Sunday, 28 May 2017

What ‘Do’ Robots Teach Us?

by Denis Larrivee
There is much bustle nowadays, circulating around nexi of philosophers, scientists, and engineers, about doing for humans and doing with humans that centers on our machine marvels and new found friends, robotic companions. Philosophers popularizing the blogs and daily press, on the one hand, typically exhaust their idea queue with notions about human creativity and its inevitable and successful trajectory, all confirmed by prior science fantasy and its fulfillment in historical parallels. By this they seem to mean a sort of value centrality that is contingent in the creative cognitive apparatus that shows us what really stands out and counts. The more reticent and reflective, that is, those among us who are the socially, or, perhaps more likely, self-designated, representatives for thinking beyond the obvious bounds, survey what otherwise seems a less gracious shore, wondering over matters like where the creative urge may be headed, what sort of value contingency may be in the process of assembly, or even exotic concerns on whether an exclusive emphasis on creative value is of real merit for humans, especially in domains that just might count more.
Reflections of the latter kind recently surfaced in a paper by Ryan Calo to the California Law Review on robots and privacy ethics. The paper’s motivation sprang from underlying concerns over the depth and breadth of robot impact on one of humankind’s jealously guarded rights, personal privacy. On what is regarded as a previously unattained scale robots will be filtering and contextualizing our private dossiers, legal commitments, and the like, reducing its unmanageable complexity, but also potentially unveiling it to tendentious and libellous sources. The burgeoning legal intrusion into the field surrounding the technology leaves the distinct impression that amongst the legal community’s membership there is an expanding perception that the sorts of interactions envisaged with humans, and their potential for transgression, is more than merely related to implementation of a novel technology. This level of ‘readiness’ as Holder, Khurana, Harrison, and Jacobs recently opined, is apparently to be invoked across a spectrum that begins to rival the range traditionally bookmarked for humans.
The widening ripples in which legal philosophy is immersing itself follows parallel and converging trends in creative technology and social science that have made a marriage of economic and labor efficiency and a coming of age of artificial, as opposed to real, intelligence. Developments in robotics since Stanford’s Shakey rover, originally purposed to make good or better on motoric skills that would leave humans free to move purposefully elsewhere, have generally trended bimodally, vertically as well as laterally, that appears to be both the source of virtue but also of vice. Though the devices may have ended assembly line tedium, upward mobility has pushed into human capacities that have a distinctly cognitive flavor. Last year’s defeat of reigning Go champion was considered a watershed for those surveying and appropriating the artificial intelligence scene, which saw fans of deep learning AI strategies swept up in the general euphoria to exploit the silico based prodigies.
The success at social clambering has not been lost on some cultures that mix the technological and the cultural with equal adaptive maneuvering. Japanese culture for instance, and for clear reasons, has acquired the moniker of the Robot Kingdom. The society’s tuneful ear to western sirens pleading on population excess has been exacerbated by ethical responsibilities peculiarly structured by the society’s general sensitivity to eastern social commitments. The resulting population void has tethered robots into service to humans, taking the devices from the domain of objects to ones increasingly propertied with subjective features. Heidegger’s need to forewarn mankind of a technology that more and more encircles us was likely meant to be as much a warning of the unthinking consequences of its evolution that have been taken up in that society as it was to identify the peril. Subanovic has pointed out that this seeming evolution also attaches itself to our being human, meaning that the particular feature of being human is taken up as ‘trace’ in the objects of our creation and defines what we make by their relationship to us. This creation itself creates more lacunae needing to be filled with that uniquely human creative force emanating laterally to a host according to the mode of its creator. Hence, apparently, the explanation for the Japanese urge to fill the void with their own images.
A troublesome aspect of such comfortable and sympatic relations arises in the inverted and antiparallel trends that makes formerly subjective humans more objectified, more like the devices they create than the personalized being that infuses a natural world with his presence. Implantable devices, clearly, merge and mark the subjective and the objective in human and machines; but this subjective loss seems to dig deeper to the meaning behind subjectivity that is superficialized in the merger.
The slide to mutual investments reflects what was, on the other hand, certainly an effortful undertaking and an intended divorce, wrenching, in another move by the noted German philosopher, of a former sympatic merger, being and form, especially human being and that vaunted anthropocentric order, that had created unnatural divisions between the subjective and the objective. Japanese efforts to fill empty assisted living institutions with subjectified robotic companions might perhaps agree with the philosopher, but their human technical creativity seems to preclude a thoughtful allegiance to his reflection. Our social companions instead, are endowed with facial expressions that respond to stimuli without a drop of silico cognition impressed with subjective presence that would make of the human gesture a meaningful interjection. Can it ever be? Somehow these companions of ours seem engaged in fraudulent commerce…..
The nadir toward which such mindless creativity appears headed might appear to justify heaping on legal scholars deserved accolades for vigilantly intruding on domains we jealously defend for their vicarious privileging of we humans. With such zealous sentinels, particularly of the enforcing kind, our perceptual excesses are sure to be properly reigned in. Under watchful legal scrutinies our death valleys may be skirted for more pacific shores. But, then, perhaps this intuition is itself no more than that, just a slightly more reflective version that that lobbed about  unsuspecting human creativity. What do these scholars show us, in fact, but the rationale behind ensconcing ourselves in legal thickets that only sense what is right, without really knowing why.
On the other hand, it may be better to ask the robots. After all, they seem to have taken a lesson from us, but, unlike us, taken it to heart.

