On AI, Abortion, and Souls

gheyn-muisjeDo you ever follow a thread of thought from one link to another, until you get to a story that you wonder how it ends?  I was reading a paper from 2011 written by James Boyle, “Endowed by Their Creator?  The Future of Constitutional Personhood.”  It starts like this:

“Presently, Irving Weissman, the director of Stanford University’s Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, is contemplating pushing the envelope of chimera research even further by producing human-mouse chimera whose brains would be composed of one hundred percent human cells. Weissman notes that the mice would be carefully watched: if they developed a mouse brain architecture, they would be used for research, but if they developed a human brain architecture or any hint of humanness, they would be killed.”

So what happened to the mice, I wonder?  Did they develop human brain architecture?  And what is the military doing right now?

When I was at Defcon last year, one of the speakers showed slides of a mouse with another mouse’s head.  It reminded me of those terribly morbid experiments doctors did at the turn of the century, sewing two dog heads onto one body and that sort of thing.  There is a biological empathy we have with life; the closer to our species it is, the more we feel.  (Though personally, primates for me are close enough to the uncanny valley that they creep me out.  Not that I could experiment on them, creeped out or not.)  Meanwhile, the turn towards artificial intelligence will mostly likely not be a bang, but a whimper.  A small voice that gradually grows louder until we are faced with a perplexing problem–the problem of personhood.

I have wondered if the future of humanity, if our evolution will end up as an intelligence that is no longer bound by our biological flesh.  The ethical challenges of personhood for non-humans is this strange, vague thing that like a painting, will probably not be drawn out or seen clearly until we are closer to it.  But when we come to that point, we have to evaluate all of our beliefs that deal with personhood.  What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to be a person?

In the paper, Boyle focuses on two things:  the Turing Test for electronic artificial intelligence and genetic species identity.  It is really the head and the heart, because I can discuss the Turing Test and feel perfectly rational, but the idea of human cells within another animal, the feeling that human cells are trapped within something that is non-human, makes my stomach turn a bit.  So it was interesting to read this comment:

“But I dont think that any artificial intelligence will EVER have to be defined as a person. They dont have souls, though the discussion tends to take an ugly turn and no real answer is reached.

All I know is that even if a computer could feel pain, it wouldnt be actual pain, but rather an interpretation of stimuli that WOULD cause pain in a human.”

The idea that artificial intelligence would not feel pain and not have a soul might be a faulty reasoning.  After all, the father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, famously experimented on black women because he believed they didn’t feel pain the way white women would.  The sounds of their suffering was just the braying of animals that didn’t know any better.  In his mind, blacks were fundamentally different and certainly not as human.  Frankly, the idea of race is still a vestige of this idea, when really humans simply come in different shades of beige and brown.

And souls–well, that is a belief system.  There isn’t a way to prove the existence of a soul.  But, if a soul is “endowed by a creator”, then might not AI be endowed with a soul by us, because humans are the creators of AI?  A transmission of sorts, like a holy roman vampire?  Eve came from Adam’s rib, and AI came from Eve’s brain?

In any case, it has implications for the arguments for and against abortion.  After all, those who are pro-life are being protective of the soul that was endowed to that embryo.  A soul that by original sin is damned.  Sometimes, the arguments pit the mother against the unborn child–what is versus what could be.  Who get rights first when there’s a conflict?  But these beliefs are based in the idea that humans are special, that there is nothing else like us.    If artificial intelligence has potentiality to become a person just as an embryo does, then is there a moral right to help it come to pass?  Should AI fulfill what it could be? And what would mean for us, as we rewrite what it means to be both persons and human?

Of Love and Sadness

fullsizerender-2I fell off the blogging every day thing.  I’m still working on my book though.  :)  God, I just feel sad.  So, so sad.  And there’s different pieces to that.  One has been work.  One has been my parents.  One has honestly been the election and the denial of science and the elevation of hate.  Spheres of influence; my head, my family, my outer world.  My work has always been important to me, a calling that invokes my mind and my soul.   My parents are important to me because they are my roots and my challenge.  And science is the way we know the world, the way we see past our own lies and how we deceive ourselves.  It is the way we elevate ourselves beyond being merely selfish animals.  To deny that, wholesale, seems like a terrible step backwards.  Not that the earth will care.  It will continue no matter what we do.  But still, do we have to be this stupid?  Do we have to be so selfish?  Can we care about no one but people like ourselves?  I do not believe that love is zero-sum game.  These are the thoughts that I grapple with as the days grow shorter and nights colder and long.

