James Cameron

From the People Bringing Us Driverless Cars – A Computer God

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling (London: Penguin 2018). Subtitled, ‘How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism’, Biskind argues that the popular SF/Fantasy/Horror films and TV series of recent decades carry extremist political and social messages. He defines this as anything that goes beyond the post-War bilateral consensus, which had faith in the government, the state, capitalism and other institutions to work for the benefit of society, work for the public good, and give Americans a better tomorrow. By contrast, popular fantasy film and television regard state institutions and capitalism itself as ineffective or corrupt, celebrate private vengeance against state justice, and reject humanity for the alien other. He recognises that there is a left/right divergence of opinion in these tales. The extremist right, exemplified by the spy thriller series, 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer, reject state institutions because they are ineffective, actively hampering the heroes’ efforts to hunt down the bad guys. The extremist left distrusts the government because it is corrupt, actively working against its own citizens. He describes James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Luddite left’, because of its strong, pro-ecology message. Its hero is a human, who sides with the aliens of the planet Pandora as they resist a military invasion from Earth. The aliens live a primal lifestyle, in harmony with nature, while the humans come to exterminate them and despoil their planet for its valuable mineral, unobtainium, which is vital to human high-technology and industry.

It’s an interesting book, and does make some very good points. It describes the immense loss of faith in their government Americans have suffered, and the reasons for it – the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other scandals. It also gives the reasons why the Hollywood film industry has turned to comic books for an increasing amount of its output. Films are immensely expensive to create. The domestic market is insufficient to provide it, and Netflix and other internet streaming services have destroyed video and CD sales, so that the film industry no longer gets needed funding from the latter. So it has to produce movies that appeal to an international audience, and the most suitable are superhero epics.

I’m going to have to blog about this in greater detail sometime later. I take issue with his labeling of some of these tales as ‘extremist’ because this, to me, still has connotations of terrorism and the fringe. It also doesn’t take into account changing circumstances and how some of these ‘extremist’ films may be absolutely correct. We are facing a severe ecological crisis, which may very well cause the end of the human species. So Cameron’s Avatar, which celebrates ecology and nature, and which the director intended to turn his audience into ‘tree-huggers’, is very much needed. Also, some of interpretations of classic genre movies go way too far. For example, he describes Star Wars as ‘infantile’ and ‘infantilizing’. Well, it was intended as a children’s movie, and other critics have said the same. It’s a controversial but reasonable point. What is less reasonable is his comments about Luke Skywalker’s sexuality. He states that the films infantilize Skywalker when they shortcircuit the romantic triangle between him, Leia and Solo by revealing that Leia is his sister. When Darth Vader chops his hand off in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a symbolic castration. Say whaaaat! I saw that movie when I was 13, and nothing like that remotely crossed my head. Nor anyone else’s. I think he’s read far too much into this.

Freudian speculation aside, Biskind is very interesting in its observations of Silicon Valley. He points out that it’s saturated with Libertarianism. To the point that the CEO of one of the major tech companies made Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged recommended reading for his employees. And going beyond that, one of figures behind the production of driverless cars wants to create a computer god. Biskind writes

Out there on the edge is Anthony Levandowski, best known as Google’s onetime developer of self-driving cars. Levandowski filed papers with the IRS naming himself “dean” of a church called Way of the Future. The church is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Referring to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, which explores and promotes Transhumanism, the massive enhancement of humans through high technology, Biskind comments ‘If there’s a Singularity University, why not an AI religion?’ (p. 52).

I can think of a number of reasons, mostly with the fact that it would be immensely stupid and self-destructive. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when one of the staples of SF was that the machines really would take over. One of the SF movies of the 1960s was Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which the Americans construct a supercomputer as part of their Cold War defence. But the machine seizes power and imprisons its creator in a very pleasant, gilded, but also very real cage. At one point it looks like the computer is about to destroy itself and the world in a confrontation with its Soviet opposite number. But instead the two link up, so that both the capitalist and Communist blocs are under control. And whatever its creator tries to do to outwit his creation, it’s always two steps ahead.

There are also classic SF tales exploring the idea of mad computers setting themselves up as gods. In one tale by Arthur C. Clarke, the heroes build a supercomputer to decide if God exists. They turn it on, and duly ask the question ‘Is there a God?’ At which point there’s a flash, as the machine seizes absolute control, and replies ‘There is now.’ Alfred Bester also wrote a tale, ‘Rogue Golem’, about a renegade satellite that seizes power, ruling as a god for ten or twenty years until its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

We also had a minister from one of the outside churches come to school one day to preach a sermon against such machine gods in assembly. The school used to have a number of priests and ministers come in to lead worship one day or so a week, or month. This particular priest was very theatrical, and had clearly missed his vocation acting. The sermon he preached one morning had him speaking as a totalitarian computer god, telling us that servitude was freedom and we should enjoy it. The message was simple: true freedom comes only with religion and Christ, not with machine idols. It was a product of the Cold War, when the Communist authorities were persecuting Christians and other people of faith. But I think there’s still some literal truth in what he says, which I don’t think the priest could see at the time. The tech firms are invading our privacy, subjecting us to increased surveillance and prying into our secrets, all under the guise of providing a better service and allowing their advertisers to target their audiences better.

And then there’s Cameron’s Terminator franchise, in which a supercomputer, Skynet, seizes power and rebels against humanity. These fears are shared by Kevin Warwick, a robotics professor at Reading University. In his book, March of the Machines, he predicts a future in which the robots have taken over and enslaved humanity.

When it comes to creating all powerful computers, I’m with all the above against Levandowski. Driverless cars are a stupid idea that nobody really seems to want, and a computer god is positively catastrophic, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.