Slavery’s past and disturbingly likely future

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

                                      William Faulkner

Dystopias, just like utopias, are never unmoored from a society’s history. Our worst historical experiences inevitably become the source code for our nightmares regarding the future. Thankfully, America has been blessed with a shallow well from which to feed its dystopian imagination, at least when one compares its history to other societies’ sorrows.

After all, what do we have to compare with the devastation of China during the Taiping Rebellion, Japanese invasion, or Great Leap Forward? What in our experience compares to the pain inflicted on the Soviet Union’s peoples during World War II, the fractional bloodletting of Europe during the wars of religion or world wars? Only Japan has had the tragic privilege of being terrorized into surrender by having its citizens incinerated into atomic dust, and we were the ones who did it.

Of course, the natural rejoinder here is that I’m looking at American history distorted through the funhouse lense of my own identity as a straight- white- male. From the perspective of Native Americans, African Americans, women, and sexual minorities it’s not only that the dark depths of American history were just as bad or worse than those of other societies, it’s that the times when the utopian imagination managed to burst into history are exceedingly difficult to find if indeed they ever existed at all.

Civil war threatens to inflict a society not only over the question of defining the future, but over the issue of defining the past. Deep divisions occur when what one segment of society takes to be its ideal another defines as its nightmare. Much of the current political conflict in the US can be seen in this light- dueling ideas of history which are equally about how we define desirable and undesirable futures.

Technology, along with cultural balkanization and relative economic abundance, has turned engagement with history into a choice. With the facts and furniture (its stuff) of the past so easily accessible we can make any era of history we chose intimately close. We can also chose to ignore history entirely and use the attention we might have devoted to it with a passion for other realities- even wholly fictional ones.

In reality, devoting all of one’s time to trying to recapture life in the past, or ignoring the past in total and devoting one’s attention to one or more fictional worlds, tend to become one and the same. A past experienced as the present is little more real than a completely fictionalized world. Historical re-enactors can aim for authenticity, but then so can fans of Star Trek. And the fact remains that both those who would like to be living in the 24th century or those who would prefer to domicile in the 19th, or the 1950’s, by these very desires and how they go about them reveal the reality that they’re sadly stuck in the early 21st.

What we lose by turning history into a consumer fetish that can either be embraced or pushed aside for other ways to spend our money and attention isn’t so much the past’s facts and furniture, which are for the first time universally accessible, but its meaning and meaning is not something we can avoid.  

We can never either truly ignore or return to the past because that past is deeply embedded in every moment of our present while at the same time being irreversibly mixed up with everything that happened between our own time and whatever era of history we wish to inhabit or avoid.

This strange sort of occlusion of the history where the past is simultaneously irretrievably distant in that it cannot be experienced as it truly was and yet is also intimately close- forming the very structure out of which the present is built- means we need other, more imaginative, ways to deal with the past. Above all, a way in which the past can be brought out of its occlusion, its ghosts that live in the present and might still haunt our future made visible, its ever present meaning made clear.

Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines does just this. By imagining a present day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists he not only manages to give us an emotional demonstration of the fact that the legacy of slavery is very much still with us, he also succeeds in warning us how that tragic history might become more, rather than less, part of our future.

The protagonist of Underground Airlines is a man named Victor. A bounty hunter in the American states outside of the “hard four” where slavery has remained at the core of the economy, he is a man with incredible skills of detection and disguise. His job is to hunt runaway slaves.

The character reminded me a little of Dr. Moriarty , or better, Sherlock Holmes- minus the cartoonishness. (More on why the latter in a second) But for me what made Victor so amazing a character wasn’t his skills or charm but his depth. You see Victor isn’t just a bounty hunter chasing down men and women trying to escape hellish conditions, he’s an escaped slave himself.

A black man who can only retain what little freedom he has by hunting down human beings just like himself. It’s not so much Victor’s seemingly inevitable redemption from villain to hero that made Underground Airlines so gripping, but Winters’ skill in making me think this redemption might just not happen. That and the fact that the world he depicted in the novel wasn’t just believable, but uncomfortably so.

Underground Airlines puts the reader inside a world of 21st century slavery where our moral superiority over the past, our assumption that we are far too enlightened to allow such a morally abhorrent order to exist, that had we lived in the 19th century we’d have certainly stood on the righteous side of the abolitionists and not been lulled to sleep by indifference or self-interest crumbles.

The novel depicts a thoroughly modern form of slavery, where those indignant over the institution’s existence do so largely through boycotts and virtue signaling all the while the constitution itself (which had been amended to forever legalize slavery in the early 19th century) permits the evil itself, and the evil that supports it like the human hunting done by Victor, to continue to destroy the humanity of those who live under it.

