Saturday, April 18, 2015

That Has Such People in't

It’s been almost 90 years since Maria the robot fired the lust of Metropolitans with her exotic dance in Metropolis (1927). Sexy robots in the movies have been at it ever since. Not all of them are female, e.g. Ulysses in Making Mr. Right (1987) and Gigolo Joe in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), but most of them are, which is not surprising given the preponderance of young men among scifi screenwriters. Ex Machina, currently in theaters, is an especially stylish example. I’ll leave a fuller review for another time, but today will note one aspect of the film. The protagonist in the movie is hired to run a Turing test for consciousness on the AI robot Ava. The builder considers the test a success because Ava, in his view, is faking her affection just like a real person. This cynical take on romance is very much in line with the times. Even Disney has lost heart, as Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent snores on despite Prince Phillip’s kiss.

Romantic cynicism has become mainstream in recent years, but adumbrations were evident long ago. There always have been cynics, of course. La Rochefoucauld: “True love is like ghosts, which everybody talks about but few have seen.” Or, for that matter, Diogenes who, when asked whether or not it was wise to marry, said, “Whatever you do you will regret it.” But 20th century intellectuals took it to another level, and laid the foundations for making it fashionable. Freud thought love and, for that matter, civilization were sublimations of the libido. His wayward disciple Wilhelm Reich thought repressive societies could be freed by sexual liberation. Aldous Huxley turned both ideas on their heads. In his 1932 novel Brave New World he postulated that shallow sensual pleasures including drugs and casual sex were ideal tools of totalitarian control.  (Nearly everyone in the English-speaking world is assigned this book in high school, but it is worth a re-read.)

Huxley’s future citizens of the world are hedonists. They are deliberately conditioned to be so, and consequently are much too superficially happy to cause any trouble to the folks in charge. To form a serious romantic attachment is to engage in aberrant anti-social behavior; it will get the perpetrator exiled to an island where he or she can’t disturb decent people. Reproduction, completely divorced from sex, is solely in vitro in state laboratories while child-rearing is the responsibility of state conditioning centers, thereby eliminating another type of intense emotional entanglement (parent-child). All intense emotions and passions are impediments to well-adjusted hedonism. The World Controllers exercise their world control by making people blandly happy with drugs (soma), hook-ups, and consumerism.

There is a passage in the book where the Savage, who was raised without proper conditioning on a New Mexico reservation, recites Shakespeare in order to show his civilized friends a deeper way of thinking and living. The results were not as he anticipated:

"Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O sweet my mother, cast me not away:
Delay this marriage for a month, a week;
Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies... "

when Juliet said this, Helmholtz broke out in an explosion of uncontrollable guffawing.

The mother and father (grotesque obscenity) forcing the daughter to have some one she didn't want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred! In its smutty absurdity the situation was irresistibly comical...

He shook his head. "You can't expect me to keep a straight face about fathers and mothers. And who's going to get excited about a boy having a girl or not having her?" (The Savage winced; but Helmholtz, who was staring pensively at the floor, saw nothing.) "No." he concluded, with a sigh, "it won't do."

Huxley has had some success as prophet. There are more than few signs that we are trending his way, and fashionable romantic cynicism is one of them. We haven’t arrived at his utopia/dystopia yet. We haven’t surrendered the making of children to the state for one thing, though we do give it a greater role in raising them than in 1932; more of us than ever forgo having kids at all. Nor are there formal world controllers. There is, however, in much of the world, a power elite in government and the economy with a strongly (not exclusively, but strongly) hereditary element; there remains a degree of mobility into and out of its ranks, but this is the case even in Brave New World, in which heredity is, in any case, a matter of bioengineering. Arguably this elite could evolve into the sort of authority that some conspiracy theorists long have insisted already exists.

In his 1958 commentary Brave New World Revisited Huxley wrote about the evolution of this new order:

“…the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest — will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial — but Democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

In truth, there are parts of the world that would benefit from a little more bland hedonism, but so far the oligarchy isn’t doing a very good job of establishing the proper conditions for it in the West, never mind elsewhere. Well, give it time. After all, Brave New World is set in the seventh century After Ford, and we are merely in the second.

All this may be a lot of baggage to load onto one cinematic robot who cynically flirts to get what she wants. Also, Ava is something unanticipated by Huxley. Clones abound in his novel (they are the bulk of the population), but artificial intelligences do not. If any such machines ever do attain consciousness, perhaps they will be more reluctant to surrender their freedom for the good life than we biologicals.

Donovan – Brave New World


  1. In Interstellar there's another type robot, more machine-like and less human, which to me seemed more how I would think they would be in the real world. It's non-gendered although had a male voice, and when I first saw it, I thought, how is that going to work (as far as motivation and walking). But Nolan made it all work pretty well--at least enough to suspend my disbelief.

    The thing about oligarchy is it seems they enjoy hedonism as much as the common man although they try hard to cover it up. That is until they're caught with their pants down. And it's funny how hard at least some of them try (GOP) try to maintain order by steering us away from hedonism. Eerily though it does seem that oligarchy has become the new norm, so has consumerism, drugs, and other things to opiate the masses into non-think.

    1. All around the world, political family dynasties are surprisingly persistent, and 8% of global capitalization is run by relatives of political leaders. The US is no exception. According to the Economist you increase your odds of becoming a governor by 5000 times if your parent was one (Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo at the moment; there might be others -- I haven't checked all 50) and becoming a senator by 6000 times if your parent was one.There is nothing new about this. It is possible to join the elite from out of nowhere, but that's never easy.

      I imagine the sort of robot you describe is the kind of workaday device we're most likely to see in public. You already can buy the other kind (see though, at least for now, these are low-tech devices that are little more than talking dolls.