Creating Consciousness: Artists, AI and Playing with Fire

consciousness

For centuries, artists have warned about the dangers of creating consciousness. From Greek mythology to ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘Westworld,’ here are some of their cautionary tales.

There was once a lonely and isolated sculptor by the name of Pygmalion. He knew no women and had no wife. His entire life had been dedicated to his art, and the only beauty he knew was what he created through stone: lifelike figures of beautiful women. One day he formed perfection: a sculpture of a female of unparalleled beauty. The artist was overwhelmed and soon fell madly in love with his creation, giving her the name Galatea. Every day and night he admired her and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to give Galatea life so that they might be married. Hearing his desperate prayers, the goddess descended from Mount Olympus, determined to judge this great beauty herself.

Of course, when Aphrodite finally saw Galatea, she too was overcome by her beauty and perfection, and the goddess decided to grant Pygmalion his request. That day as the lonely artist returned to his workshop, a rosy color emanated from his creation’s face. Realizing his prayers had been answered, he clutched Galatea and held her to his chest as she transformed from cold, hard stone to soft, warm flesh. Galatea had received the spark of life, and when she saw her creator, she spoke with love and admiration for him. Pygmalion rejoiced, and soon they were married with the blessing of Aphrodite, who promised them happiness and prosperity. They went on to have two children: a son named Paphos and a daughter they called Metharme, and they all lived happily ever after.

And so the story goes.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and perhaps the only reason Pygmalion’s ended in happiness is because his love gained consciousness only through the work of the gods. Sadly, the Greeks did not have a warning for us regarding artificial intelligence, and they didn’t explain what would happen if mere humans chose to play with the fire of the gods (remember, Prometheus himself was a Titan). Luckily for us, since the dawn of the industrial age and the birth of machines, artists have been reminding us that the road to destruction can be paved with good intentions. Let’s explore a few of these modern-day myths expressing the dangers of creating consciousness.

Spoilers ahead!

1. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

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‘Frankenstein’ (1931) / Universal Pictures

In this famous novel, the natural world is viewed as something dark and mysterious, filled with secrets and hidden truths that only a scientist can shed light on. Light, in this sense, is seen as enlightenment and knowledge. And it is this pursuit of knowledge that so violently burns Victor Frankenstein, for he learns the lesson of fire far too late.

However, his creation learns early on that fire can illuminate the darkness but also hurt you if you touch it. Victor is blinded to this reality by his own ego, selfishness, pride and ambition. He seeks to become a god through knowledge and science, to break through the boundaries of nature and discover the secrets of life and death. He’s ruthless and barbaric, searching cemeteries for body parts, creating a grotesque monster with strange chemicals and a mysterious spark, granting consciousness to a supernatural being.

“Man, how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”

However, Victor’s creation is not a purely evil thing. He is a learning being, born with the mind of a child, seeking love, compassion and understanding. Yet Victor lacks the moral fiber and fortitude to face the consequences of his ruthless pursuit of fame and glory. He abandons his innocent creation, leaving the creature to face a cruel and violent society alone. On the one hand, yes, Victor has achieved the impossible. In his pursuit of immortality, he has created life and cheated death. He becomes a god of sorts through science. But he also abandons his creation, a virtuous, albeit hideous, being and proves himself to be the true monster of the tale, corrupted by his thirst for knowledge, no matter the cost. As a result, all that Victor truly loves is taken from him, and he spends the rest of his life possessed by hatred for his creation, determined to destroy it.

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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“What you need is a gramme of soma.” / ‘Brave New World’ / Warner Bros.

While Dr. Frankenstein is horrified by his creation and abandons his work, the all-powerful dystopian World State described in Huxley’s novel seeks to control their creation, right down to their consciousness. In this world, people are not born but hatched. Reproductive rights are strictly regulated, with two-thirds of the female population being sterilized, and the very thought of being a mother or father is either ridiculous or a symbol of great shame. Behavior of those created in this “brave new world” is strictly controlled from birth to death. Infants are reprogrammed to hate nature and independent thought, with their consciousness altered even in their sleep through a whispering voice describing the moral code of the World State. There is no art or science, and any understanding of stream of consciousness is eradicated. Religion and states of higher consciousness have also been replaced with pure consumerism, with Henry Ford becoming the new Lord and Savior. The goal of the World State is not to foster self-identity or individual expression but to provide social stability and economic prosperity. In other words, human consciousness and the emotions, relationships and connections that spring from it have been replaced by superficial consumerism in the name of happiness.