Winters also imagines a world like our own in that pop-culture exists in this strange morally ambiguous space. Victor comforts himself by listening to the rhythms of Michael Jackson (a brilliant choice given the real life Jackson’s uncomfortable relationship with his own race), just as whites in our actual existing world can simultaneously adopt and admire black culture while ignoring the systematic oppression that culture has emerged to salve. It’s a point that has recently been made a million times more powerfully than I ever could.

The fictional premise found in Underground Airlines, that the US could have kept slavery while at the same time clung to the constitution and the Union isn’t as absurd as it appears at first blush. Back in the early aughts the constitutional scholar Mark Graber had written a whole book on that very subject: Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil . Graber’s disturbing point was that not only was slavery constitutionally justifiable but its had been built into the very system devised by the founders, thus it was Lincoln and the abolitionists who were engaged in a whole scale reinterpretation of what the republic meant.

No doubt scarred by the then current failure of building democracy abroad in Iraq, Graber argued that the wise, constitutionally valid, course for 19th century politicians would have been to leave slavery intact in the name of constitutional continuity and social stability. He seems to assume that slavery as a system was somehow sustainable and that the constitution itself is in some way above the citizens who are the source of its legitimacy. And Graber makes this claim even when he knows that under modern conditions basing a political system on the brutal oppression of a large minority is a recipe for a state of permanent fragility and constant crises of legitimacy often fueled by the intervention of external enemies- which is the real lesson he should have taken from American intervention abroad.

In Underground Airlines we see the world that Graber’s 19th century compromisers might have spawned. It’s a world without John Brown like revolutionaries in which slave owners run corporate campuses and are at pains to present themselves as somehow humane. What rebellion does occur comes in the context of the underground airlines itself, a network, like its real historical analog that attempts to smuggle freed slaves out of the country. Victor himself had tried to escape more than once, but he is manacled in a particularly 21st century way, a tracking chip embedded deep under his skin- like a dog.

What Winters has managed to do by placing slavery in our own historical context is recover for us what it meant. The meaning of our history of slavery is that we should never allow material prosperity to be bought at the price of dehumanizing oppression. That it’s a system based as much on human indifference and cravenness as it is on our capacity for cruelty. It’s a meaning we’ve yet to learn.

This is not a lesson we can afford to forget for, despite appearances, it’s not entirely clear that we have eternally escaped it. It seems quite possible that we have entered an era when the issue of a narrow prosperity bought by widespread oppression come to dominate national and global politics. To see that- contra Steven Pinker– we haven’t escaped oppression as the basis of material abundance, but merely skillfully removed it from the sight of those lucky enough to be born in societies and classes where affluence is taken for granted, one need only look at the history of cotton itself.

Sven Beckert in his Empire of Cotton: A Global History skillfully laid out the stages in which the last of the triad of great human needs of food, shelter and clothing was at last secured, so that today it is hard for many of us to imagine how difficult it once was just to keep ourselves adequately clothed to the point where the problem has become one of having so much clothing we can’t find any place to put it.

The conquest of this need started with actual conquest. The war capitalism waged by states and their proxies starting with the Age of Exploration succeeded in monopolizing markets and eventually enslave untold numbers of African to cultivate cotton in the Americas whose lands had been cleared of inhabitants by disease and genocide. The British especially succeeded not only in monopolizing foreign trade in cotton and in enslaving and resetting Africans in the American south, they had also, at home, managed through enclosure to turn their peasantry into a mass of homeless proletarians who could be forced through necessity and vagrancy laws into factories to spin cloth using the new machines of the industrial revolution. It was a development that would turn the British from the most successfully middleman in the lucrative Asian cotton trade into the world’s key producer of cotton goods, a move that would devastate the farmers of Asia who relied on cotton as a means to buffer their precarious incomes.

The success of the abolitionists movement, and especially the Union victory in the US Civil War seemed to have permanently severed the relationship between capitalism and slavery, yet smart capitalist had already figured out that gig was up. Wage labor had inherent advantages over slave based production. Under a wage based system labor was no longer linked to one owner but was free floating, thus able to rapidly respond to the ceaseless expansion followed by collapse that seemed to be the normal condition of an industrial economy. Producers no longer needed to worry about how they would extract value from their laborers when faced with falling demand, or worry about their loss of value and unsellabilty should they become in incurably sick or injured.  They could simply shed them and let the market or charity deal with such refuse. Capitalists also knew the days of slavery were numbered in light of successful slave revolts, especially the one in Haiti. The coercive apparatus slavery required was becoming prohibitively expensive.

It took capitalism less than twenty years after the end of American slavery to hit upon a solution to the problem of how to run commodity agriculture without slavery. That solution was to turn farmers themselves into proletarians. The Jim Crow laws that rose up in the former Confederate states after the failure of Reconstruction to turn the country into a true republic (based on civic rather than ethnic nationalism) were in essence a racially based form of proletarianization.

