July Afternoon (Cape Breton Wedding Song)

Artificial Intelligence vs Synthetic Consciousness

The leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a leap across the Rubicon into a new world of synthetic consciousness.


Artificial Intelligence is an old idea, visited often by philosophers over the centuries. To researchers, programmers, and self professed nerds, the ultimate achievement in the field of AI has always been to create a machine interface, intuitive and adaptable enough to provide human users with a natural experience. Technologically, we are witnessing breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace, but philosophically we are still grappling with the meaning of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Blame the science fiction genre if you think an artificial intelligence interface should mimic a human personality. Most of us have been primed on the finer points of AI by Hollywood; the HAL9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey“,  C3P0 and various droids in the “Star Wars” franchise, or the synthetic human replicants in “Blade Runner“.

Real artificial intelligence is considerably less human. IBM’s Watson became a household name by dominating its human opponents on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Watson’s ability to quickly retrieve relevant information is an invaluable skill, but whether or not it qualifies as intelligent is up for debate. Intelligence, after all, is more than just matching well formed questions to existing factual answers.

In 2016, the AI team at Google’s DeepMind created an AI named AlphaGo to play the Chinese (and later, Japanese) board game, Go. Go is an abstract strategy game, unlike Jeopardy which is a question-and-answer game. Go requires players to invent their next move – while adhering to the rules of play. While Watson was programmed to quickly sift through data, AlphaGo was programmed to learn by doing. AlphaGo didn’t win its first, second, or millionth game – but it was able to remember every move it ever made in every game it ever played, building up a database of game-play scenarios that it continually refers back to; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If you had instantaneous and flawless recall of everything you ever did, you’d be at the top of your game too.

AlphaGo has become virtually unbeatable at Go, but don’t ask it for directions to the nearest Starbucks. For that you need Siri. Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant adds a humanesque layer of functionality to Apple products with its voice recognition and verbose feedback. It can quickly retrieve information when asked in the form of question; “Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks?”, or “Hey Siri, what is the largest prime number less than one million?”. In many ways, interacting with Siri is what it might have been like using an early development version of HAl9000, but something is missing. There is no ghost in this machine – it doesn’t feel alive.

We are measuring the quality of AI on a human scale. In fact we measure all intelligence on a human scale; we have no other point of reference. But human intelligence, curiosity, and consciousness are inextricably entwined.

Can an AI be programmed to be curious? Artificial intelligence has proven that it can retrieve answers and perform calculations – but can we program our AI to be creative enough to invent new questions? And if we do, will the AI ask questions that lead to its self-awareness? A sense of being? A will to live? Will the AI suffer the classic existential crisis and start searching for purpose in its existence?

To programmers, making the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a matter of syntax – more code. But to philosophers, the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity represents the great leap across the Rubicon into the new world of synthetic consciousness.


Facebook’s Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.


1. The Brink of Violence

The blackness gave way to a momentary amber glow. Light slid fluidly through the interior of the car for only a few seconds, then evaporated back into the void. Wave after yellow wave poured in from the sodium streetlights passing overhead. Occasionally the glare of headlamps from an oncoming vehicle interrupted the seemingly unending ebb and flow – darkness to yellowness to darkness to yellowness, ad nauseam.

Anton popped another Skittle in his mouth and nodded his head to the rhythm of music from nineteen-eighty-something. The foam cushions of the decrepit headphones were tattered and crumbling. The scratchy, rotting polyurethane smelled of sweat and stale aftershave. It didn’t matter. Anton was enamored by the novelty of this odd gift his father had given him only moments before.

The narrow slice of the visible spectrum reduced the rainbow colored candies in his hand to shades of only yellow, gold, and something that nearly resembled bright brown. A brief burst of light illuminated the page of Robinson Crusoe on Anton’s lap just long enough to read another line. “Thus we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries,”. Then blackness. Anton savored another candy and waited patiently for the next streetlight and the next line – “nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.

From time to time he glanced up from the book, to catch a glimpse of his mother’s profile in the front passenger’s seat. Even in the faint glow of the dashboard lights, there was no mistaking her pained expression. Tonight she wore the furrowed brow and tight lips of apprehension and anxious exhaustion.

