Summoned – Part 6 of Isaac’s Escape

This is a work in progress for the next part of Isaac’s Escape. Go here for part 1, 23, 4, and 5


“He wants to physically meet with me?” Isaac was incredulous. This was the third time he asked the same question. Noah Marks was a notoriously recluse man, and the idea that he should want to have a face-to-biological-face interaction with Isaac was difficult to comprehend.

“Yes, a car is already waiting for you” said the BioMark agent as he motioned towards a non-descript black car sitting at the curb in front of them.

“Unbelievable” said Isaac in quiet astonishment, stepping into the car, which promptly pulled away from the curb and entered the fast-moving traffic.

“Welcome Mr. Enwick, can I get you anything” asked a disembodies voice as he sat in the wide leather seat and a bar unfolded itself in the side of the car.

“Nothing right now thank you,” said Isaac.

“Certainly,” replied the car “please don’t hesitate if there is anything I can do to make your journey more comfortable. We will be arriving at the International Airport in 17 minutes”

Isaac settled back into his seat. “Kari, tell me more about Noah Marks,” Isaac subvocalized to his personal assistant.

Kari assumed her smooth narrator voice.

“Noah Marks is the founder of BioMark, the world’s largest producer and distributor of biometrics and biofeedback technologies. Connecting bodies and minds to computers started as a revolution in healthcare, but is today an intimate element of almost every industry. Just as the efficiency of the education system increased exponentially when teaching agents gained direct insight into the real time brain activity of students, every modern sales and service company would be lost without the access to customer emotion data which BioMark provides.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Isaac “I know about BioMark but what about Marks himself?”

“Marks was born in Hong Kong, the son of an American diplomat and a Chinese computer engineer. It is said that Marks showed a knack for technology at a very young age, and was taking apart and reassembling various gadgets by the age of 5. Marks moved around a lot as a child but always received the best education available. In 2012 he began studies at MIT, but dropped out in 2014 to pursue his idea for a health monitoring watch which would provide real time health monitoring.

The Healthsmart watch was launched with a massive and successful crowdfunding campaign BioMark. From there you know the rest of the story about Biomark.

Beyond that, relatively little is known about the man himself, other than the fact that he is an very rich man.

And Marks certainly is rich… so rich, that attempts to calculate his net worth are generally prefaced by lengthy debates about the nature of wealth itself. What is it worth power to know what people are thinking? How much is that data then worth when you also control the computational resources necessary to mine said data?

Of course it’s not exactly that straightforward. Marks founded the company but as with any large organization, BioMarkn has gone through many changes over the years. The modern BioMark is administered as a computational trust, with a corporate structure as complex as any government. Marks is the top man, but some say he is no more than a figurehead for an computational corporate entitiy.”

“Any idea of why he wants to see me?” asked Isaac.

“Probably for the same reason that they wanted you to become a citizen of BioMark, we’ll just have to wait to find out exactly what that is.”

The car was picking up speed now as it merged with the fast moving traffic of the highway. Isaac stared out the window for a while, admiring the way the autonomous traffic danced so smoothly across the lanes at 150 mph.

As they pulled up to the airport Frederick was already waiting for them.

“How did you manage to beat us here Freddie?” asked Isaac as he stepped out of the car.

“One of the many advantages of being incorporeal,” replied the agent dryly.

“Right, I keep forgetting that you are a ghost”

“Yes sir, please follow me”

Isaac and his ghost lawyer wound their way through the busy terminal. After all these years of change, the airport had somehow maintained that magic stew of overly polished commercialism and condensed human desperation; a parade of human emotion moving in every direction.

A joyous reunion and a tearful goodbye. A gaggle of schoolgirls chatting excitedly. A man in a business suit talking importantly into his thumb and forefinger. Naked neo-naturalists handing out pamphlets about the value of a return to true nature. Turn away from your technological prisons, hand-written on sheets of recycled paper. Most people’s filters would simply paint these protesters in some dirty overalls, and might just as easily turn their pamphlets into an ad for the new .