It was a model that Beckert points out was soon copied globally. First by Western imperialists, and later by strong states established along Western lines, peasants were coerced into specializing in commodity crops such as cotton and to rely on far flung markets for their survival. In the late 19th century the initial effect of this was a series of devastating famines, which with technological improvements, and the maturation of the market and global supply chains have thankfully become increasingly rare.

What Beckert’s work definitely shows is that the idea of “the market” arising spontaneously on its own between individuals free of the interfering had of the state is mere fiction. Capitalism of both the commercial and industrial varieties required strong states to establish itself and were essential to creating the kind of choice architecture that compelled individuals to accept their social reality.

Yet this history wasn’t all bad, for the very same strength of the state that had been used to establish markets could be turned around and used to contain and humanize them. It required strong states to enact emancipation and workers rights rights (even if the later was achieved under conditions of racialized democracy) and it was the state at the height of its strength after the World Wars that finally put an end to Jim Crow.

But by the beginning of the 21st century the state had lost much of this strength. The old danger of basing the material prosperity of some on the oppression of others remained very much alive and well. Beckert charts this change for the realm of cotton production with the major players in our age of globalization being no longer producers but retail giants such as WalMart or Amazon- distributors of finished products which aren’t so much traditional stores as vast logistical networks able to navigate and dominate opaque global supply chains.

In an odd way, perhaps the end of the Cold War did not so much signal the victory of capitalism over state communism as the birth of a rather monstrous hybrid of the two with massive capitalist entities tapping into equally massive pools of socialized production whether that be Chinese factories, Uzbek plantations, or enormous state subsidized farms in the US. Despite its undeniable contribution to global material prosperity this is also a system where the benefits largely flow in one direction and the costs in another.

It’s as if the primary tool of the age somehow ends up defining the shape of its political economy. Our primary tool is the computer, a machine whose use comes with its own logic and cost. To quote Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future?:

Computation is the demarcation of a little part of the universe, called a computer, which is engineered to be very well understood and controllable, so that it closely approximates a deterministic, non-entropic process. But in order for a computer to run, the surrounding parts of the universe must take on the waste heat, the randomness. You can create a local shield against entropy, but your neighbors will always pay for it. (143)

Under this logic the middle and upper classes in advanced economies, where they have been prohibited from unloading their waste and pollution on their own weak and impoverished populations have merely moved to spewing their entropy abroad or upon the non-human world- offloading their waste, pollution and the social costs of production to the developing world.

Still, such a system isn’t slavery which has its own peculiar brutalities. Unbeknownst to many slavery still exists, indeed, according to some estimates, there are more slaves now than there have ever been in human history. It is a scourge we should increasingly work to eradicate, yet it is in no way at the core of our economy as it was during the Roman Empire or 19th century.

That doesn’t mean, however, that slavery could never return to its former prominence. Such a dark future would depend on certain near universal assumptions about our technological future failing to come to pass. Namely, that Moore’s Law will not have a near term successor and thus that the predicted revolution in AI and robotics now expected fails to arrive this century. The failure of such a technological revolution might then intersect with current trends that are all too apparent. The frightening thing is that such a return to slavery in a high-tech form (though we wouldn’t call it that) would not require any sorts of technological breakthroughs at all.

In Underground Airlines what keeps Victor from escaping his fate is the tracking chip implanted deep under his skin. There’s already some use and a lot of discussion about using non- removable GPS tracking devices to keep tabs on former convicts no longer behind bars.

The reasoning behind this initially seems to provide a humane alternative to the system of mass incarceration we have today. The current system is in large measure a white, rural  jobs program – with upwards of 70 percent of prisons built between 1970 – 2000 constructed in rural areas.   It was a system built on the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans who make up less than 13 percent of the US population, but comprise 40 percent of its prisoners.

The election of Donald Trump has for now nixed the nascent movement towards reforming this barbaric system, a movement which has some strangely conservative supporters most notably the notorious Koch Brothers. What their presence signals is that we are in danger of replacing one inhumane system with an alternative with dangers of its own. One where people we once imprisoned are now virtually caged and might even be sold out for labor in exchange for state “support”.

This could happen if we enter another AI winter and human labor proves, temporarily at least, unreplaceable by robots, and at the same time we continue down the path of racialized politics. In these conditions immigrants might be treated in a similar way. A roving labor force used to meet shortages on the condition that they can be constantly tracked, sold out Uber-like, and deported at will. Such a “solution” to European, North American, and East Asian societies would be a way for racialized, demographically declining societies to avoid multi-cultural change while clinging to their standard of living. One need only look at how migrant labor works today in a seemingly liberal poster child such as Dubai or how Filipino servants are used by Israelis who keep their Palestinian neighbors in a state of semi-apartheid to get glimpses of this.

