What's Left 2017-07-16 Volume 99

Artificial Intelligence versus the Human Mind; Bias in Canadian Media; Naomi Klein interviews Jeremy Corbyn; The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Artificial Intelligence versus the Human Mind

The fear of robots taking all the jobs (and the silliness of those arguments) is an issue that has been much discussed, including in What’s Left This Week. Are robots replacing humans on production lines? Of course. But, it is important to understand the logic that leads to this happening because the problem isn’t that robots are taking peoples’ jobs.

Capitalism incentivizes companies to create jobs that require so little skill that virtually any individual can take on the work, and with a huge supply of potential workers, wages can be pushed down. Production line jobs don’t require any specific education or skill that one cannot learn on the job, but they do require a great deal of repetition and precision.

Robots are good at doing a simple, single job with a great deal of precision. They also do not strike, need breaks, or want parental leave. So, it becomes a logical next step, if the debt/investment is cheaper, to eliminate people who require wages and benefits and replace them with robots. (Although, where there are bad labour laws, workers are often still much less costly than machines).

What is happening is not so much that robots are being created to take human jobs, but that human jobs are being created that can easily be replaced with robots. There are important limitations of this paradigm. Robots are not being asked to do extremely complicated tasks, but simple ones … and a lot of jobs still require a great deal of complexity.

Thinking tasks are the definition of complex tasks and this context is important when looking at artificial intelligence (AI). Kevin Kelly’s latest article for Wire Magazine (a magazine that he co-founded) highlights just how limited artificial intelligence is. And, indeed, how limited our ideas about artificial intelligence are. In fact, in many ways he puts into focus our limited understanding of the human mind.

First, he puts to rest the argument that AIs will take over. He discusses how computers are already more intelligent that us in some aspects (calculating numbers, storing vast amounts of information) but that this is just a type of expertise or special skill. We will develop other computers that do other things really well (moving around in zero-gravity for instance) but that does not equate to developing a computer that will suddenly attain a level of intelligence that exceeds ours in every way.

The more interesting part is when he dispels the notion that the human mind is some well-rounded intelligence, that it is superior, that one can create some sort of hierarchy of intelligence. Human minds, like dolphin minds, like gorilla minds, like crow minds have been evolving for thousands upon thousands of years, and they have been evolving in to do specific things very well. Who is to say that the human mind is more advanced that the mind of a dolphin? After all, the minds of dolphins have been evolving for a longer period of time and are capable of mental feats we do not fully understand yet.

Kelly argues that the human mind is not a well-rounded intelligent mind, but actually a specialized one like any other living creature. As AIs are developed, we can’t necessarily compare the AIs expertise to humans expertise because minds cannot be arranged on a hierarchy. That is not how intelligence works. Every type of mind is unique, and should be appreciated for what it’s good at.

Reframing Kelly’s treatise, he makes a strong case for how we should think about and treat each other as humans. Just because someone is not able to complete the same mental tasks as quickly as you do, it does not mean that they should be valued less.

Capitalism moves forward through alienation and undervaluing certain types of labour. Production processes segment labour so that we become alienated from that work and the profit that is extracted from it. Robots are simply the next step of this process of alienation where we cannot see clearly the labour that went into the production of a product. All robots and AI systems are made somewhere via actual human labour. The question should always come back to have we valued that labour correctly? Or, did that machine replace a worker because the machine is produced (or coded) by low wage labour?

The Myth of the Superhuman AI

Bias in Canadian Media

Why does the Canadian media continue to provide space for ultra-right-wing viewpoints, while barely paying the left-wing lip service? How come Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary got so much coverage during the Conservative leadership race, but the NDP leadership race is only worth covering when the sole female candidate announces she is pregnant? And why does neo-nazi Gavin McInnes get any screen-time at all? Nora Loreto and Michael Stewart examine these issues in their latest column for The Walrus.

Does Canadian Media Have a Right-wing Bias?

Naomi Klein interviews Jeremy Corbyn

Worth a watch!

Video: Naomi Klein and Jeremy Corbyn discuss how to get the world we want


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A spy novel with the pace of a thriller that takes place in Vietnam and the United States during the war: What’s not to love? The 2016 Pulitzer prize winner is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel and is packed with unexpected twists, superb writing and a welcome perspective. A sure pick for your summer reading list.

The Sympathizer is the story of a communist agent based in the United States. The Captain, our protagonist who remains unnamed, was born in Vietnam, studied in the United States, and has a lifelong friendship with two other characters: Bon and Man. We learn early on that his words are his confession, that he is running through the larger-than-life events of his time as an agent. While in Vietnam, we learn that his mother had him very young and that his father is a French catholic priest. While in the US, he uses invisible ink to send information about counter-revolutionary activities to his contact back home.

The novel is non-linear. It skips back and forth in time and jumps constantly between the US and Vietnam. The developments of the Vietnam War are in the background. At one time, the Captain takes on a job to work with a film crew producing a movie about the war. His role is to legitimize the use of Vietnamese extras, but in the end he gets the feeling that he is simply propping up American propaganda. His internal conflict is real and well chronicled.

The storyline is messy, just as war is messy and complicated. While the theme of ideology is present throughout the pages of the novel, it seems as though the primary theme is more about contradictions: the contradictions between one’s beliefs and life choices, the contradictions between the motives and consequences of war, the internal contradiction between belonging to two places and to nowhere at once. Our main character identifies as a revolutionary, albeit a subversive one, and it seems to be the only thing of which he is sure.

There is one drawback to the novel, for which sensitive readers should be warned. It features lengthy passages, some which include scenes of torture. Whether they were necessary and serve a means to an end is a good question. They cast a shadow on an otherwise fascinating, complex, and intricate novel.

Overall, descriptions of the Captain’s complicated relationship with Vietnam and the United States are brilliant. He relates to both, loves aspects of both, and hates parts of both as well. He lives the contradiction of war, and his tale is more personal than it is political. To enjoy Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant writing, and to appreciate his most cunning scenes, The Sympathizer is a great summer read.


Full review link

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s latest novel: The Refugees