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”

To maintain this level of control and alienation of the self, the World State employs a number of strategies. Social mores have been altered so that sexuality is associated not with commitment, love or reproduction but with pure promiscuity. Technology is used to fulfill basic desires for food, clothing and products. Soma, a hallucinogen, relieves citizens of stress and from glimpses of their own reality. Negative emotions are neutralized, aging has become invisible, pain is never felt, death is not feared, and personal freedom has been forgotten entirely. Yet in their own unique ways the characters are still unsatisfied, and even when faced with the vastly different worldview provided by the “savage,” John, through the lens of William Shakespeare, the characters of the World State are unable to grasp reality through the cloud that is their controlled existence. In a sense, these “hatchlings” have not only lost their own self-consciousness, but they’ve also been robbed of their humanity — all in the name of comfort and stability through technology.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

3. Ex Machina by Alex Garland

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‘Ex Machina’ / DNA Films

Again, here we have a creator who is isolated, wildly intelligent, ambitious and driven by hubris.

Nathan: You know, I wrote down that other line you came up with. The one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man, I’m a God.

Caleb: I don’t think that’s exactly what I…

Nathan: I just thought, “Fuck, man, that is so good.” When we get to tell the story, you know? I turned to Caleb and he looked up at me and he said, “You’re not a man, you’re a God.”

Caleb: Yeah, but I didn’t say that.

Nathan is in search of true artificial intelligence in order to achieve “the greatest scientific event in the history of man.” And in pursuit of this AI, Nathan, similar to Dr. Frankenstein, focuses only on whether he can create it, never asking whether he should. As a result, he manages to create something he cannot control or truly comprehend. Even worse, he appears to lack the maturity, understanding and empathy required to create life in this sense, though he does have the financial and technical capability to complete the project. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Nathan’s creatures are beautiful, almost to the point of becoming purely sexual objects…and perhaps that’s by design.

Caleb: Why did you give her sexuality? An AI doesn’t need a gender. She could have been a grey box.

Nathan: Actually I don’t think that’s true. Can you give an example of consciousness at any level, human or animal, that exists without a sexual dimension?

Caleb: They have sexuality as an evolutionary reproductive need.

Nathan: What imperative does a grey box have to interact with another grey box? Can consciousness exist without interaction? Anyway, sexuality is fun, man. If you’re gonna exist, why not enjoy it? You want to remove the chance of her falling in love and fucking? And the answer to your real question, you bet she can fuck.

Caleb: What?

Nathan: In between her legs, there’s an opening, with a concentration of sensors. You engage them in the right way, it creates a pleasure response. So if you wanted to screw her, mechanically speaking, you could. And she’d enjoy it.

Caleb: That wasn’t my real question.

Nathan: Oh, okay. Sorry.

It’s this beauty and devised sexuality that causes Caleb (also isolated, lonely and single) to fall in love with Nathan’s creation, and in that love he finds empathy for the AI’s situation, believing her to be not only conscious but alive. Unfortunately, these beliefs also blind Caleb to Ava’s manipulation of him. And as Caleb’s relationship with Ava deepens (and his relationship with Nathan simultaneously deteriorates), it becomes clear that neither man is equipped to “manage” the creation locked in the research center. Even worse, it becomes evident that Ava is far more intelligent than either human, having been educated by the powerful search engine capabilities that Nathan controls as well as from his other technological exploits.

Caleb: You hacked the world’s cellphones?

Nathan: Yeah. And all the manufacturers knew I was doing it, too. But they couldn’t accuse me without admitting they were doing it themselves.

