from Occulto Issue h, released in November 2017
“Ban on killer robots urgently needed, say scientists – Technology now exists to create autonomous weapons that can select and kill human targets without supervision as UN urged to outlaw them.” I woke up to this Guardian headline yesterday morning (Nov. 13, 2017), and was immediately reminded of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, recurring in his fiction writings: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” First introduced in the early 1940s, they seem to apply well to a real-life issue in 2017 – if you ever thought that science fiction is nothing but second-class genre literature, you might reconsider. “Handing machines the power over who lives and dies crosses a clear moral line”, continues the Guardian article; we need to set some limits.
Russian spies and nuclear war threats have been in the news lately – for a person born in the early 80s like me it feels like a time travel back to childhood, at least if I forget for a second about Mark Zuckerberg. Anyway, Occulto hasn’t started reporting on current events and hot topics, quite the contrary: the first article on algebraic topology will challenge “no less than your primitive intuition about the meaning of ‘equality’”, and introduce “one of the most intricate, counter-intuitive, large fields of study in modern mathematics”, touching upon the limits of our classification of space, and how we can get ahead of them.
There is also a lot of talk about fake news lately (often Russian as well), raising strong doubts about our information sources and communication systems. What is information and what are its limits? If we start from the very beginning, we must consider the structure of communication independently from meaning, the way any message can be transmitted, and to what extent we can control the process in order to make it reliable.
Once we approach meaning, things get less mathematical but somehow even more complicated. Fact-checking is no panacea, but can help, especially against confirmation bias – the tendency to search for and find sources that confirm a pre-existent agenda, say the one of anti-nuclear activists. Fact-checking allows you to debunk a legend in a Wikipedia entry while sitting at your computer, or can get more adventurous and makes you travel to the upper Euphrates valley, where an old man will show you the supposedly most ancient Bible ever found in modern times, containing words that may change the world – if it’s not a forgery.
The way we perceive and represent our limits evolves through the centuries: unmapped lands, once depicted with figures of lions and dragons, are now digital artifacts and glitches that join the pieces of Google Maps. We learn about limits and how to deal with them even on our nights out, for example while watching a movie and implicitly accepting and following the spatial rules that regulate the tension between on- and off-frame.
The father of information theory, Shannon, published a groundbreaking paper about computer chess in 1949; about half a century later, a supercomputer called Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Kasparov in a momentous ‘human vs. machine’ competition. Kasparov is reported to have said, “The superiority of our brains allows us to control the planet. Who knows what could happen if it were to be defeated at the chessboard?” Who knows? The deterministic optimism of 19th century is long forgotten; today, we accept our limits, but we haven’t given up learning, experimenting, improving. The limits are often blurred or controversial, especially in fields such as technological progress, industrial production and public health – destruction can come from the same steel plant that is giving work to a whole city.
Occulto Issue h ends with an army of human-robot hybrid creatures going out of control and attacking humans, but don’t panic: it’s only fiction, science fiction, just like the Laws of Robotics we started with.