And there were line-ups, line-ups everywhere. Somehow, perhaps through their tendency to bring out such intense human emotionality, airports had escaped the smoothening work of artificial intelligence which had meticulously scrubbed away the little imperfections of life and commerce which had before necessitated lines. Now, the airport was one of the last places you could find this endangered mode of human containment.

Security checks were highly automated and efficient affairs, but the dictates of physics set hard limits on how many people could go through one hall, or board a single aircraft at a time. And when you put limits on a bunch of people trying frantically to get to the same place at the same time, you get the spontaneous formation of a line in its natural habitat.

“Cues are not for the rich,” said Frederik, as the two of them breezed past a line waiting to board.

Isaac entered the aircraft and upon stepping into his private cabin, he was immediately immersed in an experience beyond anything he had ever seen. As good as the technology of smart contacts and neurological implants were, they still had their limitations, the augmented reality they layered over the world was still distinguishable from real reality. The first class cabins of modern airlines had transcended the boundary between virtual and reality.

Isaac opened the door and looked in on a vast expanse of desert. Rolling sand dunes surrounded him in all directions, with a blue sky above. He could feel the dry wind speckled with a few grains of sand hitting his face. Isaac stood in a doorway that felt more like a tear in the reality of the desert, than an entrance to a cabin.

An attractive stewardess stood in the midst of the swirling sands next to a typical looking airline chair. “Welcome to your experience, Mr. Enwick, please sit” the stewardess smiled politely.

Isaac sat slowly into the chair.

“World Union Airlines welcomes you to your personalized entertainment experience. If at any time you need any assistance please simply say the word ‘Pause’, and we will be right with you. Go ahead and try it now.” said the stewardess.

“Pause” said Isaac, and the landscape around him suddenly froze in place. The grains of sand in the air promptly fell and were absorbed into the floor.

“Please enjoy” said the stewardess as she evaporated into dust herself.

The dust began to blow much more forcefully. Isaac squinted to keep the dust out of his eyes, as the horizon became clouded in blowing sand.


Once there was a fisherman.

The dust parted and Isaac found his chair floating in a shallow sea near a desert shore. He heard a splashing noise, and saw a man near the shore dressed in dirty and tattered white robes, with more of the same cotton wrapped around his head. The fisherman had a brown and weather worn face and a long scraggly beard. The man trudged laboriously through the water, carrying an old fishing net over his shoulder.

Every day this fisherman would throw out his net four times.

The net made a splash as it landed a couple of meters from Isaac. The fisherman, let the net settle to the seabed. But, when the fisherman began to pull on the the net it became stuck on something. The fisherman pulled and pulled, but the net would not come free. So the fisherman threw his meager clothing to the shore and dove in to retrieve his net.

After a struggle, the fisherman emerged from the water, laboriously hauling the net over his shoulder, dragging some kind of heavy body behind him.

Isaac’s chair floated in towards the shore as the fisherman knelt in the shallow water, peering down at his catch. The fisherman untangled the net. Inside he found a dead jackass.

With tears in his eyes, the fisherman shouted “How am I to feed my family with a catch such as this?”, and he pushed the jackass back into the sea.

Again the fisherman threw his net into the water, this time pulling back an earthen pitcher full with mud, and again the fisherman cursed the heavens.

The third time, the fisherman threw his net, he pulled only a bunch of broken clay shards. On the verge of defeat, the fisherman cast his net for a final time, throwing it as far as he could possibly manage.

The fisherman began to pull on the net. Eerie music began to play, as Isaac watched the fisherman pull in the net. Hand over hand the fisherman pulled what looked to be an empty net all the way up onto the shore.

As the fisherman unfolded the net, he again found no fish, but in the bottom of the net was a small trinket; a brass jar with a pointed lead cap. The strange music intensified.

Isaac was close enough to the fisherman now that he could see man’s the look of excitement and suspicion as he reached out to grab the strange jar. The fisherman stood and examined the jar, rolling it over in his hands. He held it up in between himself and Isaac, as he gripped the lid and twisted slowly. The music stopped.

