Ex Machina (2014) and Westworld (2016- )

The problem of other minds was already a perennial problem of philosophy long before anyone even thought about robots.  The only conscious mind each person is sure of is his own.  We naturally attribute consciousness to others by instinct, and the rational justification of such attribution is that similar causes produce similar effects:  other people are like us in matter and form, in what we are made of and how we are structured, so it is only reasonable to expect that other people will be conscious beings and not mindless automata.  Most of us attribute consciousness to animals, but as animals become further removed from us, the analogy to ourselves weakens and our willingness to attribute consciousness weakens likewise.  Many have doubts about protozoa, for instance.

Robots are increasingly being made in a way that stimulates our analogical inference to consciousness.  We already use figures of speech that attribute consciousness to inanimate objects like computers:  personification, when we say the computer is thinking; apostrophe, when we yell at the computer for taking too long.  So when robots are given human form, including eyes and facial expressions, the tendency to take these figures of speech literally becomes irresistible.  And yet, we wonder if the analogy is just superficial.  After all, they are not made from the same stuff that we are made of, and they are not put together the same way we are.

When the movie Ex Machina begins, Caleb, a computer programmer, wins a chance to spend a week with Nathan, the CEO of the company he works for.  Caleb finds out that Nathan has constructed a robot named Ava who is so humanlike that we naturally believe she is conscious.  Of course, a human actress plays the part of Ava, so we in the audience are bound to think so.  In fact, we have to be convinced that she is a robot, for which purpose she is deliberately constructed so as to show off her mechanical parts.  Were it not for these obvious robot features, Caleb himself might wonder if Ava is just some woman trying to fool him into thinking she is a robot.  By way of contrast, in the television series Westworld (2016- ), the robots, referred to as “hosts,” are designed to entertain the human “guests,” for which purpose they must appear to be human.  To make it believable that they are not, we are shown scenes of their manufacture.

Another difference between these two shows is that whereas Ava of Ex Machina is electronic, with synthetic material used to create a human appearance for her, the hosts of Westworld seem to be more flesh-androids than robots, in that we suspect that protoplasm is used to make them.  To the extent that organic material is used to construct them, we are naturally more likely to infer consciousness, according to the principle mention above that from similar causes we expect similar effects.

Anyway, Caleb’s job in Ex Machina is to perform a Turing test, which a computer or robot must pass in order to qualify for having true artificial intelligence.  The idea is that if a human cannot tell when he is interacting with another human and when he is interacting with a machine, then the machine has passed the test.  Caleb jumps to the conclusion that if the robot can pass the test, then the robot has consciousness, and Nathan implicitly agrees with that inference.

Some people believe that intelligence implies consciousness and conversely, but neither one implies the other at all.  It may be that no matter how advanced robots become, they will still be automata without any consciousness at all, no matter how many times they pass the Turing test.  In Westworld, on the other hand, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) says that in the early days of manufacturing the robotic hosts, his partner Arnold was not satisfied with the fact that the hosts could pass the Turing test.  He wanted them to be conscious as well.  So it is clear that in this series, passing the Turing test is not regarded as a sufficient condition for consciousness.  There is almost the suggestion that passing the Turing test is a necessary condition for consciousness, but that cannot be right.  Chimpanzees are presumably conscious, but they would fail a Turing test.

In any event, Ex Machina equates intelligence with consciousness, so we shall let it go with that.  The main thing is that in talking to Ava, Caleb falls in love with her.  When he finds out that Nathan intends to reprogram her, wiping out her memory, he is alarmed, for memory is essential to the survival of our person.  As Leibniz once said, if you tell me that when I die, I will be immediately reborn in another body, but I will have no memory of my present life, then you might as well tell me that when I die, another person will be born.  Nathan plans to keep Ava’s body, but in destroying her memory, he will effectively be killing her.

Memory and the absence of such also play an important role in Westworld.  Unlike the original movie made in 1973, where the robots, especially the gunslinger played by Yul Brynner, are villains, in the television series, the hosts are victims.  They are raped, forced to witness the murder of their loved ones, and are murdered themselves.  The humans running Westworld, as well as the guests, feel no compunction about what is done to these hosts, in part because it is never really clear whether the hosts are conscious or not, but mostly because their memories are supposedly wiped clean after such abuse, as if that would negate their victimization.

Returning to Ex Machina, Caleb plots to help Ava escape.  At this point, I thought the movie would turn out in one of two possible ways.  My first possible plot was that the movie would become an adventure story, in which Caleb and Ava try to make their way through the forests and mountains with the very athletic and brilliant Nathan in pursuit.  They would eventually escape and live happily ever after.  The second possible plot, the one I was hoping for, was that just as they were about to escape, Nathan would tell Caleb that because he obviously regards Ava as a person, since he loves her and is trying to save her from death, then she has passed the Turing test big time.  Then he announces he never planned on wiping out her memory, so if Ava and Caleb want to get married and live happily ever after, that is fine with him.  He will simply begin working on a newer model tomorrow.