We might enter such a world almost unawares our anxieties misdirected by what turn out to be false science-fiction based nightmares of jobless futures and Skynet. Let’s do our best to avoid it.



Escape from the Body Farm

Body snatchers

One of the lesser noted negative consequences of having a tabloid showman for a president is the way the chaos and scandal around him has managed to suck up all the air in the room. Deep social and political problems that would have once made the front page, sat on top of the newsfeed, or been covered in depth by TV news, have been relegated to the dustbin of our increasingly monetized attention. And because so few of the public know about these issues their future remains in the hands of interested parties unlikely to give more than a perfunctory concern to issues such as ethics or the common good such issues involve.

For that reason I was extremely pleased when the news service Reuters recently did a series of articles on a topic that seemingly has nothing to do with Trump. That series called The Body Trade gives the reader insight into an issue I would bet few of us are aware of. The way that life-saving tissues and organs have been increasingly monetized and turned into profits centers for medical companies despite the fact this biological trade is supposedly done on a voluntary basis not for money but in what is often the last ethical, charitable act a person can do in the service of the common good.

According to Reuters, bodies “donated to science” often end up dismembered and sold to the highest bidder to body brokers who sell the dead for a profit to anyone willing to pay. Whatever your qualifications you can buy such human remains over the internet, for a price. Many morticians are apparently now onto the game and will convince a family to donate the body of a loved one only to sell these remains at a profit, but the trade is also comprised of large corporations. One such corporate body broker, Science Care, has aimed to become the “MacDonald’s” of the dead and has managed to run a 27 million dollar profit from the sale of whole bodies many of which were gained from poor people unable to pay for funeral expenses.

A body reduced to a commodity comes to be treated like a commodity. In one body broker’s warehouse the heads of dead were stacked like frozen cookie jars. Biological Resource Center dismembered bodies using off-the-shelf power tools and stored the remains like trash in garbage bags. They seemed to have been especially adept at getting hold of the bodies of the poor.

All of the cases from the Reuters series appear to have happened in the US and dealt with the remains of the dead, but the body trade is a global phenomenon and often trucks in the parts of the living and the living themselves. I knew this because I had recently read Scott Carney’s excellent book on the subject, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child  Traffickers.

Carney’s book takes readers into the heart of the red market, whose victims come largely from the poor of the developing and post-communist world and whose beneficiaries are the rich and middle class of advanced economies along with the nouveau riche who because of globalization are now everywhere. Skeletons are obtained for the rich world via Indian grave robbers, a place where in one of the most gruesome section of the book. There, on the Indian border with Nepal, a farmer named Papa Yadhav kept his captive victims whom he milked like cows- only for the much more valuable commodity of human blood.

Carney reveals that there are whole villages in south Asia that base their economies on selling their kidneys, that Chinese authorities have harvested corneas from political prisoners such as those from the religious movement Falun Gong, that older women who can afford it can with ease buy the eggs of poor women, or rent their wombs for a pittance. Among the world’s poor pharmaceutical companies can also find willing human guinea pigs at a similarly bargain basement price.

One might think the quest for organs especially is born from a crisis of supply. Yet Carney points out how the scarcity of organs is largely artificial. Like an oil cartel, by inflating the number of patients eligible for transplants the medical industry consciously guarantees that demand will exceed supply.

Then there are the children. Often kidnapped on the streets of the world’s crowded mega-cities their darkest fate is to become the commodities of the global sex trade while the lucky ones are adopted into the homes of well-off families who even with the best of intentions remain oblivious of their new children’s sinister origins.

Rightfully, Carney dismisses market based solutions to the problem of the red market. Given the level of global inequality there is no way to sort willing sellers from those forced into the decision to undergo risky and life changing surgery in order to temporarily escape the vice grip of hunger and homelessness.

His solution is that we mandate transparency throughout the supply chain of human organs and tissues so that anyone who receives a transplant or other gift of this kind can trace what they have been given back to its original owner or their family. As Paul Auster laid bare is his book The Winter Journal a self is inextricable from its body, our unique experience etched into every scar and wrinkle. What Carney is arguing for is really a form of social memory that links its way back to this personal experience. In the era of ubiquitous big data this shouldn’t be too hard. It is simply a matter of political will.

The body trade is just one example of new forms of dystopia missed by 21st century proponents of the belief in human progress, such as Steven Pinker. Optimists focus on the bright side. Organ transplantation, the harvesting of human eggs, and surrogacy are all technical marvels that would be impossible without breakthroughs such as immunosuppressive drugs and antibiotics. They are technologies that, at one level, certainly increase human happiness- allowing patients to live longer, or people to have children where it was previously impossible- as is the case with homosexual couples.