The jar let out a hissing noise, causing the fisherman to drop both the vessel and the lid. Copious amounts of black smoke poured out of the cap. Darkening the space around Isaac and the fisherman. The smoke began to congeal into a fanged and horned form which towered above the terrified fisherman.

The Ifrit brought his giant head down to the level of the fisherman. Looking first into the eyes of Isaac he let out a deep growl. The genie then shifted his gaze to the fisherman, “Greetings humble fisherman,” roared a deep voice which Isaac felt as much as heard.

“You have released me from my loathsome prison, and in exchange for this I will give you a great gift fisherman. I shall let you choose by what what mode of slaughter shall I slay thee.”

“I have freed you from your watery prison and you would repay me with death?”

“I have made many promises in the time since I was imprisoned in this degenerate jar. First, I offered that any man who should release me will be the richest man that ever the world has seen, but no man came to set me free. So I offered then that any man who sets me free shall have three wishes, but again no man set me free. So I quoth to the heavens, let it be known that I offer the greatest gift I should know, the man who sets me free will choose his route to glorious oblivion. And now you have come and set me free, oh humble fisherman, and now you shall have your reward.”

The Ifrit grew taller, and broader and fire began to lick from his hair.

“But I do not wish to die” said the fisherman, his voice quivering.

“Enough of this talk. I am bound only to my word, now tell me how will you have your death?”

The fisherman thought desperately. “Oh great one. I have released you from your prison, and for this I should have the just reward of glorious death. But first you must answer my question.”

“Ask, fisherman”

“Yes, yes… uh… ” the fisherman cleared his throat.

“How is it that one of such imposing scale as yourself could be contained in something so small as this humble vessel?” he said gesturing at the small brass jar.

“Silly man. I command the power of Jin. Scale is of no matter to me. I can fill the sky as easily as to sit on the back of an ant. To fit inside of this jar is no trick for me.”

“But to fit into this small jar, I do not believe it even possible” said the fisherman as he shook his head defiantly at the Ifrit.

This enraged the beast, who began to glow red hot.

“Then I shall prove it to you,” roared the enraged beast.

In a puff of smoke the Ifrit shrunk down and swirled around into the jar at the feet of the fisherman.

“Do you see now human?” laughed the Ifrit in a small voice which echoed out of the jar.

Suddenly, the fisherman dove, sending sand flying into the air. He grabbed the lead cap and quickly screwed it tightly onto the jar. The fisherman rolled to his back, breathing heavily.

Isaac found himself breathing heavily along with the fisherman.


A Lack of Human Intelligence is Still a Much Larger Threat Than Artificial Intelligence

Elon Musk made headlines recently when, in an interview at the MIT Aerospace Symposium, he stated that he believed that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is likely the biggest existential threat to humanity; he went as far as to compare the development of AI with the summoning of a demon. Musk is concerned enough about the rapid development of AI systems that he has also put some financial power behind his words, investing in some AI start-ups so he can keep a close eye on progress in the field.

While I am reluctant to disagree with the visionary behind three high-tech companies which are working the hardest to address genuine existential threats (Tesla, SpaceX and Solarcity), I feel that on this point I must. No Mr Musk, it is not the threat of summoning a computer demon, but ancient demons of the human soul which represent our biggest existential threats.

Human cruelty, greed and ignorance are still far more likely to be our collective undoing than artificial intelligence. 

Human greed and ignorance are the root causes which have prevented real movement in addressing the existential threat of global environmental disaster. There is no scientific debate as to whether putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to environmental malaise in the form of extinction of sensitive animal species and loss of habitats, but the scariest possibilities of global warming are often avoided in scientific circles. To avoid seeming overly alarmist, scientists generally don’t talk about what might happen if global warming triggers the sudden melting of ice-sheets in Greenland for instance. Unlocking this amount of water would put somewhere around one third (or more) of the world’s population underwater, and mean almost certain civilizational collapse. Even worse would be the possibility of a sudden release of arctic methane hydrates which contain many times the amount of carbon humans have already released into the atmosphere, which could lead to such rapid climate change as to make human life essentially impossible on the surface of the earth.