Denis Larrivee is a Visiting Scholar at the Neiswanger Bioethics Institute, Loyola University Chicago. He is also an editor for the journal EC Neurology, an International Neuroethics Society Expert, and a member of the International Association Catholic Bioethicists. His interests focus on neuroscience and neuroethics. 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Dance Me To The End

by Teresita Pumará

Some texts belong to eternity. Others, like this one, are stuck up in time. It was written between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 and it resists to be struck out of the long German winter wanderings that not so secretly inspired it.

No art is possible without a dance with death.
                                                                         Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

In a print called Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), Durero pictures Death as a barbed skeleton crowned with snakes and holding a sand clock. The skeleton rides beside a Knight and reminds him each step forward is a step closer to the end. The Knight smiles knowingly. He is determined. The thing about death is we will die, whether we keep going or we stay still. But there are different ways to relate with death.
David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died last year. Both of them released an album short before their deaths. Those albums seem to me the result of an intense dance with death. But what does this mean: to dance with death? Is not life itself a dance with death? Think of a couple dancing. Their bodies are close. They look at each other. They travel through space and time in a close embrace. To dance with death means to embrace death and feel it closely. Life is not always a dance with death.

In Slaughterhouse Five I read that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book, because they are both equally inevitable. The book´s narrator was an allied soldier in the Second World War and was in Dresden as prisoner during the bombarding of 1945. He believes wars are inevitable but he still decides to write the book.
That feeling of hopeless inevitability is also present in 2666, by Roberto Bolaño. The heart of this novel is, to me, the assassination of women in Sonora dessert, in Mexico. In its huge tapestry, the maidens killed by Dracula, the dead women in the pictures of a nihilist artist and the women killed systematically in Mexico are the same women. Their broken bodies pop up in the dessert, as if the dessert was responsible. There is no villain, no sick serial killer to blame. The dead women in 2666 seem as inevitable as the war in Slaughterhouse. And yet the writer writes.

David Bowie died on January 10th, 2016. He left one last strange album, Blackstar. I am not sure if I like the album. It makes me childishly afraid. But, like a child, I come back to it again and again. I feel it holds a hidden message. The other day, while listening to it, I imagined Bowie was already dead when he wrote and recorded the songs. In Blackstar Bowie sings and dances in his grave.
In Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo, dead people sing and talk to each other from their graves. They do not talk about death. There is nothing to say about death. Dead people talk about the world they lived in. From their point of view, it is a vast, cruel and sometimes unbearably beautiful dessert. In their dance with death, artists see what dead people see. Bowie sings and dances in his grave: I know something is very wrong, The post returns for prodigal songs, The black-eyed sharks with flowered muse, With skull designs upon my shoes.