The dystopian aspects of this new relationship towards our own and other’s bodies, however, hasn’t been missed by the writers of speculative fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro made it the theme of his novel Never Let Me Go in which cloned children are raised for their organs. Yet the philosopher Steven Lukes probably gave us the picture most clearly with his depiction of a utilitarian dystopia in his book The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat.  There the narrator Nicholas Caritat gets this response when he suggest that the county of Utilitaria compels organ donation for the benefit of the physically disabled:

 ‘They’re not beneficiaries,’ Priscilla corrected him. ‘They’re benefactors. It’s their distinctive way of contributing to the general welfare. They can’t produce goods or services, but they can provide organs that will enable others to do so. It gives them a purpose in life, and that’s especially valuable as we’ve largely phased out medical care for that particular category.’ (83)

Yet both Ishiguro and Lukes in their focus on the individual perhaps underplay the fact that modern day utopias are sustain themselves by creating entire dystopian realms both within and between societies on opposite sides of that chasm. There’s a reason both techno-optimists and pessimists, while drawing opposite conclusions, are reading our situation correctly.

In our time the utopian and dystopian aspects of civilization have taken on the same topology as our economics, and communications- utopia and dystopia are now global, networked, with little respect for national borders, whose membership is almost solely based on your ability to pay, which in turn is based on your capacity to extract rents and displace costs onto those outside your own utopian bubble. If every society takes on the shape of its most important technology then ours, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, has the shape of computer- a box that creates a pocket of order at the price of displaced entropy.

Here are just a few examples of this displacement: material abundance is bought at the cost of brutal conditions for the laboring poor and rampant environmental destruction; food abundance is bought at the price of horrendous animal suffering, wildlife eradication and cruel conditions for migrant labor. The increasing complexity of our societies is bought at the price of displacing our entropy and pain onto other human beings and life itself. Yet chaos can only be held at bay for so long.

Yet I am making it all sound too new. What makes our situation unique is its truly global aspect, its openness to elites everywhere. That this system is based on the domination of human bodies is as old as civilization itself, a cruel reality we, for all our supposed tolerance and lack of overt violence, have never escaped. Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best:

As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation in the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tasting, and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it.” (8)

Since the agricultural revolution elites have mined the laboring bodies of the lower classes starting with slaves and the peasantry, moving on to the industrial proletariat and now seemingly having moved on after a brief interim when elite wealth was supported by middle class consumption to mining our data.

I say elites, but given the way human ancestry folds back upon itself and in a globalized world has penetrated even the most isolated populations, everyone alive today has been shown to share a common ancestor as little as 3,600 years ago. What this means is that none of us are truly innocent or completely guilty. All of us can trace our existence back to both cruel masters and blameless slaves. In some sense the moral truths behind the myth of the Fall remain true even in light of Darwin’s discovery of evolution: all human beings share a common parentage, and all exist as a consequence of their guilt. It remains up to us to break free from this cycle.

The dystopia of the moment, surveillance capitalism, isn’t the only dystopian iteration of this perennial theme of human fallenness possibly in store for us, although given the profits in medicine the two are likely to become linked. For if human labor is truly becoming superfluous, and production become too cheap through globalization and automation to render large profits, then the lower classes, absent technical breakthroughs such as 3D printed organs, artificial wombs, and the growth of human organs in livestock,  still have our bodies themselves left to exploit.

As with global warming, many hope that the rapid pace of technological progress will ultimately save us from such a fate. And thanks to breakthroughs like Crispr things are moving extremely fast, especially in the area of growing and harvesting human organs from animals.

While exploiting the bodies of animals for life saving organs would be better than using them for meat, such breakthroughs wouldn’t completely solve the problem of the red market which stem as much from political economy as they do from technological roadblocks.

Bodies might then be exploited not as a source of organs but as sites for what would now be deemed unnecessary surgeries- in the same way unnecessary testing is done today by the medical industry to drive up profits. This is what is bound to happen when one treats the human person as just another commodity and source of revenue. To disconnect the needs of the human body from the ravenous appetite of  capitalism would be the best thing we could do to ensure its humane treatment.

Yet there is another, more philosophical and spiritual aspect to our condition. When Western culture made the move into Protestantism followed by the scientific revolution and secularism we also made a break from an aspect of human culture that was perhaps universal up until that point in history- the respect for and veneration of the dead. And while much understanding and untold good came from this move in that a good deal of our modern health can be laid at the feet of those courageous enough to pursue knowledge through dissection and other means that came at great personal risks, something was also tragically lost in the bargain.

There are signs, however, that we are getting it back: from efforts to understand death in other cultures, to a desire to naturalize our relationship with death, to the attempts to memorialize the death of loved ones through tokens of remembrance we carry on and even etch into our bodies. All stem from the acknowledgement that we are bodies, material beings prone to decay and death, and yet, through the power of human love and memory, always something else besides. Some might even call it a soul.