But on the other hand, my inner-inner circle is really good.  My relationships with my kids are still so fun, so satisfying, so deep and happy.  True love.  It pierces like a thorn to the heart of who I am and grows like roses.  Wild ones, the ones you can smell, happy and sprawling and free.  And things with Kevin are really great–easy and happy.  It is a good thing, even if it feels strange, to be with someone who accepts me more than I do myself.  But the darkness sometimes is deep too.

So.  One thing at a time.  Bit by bit, I will change things.  However, not all things can be changed at once.  The first step is my job, and that has now been taken care of.  A pity to leave the one I’m at, I did not leave it lightly.  But you come to a point where you no longer fight the good fight, and it is time to move on.  I have a new position with a startup.  I am excited, it will different.  I will be able to do a lot of good there.

As to the other things. . .well, one does what one can.  I worry terribly about my parents.  I don’t know how much I can help them for afar.  I want them to be happy, but they are so alone out there.  And I have my own responsibilities to my own children who come first.  I don’t know what will happen there.

To everything else, I am not sure.  That is a harder question, one about meaning and how much one can influence anything.  I don’t know what I can influence.  In the meantime, I will do the best I can.

 

 

 

I am just tired.

I going to visit my parents in a few days.  I’m sure we’ll have fun things to talk about, like how my father is dying and his legs are giving out.  I also really enjoy breaking my mother’s heart to point out that his condition is terminal; the cancer has metastasized to his bones and they have put him on hormonal (i.e., palliative, not curative) treatment.  That he probably won’t die right away, but it’s coming, maybe a couple of years, hopefully more.  She will probably outlive the spouse that she loves more than life itself.  His last treatment was 10 years ago, so it gave him time.  But he is still young, and it is somewhat shocking considering how old his parents were when they died.

Then there is the guilt–the guilt that though I am decent with money, I still don’t have enough to buy multiple airplane tickets or the vacation time to make lots of trips.  And though I could do FMLA, that won’t pay the bills that continue on.  So I don’t know how much I can see him, or how much I can afford to bring the girls to see him.

And normally, I am good, I am strong, I am the one to ask questions because they need to be asked–but I am tired and spent, and frankly, I find myself crying.  I have spent my whole life trying to contain my emotions, containing the feelings that mess with my mind, and rationally I should forgive myself an incident of weeping.  But I am a mess, really.  Because as much as I may disagree with someone who was a keystone in my life, who could push my buttons like no one else, he was also probably the most influential person in my life.  I don’t want him to die yet.  But that’s not for me to decide.

 

A Scene

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In writing my novel, I’m going through the character summaries and trying to decide what the conflicts will be.  Since I’ve decided since the main character will have a mental illness, one of her conflicts will be deciding how truthful to be with her friends.  One of her fears is that if she is truly herself, her friends will abandon her, because they will see how worthless she truly is.  So here is scene that may or may not make it into the final piece:


Laina opened the door to see Kyle.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting to see you at this late hour,” she said.

“Can I come in?”

“Yeah, yeah, come in.  Let me make you some tea or something, sit down.”

Kyle settled onto the couch and let his eyes wander around the paintings.  Leona pulled out the kettle and Kyle said,

“Actually, I’d prefer a whiskey.”

“If by whiskey, you mean bourbon, I can do that.  Ice or neat?”

“What are you doing?”

She chuckled.  “Are you kidding?  I’m not going to ruin the flavor with ice.  Neat all the way.”

“Ah, okay then.”

She came out with two Glencairn glasses.

“Sorry, man, I get the fancy crystal cut one,” she said, “you’ll have to make due with the plain one.”

Kyle laughed.  “I’m not bothered.”

Laina sat on the opposite side of the couch and swirled the glass.

“This is one of my favorites, it’s been aged in sherry barrels.”

Kyle nodded and took a sip.  He let his eyes look across at the wall.

“So, ah,” she said, “What brings you to my humble abode?”

He paused.  “I don’t really know why,” he said.  “I guess I was worried about you.  You seemed really upset last night.”

“Aw, thanks,” she said.  “And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you.  I can still be emotional, but it’s nothing like it. . .used to be.”

“Yeah, about that. . .”

She waited.

“It took me a long time to get over that, you know.  And I’m not sure I’ve ever forgiven you.”

“You know, it was never about you,” she started.

