All posts by Professor Awesome

Ever notice you never see Professor Awesome and Dr. Richard Scott Nokes together?

Pray for the Robots

You may have heard of the Turing Test for determining what is a true Artificial Intelligence. Though there are many versions of it, the basic version of the Turing Test is that if a human being is unable to distinguish between a machine and a human, then the machine is, for all intents and purposes, intelligent. Of course, there are potential philosophical objections from Descartes onward, and lots of caveats about how such a test might be accurately conducted, for how long the human  observer must not be able to distinguish them, what percentage of observers cannot distinguish them, etc., but the Turing Test acts as a rough-and-ready benchmark. By the way, if you want to know more about AI and philosophy, I would refer you to Damien Williams (“Wolven” for those of you in the nerd world), who thinks more about these things in a day than I do in a year.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the application of the Turing Test in my own life, and the way I (a human, I promise) seem to be failing it. As some of you might know, there is a character in Star Trek Online that is named for me. The back story is simple: I have friends who worked on the game and ran out of inspiration for names, so they used mine. The character looks nothing like me, doesn’t act like me, talk like me, etc. It’s literally just a name over an NPC (Non-Player Character).

Now, aside from affording me a weird teeny bit of fame, I’ve found a small handful of people who believe that the NPC really is me — that when they’re playing the game, I’m somewhere else off in the world controlling that avatar in real time. Now, at first thought, this is a quaint way of thinking about the internet, that every barkeep in World of Warcraft is some bored Blizzard employee typing the same script and selling the same items over and over. In this case, however, the people know me, so they are literally incapable of distinguishing me from an NPC with my name.

So, does that mean that the “Cadet Scott Nokes” has passed the Turing test, and is a true Artificial Intelligence, not only passing itself off as a human, but as a particular human? I don’t think a reasonable person would accept that premise, since “Cadet Scott Nokes” isn’t a particularly sophisticated simulacrum of life — heck, it probably isn’t even the most sophisticated one in Star Trek Online! I think we would chock this up to the problem of a naive observer.

But this then leads to the problem of naive observers: What if a significant percentage of STO players believed that Cadet Scott Nokes is a person? We would then (with some caveats) say that it has passed the Turing Test and is a intelligent. But in the real life case, the human observers also know me, which is the only reason they took any kind of interest in this insignificant NPC. What if the majority of human observers who know me not only believe Cadet Scott Nokes to be a human, but believe it to be me? In this case, we have got two intelligences, but they are indistinguishable. It’s not that I’ve failed the Turing Test, but rather that a human has become indistinguishable from a machine.

For at least for a small number of observers, we are there already. We can just hand-wave them away as “naive observers,” of course, but at what point is that no longer possible? At Turing’s 30% benchmark? Over half? Nearly everyone? But unlike Rick Deckard, I’m unable to point to myself and say, “I am an artificial intelligence.” In fact, so far as I can be certain, I am the only natural intelligence in the world. I know I’m “real” — it’s the rest of you who might be robots. No matter how much you try to persuade me, even if there is absolute consensus on the point from every other observer, I’ll never believe that Cadet Scott Nokes is “real,” and I’m the simulacrum of Scott Nokes. My own experience is too strong a warrant to be defeated by any percentage of consensus.

I’ve tried to be careful about my use of the words “real” and “artificial” here because I’m getting to a theological point.  From the perspective of the Turing Test, intelligence is intelligence is intelligence. The question of it being “artificial” is one of origin, that is to say that it is an artifact results from the artifice of another intelligent agent.  In other words, “artificial intelligence” is a “created intelligence,” and thus is not distinguishable from other created intelligences — i.e., humans.

The truth is, then, that from the perspective of the naive observers who think Cadet Scott Nokes is me, they are then bound by the same moral duties to treat it as they would treat me. If they wouldn’t curse me out, and they believe Cadet Scott Nokes is me, then cursing it out it, from their moral position, the same as cursing me out.

But remember, in the end, the only intelligence I can be certain of is myself, so let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I am the only “real” intelligence in the world — that everyone else is just an artificial intelligence, and I have naively assumed them to be real. I am just as morally bound to them as I am to the only other intelligence, i.e. me.