Leonard Cohen died some weeks ago. In the past four years he recorded three beautiful albums. In them breathes an intense cemetery peace. A peace that expects something. The last of these three albums is calledYou want it darker. In every song, except one, Cohen addresses an anonymous “you”.  Who is the poet addressing to? Who wants it darker? Death may be one answer.
I imagined the poet having a long conversation with death. The poet is old. He is ready to die, although he does not really want to. I´m ready, he sings. I´m out of the game. I´m leaving the table. And yet he loves life, he would like to stay. He is dying, and yet he dances. He declares his love to death: death makes life real. If we turn our back on the devil we turn our backs on the angel. If we turn our back on death, we turn our back on life.

I have struggled to end this text for over a week. One day, looking for some kind of zombie inspiration, I went for a walk in a Düsseldorf cemetery. Some graves had Christmas decorations. That night I blamed Heidegger, who convinced me that the awareness of death opens a distance between us and the world, so we become tragically free, tragically alive.
Yesterday I had a short conversation with the owner of a little Arabian shop. I wished her a happy new year, she wished the same to me, and added: hopefully it will be better than the last. I hope that too, said I. She concluded: last year was so hard for everyone, I do not know why. In Bowie´s words: I know something´s very wrong.
Each time I return to 2666 I think: that is what the apocalypse feels like. Then I notice: the apocalypse is always happening. Sometimes we feel it, sometimes we do not. Nietzsche whispers to my ear: a little oblivion is necessary to life. And Bowie sings: the post returns for prodigal sons. I like to think the prodigal sons are Bowie and the generation he belongs to. The kind of freedom they built is dying. Dark forces are profiting from that death: winter is coming. What can our work stop, prevent, or change? I do not know, but I will only find it out if I write, if I dance, if I ride.

Teresita Pumará studied philosophy in the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she focused on phenomenology and twentieth century philosophy. Then she got lost in the sea of possibilities. She lived in Medellin, Colombia, where she wrote and took part in a punk-rock band. Now she lives in Düsseldorf, Germany, where she writes and studies German. Whatever the wind blows, she writes.  