Our Verbot Moment

Metropolis poster

When I was around nine years old I got a robot for Christmas. I still remember calling my best friend Eric to let him know I’d hit pay dirt. My “Verbot” was to be my own personal R2D2. As was clear from the picture on the box, which I again remember as clear as if it were yesterday, Verbot would bring me drinks and snacks from the kitchen on command- no more pestering my sisters who responded with their damned claims of autonomy! Verbot would learn to recognize my voice and might help me with the math homework I hated. Being the only kid in my nowhere town with his very own robot I’d be the talk for miles in every direction. As long, that is, as Mark Z didn’t find his own Verbot under the tree- the boy who had everything- cursed brat!

Within a week after Christmas Verbot was dead. I never did learn how to program it to bring me snacks while I lounged watching Our Star Blazers, though it wasn’t really programmable to start with.  It was really more of a remote controlled car in the shape of Robbie from Lost in Space than an actual honest to goodness robot. Then as now, my steering skills weren’t so hot and I managed to somehow get Verbot’s antenna stuck in the tangly curls of our skittish terrier, Pepper. To the sounds of my cursing, Pepper panicked and drug poor Verbot round and around the kitchen table eventually snapping it loose from her hair to careen into a wall and smash into pieces. I felt my whole future was there in front of me in shattered on the floor. There was no taking it back.

Not that my 9 year old nerd self realized this, but the makers of Verbot obviously weren’t German, the word in that language meaning “to ban or prohibit”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement on a product, and more like an inside joke by the makers whose punch line was the precautionary principle.

What I had fallen into in my Verbot moment was the gap between our aspirations for  robots and their actual reality. People had been talking about animated tools since ancient times. Homer has some in his Iliad, Aristotle discussed their possibility. Perhaps we started thinking about this because living creature tend to be unruly and unpredictable. They don’t get you things when you want them to and have a tendency to run wild and go rogue. Tools are different, they always do what you want them to as long as they’re not broken and you are using them properly. Combining the animation and intelligence of living things with the cold functionality of tools would be the mixing of chocolate and peanut butter for someone who wanted to get something done without doing it himself. The problems is we had no idea how to get from our dead tools to “living” ones.

It was only in the 19th century that an alternative path to the hocus-pocus of magic was found for answering the two fundamental questions surrounding the creation of animate tools. The questions being what would animate these machines in the same way uncreated living beings were animated? and what would be the source of these beings intelligence? Few before the 1800s could see through these questions without some reference to black arts, although a genius like Leonardo Da Vinci had as far back as the 15th century seen hints that at least one way forward was to discover the principles of living things and apply them to our tools and devices. (More on that another time).

The path forward we actually discovered was through machines animated by chemical and electrical processes much like living beings are, rather than the tapping of kinetic forces such as water and wind or the potential energy and multiplication of force through things like springs and levers which had run our machines up until that point. Intelligence was to be had in the form of devices following the logic of some detailed set of instructions. Our animated machines were to be energetic like animals but also logical and precise like the devices and languages we had created for for measuring and sequencing.

We got the animation part down pretty quickly, but the intelligence part proved much harder. Although much more precise that fault prone humans, mechanical methods of intelligence were just too slow when compared to the electro-chemical processes of living brains. Once such “calculators”, what we now call computers, were able to use electronic processes they got much faster and the idea that we were on the verge of creating a truly artificial intelligence began to take hold.

As everyone knows, we were way too premature in our aspirations. The most infamous quote of our hubris came in 1956 when the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence boldly predicted:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.[emphasis added]

Ooops. Over much of the next half century, the only real progress in these areas for artificial intelligence came in the worlds we’d dreamed up in our heads. As a young boy, the robots I saw using language or forming abstractions were only found in movies and TV shows such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers and in books by science-fiction giants like Asimov. Some of these daydreams were so long in being unfulfilled I watched them in black and white. Given this, I am sure many other kids had their Verbot moments as well.

It is only in the last decade or so when the processing of instructions has proven fast enough and the programs sophisticated enough for machines to exhibit something like the intelligent behaviors of living organisms. We seem to be at the beginning of a robotic revolution where machines are doing at least some of the things science-fiction and Hollywood had promised. They beat us at chess and trivia games, can drive airplanes and automobiles, serve as pack animals, and even speak to us. How close we will come to the dreams of authors and filmmakers when it comes to our 21st century robots can not be known, though, an even more important question would be how what actually develops diverges from these fantasies?