“I know that,” he said quickly. “Or rationally, I do.  But you have no idea what it was like to find you.  No idea to realize you were actually going to do it.  I mean, stupid teenagers talk all the time about how their life sucks and how they wish they were dead. . .and you, you actually went down that road.”

Kyle was still looking at the wall, his face in profile, as though he couldn’t trust himself to look at her.  Laina was afraid to look too much at him in case his eyes met hers, so she looked down at the floor, listening.

“I mean, what if it happens again?  What if you decide that life is too hard and you decide to quit?  Do you have any comprehension how much you hurt us, all of us?”

Laina couldn’t speak, but stared at the carpet mutely.

“And your poor parents, what a death they died that night.  They never deserved that.”

She could feel the swelling of tears in her eyes.  They were going to break soon.  She put her glass down with shaking hands and shook her head.

“I just,” he paused, “I just can’t go through that again.  I can’t care about you and be close to you.”

Her blood went cold even as hot tears trailed down her face, her eyes stayed fixed on the floor.  The tears were tickling her upper lip but she didn’t want to touch her face.  Any movement and she might lose control completely.  And if she tried to speak, she knew her voice would betray her.  This couldn’t be happening.

He went silent and she could feel the dripping on her chin.  She got up suddenly, heading for the tissue box, but didn’t make it before a huge sob escaped.  She stayed standing over the counter, hunched over the tissues, her back to him.

“Laina, I’m sorry,” Kyle said getting up.

“Please don’t,” she said, her voice a weird caricature. “So, we can’t be friends?”

Kyle sighed.  “I’m not saying that.  I’m just saying. . .I need some space.  Some distance.”

Her throat tightened.  She felt like she was going to throw up.  Her insides were breaking up and heaving.

“Can you leave?” she asked in a low voice.

Kyle stood still for minute.  “Laina. . . “

That was it.  She walked to the bedroom, her head spinning.  She closed the door and held her breath.  She could no longer hold back her crying but at least she could contain the screaming inside her, if only he would leave quickly.  She listened through the door.

She could hear him putting on his shoes.  Faster, she willed him.

He was putting on his coat.  Please.

He was checking his pockets for his keys.  For the love of god!

Finally, she heard the door open and close.  She waited another minute to make sure he wouldn’t hear her.  And then it all poured out of her, her anguish and disbelief.  It was true, it had always been true.  She was unloveable and too weird to even have friends.  She was worthless and stupid and ugly.  How could she think she could ever deserve friends?  Everyone should hate her, hate her as much as herself.  She had trusted him, trusted him to not abandon her, but she was too weak and messed up.  Nobody could love who she really was.  She should just die already.

 

 

 

Writing Characters

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It’s a great afternoon to sit on the balcony, watch the sun sink down, and write.  Currently, I am working on sketching out my characters, and I’m finding it a bit hard to put detail to my male characters.  Which is ironic, because  I’ve historically had more problems making friends with females–I think because I tend to be more pragmatic than a stereotypical female.   I actually don’t usually know why women don’t like me when they don’t.

Whereas, I usually get along pretty well with guys.  Probably because I view my emotions with a degree of suspicion–a side effect of having dealt with depression in the past.  But I can’t claim to know what men think.

On the other hand, I have decided that my female protagonist will have depression, because I can write about that.  I was thinking today of an episode Katy had years ago.  It could have been a scene out of “The Bell Jar”:  she slit her wrists and took a bunch of meds, then laid down in a bathtub to die–and helpfully, contain the blood.  But when all the drugs in her system took hold, she ended up thrashing about and lurching room to room, getting blood all over the walls, before finally collapsing.

Her husband came home to a house with blood-smeared walls and found her, unconscious.  He then immediately went upstairs to check on their baby daughter.  The baby was fine, still asleep from her nap.  Then they got Katy to the hospital where she recovered.

She called me afterwards.  We were at a point in our life where I no longer asked why.  I knew that at some point the depression inside of her would win.  The part of the conversation I remember is that she was upset that her husband could possibly think she would hurt their child.  And the funny thing was, I understood both her and her husband’s point of view.  I understood her–her hatred of herself was only confined to herself.  She loved her baby, but hated being a mom.  She felt trapped and disillusioned.  The happiness she had expected from being a wife and mother had never materialized.  And I understood him–he comes home to that disaster and if she’s willing to do that to herself, what wouldn’t she do to others?

Less than a year later, she did kill herself, leaving behind her 18 month old and her husband.  Perhaps someday I will write her story, but I don’t think now is the time.