Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Six of One" : The dissapointing part


In my last post I said I would write about an element of Battlestar Galactica that I found disappointing. I said it had to do with the notion of automatic anthropomorphic free-will and human-like desire in the Cylon toaster-style robots and the raiders. I said it took us back to a pre-Asimov, pre-Turing conception of robots. It's Frankenstein and Karel Capek's R.U.R..

I would also add an earlier example, the Jewish myth of the golem, an artificial creature created by magic, often to serve its creator. The word "golem" appears only once in the Bible (Psalms 139:16) and in Hebrew, "golem" means "shapeless mass." Adam is called "golem," meaning "body without a soul" before God gives him life. In a lot of the stories the golem runs amok and threatens innocent lives because the magicians aren't really wise enough to understand God's magic.

The very word "robot" has its roots in the Czech word robota, meaning "work", or "forced workers" or "slaves" because of Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Capek's robots also rebelled against their creators and tried to wipe out the human race.

Victor Frankenstein is punished by his creation for going against the laws of nature and creating a monster.

If you recall the very beginning of the new Battlestar Galactica, during the first three-hour miniseries, we were told that the Cylons were created by Man to make life easier. Then the Cylons rebelled and started the first war. Why would they rebel? How come they even have the capacity to rebel? What did life without their human masters offer them? Where would such a desire to be free of their masters come from? It didn't matter much at the time because the Cylons were just a convienent trope used to introduce conflict into a drama. The show wasn't about the Cylons, but about the people. So, it didn't really matter at the beginning for us viewers. They could have gone with the whole "evil robots" trope and written a different story. But the answer is beginning to matter now because of the religious subtext of the story.

In the early, pre-Asimov, stories of man-made life the mad-scientists and magicians had to tread into "spiritual" and magical explanations for life and soul and intelligence. They had to tread on the old "there are some things man was not meant to know" excuse for why we were really ignorant of what life and mind were. God simply didn't give it to us and didn't want us to go there. It was forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge. It was a reminder that creation is God's prerogative, not man's, and that trying to emulate God is a presumptuous and dangerous business.

It's an attitude that still haunts the human psyche and we see it cropping up in debates over stem cells, abortion, cloning and genetic engineering. It's the attitude behind Baltar's claim that God is changing the Cylons, behind the Sixes who also attribute this to God. It's an anti-science, anti-naturalist position.

And I say; "Get the frak over it!" We already know Things We Were Not Meant To Know. Our grandparents knew them. Robert Oppenheimer became the Destroyer of Worlds long before I was squeezed out of the womb. We've gone to the Moon, we've transplanted hearts and Google is our Oracle of all wisdom. The idea that there are sacred limits to human knowledge and creation is a backwards religious delusion. There are no sacred boundaries to protect us from ourselves. Stern moral indignation is the weakest of arguments and the silly imaginings of TV writers won't change that. If there were a drug created from genetically engineered stem cells and aborted fetuses that could extend our sacred God-given lifespans by a hundred years, the Pope might be the first in line.

Hubristic mania is everywhere, Ray Kurzweil is telling us the singularity is near, David Pearce says that genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The robot stories generally changed in literary science fiction after Allen Turing started proposing that it was possible to program a computer to think like a human being. It was no longer a question of magic but of algorithms.

Why the Cylons rebelled is becoming one of the essential mysteries of the story now that things are changing. What the Cylons are and why they did what they did matters to the question I began this series of posts with, the argument between atheists and theists and the role of religion in our culture. It matters because there are two ways to explain "robot minds"; they are either supernatural golem or they are naturalistic AI and algorithms. And there's a third option too, genetically engineered cerebral tissue which avoids the problem of either theism or atheism side being right.

I was hoping for AI and naturalism, but there was a scene in this last episode which pointed more towards a supernatural golem's soul or genetically engineered cerebral tissue in spite of talk about "original programmers" and what not.


The scene that disappointed me was on a Cylon baseship, after the human-like Cylons had voted to do some "brain" surgery with a Bosch electric drill on the Raiders so they wouldn't act independently. One of the Sixs marched in to tell Cavil that he had to stop lobotomizing the Raiders. (We were also shown the interior of a Raider's brain being operated on and it was made of fleshy, gooey red stuff. Are these robots or cyborgs? If it's brain flesh that looks like a product of genetically engineered cerebral tissue, so, then why was computer AI outlawed on Caprica in the first part of the series?)

The Six tells some chrome-plated Cylons to come in. Cavil is puzzled and tells the Six, "Centurions can't vote."

"Oh they're not here to vote," says the Six.

Cavil commands the Centurions to leave, but they don't.

Then Six reveals that, "The telencephalic(?) inhibitor that restricts higher functions in Centurions. We had them removed."

"Say what?!" Cavil says, horrified.

Apparently removing the little cigar shaped inhibitor somehow made the 'bots aware that things were not going the way they wanted. They had a desire that went beyond just carrying out orders. The Centurions then gun down everyone but Six in a massive spray of blood and machine-gun bullets.

Since when do you have to give a robot something akin to "free-will" and then take it away by adding another device? Golem souls come in complete, irreducible packages, algorithms make intelligence a collection of thousands of parts, a "society of mind." Why build the Cylons with that kind of free-will function in the first place if its a problem? Did the humans who first created the Cylons also give them free-will and inhibitor devices?

Why would whoever is controlling their manufacture now keep doing that when they've already made Manchurian candidate humans, people whose will isn't so free? What the frak did the humans use the 'bots for that they would need what we think of as "free-will"? We're making robots now that do all sorts of things and there is more chance of cows rebelling than there is of self driving robot cars and smart bombs rebelling.

And keep in mind that "free-will" is just a short cut term borrowed from folk psychology. If free-will is not in some unknowable metaphysical and supernatural category then it must refer to something far more complicated and layered than it seems. If our will is so "free" then why can drugs and implants effect our behavior? Free will is considered something of an illusion by many psychologists and AI researchers today. There have been a lot of experiments in this area, Micheal Gazzaniga's experiments on people with split brains. There were also Benjamin Libet's experiments and you can also check out Daniel Wegner's book, "The Illusion of Conscious Will."

Wegner says that it's a false idea that our conscious thoughts cause our actions. It's an illusion caused by confusing correlation with causality. When we decide to do something, we are first aware of our conscious thoughts about the action, then we observe the action happening, and finally we conclude that our thoughts caused the action. In fact, unconscious processes caused both the conscious thoughts and the action.

To even have a will of any kind you have to have desire. You have to be able to form long term goals. To have the illusion of free will you need conflicting desires to choose from. So where do these robots get these desires for autonomy or even self-preservation?

The other aspect of these scenes is the fact that the Cylons have now lost their innocence, they're just as guilty of enslaving "free-willed" golem-souls as the humans were and now they've got their own rebellion. They aren't better than us in that way.

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

Good review and interesting take on free will.