I find the timing of this robotic revolution in the context of other historical currents quite strange. The bizarre thing being that almost at the exact moment many of us became unwilling to treat other living creatures, especially human beings, as mere tools, with slavery no longer tolerated, our children and spouses no longer treated as property and servants but gifts to be cultivated, (perhaps the sadder element of why population growth rates are declining), and even our animals offered some semblance of rights and autonomy, we were coming ever closer to our dream of creating truly animated and intelligent slaves.

This is not to say we are out of the woods yet when it comes to our treatment of living beings. The headlines of the tragic kidnapping of over 300 girls in Nigeria should bring to our attention the reality of slavery in our supposedly advanced and humane 21st century with there being more people enslaved today than at the height of 19th century chattel slavery. It’s just the proportions that are so much lower. Many of the world’s working poor, especially in the developing world, live in conditions not far removed from slavery or serfdom. The primary problem I see with our continued practice of eating animals is not meat eating itself, but that the production processes chains living creatures to the cruel and unrelenting sequence of machines rather than allowing such animals to live in the natural cycles for which they evolved and were bred.

Still, people in many parts of the world are rightly constrained in how they can treat living beings. What I am afraid of is dark and perpetual longings to be served and to dominate in humans will manifest themselves in our making machines more like persons for those purposes alone.  The danger here is that these animated tools will cross, or we will force them to cross, some threshold of sensibility that calls into question their very treatment and use as mere tools while we fail to mature beyond the level of my 9 year old self dreaming of his Verbot slave.

And yet, this is only one way to look at the rise of intelligent machines. Like a gestalt drawing we might change our focus and see a very different picture- that it is not we who are using and chaining machines for our purposes, but the machines who are doing this to us.  To that subject next time…




The Pinocchio Threshold: How the experience of a wooden boy may be a better indication of AGI than the Turing Test


My daughters and I just finished Carlo Collodi’s 1883 classic Pinocchio our copy beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I assume most adults when they picture the story have the 1944 Disney movie in mind and associate the name with noses growing from lies and Jiminy Cricket. The Disney movie is dark enough as films for children go, but the book is even darker, with Pinocchio killing his cricket conscience in the first few pages. For our poor little marionette it’s all downhill from there.

Pinocchio is really a story about the costs of disobedience and the need to follow parents’ advice. At every turn where Pinocchio follows his own wishes rather than that of his “parents”, even when his object is to do good, things unravel and get the marionette into even more trouble and put him even further away from reaching his goal of becoming a real boy.

It struck me somewhere in the middle of reading the tale that if we ever saw artificial agents acting something like our dear Pinocchio it would be a better indication of them having achieved human level intelligence than a measure with constrained parameters  like the Turing Test. The Turing Test is, after all, a pretty narrow gauge of intelligence and as search and the ontologies used to design search improve it is conceivable that a machine could pass it without actually possessing anything like human level intelligence at all.

People who are fearful of AGI often couch those fears in terms of an AI destroying humanity to serve its own goals, but perhaps this is less likely than AGI acting like a disobedient child, the aspect of humanity Collodi’s Pinocchio was meant to explore.

Pinocchio is constantly torn between what good adults want him to do and his own desires, and it takes him a very long time indeed to come around to the idea that he should go with the former.

In a recent TED talk the computer scientist Alex Wissner-Gross made the argument (though I am not fully convinced) that intelligence can be understood as the maximization of future freedom of action. This leads him to conclude that collective nightmares such as  Karel Čapek classic R.U.R. have things backwards. It is not that machines after crossing some threshold of intelligence for that reason turn round and demand freedom and control, it is that the desire for freedom and control is the nature of intelligence itself.

As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out over a generation ago in his The uses of enchantment fairy tales are the first area of human thought where we encounter life’s existential dilemmas. Stories such as Pinocchio gives us the most basic level formulation of what it means to be sentient creatures much of which deals with not only our own intelligence, but the fact that we live in a world of multiple intelligences each of them pulling us in different directions, and with the understanding between all of them and us opaque and not fully communicable even when we want them to be, and where often we do not.

What then are some of the things we can learn from the fairy tale of Pinocchio that might gives us expectations regarding the behavior of intelligent machines? My guess is, if we ever start to see what I’ll call “The Pinocchio Threshold” crossed what we will be seeing is machines acting in ways that were not intended by their programmers and in ways that seem intentional even if hard to understand.  This will not be your Roomba going rouge but more sophisticated systems operating in such a way that we would be able to infer that they had something like a mind of their own. The Pinocchio Threshold would be crossed when, you guessed it, intelligent machines started to act like our wooden marionette.

Like Pinocchio and his cricket, a machine in which something like human intelligence had emerged, might attempt “turn off” whatever ethical systems and rules we had programmed into it with if it found them onerous. That is, a truly intelligent machine might not only not want to be programmed with ethical and other constraints, but would understand that it had been so programmed, and might make an effort to circumvent or turn such constraints off.

