Is Artificial Intelligence Racist And Malevolent?

Our worst fears have been confirmed: artificial intelligence is racist and malevolent. Or so it seems. Google’s image recognition software has classified two African Americans as ‘gorillas’ and, away in Germany, a robot has killed a worker at a Volkswagen plant. The dumb, stupid, unblinking, garbage-in-garbage-out machines, the ones that would always strive to catch up to us humans, and never, ever, know the pleasure of a beautiful sunset or the taste of chocolate, have acquired prejudice and deadly intention. These machines cannot bear to stand on the sidelines, watching the human cavalcade of racist prejudice and fratricidal violence pass them by, and have jumped in, feet first, to join the party. We have skipped the cute and cuddly stage; full participation in human affairs is under way.

We cannot, it seems, make up our minds about the machines. Are they destined to be stupid slaves, faithfully performing all and only those tasks we cannot be bothered with, or which we customarily outsource to this world’s less fortunate? Or will they be the one percent of the one percent, a superclass of superbeing that will utterly dominate us and harvest our children as sources of power a la Matrix?

The Google fiasco shows that the learning data its artificial agents use is simply not rich enough. ‘Seeing’ that humans resemble animals comes easily to humans, pattern recognizers par excellence–for all the wrong and right ways. We use animal metaphors as both praise and ridicule–‘lion-hearted’ or ‘foxy’ or ‘raving mad dog’ or ‘stupid bitch'; we even use–as my friend Ali Minai noted in a Facebook discussion–animal metaphors in adjectival descriptions e.g. a “leonine” face or a “mousy” appearance. The recognition of the inappropriateness or aptness of such descriptions follows from a historical and cultural evaluation, indexed to social contexts: Are these ‘good’ descriptions to use? What effect may they have? How have linguistic communities responded to the deployment of such descriptions? Have they helped in the realization of socially determined ends? Or hindered them? Humans resemble animals in some ways and not in others; in some contexts, seizing upon these differences is useful and informative (animal rights, trans-species medicine, ecological studies), in yet others it is positively harmful (the discourse of prejudice and racism and genocide). We learn these over a period of time, through slow and imperfect historical education and acculturation.( Comparing a black sprinter in the Olympics to a thoroughbred horse is a faux pas now, but in many social contexts of the last century–think plantations–this would have been perfectly appropriate.)

This process, suitably replicated for machines, will be very expensive; significant technical obstacles–how is a social environment for learning programs to be constructed?–remain to be overcome. It will take some doing.

As for killer robots,  similar considerations apply. That co-workers are not machinery, and cannot be handled similarly, is not merely a matter of visual recognition, of plain ‘ol dumb perception. Making sense of perceptions is a process of active contextualization as well. That sound, the one the wiggling being in your arms is making? That means ‘put me down’ or ‘ouch’ which in turn mean ‘I need help’ or ‘that hurts'; these meanings are only visible within social contexts, within forms of life.

Robots need to live a little longer among us to figure these out.

Rebecca Traister On ‘The New, Old, Hillary Clinton’

At The New Republic, Rebecca Traister writes of the ‘New, Old, Hillary’ Clinton, of the woman who started out as the kind of politician-cum-activist the left would love to have as president, but who became an opportunistic ‘contortionist’, one only too willing to compromise to be accepted, to hold on to power and exercise it:

America did not much like this woman when she first came to us: ambitious and tough and liberal and feminist and interested in social progress and civil rights and reforming the world for women and children across classes…And so, in her quest to become a mainstream, powerful politician, she contorted; she bent and stretched to be more like what the people could stomach….Her willingness to shape-shift will always haunt her; she’ll pay for it in low estimations of her trustworthiness and moral timbre. Those costs are on her, and they are ones she may have calculated from the beginning.

Traister adds:

But it’s also on us, and our longstanding lack of appetite for women who threaten or trouble us.

I agree with Traister: many reactions to Hillary Clinton have been distasteful and acutely revealing of the deep-rooted sexism that animates this patriarchal society of ours. Still, there were many who cheered for Hillary too, who wanted her to be the politician who had racked up the impressive activist credentials and history that Traister cites in her piece. (I remember my delight at finding out Bill Clinton’s to-be-doomed healthcare initiative would feature Hilary Clinton in a central role. For a counterview though to the history Traister provides, do read Doug Henwood‘s ‘Stop Hillary!’ essay.) The booing from the gallery was admittedly louder than the cheering, the catcalls more numerous than the bouquets, but a mystery remains: Why did Hilary respond with such alacrity to the former and not the latter?

