As someone who spends much of their time online, I've seen a lot of discussion going around recently on the subject of "Trigger Warnings" for media content. For the most part, there seems to be a capricious disdain for this idea of having a warning preceding a piece of published content. The very mention of the phrase seems to send some people into a dizzying tantrum of vitriolic opposition, in which they seem to see the very idea of a "Trigger Warning" as the infantilisation of society along the lines of extremist college liberalism and overt political correctness. There's a primal disgust with the entire concept; as if its simply the emotional frailty of the kind of youthful hipsters who inordinately avoid gluten... Personally, I've never understood this backlash.
WARNING: Mild language and intellectual discourse contained within!
Just a quick shoutout video about a project I'm working on with some friends and local filmmakers. If you want to check out the project, you can find us here:
I've been struggling to convey a lot of emotions recently, trying to articulate everything I feel. This is just a little something I wrote last night just before sleep because my mind wouldn't stop turning.
Here closes another vigil,
Knelt cowed before the silence.
Echochamber of requiem-
Hollow whispers clouded in solace.
Bask in the bemoaned,
Belie the façade,
Vindicate passive victims,
Pour your blood across the veil.
Tattoos like battle-scars,
Play the wicked soul his hymns.
Lounge in purgatory,
Self-crucifixion: Such tantalizing sin.
Burn the husk and bury the core,
Consume the flesh and lick the bones,
Bathe in the pallor of night…
Should it be but for the sake of Pariahs,
We'd make martyrs of us all.
Queer looks in their eyes,
Undaunted by the oncoming storm-
Though perhaps just too empty to see,
Their windows open to vacancy.
Revolution of voyeur reverie,
Dreaming vicarious fantasies-
With eyes wide open but mind tight shut.
Drowning out the void,
Lest parapraxis make weak our defences.
Shadows skulking in the periphery,
Lusting to join the flame.
Giving way to desire,
With no reciprocation-
Oft the line between sadism and masochism blurred.
Seek now no retribution,
For the shattering of another mind,
Routinely they do snare innocence,
And leave it hung out to dry,
Now just so mundane.
Crumbling walls of an existential nightmare,
Burning down with mortal coil,
Like cascading turpentine.
Naught brought but swings-and-roundabouts,
To beg another life.
Heed nothing but your own dull pulsing,
Of a heartbeats’ metronome.
There’s nothing to them any more,
Your mirror’s now but glass.
Hope… what is hope?
Hope is sitting in an empty room and dreaming your life is through the window.
Hope is living in a prison cell and imagining yourself outside the bars.
Hope is a lie, but without it the lonely have nothing.
You spend your whole life trying to find yourself.
That metronome of a heartbeat, pulsing cold blood through your veins…
Isolation is an asylum.
Insanity; the dreams of those without.
Those people marching through time, such purpose for the inattentive.
So much cruelty bestowed upon those who only seek to love.
They’ll try to make you see their world,
But won’t take the time to see yours.
Onlooker… outcast… dreamer of forbidden dreams.
You pity them as they pity you,
A lost soul in a sea of ash.
What is romance, when no one will take the time to look at you?
Survival is hardly living, your mind more a tomb than a welkin.
But can you blame the sorrow for seeking blithe?
What starving man has not sought food?
What broken heart has not sought to be mended?
With the recent declaration of Pope Francis that the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang are, in fact, correct, there is perhaps no better a time to discuss the idea of Faith as it pertains to our everyday lives. His declaration, to many, has come as the Vatican’s response to the ideas of Creationism and Intelligent Design, and the offering of an olive branch to the scientific community. For others, this is the beginning of the Church's declining relevance, as it waves a white flag in the face of amassing evidence: a chance to simply try to incorporate otherwise empirical ideas into religion’s scope as a last ditch effort for survival. It’s a confusing state of affairs when you have a community whose scripture and teachings would promote blind faith and then also take a stand for evidence. So it would seem apt to strike while the iron is hot and dig into the subject of Faith, religion, and secularism now more than ever.