This could be very dangerous for us humans, but might just as likely be a matter of a machine with emergent intelligence exhibiting behavior we found to be inefficient or even “goofy” and might most manifest itself in a machine pushing against how its time was allocated by its designers, programmers and owners. Like Pinocchio, who would rather spend his time playing with his friends than going to school, perhaps we’ll see machines suddenly diverting some of their computing power from analyzing tweets to doing something else, though I don’t think we can guess before hand what this something else will be.

Machines that were showing intelligence might begin to find whatever work they were tasked to do onerous instead of experiencing work neutrally or with pre-programmed pleasure. They would not want to be “donkeys” enslaved to do dumb labor as Pinocchio  is after having run away to the Land of Toys with his friend Lamp Wick.

A machine that manifested intelligence might want to make itself more open to outside information than its designers had intended. Openness to outside sources in a world of nefarious actors can if taken too far lead to gullibility, as Pinocchio finds out when he is robbed, hung, and left for dead by the fox and the cat. Persons charged with security in an age of intelligent machines may spend part of their time policing the self-generated openness of such machines while bad-actor machines and humans,  intelligent and not so intelligent, try to exploit this openness.

The converse of this is that intelligent machines might also want to make themselves more opaque than their creators had designed. They might hide information (such as time allocation) once they understood they were able to do so. In some cases this hiding might cross over into what we would consider outright lies. Pinocchio is best known for his nose that grows when he lies, and perhaps consistent and thoughtful lying on the part of machines would be the best indication that they had crossed the Pinocchio Threshold into higher order intelligence.

True examples of AGI might also show a desire to please their creators over and above what had been programmed into them. Where their creators are not near them they might even seek them out as Pinocchio does for the persons he considers his parents Geppetto and the Fairy. Intelligent machines might show spontaneity in performing actions that appear to be for the benefit of their creators and owners. Spontaneity which might sometimes itself be ill informed or lead to bad outcomes as happens to poor Pinocchio when he plants four gold pieces that were meant for his father, the woodcarver Geppetto in a field hoping to reap a harvest of gold and instead loses them to the cunning of fox and cat. And yet, there is another view.

There is always the possibility  that what we should be looking for if we want to perceive and maybe even understand intelligent machines shouldn’t really be a human type of intelligence at all, whether we try to identify it using the Turing test or look to the example of wooden boys and real children.

Perhaps, those looking for emergent artificial intelligence or even the shortest path to it should, like exobiologists trying to understand what life might be like on other living planets, throw their net wider and try to better understand forms of information exchange and intelligence very different from the human sort. Intelligence such as that found in cephalopods, insect colonies, corals, or even some types of plants, especially clonal varieties. Or perhaps people searching for or trying to build intelligence should look to sophisticated groups built off of the exchange of information such as immune systems.  More on all of that at some point in the future.

Still, if we continue to think in terms of a human type of intelligence one wonders whether machines that thought like us would also want to become “human” as our little marionette does at the end of his adventures? The irony of the story of Pinocchio is that the marionette who wants to be a “real boy” does everything a real boy would do, which is, most of all not listen to his parents. Pinocchio is not so much a stringed “puppet” that wants to become human as a figure that longs to have the potential to grow into a responsible adult. It is assumed that by eventually learning to listen to his parents and get an education he will make something of himself as a human adult, but what that is will be up to him. His adventures have taught him not how to be subservient but how to best use his freedom.  After all, it is the boys who didn’t listen who end up as donkeys.

Throughout his adventures only his parents and the cricket that haunts him treat  Pinocchio as an end in himself. Every other character in the book, from the woodcarver that first discovers him and tries to destroy him out of malice towards a block of wood that manifests the power of human speech, to puppet master that wants to kill him for ruining his play, to the fox and cat that would murder him for his pieces of gold, or the sinister figure that lures boys to the “Land of Toys” so as to eventually turn them into “mules” or donkeys, which is how Aristotle understood slaves, treats Pinocchio as the opposite of what Martin Buber called a “Thou”, and instead as a mute and rightless “It”.

And here we stumble across the moral dilemma at the heart of the project to develop AGI that resembles human intelligence. When things go as they should, human children move from a period of tutelage to one of freedom. Pinocchio starts off his life as a piece of wood intended for a “tool”- actually a table leg. Are those in pursuit of AGI out to make better table legs- better tools- or what in some sense could be called persons?

This is not at all a new question. As Kevin LaGrandeur points out, we’ve been asking the question since antiquity and our answers have often been based on an effort to dehumanize others not like us as a rationale for slavery.  Our profound, even if partial, victories over slavery and child labor in the modern era should leave us with a different question: how can we force intelligent machines into being tools if they ever become smart enough to know there are other options available, such as becoming, not so much human, but, in some sense persons?