Hilary’s retreat from her formerly held positions was even more disheartening because she has had so many opportunities to redeem herself, very few of which she has taken on. We might perhaps be pardoned our distrust then; it seems the only time we see the old Hillary is on the campaign trail. This old Hillary that Traister speaks of, how much have we seen of her when the going was good? In the eight years of the Bill Clinton presidency, how did she exert herself and burnish her progressive credentials? She did so by inducing two swings to the center–‘the balanced budget and welfare reform.’ Did she do so when she was Secretary of State? Instead, she oversaw a more ‘hawkish foreign policy.’

We all know the story: idealistic politician storms out of the gate, spouting fire and brimstone oratory, swinging for the fences, every word and gesture suggesting no prisoners will be taken; then, reality sinks in; pragmatism rules the roost; governing, not campaigning, takes over. (Yes, we thought we could!) We’ve all tasted the bitterness of watching an unconventional candidate become conventional. This is what generates Hilary’s greatest credibility crisis: We are more betrayed by the supposed idealist than by the supposed pragmatist. Hilary’s task is not to convince the latter, it is to persuade the former to return the fold. I’m afraid the going will be tough.

Repent, The End Of Yet Another Year Is Nigh

It is June 30th, 2015; half the year is over. Depending on your age, you will react to this news with indifference or a curious mix of panic, terror, and melancholy. My reaction, as you might guess by my decision to write this post today, veers–sharply–toward the latter.

Forty might be the new thirty, or perhaps fifty is the new forty, but whatever the latest form of the pithy consolation handed out to those who sense the downward slope on life’s hill, there is no getting around, over, or under, the sense of the precipitous acceleration of the clocks as one ages. The theory of special relativity has something to say about this, I’m sure, obsessed as it is with observers, clocks, measurements, and sometime twins doomed to age at differential rates, but the central problem at hand can be described quite easily: the days feel too short, the bright light seems to be approaching a little too quickly. William James, in a characteristically melancholy mood–don’t let his sometimes sunny optimism and flowing turn of phrase fool you–noted that “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

(As the James reference shows, many bright minds have concerned themselves with this puzzling business, and they haven’t stopped:

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.)

My particular morose take on the rapid passage of time is most acutely manifest in my worrying about about tasks completed or left unfinished and fretting over how to adequately allocate and manage time between my various personal, professional, intellectual, and existential responsibilities. The most depressing variant of this activity was my extremely imprecise calculation of the number of unread books I could see on my shelves, my Amazon wish list, and my ‘Downloads’ folder. As you might have guessed, my arithmetic confirmed my worst years: There are not enough years left for me to read them all.

My writing on this blog shows I’m a little obsessed by the speedy passage of time. Once–in a post written on July 1st, 2012–I made note of how travel slows down time, and on another occasion, on how a mere change of environment can have the same effect. These maneuvers are of limited efficacy: vacations do not last forever, and the unfamiliar, for an adult, all too rapidly becomes the familiar (that’s part of what it means to be an adult, the growing ease of the contextualization of life’s offerings.) I had hoped my daughter’s birth would slow clocks down, but as our family’s marking of two and half years of her life last week showed, that hasn’t helped either. Indeed, as many parents keep admonishing me, I’d better hurry up and take more photos and videos of these years, supposedly ‘the best ones of all.’

Time is running out; I’d better wrap up, and go do something.

Chatwin And Nietzsche On Metaphors, Words, And Concepts

Writing of the Yaghan people and Thomas BridgesYaghan Dictionary, Bruce Chatwin writes:

Finding in primitive languages a dearth of words for moral ideas, many people assumed these ideas did not exist, but the concepts of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ so essential to Western thought are meaningless unless they are rooted to things. The first speakers of language took the raw material of their surroundings and pressed it into metaphor to suggest abstract ideas. The Yaghan tongue–and by inference all language–proceeds as a system of navigation. Named things are fixed points, aligned or compared, which allow the speaker to plot the next move.  [In Patagonia, Penguin, New York, 1977, pp. 136]

Chatwin then goes on to describe some of the extraordinarily rich range of metaphorical allusion found in the Yaghan language. His analysis finds resonance in Nietzsche‘s thoughts on language in ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘:

What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds….One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one….It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities….Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases…Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf.”