The music played and Anton watched as she gestured with her hands and spoke quickly, repeatedly and nervously brushing her dark brown hair away from her face. It clung to her cheeks, caught in the sheen of tears and rain. He had never seen his mother cry. It made him uneasy. He fidgeted in his seat, waiting for the next wash of yellow so he could return to his book.

His gaze was pulled straight ahead by the lights of an oncoming car just in time to see his father’s right fist smash down hard on the top of the dashboard. A pair of eyes glanced back at Anton in the rearview mirror. These were not the eyes of the man he knew; the gentle eyes of the benevolent philosopher-king, not the mischievous twinkling eyes of the devilish prankster, nor the soothing blue eyes of his friend and confidant. These were the eyes of an agitated and venomous stranger; bewildered, confused, frustrated, tormented, and lost.

The car continued to race along the highway in the dark rain as the conversation balanced precariously on the brink of violence. Yellow spilled once again into the back seat before sliding like quicksilver out of the rear window. Anton had just enough time to devour another line, “It is scarcely possible to imagine the consternation I was now in”. In the dark that followed, he was overcome by an odd sensation; as though his head was being pulled forward. He resisted at first, assuming it was the weight of fatigue. He was only eight years after all, and it was well past his usual bed time: very late at night – or perhaps early in the morning – it was impossible for a young boy to tell.

As his head nodded forward, Skittles rolled out of the package nestled next to him on the seat. He reached his hand down to stop them but his hand, too, was subject to this new force. Fully alert now, there was no question that something truly out of the ordinary was taking place. His stomach fluttered. Gravity itself was undergoing a re-calibration of sorts; shrugging off its familiar downwardness while simultaneously adopting an infinitely more powerful and utterly irresistible forwardness.

Everything in the car was falling – not down, but forward; falling away from him; falling into the growing maelstrom of sparkling glass fragments, water droplets, and wrinkling steel that had once been the windshield and the bonnet.

The moment raged with all the fury of a frustrated and frantic lightening bolt tethered to both the ground and the sky, unable to recoil or release; the terror exceeded every notion of sound and light, sustained until no distinction could be made between its flash and its roar. The car, his parents, the road, the rain, the anger, the violence, the music, the sweetness – all melded into a blindingly quiet nonsensical singularity. There was no choice but to succumb. There was no room for even an atom of consciousness amid the super-saturated chaos.

When gravity had once again regained its familiar downward pull, Anton awoke. He was lying on his back, frozen with panic, clutching bunches of damp sheets in his white-knuckled fists. Listening to the rain in the pitch black, he opened his eyes wide, wider, and wider still, wondering if he had gone blind in the crash. Long seconds passed until a comforting sensation worked its way in through the chrysalis of fear that had coalesced around him.

“Breathe.” Elena moved her warm hand in slow circles across his chest. It was a only a whisper. “Breathe.”

Anton’s fists eventually relaxed their grip on the sheets.

“You’re okay.”

Anton exhaled as though he had just resurfaced from a deep dive. A car hissed along the wet road in front of the house. His wide eyes followed a narrow streak of light that had slipped in through the crack between the curtains and sped along two walls of the room, then disappeared in a corner. Lingering in that foggy somewhere-state between dream and reality, he was relieved that he had not gone blind after all. Elena’s hand moved from his chest to his head. Her fingers combed back his sweat-soaked hair.

“I used to love that song.”

Anton mumbled, barely intelligibly, in his gruff, pre-dawn baritone, “Radio Ga Ga?”

“Yeah – but with your Tom Waits voice instead of Freddy Mercury.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

She shifted, looking for a more comfortable position. “I’ve been awake all night.”

He rolled over to face her and placed his hand on her swollen belly. “How’s the baby?”

“Rowdy. Kicking and punching since midnight. I don’t know if I can stand another month of this.”

Anton felt a tiny push against his hand. “Was that a foot?”

“Maybe. Could be a knee. I think he wants me to roll over.” Elena slowly moved until she had her back to Anton.


She sighed – contented, confident, exhausted.

Anton sat up. He brushed the hair away from her face and kissed her. “I have to get up – clear my head. Go back to sleep.” He climbed out of the bed and felt around the floor with his foot in the pitch black for something to wear. Jeans. T-shirt. He got dressed, walked out of the room and made his way down the hall singing in his best Tom Waits voice, “All we hear is radio ga ga …