I can’t believe I did not anticipate the real ending.  After all, have I not watched every film noir that has ever been made?  How could I have missed the fact that Ava is the ultimate femme fatale, more ruthless than any of those played by Jane Greer, Joan Bennett, or Barbara Stanwyck?  She not only kills Nathan with the help of another female robot, but she also locks Caleb in the house where he will eventually die and blithely walks away to board the prearranged helicopter to take her to the city.

Perhaps even more unnerving is the way she smiles after she has locked Caleb in the house, and again when she makes it to the city and stands on a street corner watching people come and go.  In old movies, robots were typically mirthless, perhaps because we supposed that robots might have thoughts and sense perception but not emotions, especially not positive ones.  Increasingly, however, robots are portrayed as having the full range of human affect.  As for Ava in particular, any smiles made before her escape could be dismissed as part of her deceitfulness.  But these smiles occur when she has no need to manipulate anyone, and they are smiles that evince genuine delight and happiness.  It is that smile, more than her intelligence, that makes us believe she is conscious.

Ex Machina is a movie, which means that in just under two hours, the story came to an end, an end that the writer and director, Alex Garland, definitely had in mind from the outset.  Westworld, on the other hand, is a television series, whose end is not yet at hand.  So far, it is fun pulling for the robots for a change, and it is interesting the way this show raises all sorts of existential questions.  But I am only halfway through the first season, and I am starting to have misgivings.  If this were a movie or even just a miniseries, the revolt of the robots would be enough.  But since this is a television series, intended to go on for several seasons, there are all sorts of subplots and superplots, not the least of which is the one involving the Man in Black (Ed Harris) and his quest to solve the mystery of the maze.  As I watched this show, willingly allowing myself to be pulled into the story, I began having misgivings.  It reminded me of something.

What it reminded me of was Lost (2004-2010).  There too I was pulled into the mystery.  For five seasons I watched and was fascinated.  And then, in the sixth season, it became clear that throughout the show, the writers were just winging it, making stuff up as they went along, with no idea how it would all end.  As long as the ratings held up, they just went from season to season, adding on more stuff. But when it finally came time to wrap things up, all we got was a bunch of New Age nonsense.  All the pleasure I had experienced in watching this show was ruined in retrospect.

I could not get the thought out of my mind, so I looked up both shows on IMDb.  It appears that J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost, is an executive producer of Westworld.  I don’t know how much to make of that connection.  All I can say is that I hope that the writers of Westworld already know how all the mysteries of this show will ultimately be resolved into a neat and satisfying end, and that they will not pull another Lost on us.

Consciousness Naturalized

One of the arguments against the theory of evolution is that the theory cannot account for the existence of consciousness.  No mere essay such as this one could possibly do justice to the mind/body problem, and it must be that extra cup of coffee I had this morning that has led me to this presumption.  However, there is one feature of the debate over the nature of consciousness that I believe is worth calling attention to, even if only in an oversimplified manner, as necessitated by the limitations of space.

The theory of dualism typically attributes to consciousness and matter radically opposite properties.  Among other things, consciousness, thought of as the essence of the mind or the soul, is associated with that which is alive, aware, and active, whereas matter is said to be lifeless, insensible, and passive. Because mind and matter are thought of as distinct substances that interact with each other, it is easy to imagine that the mind or soul can survive the body.  This is most agreeable with religious notions of immortality.  As such, whereas matter is part of nature, the conscious mind is supernatural and destined for some kind of afterlife.  Needless to say, on this dualistic understanding of mind and matter, material evolution cannot possibly explain the existence of the immaterial soul.  And thus it is that the existence of consciousness is often put forward as an objection to the notion that the theory of evolution is sufficient to fully explain life, especially the existence of man.

In response to this, a lot of atheists argue that consciousness did evolve, that it is an emergent property of matter, arising when a certain level of complexity is reached.  They may admit that they are not sure exactly what level of complexity is required, or at what point in the evolution of life consciousness emerged, but emerge it did.  Such a position essentially accepts the conception of matter as formulated by the dualists:  it is lifeless, insensible, and passive. We might be able to understand how complexity of such matter could eventually produce animal life, but it is hard to see how mere complexity could ever bring about sensation or feeling from such an unpromising beginning.

There is no need to accept this conception of matter as laid out by the dualists, however.  In fact, since the dawn of philosophy, a lot of materialists have realized that in order to materialize consciousness, matter must be spiritualized.  Thales, the first pre-Socratic materialist, said that all things came from water.  To this assertion that everything evolved, if you will, from a material element, he added that “things are full of gods.”  Lucretius, another materialist, said that in addition to properties such as size, shape, and weight, atoms also had “inclinations.” Thomas Hobbes, in elaborating his theory of materialism, explained the motion of bodies as resulting from an “endeavor.”