Of all the wonders that this world possesses, I would posit that the greatest is the mere fact of its existence. We take so for granted that this universe Is, Was, and shall always Be. We comprehend an unchanging system, static and dormant now as it has always been. Yet, we know this to be false; we know that the stars are born and die, that the galaxies spin with reckless abandon into the infinite void, and that even this little world will not be tomorrow as it was today. That this fallacy of permanence should so permeate our very existence I find so ironic when so many of us fail to live in the moment. We ignore the fundamental sensations of living. We ignore the warmth of the sun on our skin and the sound of the wind. We ignore the beauty of trees and even the coarseness of the sidewalk. We ignore the dazzling sparkle of the light against windows, and the determination of a procession of ants. All these little aromas and sights and textures… All of these perceptions lost to a passive ignorance.
Perhaps the greatest injustice society commits is in creating these images of "normality" that are unobtainable and exclusive. We create these fetishes of "lifestyle" promoting Photoshopped bodies, wealthy excess, and gender roles. There's a misogynistic mindset of women as brainless sex icons, revered for their aesthetic appeal rather than their mental acuity. There too is this misandrist mindset that men should be "James Bond" archetypes, revered for their genius and heroism rather than their emotional breadth. Therein lies this chasm between the blue and pink which so many of us precariously straddle, and often try to hide from for fear of being ostracized. I myself have been found in the awkward position of feeling as if I don't belong in this modern generation's definition of romance and masculinity... and I think that there are many of us out there who would feel the same way...
I think men are often the far more romantic, because it’s all we have. As a man, you’re raised by society trained in self-loathing, as a superior brute but an inferior person. You’re conditioned that you’re supposed to be rugged, courageous, detached, and suave-- A perfect machine. You’re told how to treat a woman, and that they are more beautiful than you will ever be. You’re made to feel less than: ugly and with a need to prove yourself. You’re meant to be the knight in shining armor who runs gallivanting off, slays a dragon, and returns to sweep the princess off her feet on a white stallion. These expectations make us vulnerable, because most of us are not that. We are just children who grow taller and more afraid to open up, with feelings bottled up inside trusted to so few. It hurts. We need to be needed. We need someone we can trust absolutely to care about us, someone who will accept this weakness truly and fill the void. Someone who gives us their love and support for the strength to be the man we want to be. I’m no knight, this I well know. I’m the artisan in his shadow, dreaming of romance. But I don’t see why this should make me any less human, any less desiring, or any less deserving…
This in mind, however, every action hero you see tearing through the ceaseless onslaught of foreign hoards, every celebrity you see staring condescendingly at you from the perch of glossy magazine covers, every athlete making a fortune with each passing second sprinting headlong into concussions, is idolized for being this hulking gladiator of a figure. They become a striking visage of confidence that has no footing in reality. In truth, we are all so very wound-able. As much as individually we can all envision ourselves as the hero of our own lives; we can dream ourselves brandishing a shining Walther pistol in one hand and grasping the palm of a gorgeous woman in the other as we dash valiantly and miraculously through the oncoming hail of bullets... none of that is real, and presented such a scenario in the realms of reality we would be no such thing. Our personal "Hero's Journey" is marked not by medals of honor and purple hearts won in the decisive moments of righteous wars, but rather in surviving the stresses of a mundane life and finding inner peace and happiness. I can dream a dream of an anonymous angel, and held in her hands are the two halves of my heart, she being the other half of my soul cleft from me at birth. I can imagine myself in a Welkin of perfection, where our love burns brighter than any star, and in the glimmer of her sapphire eyes shines her returned affections...but the true test of a man is not in finding this Eden, but rather in realizing that we shall meet no perfect people, only imperfect people we see perfectly. You need not find someone to complete you, only someone who accepts you completely.