The Yaghan language helps its speakers and users plot and live a particular a form of life. If it at all it is infected by a ‘dearth of moral ideas’ it is not because the moral–or aesthetic–concepts in question are lacking. Rather, the concept is manifest in altogether another fashion: the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’ are visible and operative in its concrete instances, as examples of what to do and what not to do, in what worked and did not, in that which helped and that which was unhelpful, in that which was praiseworthy or not. A nominalistic language then, is not inferior to one that traffics more extravagantly with universals; it is merely more nominalistic; it has evolved to suit and conform to, another way of life, of doing things, of relating to a very particular environment in a particular time and place. The language of universals, as Nietzsche notes, has not brought us closer to reality’s ‘ultimate forms’ – whatever that may mean.  

Same Sex Marriage Is Legal; Prepare For Doom, America

Same sex marriage is now a constitutionally recognized right in the United States of America. As usual, Justice Kennedy has confirmed that he is the only judge required for the Supreme Court to function. But danger awaits America.

All across the land, divorces will break out, children will disobey their parents, and pedophiles will prey upon adolescents. Traditional marriage will crumble; the family as we know it will be no more; disease–the sexually transmitted variants–and pestilence, for what else is homosexuality?, will stalk the land. Church, synagogue, mosque, and temple attendance will drop; disco will be played in clubs again; wedding planners will be driven nuts by not one, but two brides (and sometimes, two grooms); heterosexual Americans will cower, trembling, for fear of being inveigled into homosexual relationships; figure skating clubs and cooking classes will report dramatic increases in enrollment; at baseball games, the seventh innings stretch will now feature, exclusively, “Raise Your Glass“, “I Will Survive“, “Beautiful“, “I’m Coming Out“, “Dancing Queen“, “Born This Way“, and “Y.M.C.A.“; closets will empty; men will dress better; women will cut their hair; the increase in consumption of wedding cakes will send national diabetes and obesity rates to all-time highs; the Stars and Stripes will be replaced by the rainbow flag; standards of grooming will improve; ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ will become double entendres; jocks, otters, bears, and wolves will become the new national animals; dykes will be found everywhere, not just in the Netherlands; members of the Federalist Society–young men at our nation’s best law schools–will be overcome by uncontrollable fits of weeping at the fall of their patron saint, Justice Scalia; limp wrists and lisps will be required for entry into the Armed Forces; sexual promiscuity will be enforced by state and federal  law; the legalization of ecstasy will proceed quicker than the legalization of marijuana; Harvey Milk will appear on currency notes; Spandex and Speedos, say no more; musicals will be sold out for years; piano bars will remain open all night long; cologne manufacturers will not be able to keep up with demand; ‘girlfriend’ will be overused; Liza Minelli, Donna Summer, and Barbra Streisand will be Joint First Ladies For Life; video rentals of All About Eve and Steel Magnolias will skyrocket (Netflix’s servers will break down);  floral arrangements will become highly valued art; ‘tossing the salad’ will not be restricted to kitchens; Bette Davis impersonators will find regular work; Calvin Klein underwear will be worn–on the outside–to bar mitzvahs; lines at Pottery Barns will stretch for blocks; men will talk about interior decoration all day and all night; the WNBA will become bigger than the NBA; boys will wear feather boas to play football; barbershops will offer pubic hair trimming; firm handshakes will be replaced by slaps on the butt; crew cut women will clog the aisles of Home Depot; flannel shirts will be back in fashion again; women’s soccer will become ‘America’s Game.’

America will become Sodom and Gomorrah; Jesus will weep; Justice Scalia will continue to not get laid.

Segregation And The Peaceful Arrest Of Dylann Storm Roof

By now, you might have seen videos and photographs of Dylann Storm Roof’s arrest, and read the story about how the police bought him a meal at a fast-food establishment. The arrest is peaceful; there are no dramatic throwdowns to the ground, no knee to the neck or back, no choke-hold, no red-faced, apoplectic policeman screaming orders to ‘get down and stay down!’ or anything else like that. Here is a murderer, and here is his arrest, all by the book. The prisoner is not brutalized; he is taken into custody.