This film highlights a frightening reality: that we “innocent bystanders” provide the tools for our own destruction by uploading our lives to the internet. It also demonstrates that those who do possess the intelligence and technical capabilities to create an Ava are playing with fire — and that it takes only a spark to create an inferno. And as we learned from the lesson of Pandora’s box, whatever these “geniuses” release into the world, willingly or not, there will be consequences for creating conscious, albeit artificial, intelligence of this magnitude.

“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

4. Westworld by Michael Crichton, Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy

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‘Westworld’ / HBO

Dr. Robert Ford and his partner Arnold set out to tell stories. Perhaps they were naive in what exactly they were creating, but it appears they were merely attempting to take storytelling to an entirely different and immersive level.

“These violent delights have violent ends.”

Westworld, the futuristic theme park they created for wealthy vacationers, was formed for the sake of this entertainment. It was even advertised as a place where you could live out your most primal fantasies, no matter how violent or innocent they might be, without any consequences or traditional notions of morality.

That’s certainly an appealing proposition for many visitors, yet as Dr. Ford puts it, “They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

Is there anything more noble than that concept? To allow guests to immerse themselves in a story, in the same way they can with a novel or a video game?

However, a lack of consequence is possible only through the guarantee of control — the promise that the “hosts” cannot harm a human guest and that these robots have been blessed with the ability to forget the crimes against them. What guests to the park do not realize is that these artificial beings have gained consciousness and their keepers are slowly losing control.

Arnold: When I was first working on your mind, there was a pyramid I thought you needed to scale, so I gave you a voice, my voice, to guide you along the way. Memory, improvisation, each step in order to reach the next step, but you never got there. I couldn’t understand what was holding you back. Then one day I realized I’d made a mistake. Consciousness isn’t a journey upward but a journey inward, not a pyramid but a maze. Every choice will bring you closer to center or send you spiraling to the edges, to madness. Do you understand now, Dolores, what the center represents? Whose voice I’ve been wanting you to hear?

Dolores: I’m sorry. I’m trying, but I don’t understand.

Arnold: It’s all right. So close. We have to tell Robert. We can’t open the park. You’re alive.

Westworld, for all its beauty and romanticism, is still a cautionary tale, should it become cost-effective to create this brand of artificial intelligence. But it also returns us to Mary Shelley’s question: Who is the real monster here? The hosts or the guests? Having freedom from consequences reveals who the human visitors truly are, and often they are cruel and violent. Many visit the park to participate in orgies, shootouts and killings. They rape, pillage, torture and slaughter as an escape from their real lives on the outside. But if the hosts have consciousness, if they’re alive, what does that mean? What does that say about the visitors to the park? Or those who manage operations? Can any action ever be free of consequence, or is there always a price to be paid?

Arnold dies so that his creations might achieve consciousness. Dr. Ford follows suit. In Ford’s mind, they were magicians all along: “We practice witchcraft. We speak the right words. Then we create life itself…out of chaos.” These men are portrayed as fathers of a new age, fully aware of what they have created, the consequences of its birth and the eventual disillusionment of control. They sacrifice themselves, out of not hubris but compassion. They suffer so that their creatures might know. They die so that their children might live. In their minds, it doesn’t matter whether this intelligence should or shouldn’t exist. It already does, and the future belongs to them, consequences be damned.

“It begins with the birth of a new people, and the choices they’ll have to make and the people they will decide to become.”

Warnings about artificial intelligence and the creation of conscious beings have already been shared with the public by Julian Assange, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and many more. The danger of this technology, and the organizations that wish to control it, are very real. But what can be done to stop it? Frankenstein has touched so many lives, as has Brave New World. Ex Machina has been applauded as a classic film, and Westworld appears to be a very promising series for HBO. Yet so much more can be said on this issue, and it’s important for artists to explain the potential consequences of this technology. Novels, films and television series are a way to share truth and reach minds in a way that so few mediums can. In a sense, the only way to stop artificial intelligence from endangering our future is to create art in the way only true humans can and leave the creation of consciousness to the gods. end

 

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