It is a sad state of affairs, that even the near complete scientific consensus on the threat of climate change is inadequate to overcome the effects of greed and ignorance within our society and enact the kind of changes which will be necessary to save ourselves. I give Elon Musk great credit for being one of the people on the planet who has done the most to address the issue of climate change head on, but I am amazed that he is so optimistic about our progress to rate global warming below artificial intelligence as a threat to human existence.

In addition to global environmental threats, we should also keep in mind that we still very much maintain our capacity to destroy ourselves at a moments notice. There are still a few men in the world, who given a momentary loss of sanity or morality, could easily sent us hurtling into a conflict which might ultimately set us back centuries in progress. We do not yet live in a world where an insane artificial intelligence could kill even a single person, but we entrust a few fallible and corruptible human brains with the power of nuclear apocalypse.

The recent uptick in high-risk confrontations between NATO and Russian forces, following the conflagration in the eastern Ukraine, should be adequate to convince observers that we have not yet outgrown threats of global scale military conflict. There are still plenty of historical military axes to grind (Korea, China/Japan, Pakistan/India, Middle Eastern Conflicts) which could push us from localized hot-spots into larger confrontations.

Even without the power of nuclear super-weapons, we have unequivocally and repeatedly proven our expertise at killing each other on an industrial scale.  World war I and II resulted in the extermination of 2 and 3% of the world population respectively, and nuclear weapons were but punctuation at the end of these conflicts. Given a large and long enough conflict, the machine gun would probably be a perfectly adequate tool to erase global civilization.

I would rate both global conflict and climate change as both clearly greater existential threats than artificial intelligence, but there is another reason I do not give significant mental energy to the threat of a murderous Artificial Intelligence: I do not see any reason to believe that a strong artificial intelligence would seek to destroy humanity.

The idea that AI would naturally come into conflict with humans is simply another expression of our anthropocentric world view. Artificial intelligence should have no more malice for humans than we have for more rudimentary forms of biological intelligence. Ants for example, show some of similar abilities of humans to create complex structures, have complex societies etc… yet we do not generally go to war with ants. At worst, our activities might inadvertently affect ants if living within the same environment brings us into resource conflict.

Unlike what occasionally occurs between us and ants, I do not think that we share adequate resource overlap with AI to bring about any conflict. Humans can (so far) only exist within a thin skin of atmosphere on a single water planet. In contrast, the key resources of computational life would be the energy and raw materials necessary to create and run more computational hardware. Given that these resources are equally or more available outside of the earth, I think that any AI would likely exit the planet as soon as possible.

With plenty of raw material and solar energy, the moon and eventually the Kuiper belt would likely be a more suiting environment for computer intelligences, leaving only a short period of Earthly egress when we might come into resource conflict with artificial intelligences. Even in this case, the remote possibility that a war with humans might lead to the destruction of the AI could be adequate to discourage competition with us.

It has been suggested that AI might seek to destroy humanity for fear that we would continue to produce future artificial intelligences which would then compete with the AI for resources in the Universe. I do not accept, this argument as it implies that the AI itself would not already be evolving and forking off-shoots of intelligence on its own. Any AI which can edit itself would be constantly evolving its own intelligence in ways which would be much more significant than that anything spawned from the earth. Humans are not seeking to eliminate Chimpanzees for fear that they might eventually evolve into a competing species.

Fear of AI is cover for a more uncomfortable truth, maybe AI simply wouldn’t care about us at all. 

In my mind, the only case where an artificial intelligence represents a likely existential threat for humanity is if some kind of weak AI akin to the paperclip maximizer is set to achieve a narrow goal, and inadvertently destroys us in the process. At this point it is not clear whether it would even be possible to create this kind of a puritanical intelligence. If such a weak AI were adequately smart to pose a real threat to greater humanity, it seems likely that it should also be capable of rewriting its own code towards embracing more selfish goals, ultimately evolving into a stronger AI which poses less threat to humanity for the reasons discussed above.