Sound familiar? It should: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). We’ve backed into the moral imperative of the Golden Rule. This isn’t a far off, science-fictiony issue — it’s one we have to account for soon. With naive observers already failing to distinguish between machines and humans, we’re not far from sophisticated observers being unable to distinguish between them. Indeed, we’re not far from you being unable to distinguish between them. From the Christian perspective, the response is pretty obvious: If you believe something to be intelligent, you treat it as your neighbor, until you have sufficient warrant to believe otherwise. The claim of Jesus that the Golden Rule is the essence of the Law and the Prophets means that this is encoded into the entire cosmos.

For non-Christians, then, observers run into a few choices: The most natural and philosophically-defensible is a Nietzschian master-slave morality, but the essential problem with that is we might find ourselves forced to adopt a “slave morality” of subversion to our AI masters. We could go with Utilitarianism, though since an AI could calculate outcomes of “human flourishing” (a category that would presumably also include AI flourishing in this scenario) far better than humans could, we are left with complete dependence on the judgments of our benevolent AI moral judges. It’s not really possible to exhaustively list the potential ethical frameworks and analyze their various benefits and pitfalls, but it’s certainly time for even the layman to start thinking about it.

As for me, I have a prior moral engagement with the Christian framework, so I’ll keep trying to navigate the morality accordingly. I know Cadet Scott Nokes isn’t me, and I have no serious reason to think it is a true intelligence, so you should feel free to treat it as you would any other game NPC. But if you ever log in to Star Trek Online and Cadet Scott Nokes says something like, “Hey, did you read that article the other Scott Nokes wrote about me? It really got me thinking I should pray more,” you might consider being much more thoughtful in the way you treat my namesake.

 

 

 

Nostalgia and “Stranger Things”

Warning: Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t seen Stranger Things on Netflix, stop now and go watch it.

Netflix’s Stranger Things, the surprise break-out hit of the summer, is successful on many levels. The writing is tight, it successfully maintains a tone of both fun and suspense, nearly every actor manages to completely inhabit their role, etc. Yet the element that everyone is talking about is the nostalgia. The series isn’t just set in 1983, it is presented to us, from the music to the title fonts, as if it were an artifact from 1983.

OK, let’s get this out of the way: As someone who grew up in rural Indiana, was a total nerd, and nearly exactly the age of the boys in Stranger Things, (I would have been 13 in November of ’83), yes, this is exactly what my life was like.  Except for the lack of cornfields, it’s amazing how perfectly the Duffer brothers, two ’90s kids from the South, were able to capture that place and time.  But none of that is what makes it a good series, because, let’s face it, most of the TV actually made in 1983 in some way captured the zeitgeist, and most of it was mediocre to bad. Instead, Stranger Things succeeds because of the way it uses nostalgia.

Nostalgia tends to be used in one of two ways:

  1. “Hey, remember this? Wasn’t this cool?” This is the VH-1 I Love the ’80s type. Sometimes it’s played for comedy instead, “Hey, remember this? Weren’t we silly?” Frankly, I have little patience for this kind of use, which tends to the stupid, broad humor (I’m looking at you, The Wedding Singer and That ’70s Show).
  2. Setting the tone for a period piece. Normally, when we say something is a period piece, we’re thinking of Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but a series like The Americans is just as much a period piece.  The nostalgia is sometimes incidental, sometimes not. Stranger Things also partially uses nostalgia in this way.

However, Stranger Things does more with ’80s popular culture than either of these two; it causes us to view the events through a different lens. Familiarity with the films and books references creates expectations in the viewer that are either fulfilled or frustrated as the story unfolds.

Shakespeare used this method in King Lear. Historically, Cordelia wins and restores Lear to the throne. This wasn’t just a historical fact, but it is something that Shakespeare’s audience would have known from other popular retellings of the Lear story at the time. So, in the end, when we have this long scene of a mad Lear believing Cordelia to be only unconscious, not dead, the contemporary audience would have believed it too. You can see more about this here.