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Life's a Gamble

by Karl Simms

Somewhere on the internet a professional gambler justifies his way of life by claiming that ‘life’s a gamble anyway’. Whenever I get up in the morning, I run a risk of falling down the stairs; whenever I cross the road, I run a risk of getting run over. Since life is full of such risks, so the argument goes, life as such is constituted by risk, and so I may as well choose risk as a way of life. The non-sequiturs here are obvious: I may accept the risk of falling down stairs as the price for getting up, but only retrospectively, if I make a conscious effort to think about it. Indeed, if I did think about it beforehand, I would probably choose to spend the whole day in bed! And just because some risks are unavoidable, it does not mean that of necessity I should seek out risk as a way of life. In short, there is a difference between acknowledging the risks involved in living everyday lives, and seeing life as such as a gamble.
That said, I think there are some parallels between life and gambling, and that gambling can tell us something important about the structure of lived experience. Before moving on to that, though, we should clarify what we mean by ‘gambling’. Gambling, speculation and investment are all related, but have significant differences as well as similarities. At one pole I would locate what I would call ‘pure gambling’, which is a game of chance. In the gambling industry this is called ‘fixed odds’ gambling, since the likelihood of the outcome, but not the outcome itself, is known in advance: given a perfect die, for example, each number has precisely a one sixth chance of coming up on each roll. Most casino games, slot machines, etc. fall under this category. At the other pole I would situate investment, whereby the punter buys a stake in an entity (or more typically, in a portfolio of entities) in anticipation of the entity increasing in value in the future. Pure gambling is usually focussed on a single event that is brought about for the sole purpose of the gamble (most simply, tossing a coin with a wager attached), whereas investment is typically not focussed on an event, as such, but rather on an open-ended improvement, and the entity invested in usually exists for some primary purpose other than the investment opportunity (making widgets, for example).
Between investment and gambling there is speculation. Speculation takes place wherever there is a market in investments, and is constituted by the trading of those investments. It is akin to investment insofar as the entities traded (stocks and shares, bonds, currencies, commodities, futures etc.) do not exist in order to be traded, so the trading opportunity is a by-product of the fact of the investments in those entities being marketed. Nor is there a singular event attaching to the wager involved, other than in the relatively trivial sense that at some undetermined point in the future the value of the stock will rise or fall. Someone skilled at ‘playing the markets’ can use their knowledge of how markets behave in the face of external influences on them to make a profit without benefitting the entity invested in; in more sophisticated markets there are opportunities for hedging and arbitrage such that the investor will make a profit however the stock performs.
And finally, between speculation and gambling, there is what I would call ‘speculative gambling’. This is where a wager is placed on a singular event which will have a determinate outcome at a particular point in the future, just like pure gambling. However, as with investments, the event in question does not take place for the purpose of the wager. Moreover, the probability of any particular outcome is a matter of judgement, rather than of mathematical certainty, and this means that the punter, like the speculator, needs to deploy an amount of knowledge, skill and experience to make a profit. Sporting events lend themselves particularly well to this kind of scenario, but it can also apply to elections, TV talent shows, etc. – the essential thing is that there must be a future event.
It is speculative gambling that I find revealing about what I rather grandly called at the beginning ‘the structure of lived experience’, and I’ll discuss this in a later blog. But in what remains this month I should like to make clear why pure gambling is not interesting from that point of view (although it may be an interesting phenomenon for other reasons). Pure gambling is determined by the interaction of mathematical certainty with pure chance or luck, and tends to attract the superstitious, who falsely believe that their own luck can supersede the mathematical certainty. If a perfectly balanced coin is perfectly tossed an infinite number of times, it will land on heads precisely 50% of the time, and on tails precisely 50% of the time – that is a mathematical certainty (the odds are fixed at evens). This means that the probability of the coin landing on heads (or tails) at any one time is precisely 50%. However, the gambler who wagers on the toss of the coin surely believes that on this occasion, luck is with them, and that they will win. This initial superstition gives rise to others, such as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ – that past mathematical outcomes will affect future ones: ‘The coin has come up heads five times in a row – surely it will be tails next time!’. No! Each toss of the coin is an individual event with the same probability of 50/50 heads or tails – only with a very large sample will this even itself out to a 50-50 distribution in reality, and only over infinite time will this be a precise 50-50 distribution. Gambling companies exploit this superstition ruthlessly, of course, which is why on a roulette table the history of previous winning numbers is displayed, and why during the National Lottery show on TV the commentator mentions how many times a particular number has come up before. (It’s a fact that the sequence 123456 is just as likely to come up as any other six-number sequence in the National Lottery, but very few people who enter the Lottery seem to believe this.)
Most real-life pure gambling situations are not so simple as the toss of the coin, meanwhile, and rather than the chances of a successful gamble being 50%, the house has an edge, be it the green slot on a roulette wheel, or the average pay-out of 72-92% on a fruit machine. Gambling companies love fixed-odds betting propositions, because – as a mathematical certainty – in the long term the punter must lose. This is why, since deregulation in the UK five years ago, fruit machines are proliferating in the country’s poorest areas, where the population is most likely to be uneducated, or credulous, or desperate. Rationalist as he was, Kant said that ‘We can only feel contempt for someone who wins money in a lottery’. He would have done better to say ‘We can only feel compassion for someone who enters a lottery’.
     To summarise, to make a pure gamble is to suspend rationality and to surrender to a belief in luck. Next time, by comparison, I’ll turn to variable odds, or speculative, gambling.

Karl Simms is Reader in Hermeneutics at the University of Liverpool. His books include Translating Sensitive Texts (1997), Paul Ricoeur (2003), Ricouer and Lacan (2007), and Hans-Georg Gadamer (2015). His latest book, The Unsaid: Hermetic Poetry between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. He is a Committee Member of the British Personalist Forum, and an Editorial Advisor for Appraisal.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

British Personalist Forum Blog: Reboot the Second

The following lines were found nailed to a tree on Hindhead Common by an escaped gorilla of no fixed abode. The gorilla, which was carrying a bottle of blackcurrant cordial and searching for a large barrel of cider to mix it with, was kind enough to pass his find to a Concerned Citizen. 