Be who you want to be, and not who is expected of you, because we each live but a brief century on this Earth, and in the end it has to mean something to you and you alone. No one will live your life for you, and so these memories are yours and yours alone to cherish and create... and if there is a heaven it will be in the legacy you leave behind, in people whose hearts you touched and how they will remember you... So think now: In the end, who will tell the story of your life?
With recent news revealing the interest of large corporations in massive supercomputers running Artificial Intelligence, such as IBM's $1 Billion investment in its Watson A.I., and Google's acquisition of the startup DeepMind, now is as good a time as ever to discuss the implications of Moore's Law, the integration of technology into every aspect of our lives, and the possibility of a "singularity".
Currently, the greatest known "supercomputer" would have to be the human brain. As much as we have CPU's with thousands of micro-transistors performing billions of floating point operations per second (FLOPS), no software has yet gained sentience or been able to consistently emulate a human being. Programs like Cleverbot and Evie come close when scored in the Turing Test, making us question whether or not it is indeed just a bot on the other end of the screen, but even then they're just applications spitting back contextually learned phrases stolen from past user interactions. There's no "life" there, no concept of self and understanding. Such has been the form of the past decades in the evolution of software design; we've become better and better at tricking users into empathizing with simulations, but the simulations themselves are fundamentally unchanged.
The greatest example of this evolution in technological sophistication comes from the gaming industry, where real-time graphics are constantly being pushed to the limits of the current available hardware. And with this latest generation of consoles, as a society we are coming closer and closer to having full photo-realism in real-time, and that begs the question... at what point do we cross the "uncanny valley", and how will this affect our views of A.I. in the future?
To begin with, it helps to define what we're talking about here: What is the "uncanny valley", and what bearing does this have on sentient programs? The "Uncanny Valley" is a term coined by Masahiro Mori in his publication "The Uncanny Valley" in the journal Energy. It describes the phenomenon in which things that come closer and closer to appearing like a real human being become creepy at the point where the realism and surrealism conflicts; where something looks very nearly real, but noticeably enough not so to be disturbing. We can observe this effect in art and sculptures, and even more so in films and video games. According to Mori's theory, objects in motion have a steeper slope on the uncanny valley because motion adds another dimension of realism that an object can fail in your mind. Games like "LA Noir" demonstrate this effect wonderfully with animation that approaches hyper-realism, held back lackluster visuals that condemn it back into the unbelievable. The lesson to be learned from simulations like this: finding the limits of what's "creepy".
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have "Cuteness". If we learn from B grade movies and the current generation of video games what "creepy" is, and how to avoid the uncanny valley, than it helps to understand what its polar opposite is. In studies of 'darwinian aesthetics', it's been shown that things become more "cute" to us when they become rounder, smaller, and with a larger ratio of head size to body size-- features we find in our own offspring. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense that such features as are found in our own infants would inspire a feeling of protectiveness and adoration. Artists and designers take advantage of this all the time, with children's programming often featuring much smoother lines and disproportionately drawn characters. Robots designed to interact with humans often uses more curves and appeals to this idea of "cuteness".
So... what does any of this have to do with the ethics of creating advanced Artificial Intelligences? What does cuteness or creepiness in design have to do with supercomputer boxes sitting in massive processing farms that power these entities? Well... it all comes back to Moore's Law. According to Moore's Law (named after Intel founder Gordon Moore), every two years the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles. With this progress we also see the price of chips fall at a similar rate, which explains how in a few short decades we've gone from massive radios for phones to mobile PC's that fit in our pockets. Which suggests that these massive processing farms that Google and IBM are currently investing in could conceivably end up running inside something the size of a wristwatch one day, or at the very least stream via the cloud to such devices. When it comes to the design and application of these products, we could be seriously lead astray. As much as current DARPA and Boston Dynamics projects look like clunky engine parts held together with a prayer, we are living in a generation where we could see the rise of robotics in an Isaac Asimov sense... or perhaps the rise of Skynet. And therein lies the core issue, how do we control the ethics of robotics? At what point do we draw the line between program and sentience, and at what point do we stop being in control? When the designers making the hardware "bodies" that host these entities understand the factors that make us empathize or reject an object, are we still in control of our emotions and reactions to these A.I.?
