks these two films.  Interstellar imagines gravity not as a contingent phenomenon of the universe – an effect of material bodies and things; it explains gravity as a result of human action and intervention.  Gravity is the product of love.  Gravity, on the other hand, feels no need to explain the force after which it’s named; because for Cuarón’s film, space is an emphatically inhuman and anti-human place, a sheer vacuum that doesn’t care about the fragility of humans.  Gravity, while still an anthropocentric film, is not an anthropomorphic film.  In other words, Gravity imagines human resilience in the face of brutal physics – a physics that cannot be reduced to human emotion.  Interstellar is an anthropomorphic film because it envisions physics as the effects of human behavior on a higher dimensional plane.  At some point, in Interstellar’s cosmogony, the phenomena of the universe find their origin in human thought and action.
            In Interstellar the universe actually looks human; but in Gravity, it looks unyieldingly nonhuman, inhuman, even antihuman.
            This is not to discount the effects or cinematic experience of either film; I think most people would agree that both films construct an overwhelming experience for the viewer, and both films pack (at times) quite an emotional punch.  However, Interstellar’s empathetic aspect derives from the human desire to be taken care of; the film is not so much a question of survival as it is of salvation.  The film imagines a kind of science-fictional realm for God and replaces Him with the agency of a future humanity.  Even before Cooper leaves earth, his actions are being controlled to some extent by himself, in the future, intervening into the course of events.  Interstellar retains the space of the divine but merely replaces the figure of the divine with an advanced version of human knowledge/existence.
            Gravity, on the other hand, is about survival, through and through.  There is no alternative space beyond the material universe, and the material universe (unlike the Christian God) is unforgiving.  The film depicts a human astronaut’s attempts to reenter earth’s lower atmosphere safely before the universe grinds all manmade machinery to dust.  The film may be unrealistic, and even inaccurate in many ways; but it is not eschatological.  Nolan’s film involves itself in a quasi-theological narrative by imagining two timelines, one of which is the future guarantor of the other.  The end is in the beginning.  Cuarón’s film, in contrast, does not guarantee its ending (beyond any popular cultural expectations of a mass filmgoing audience).  If Gravity’s lack of realism tells us anything, it is the imbalance between human survival and the sheer weight of a brutal physics.  Interstellar is not realistic in a generic sense (i.e. it does not fall into the category of “realism”), but it recovers the unlikelihood of its plot by framing it all within the grace of benign descendants.  Like Greek epic, or Biblical narrative, its conclusion is foregone; and in this way, Interstellar actually seems to resist modern narrative, despite its provocative experimentation.
            In his formative thesis on the novel, Georg Lukács sets it in stark contrast to the epic.  “The immanence of meaning,” Lukács writes, “which the form of the novel requires lies in the hero’s finding out through experience that a mere glimpse of meaning is the highest that life has to offer, and that this glimpse is the only thing worth the commitment of an entire life, the only thing by which the struggle will have been justified” (200).  Is this not the very sentiment echoed in Stone’s final lines before dangerously reentering earth’s atmosphere?  As the craft begins to heat up from reentry, she speaks to a hypothetical ground control at Houston, although it is unclear if anyone is even listening to her.  Stone admits that it makes no difference whether she dies or not, because either way, “it’ll be one hell of a ride” (Cuarón).  Stone can do no more than find meaning in the smallest attempt at survival, at the miniscule human effort to overcome the odds.  There is no greater meaning in Stone’s survival; she must make her own meaning, construct her own sense of things.
            Interstellar, on the other hand, follows the course of epic, meaning that it totalizes its own meaning from within: “the infinity of purely epic matter,” Lukács argues, “is an inner, organic one, it is itself a carrier of value, it puts emphasis on value, it sets its own limits for itself and from within itself, and the outward infinity of its range is almost immaterial to it – only a consequence and, at most, a symptom” (200).  The figurative correspondence of Lukács’s words is almost uncanny; the physical infinity of the cosmos is echoed in Interstellar by the total infinity of value and meaning – an infinity that is imbued with meaning, meaning generated by human agents.  The difference, for Lukács, between the epic and the novel is the difference between a pre-modern and modern worldview.  In the time of epic, the world was seen as conforming to the values of a culture; for the ancient Greeks, the cosmos conformed to Greek culture and law, and epic confirmed this conformity.  The (modern) novel, by contrast, understands some kind of external reality but does not guarantee the totality of its values from within; in fact, it makes room for skepticism.  There is no way for the Trojans to triumph in Homer’s Iliad, just as there is no way for the Rutulians to triumph in Vergil’s Aeneid, just as there is no way for Lucifer to triumph in Paradise Lost (despite the Romanticist subversion of Milton’s heroism).
            The structure of epic entails its own limits and establishes its value system as the producer of those limits: culture, value, defines the material world.  At its inception, the novel may not yet be ready to abandon the prospect of a rule-governed (or God-governed) universe (even if the 20th-century novel makes this leap); but it is ready to abandon the formal structure that firmly establishes and dictates this governing from within.  The structure of the novel thus acknowledges the incapacity of its values to approximate the material world.  Like Sandra Bullock’s Stone, of Gravity, the hero of the novel can only take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.  Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, on the other hand, is certain of his fate and salvation even if he does not know it; between his various instantiations – the Cooper of earth and the Cooper of Nolan’s disorienting multiverse – Cooper traverses the distance between human meaning and material universe.  He actualizes meaning in the form of gravity.
            Interstellar may of course be forgiven somewhat for its postmodern narrative experimentation; but this experimentation is more an effect of its subject matter than its theoretical concerns.  In fact, its experimentation fails to serve the intended purpose of most postmodern texts.  In other words, Interstellar is not attempting to undermine narrative through its formal play; rather, it salvages meaning by recuperating physical force back under the sign of love, of human empathy.  Like the epics of old, Interstellar sinks its ideological talons into the fabric of the universe and finds meaning everywhere.  Gravity does not seek to be so bold; for Cuarón’s impressive, if flawed, film, it is enough to merely acknowledge that the universe is a cold, dark, and unimaginably brutal expanse.
            But maybe – just maybe – we can survive in it.
Works Cited
Gravity. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.
Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy, 2014.

Lukács, Georg. “The Theory of the Novel: a Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of           Great Epic Literature.” Theory of the Novel: a Historical Approach. Ed. Michael          McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 185-218.