A Blog for all Seasons

Spring has returned to the Northern Hemisphere – one of the two best hemispheres there is, in my view – blithely bringing with it reminders of what a good time it is to start new ventures and restart old ones. The grey chill days of February have slithered damply out of sight at last; the celestial blues and brilliant-butter yellows of the summer are on their way; it is such a relief to see the seasons change.
Although, of course, as right-thinking people know very well, all change is bad, up to and perhaps even including underwear.
Leaving underwear aside for the time being, if we may, it has occurred to me of late that, given the propitious nature of the season, now might be the perfect time to re-open the lines of communication. Again. Should you have passed this way before – though heaven knows why you would remember – you may be aware that I first rebooted this blog and re-opened the lines of communication two years ago. Then, I was inspired by finding myself deep in the Irish countryside, surrounded by sheep and hills, and faced by a telecommunications industry that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 14th Century. I felt the need to reach out. Barely a year later, however, that fruit had withered on the vine.
Back on the British side of that ‘scrotum-tightening sea,’ great grey-green Mother, with the dullthudding of Guinness’s barrels faded into distant memory, now seemed as good a time to start again as any other. Better, given recent history, when ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become the dominant motif. The ability to overcome, to heal, such damaging divisions is one of the most vital and most powerful aspects of Personalist thought, howsoever broadly construed.  For, in seeking to place persons at the heart of epistemology, of metaphysics, and every kind of thought about our selves and our world, Personalism insists upon the dignity, the fundamental moral value, not only of individuals, but of all that connects them. Those connections are precious; they make us who and what we are.
This is because there is a pragmatic psychology built into Personalist thought, one which is as essential to philosophy and theology as it is to all the social, political, and physical sciences; essential, that is, to their healthier, ineluctably inclusivist modalities. Essential too, to both the form and content of this blog. Philosophically speaking, that psychology is an antidote to the debilitating dualisms that continue to cripple so much Western thought. Mind and body, individual and society, subject and object, and, most frightening of all, us and them: such antediluvian oppositions are reintegrated in a Personalist framework in which we are intimately reconnected to one another. 
Such, once again, or perhaps more accurately, still, is the point and purpose of these dispatches: to consider the questions with which personalist thinkers ought to – and, in fact, frequently do – concern themselves. In so doing, dialogue, conversation, is surely the ultimate goal. So we follow Jonas Mortensen’s most excellent example and strive to drag our philosophy – kicking and screaming if need be – from the old cold cloisters of academe out into the agora. After all, practitioners of Personalism stake their claim to real insight into all the richness and complexity of the human condition; that is where it belongs.
That, then, is my aim; or rather, I should say, our aim. This time I have not come alone. For your edification and entertainment, I have gathered about me a company of fine scholars and remarkable writers, deep thinkers all; also the usual gang of ne’er-do-wells, layabouts, and bums. Long did I search to find, if I may paraphrase the ‘Swan of Lichfield’, the shiftless, the senile, the drunken, the lunatic, and the unhygienic. Such is the range of perspectives and interests purveyed by this rabble, that I feel entirely confident in declaring readers will be endlessly fascinated, absorbed, and excited by their every invitation to dialogue. There will be, as they say, something for everyone. It will be grand, I can promise you that.
This, then is our grand reopening, our return to the universe of intelligent discourse, thoughtful comment, and expert analysis that is the modren internet. Not, perhaps, with a bang, nor exactly a whimper; at the very least, with a stifled yawn and a soft burp – we’re back! Third time’s the charm, as the saying goes. And this time, should we avoid Armageddon, swift-approaching from the United States, it will be the greatest thing the world has ever known, as voted for by at least 51.9% in my household. With such overwhelming support, how can we fail?

Tune in again next time for another spine-tingling episode of Tales from the BPF Blog!