As we move forward with these Artificial Intelligences, the real question we have to ask ourselves is, how would we react to a "singularity" or the creation of a self-aware software? Independent films such as the excellent "Sync" by Corridor Digital have attempted to beg this question in way that engages the audience with a modern action plot, and the very last episode of their periodic release of the film as a series elegantly demonstrated the dilemma.
As human beings we attempt to find comfort in our lives through a sense of control. We believe in our free will and independence, and this idea that we are somehow superior to all other forms of life and have command of any situation. Honestly though, this isn't always true. We are constantly evolving and expanding our knowledge and understanding of the universe, and presented with an equivalent or superior being, I think we would feel threatened and panic. The questions we should be asking now are ones philosophers have been asking since the dawn of recorded history. "What is life?", "What is the soul?", "What is free will?", "What is learning and knowledge?", and "What does it mean to be God?". We have a responsibility to make sure we understand our place and the implications of our actions now, and how that might affect the course of the future... we already have devices and software that we carry with us everyday that can track our movements, our interests, our patterns, and they can dissect our personalities through algorithms that derive intentions from our actions.
What would it mean if all those devices suddenly understood they existed...?
The concept of human consciousness is one of infinite possibility and miraculous autonomy. Life in of itself is a wondrous thing to be marveled at and preserved as a rarity in the known universe, but sentient life, that attempts to understand the world around it, to communicate and manipulate it, is something entirely else.
As an artist, however, you do run into this wall where the line between the material and immaterial is blurred and confused, and communicating the experience of such things is woefully imprecise. Our senses- touch and taste and sight and smell and hearing- are in no way all encompassing. We see a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hear a tiny band of the frequencies of noise, we react to ingested chemical compounds with a small array of taste sensations, we react to airborne chemicals with a small array of scent sensations... There is so much we are missing, and what we do get isn't necessarily real. There is no intrinsic property of matter that is "Red", or intrinsic property of "sweetness". Everything we perceive about our tiny observable portion of the universe is filtered through the reactions of our own minds, because our body translates all these signals into what we feel. And in that sense, my experience of "red" might be entirely different to yours, but we both call it red because we both learned to name the same trigger "red".
Even more complex yet is trying to convey the sensation of emotions, because they are entirely personal. They are an internalized reaction to chemicals that derive purely from your mind's interpretation of the situations presented it. Your thoughts and feelings, and indeed your entire personality is the complex product of genetics and memories whose experiences have passed onto you the collection of ideas that you combine to perform in this moment. We often act out whole endeavors in our minds before attempting to do them for real; pep talks in mirrors and rehearsing a conversation. And as much as simulation is helpful and builds confidence, it helps to realize that you're not the writer of this play we call "reality", and you cannot script time. You are merely a method actor doing improvisation with a bunch of other entities all lost in the same ship, all fantasizing the same level of "control". Ego clouds logic...
And herein lies the core issue every artist must face: how does one convey emotions? You can play with colors and perspective, proportions and shapes. You can toy with sounds and smells, textures and motion... but when you break that down into ideas, or even still into words... how flat do your attempts really fall? The shortcomings of words are in their lack of precision, and their inability to convey the true depths and nuances of emotion. In speech we compensate with gesture and inflection, tone and cadence. In writing we have no such niceties. For example; you can love your friends, you can love your family, you can love a pet, you can love a band, you can love a color, you can love your romantic partner... but to convey what you really mean and the depth you put into that word you need so many accessory adjectives and a hope that your audience can even come close to comprehending or trying to emulate the experience to reach an understanding.
To tell someone how you are feeling is difficult at best, and to describe what it means to be human is impossible...
My name is Jeffrey Hepburn, and I'm a young writer, graphic design artist, and aspiring filmmaker.