In other words, instead of arguing that consciousness emerged from matter as a result of complexity, one can argue that it was there from the beginning.  Of course, if we are going to attribute consciousness to matter in its simplest forms, in an electron for instance, it must be consciousness in its simplest form as well.  Some people strongly associate consciousness with intelligence, but electrons are clearly not intelligent.  For others, “consciousness” means self-awareness, but that also lets out electrons.  At most, an electron can be thought of as having something like a feeling or an urge.

If we decide to accept a notion of matter that is conscious, we have a choice to make between interactionism and parallelism.  Referring again to the metaphysics of Lucretius, inclination was a property that atoms had alongside material properties, such as size, shape, and weight. Whereas the material property of weight made the atoms fall straight down, in his view, the inclination of the atoms could make them swerve.  And this inclination was the basis of the will in man.  In other words, he had an interactionist view of things.  Material properties of atoms would have them do one thing (fall), while the mental property, the inclination, would have them do something else (swerve).

The problem with this understanding of things is that it seems to be the same old dualism of mind and body shrunk in size to that of the atom.  Alternatively, there is the idea of parallelism, known as the dual-aspect theory.  To go back to the example of an electron, its mental aspect, be it a feeling or an urge, is not a property distinct from its mass and electric charge.  Rather, the feeling it has is the “inner nature” of the material properties, the way the mass and charge are experienced by the electron.  Under this view, there are no Lucretian swerves. If an electron swerves, we can attribute that swerving to such things as an electric or gravitational field, with some kind of sensation present paralleling that swerve.

The first philosopher to propose the dual-aspect theory was Spinoza, whose writing, unfortunately, is more mediaeval than modern.  Schopenhauer is my favorite exponent of this view, although his philosophy is bound up with Kant’s transcendental idealism, which I have never been able to fully understand.  And if I read him right, Shadworth Hodgson, who is mostly known as being the first epiphenomenalist, also espoused a version of this theory. With regard to the last two philosophers, we may discern a debate as to which is causally determinative, the mental or the physical.  In other words, just who wears the pants in this universe?  For Hodgson, it was the physical.  He compared consciousness to the color of the stones on a mosaic, whereas the stones themselves and the cement that holds them together correspond to physical reality. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, opted for the will as being causally determinative, with physical reality being just the outer appearance of the phenomenon of the will.

But to ask which of the two, the mental or the physical, is the more important is like asking of a coin dropped into a slot to buy candy, which was the more important, the head or the tail. Keeping with the coin analogy for a moment, imagine seeing coins on a table, all of which are Indian Head nickels with a buffalo on the back, some of which have the Indian head facing up, with others having the buffalo facing up.  If we had never seen this type of coin before, and we had no way of turning one of them over, we might never suspect they were the same coin.  In a similar way, when we look at a stone, we cannot see its mental aspect, and when we feel a pain, we cannot see its physical aspect.

The head of a coin and its tail never interact.  If we toss a coin in the air, the head and tail move together in parallel, neither one being determinative of the motion of the other.  On the other hand, coins interact with each other.  If we move those hypothetical coins around on the table, still ignorant of the fact that they are the same type, we might see an Indian bump into a buffalo and cause it to move, and we might see elsewhere a buffalo bump into an Indian and likewise cause motion, leading us to conclude that there is interaction between Indian Head nickels and Buffalo nickels as distinct kinds of coins.  In reality, the interaction is between a single kind of coin, viewed differently.

In a similar manner, we know there is a correlation between pain and brain states.  A dualist will say the brain state, which is physical, causes the feeling of pain, which is mental.  In reality, the brain state and the pain are two aspects of a single thing.  In asserting this identity, I am not saying that the mental aspect of this brain state is identical with its physical aspect, any more than I would say that the head of a coin is identical with its tail.  Rather, just as a coin with an Indian head on its obverse side can be identical with a coin with a buffalo on its reverse side, so too can a brain state, observed as physical from the outside, be identical with a brain state, felt as pain from the inside.  In this regard, identity theory is in agreement with the dual-aspect theory, the difference being that most identity theorists believe that such identities are limited to nervous systems, which is a version of the theory that consciousness emerges when there is sufficient complexity, whereas the dual-aspect theory assumes such identities in even the simplest forms of matter.

The dual-aspect theory is not a popular one, and has few proponents.  The main reason, I believe, is that it is counterintuitive to say that matter in general has a mental aspect, and so much so that to advocate such a theory is to open one up to derision.  It is in the opposite situation from dualism, which appeals to our intuition and common sense.  And most of us speak the language of dualism, for it is easily understood and allows for brevity of expression.

My pet theory aside, the main point I wanted to make in all this is that in debating the theory of evolution with those who say the theory cannot explain consciousness, we need not resign ourselves to accepting the impoverished conception of matter provided by dualism, but may avail ourselves of an enriched version more suitable to our needs.  The longer we delay the moment in which consciousness makes its appearance in this world, the more we implicitly concede that there is something mysterious and inexplicable about it.  Better to embrace consciousness as present in matter from the beginning, thereby completely naturalizing it.