Stranger Things is bookended by Dungeons & Dragons games. The first foreshadows everything in the series. They are confronted by a monster, the boys are in conflict over whether to defend themselves against the threat or attack in head-on, as they are in conflict about Eleven. Will, uncertain what to do, ultimately chooses the fireball (the gun), but then the die goes missing and they scramble to find out what has happened, just as the entire series becomes a scramble to find Will himself. Take note that the creature at the end is a thessala hydra, a many-headed creature associated with the water … perhaps Season Two will have multiple monsters, associated with the water in the quarry?

These same interpretative cues happen with other elements of nostalgia. When we see Will and his mother discuss Poltergeist, the reference acts as dramatic irony. In Poltergeist, a young girl is snatched to “the other side” by ghosts, and her parents are only able to communicate with her through the TV.  Will and his mother will soon find themselves in a similar situation, with Will in the Upside-Down, only able to communicate through technology.

Poltergeist

Similarly, in the episode “Monster,” the thematic question is “Who is the monster?” Is it the demi-gorgon? Eleven? Dr. Brenner? Steve and his friends? Previously in the season, we’ve see the poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing is in the basement, but now we begin to see shots framed to remind us of it … a film in which a shapeshifting alien makes it difficult for the characters to tell friend from foe.

Thing Poster

Other times, the Duffer Brothers play with and frustrate the viewer’s expectations for dramatic effect. Perhaps the scene that most obviously exemplifies this is the chase scene from the episode “The Bathtub,” in which the kids on bikes are being chased by government agents, visually referencing an iconic scene from E.T. As a van runs head-first toward them, our nostalgia creates the expectation that the Eleven will use her powers to lift them over the van in a flying-bicycle scene … but instead she delivers a brutal telepathic punch to the van, sending it flipping over them, and presumably killing anyone inside when it hits the ground. The juxtaposition serves to remind us that El isn’t E.T., a wise old creature who only wants piece. She is, at worst, a monster and a weapon, and at best, a child with power beyond her own capacity to control and understand. The other children see what happens as cool, but adults old enough to remember E.T. should see El as dangerous, even if she is an innocent.

van flip

Without belaboring the point, the list goes on. The visual references to Alien when Joyce and Hopper go to the Upside-Down foreshadow the possibility that Will is either harboring a “chest-burster” style alien, or is perhaps not truly himself, but an alien/human hybrid. When Lonnie calls Jonathan’s Evil Dead poster “inappropriate,” we recognize the dramatic irony that it is, indeed, VERY appropriate. The Stand By Me train track walking scene should parallel both the comradery of the boys, but also heighten tension that just as the tracks in Stand by Me are a journey to see a dead body, that they too might be journeying together to see Will’s dead body.

It’s true, no doubt, that you can sell a product based primarily on nostalgia. But reviewers who see Stranger Things as mere nostalgia-bait miss the point. The Duffer Brothers don’t use allusions to ’80s films just as throw-away references, but as dramatic touchstones to guide the viewer. This is what makes them so satisfying.

The Force Awakens’ Rey: Disney Prince(ss)

Lots of spoilers ahead.

Once upon a time, there was a princess who was trapped in a dark tower by an evil usurper, and forced into an evil destiny. Our plucky princess manages to escape the tower with the evil usurper’s men in hot pursuit. Fortunately, she stumbles on a prince in disguise, who first helps her escape and then plans to destroy the dark tower. However, the prince is captured, so the princess gathers the help of some companions they met on the way and they go to the dark tower to free the prince. Meanwhile, though, the prince has already gotten free, and our heroes all meet up. They confront the usurper, with the princess holding him off just long enough for the prince to claim the magical weapon showing him to be the rightful heir to the throne. He defeats the usurper, but the princess has been magically wounded, and has fallen into a deep sleep. So, the prince goes on a quest to find a wizard in a far off land, who might be able to break the spell on the princess…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been criticized for adhering too closely to the plot(s) of the original trilogy, and although the film certainly has flaws (relying far too heavily on implausible coincidence, for example), the critique that it’s too similar to the original trilogy is unfair.