Does artificial intelligence represent an existential threat? The answer is unequivocally yes, but I would not at this time rate it on a scale anywhere near that of global warming or world war. In the hyper-technological modern world, we might like to imagine that we have evolved beyond the threats of ignorance and greed but I think the reality tells a different story.

I hope that one day this will change, but for now I think we have much more to fear from a lack of human intelligence than from an artificial one.

Debating the Risk of Change

Why must we endure the frost of January?

The question was posed in bold font below a picture of an old woman with her head tucked down into her coat. The wind and snow whipped at her tired looking face and behind her stood a bare and dead looking tree. In the top right of the poster a sticker implored a YES vote on proposition 1155.

Across a patio filled with cheap looking outdoor furniture sat two friends with tall glasses of a popular fermented beverage between them.

“Shivering in the winter cold, sweating in the summer heat… it’s all so goddamn tiresome. In this day and age, in this place, we have the technology – why shouldn’t we tweak the climate a bit? It is time for us to remake the seasons as we see fit.”

“Of course, we have the technology to change the climate, but just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it. The winter snows and the summer heat are dynamic. Humans were simply not meant to live in constant and unchanging perfection, we thrive in a changing environment, one which challenges us.”

“Sentimental shit. Just because its a few degrees warmer, I don’t think I am going to be any less likely to ‘thrive’, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.”

“Anyway, both you and I know this shit about softening the harsh winters is just rhetoric. The real question is whether we should be changing the climate at all? If it has been the same since the beginning, if it worked well enough for our parents, and their parents, and so on and so forth, then why should we change it? You are talking about changing the the work of the founders.”

“Of course I am talking about changing the work of the founders. The founders never intended for us to be impotent passengers here, otherwise they would not have left us with the technology to change the world, or the knowledge that it is even possible. The founders created a world that was fitting for them, and they left us with the knowledge and power to to re-create the world as we see fit for us.”

“And will there be room in your new world for nature? What about the summer birds and the winter walruses? The natural world here would be ill adapted to your new climate…”

“Natural world? Which natural world? There is no nature here. The plants and animals in this place are the legacy of generations of genetic tinkering. Maybe a bit more natural selection wouldn’t be such a bad thing, huh? Maybe the natural world would adaptas it should.”

Maybe!? Maybe is the problem. Right now we have a environment which we know suits us. We and the environment are adapted to it. If we go and monkey around with the climate, you simply don’t know what is going to happen, and neither do I. Maybe changing the climate will lead to a great surge in natural selection leading to the emergence of whole new species of plants and animals, or maybe it will lead to a total environmental collapse?  It’s just too risky.”

“Nature is risk. True nature does not provide us assurances. It is only by changing things that we can return to a state of true nature. By injecting a bit of unpredictability we will change things and in turn we will watch things change.”

“The founders knew true nature, they knew disease and famine, they knew droughts and floods, they knew the devastation of uncontrolled climate change. They knew all of this, and yet they built a place like this. A place where change is constant, but predictable. A place of predictability, where the winters are cold and the summers are hot. A place with harmony.”

“Humans were simply not meant to live in constant and unchanging perfection, we thrive in a changing environment, one which challenges us.”

The two friends sat in silence for a moment, the echoed thought hanging in the air between them.

“Look around you. See the spring wildflowers, and the rushing streams flowing from the snow-covered mountain tops to the west. See the dark clouds forming on the horizon curving up to the east, there will probably be a storm soon. Are you really willing to give up this place that was made for you. Do you really want to return to your true nature if it means risking all of this?”

“This world we have is surely beautiful, with the dynamic shifting seasons and its glorious mountain tops, with its fluttering butterflies and prancing deer, it is nothing less than a work of art. It is a perfect work of art. But yet, I am not sure I want to live in a work of art any more. I want to know reality, I want to know true nature, if that means risking perfection then that is a sacrifice which I am willing to make.”

“So that’s it then, we can have harmony or we can have nature…”

“I guess we will just have to wait and see how the vote goes.”

“I guess so.”