Monday, March 2, 2015

The electric father

Professor Shiba knew that some day he might be captured by the Yamatais – he, who alone knew the secrets of the ancient monster race that would soon rise up to conquer the world. So he patiently stored himself in a data bank inside a secret underground base. When the day came and his murder was consummated, the giant computer contacted his son, Hiroshi, to whom he planned to entrust the fight against the Yamatais.
‘I’m sorry if I frightened you. This isn’t me. I stored in this computer everything I know.’
Written by Go Nagai and drawn by Tatsuya Yasuda, Kotetsu Jeeg was first published as a manga in 1975, then turned into a 46-episode anime series in the same year. It is the earliest example I’ve been able to find of mind uploading in popular fiction. As a matter of fact, I saw it as a child when the series – which like many other robot-based ones was more popular in Italy than just about anywhere else, including Japan – was dubbed and televised locally. I remember the professor well.

There may be earlier examples that I missed in my research. Otherwise, I find it fitting that the first uploaded mind to appear on a screen was that of a father, for the mind uploading project is a very male-dominated idea and is strongly linked to the notion of fatherhood. Both in that it has many fathers (Moravec, Kurzweil, Vinge, Wiener, Minsky, Gates, Bell) but especially because one of its most popular and engaging proponents – Ray Kurzweil – for some time has insisted that he doesn’t want to use this invention merely to prolong the lives of the currently living. He wants to use it to bring back his father, who has been dead for forty-five years.

As I've discussed here before, mind-uploading is predicated on the claim that computers will some day be so powerful as to be able to ‘map’ the neural structure of the brain and replicate its every function. This capacity on the part of our machines is usually referred to as the singularity, to signify the genie-out-of-a-bottle moment when humanity creates a tool capable of matching and soon thereafter surpassing human intelligence. Scientists and futurologists are divided on the exact date of this watershed. As someone has noted, however, most forecasts happen to fall just within the projected lifetime of the person in charge of the forecasting. In his 1988 book Mind Children, for instance, Hans Moravec set the date for 2030, by which time – if he’s still alive – he will be 82.

This is a telling aspect of the fantasy: for what better time could there be to have your store of memory and capacity for reasoning transferred outside the body than when that same body has started to become a painful burden?

Kurzweil is unusual, though, in that his plan is not just of have his mind faithfully scanned and copied, as in the traditional formulation of this idea. He wants to give new life to his father, too. However, he doesn’t keep his brain in a jar. All he has are memories and documents. So he needs to take a different route. He must feed into the machine the essence of his father as a narrative construct.

Some years ago, when I wrote here for the first time about my late father, I noted that the lack of a trail of personal documents, of writings and electronic recordings, of minutes of his deliberations – as well as of the kind of personal, intimate electronic archive that a person of my generation might build – made his life a difficult object of memory for our digital age. Kurzweil may be faced with a similar problem with regard to his father, a musician and businessman who probably left a more highly compatible account of himself than mine did, but who nonetheless died in 1970, many years before personal computers, digital photography and portable devices of ubiquitous reach. The translation of that likely very sparse, low-tech archive into software is therefore more philosophical than technical. It requires advanced psychology as opposed to brute computational force.

Of his proposed virtual avatar, Kurzweil has said this:
You can certainly argue that, philosophically, that is not your father. That [it] is a replica, but I can actually make a strong case that it would be more like my father than my father would be, were he to live.
There is an echo of the words of Professor Shiba (‘this isn’t me’) in Kurzweil’s admission that in fundamental ways his father is not going to come back, but ultimately it, the software, must be allowed to become something more real. Not a mere simulation, but a new release. A better version.

I am horrified by some of Kurzweil’s ideas, and find the prospect of our technocrats being able to control their wealth after death frankly obscene, but I also have some sympathy for him: all he really wants is to be able to speak with his father again. And he might, some day, so long as when the time comes he maintains the subjective belief that whatever version of Eliza is talking back to him really is Fredric Kurzweil.

Belief in ghosts dies hard, and one can always find new cloth in which to drape old superstitions. If you don’t think too much about it, the electric father is a pleasing fantasy. He sits somewhere, in a secret laboratory or a computer room, where you might access him on your own terms. He’ll help you to fight an army of ancient monsters, or just have conversations with you that you didn’t make time for when he was alive.