The film wisely focuses more on reflecting the themes of the original trilogy, and the plot just flows from that as a natural consequence. And, indeed, this attention to theme over plot point is one of the main reasons TFA succeeds where the prequels failed, and will eventually, I think, be seen to have improved on both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

Take, for example, the central mystery of the film: No, it’s not to whom Kylo Ren is related; that’s revealed pretty early on, and no one over the age of twelve should have been surprised. Nor is it the death of Han Solo — again, that’s telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the film. Instead, the mystery is laid out in the first scene where Lor San Tekka says to him, “I know where you come from, before you called yourself Kylo Ren.” Throughout the film, the mystery of his name before he changed it to Kylo Ren isn’t revealed until the climactic scene, in which Han Solo’s shout of “Ben!” begins the end of the film.

Let’s consider that name for a second. It’s incredibly improbable for these characters that they would name their son “Ben.” Leia literally never met Ben Kenobi, and Han Solo’s interactions with him seem to have been limited to a business deal and scoffing at the idea of the Force.  Given all the time they spent fighting with others in the rebellion, Obi Wan Kenobi would have had very little impact on their lives, whereas naming their son after Luke, Lando, Chewie, basically important to Leia on Alderaan, or heck, even Akbar or Wicket W. Warrick would make more sense than “Ben.”  That name was not chosen because it made sense for the characters or the plot, but rather because it fits a larger thematic purpose.

So, what does all of this have to do with Rey? When we shift the focus to the thematic elements, we no longer see a film that recycles the plot of A New Hope, but rather a film that draws from a deeper well, that of the Disney princess. Although she may not literally be a princess (though with her mysterious past, she may be), thematically she fulfills the traditional role in the Disney film, though in this case with the gender roles frequently inverted. Heck, her name even means “queen.”

Rey and Finn together play out the plotline of the Disney princess film, with Rey in the role of Prince Charming, and Finn in the role of the princess. This, in part, goes to explain why Rey is, frankly, such a boring Mary Sue character — just like a traditional prince, she has to be attractive, charming, virtuous, skilled with a sword, have a faithful sidekick and a noble steed, etc. Presumably, her character will become more fleshed out in the next two films, as this film focuses on Finn, the next presumably on Poe Dameron, with Rey completing her arc in the third film (and I think we can expect a similar focus on original trilogy characters, with this film being Han’s, the next two focusing on Leia, then Luke, or visa-versa). But for now, her character does not have to be fleshed out, because her job is to be the stranger with the mysterious past.

Once upon a time A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a princess who Finn was trapped in a dark tower Starkiller Base by an evil usurper Kylo Ren, and forced into an evil destiny. Our plucky princess Finn manages to escape the tower Starkiller Base with the evil usurper’s men Stormtroopers in hot pursuit. Fortunately, she Finn stumbles on a prince in disguise Rey, who first helps her Finn escape and then plans to destroy the dark tower Starkiller Base. However, the prince Rey is captured, so the princess Finn gathers the help of some companions they met on the way and they go to the dark tower Starkiller Base to free the prince Rey. Meanwhile, though, the prince Rey has already gotten free, and our heroes all meet up. They confront the usurper Kylo Ren, with the princess Finn holding him off just long enough for the prince Rey to claim the magical weapon light saber showing him her to be the rightful heir to the throne. He Rey defeats the usurper Kylo Ren, but the princess Finn has been magically wounded, and has fallen into a deep sleep coma. So, the prince Rey goes on a quest to find a wizard Luke Skywalker in a far off land, who might be able to break the spell on the princess teach her to heal Finn…

By drawing on this well, that of the folkloric princess (in Disney form), The Force Awakens offers us thematic hints at the future of the series. The film is clearly self-aware of the gender swap in the princess role addressing it in comic moments, such as the exclamation “Stop taking my hand!” and C3PO correcting himself in calling Leia “Princess” rather than “General.” Nevertheless, it never devolves into a pandering “Grrl Power” attitude, instead allowing Rey and Finn to have feminine and masculine strengths, respectively. In particular, Rey on Jakku evokes the princess waiting to be rescued by her family, but the depiction of her is not of helpless passivity, but rather resolute steadfastness. We see that she was a little girl who is surviving in the (literal) wreckage of war, and each mark on the wall is a mark of strength, not passivity.

By the end, prince(ss) Rey has learned that she is waiting not to be rescued, but to find someone to rescue. Just as Leia had to awaken Han Solo from the carbonite, and Prince Charming had to awaken Sleeping Beauty, Rey now has to awaken Finn — and as the Force awakens, unite these two traditions.