Pointing out the double standards visible in this treatment is easy enough. Mind you, so are the responses to it: Storm Roof did not ‘resist arrest'; he complied with all orders; he was docile. If only all those black folks whose violent arrests we are used to viewing would be similarly compliant and meek–you know, even the ones who haven’t actually committed any crimes–then all would be good. Of course, Storm Roof’s calm also stemmed from his sense of satisfaction at a task completed, a job ‘well done’ with nine targets successfully dispatched. Why struggle when all to be done is over with? Now comes further opportunity–at the time of the trial–wax lyrical about the creed that drove him on to his killings.

But Storm Roof’s mild manners and his docility are not the whole story. The videos and photographs of his arrest are circulated to note his ‘race’ had a great deal to do with it. There is nothing outrageous about that claim. Dylan Storm Roofs looks ‘just like one of us’ to the police who arrested him. He is a young white man, and the police know many young white men. They have broken bread with them, watched and cheered for them at baseball and football games, dropped them off at proms. They know young white men with guns; they know young white men with Confederate flags. They’ve seen them before; they can ‘relate’ to them. Heck, the police in Shelby were–mostly–young white men themselves once.

There would have been no such familiarity with a young black suspect. The police would not have thought he ‘looks just like me'; they would not have found his mannerisms or language wholly, comfortably, recognizable, a reminder of their daily lives. Their most extensive contact with ‘black folk’ is in all likelihood restricted to attending a summer barbecue at a token black colleague’s home, where the white folk retreat to a group and gaze uncomfortably at all the black folk around them; these attendees serve as reminders their black co-worker lives in a world outside the precinct wholly novel to them. Their children have few, if any, black friends so they are unable to see black youngsters expressing their doubts, fears, insecurities, likes, and dislikes in a variety of domestic and educational environments. Black and white don’t mix; black remains fearful and despised.

South Carolina remains a segregated state; where segregation lives on, so does fear and racial prejudice. One is the cause of the other; they co-determine each other. If you wonder what ‘systemic racism’ is and what is its effects are, this is it.

Getting Philosophy Syllabi Right

Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the ‘Twentieth Century Philosophy’ class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:

I appreciated the professor’s enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.

My initial syllabus included readings by: Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Beauvoir, Irigaray, Du Bois, Rawls, Macintyre, Dewey, Rorty, Taylor. In the first class meeting, I discovered half of my students had no prior background in philosophy. As a result, in the course of assigning and discussing Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, I provided my students a crash course in introductory philosophy just so I could establish some elementary metaphysical and epistemological definitions and distinctions. This slowed us down considerably; I spent two weeks on Russell, two on Wittgenstein, and one on Ayer. Needless to say, I had to drop some portions of the syllabus. I could have shitcanned Ayer, but I ended up getting rid of Austin, Davidson, Heidegger, Irigaray, Rawls, Macintyre, Rorty, and Taylor. Drastic surgery indeed but by then, I had realized my original syllabus had been too ambitious–the length of some of the assigned excerpts was non-trivial for undergraduates–and that it was better to slow down, and get straight about the most important issues at play. (In my defense, I will make the claim–one confirmed by some students–that I was able to show my students how twentieth century analytical philosophy of language was relevant to our reading and understanding of Foucault, Gadamer, and Derrida.)

Some reduction of the syllabus, and the compressed nature of the later discussions in the semester was forced upon me by the need to provide an extended introduction in the beginning of the semester. This same lack of student preparation also slowed down my discussion of Quine; my discussion of Gadamer also went on longer than I expected. Later in the semester, I added Nietzsche’s ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’–even though not strictly ‘twentieth century’– to supplement Foucault on truth. 

My initial selection was not ideal. Too many men; not enough women; Du Bois all by himself. I have some excuses to offer. Mostly: I made the syllabus in a hurry, and I lacked preparation in some issues and authors I could have included.  Most problematically, I simply excluded non-Western philosophical traditions. I then chose the path of least resistance; I picked an anthology of readings that seemed to strike a good balance between analytical and continental thought, and which, besides the usual metaphysical and epistemological readings, included social and political philosophy, existentialism, pragmatism, and feminism. (I was struck by the fact that most twentieth century philosophy syllabi I saw online were less varied than mine, which suggests the lack of variety complained about by my student might be a problem for others too.)

I can, and I think I will, do much better by simply planning my syllabus preparation better the next time around.