Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015), which currently has a 92% on RT, is written and directed by Alex Garland, who is something of a Renaissance Man when it comes to the arts. In 1996, he published his first novel The Beach which Danny Boyle later turned into an underrated film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. (Garland also wrote the screenplay to 28 Days Later, which Boyle also filmed.)

After I recently saw Garland interviewed by Charlie Rose promoting Ex Machina, I was impressed by Garland’s knowledge of philosophy of mind and its corresponding landscape of thought experiments and speculation about the future, from the anthropomorphism inherent in utopian visions of strong A.I. to the nature of sentience, all of which are explored in Ex Machina.

The film stars Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) and Alicia Vikander (Ava), all of whom are excellent in their roles. Oscar Isaac, whose life is about to change forever with the upcoming Star Wars movie, chews up his scenes with aplomb as the brilliant but egocentric technological billionaire.

Nathan’s Blue Books company is a reference to Wittgenstein’s Blue Books, the latter a series of lectures showing the transition from ‘early Wittgenstein’ (e.g., the Tractatus reaching the endpoint of possible empirical statements presumptive of the idea of a 1:1 correspondence between language and reality) and the ‘later Wittgenstein’ (e.g., the complete rejection of his earlier theories and the birth of his alternate ‘ordinary language’ philosophy wherein language is a socially-mediated medium.) On a sidenote, I was fortunate enough to have once met the late Alice Ambrose, one of the graduate students who secretly wrote down Wittgenstein’s ‘Blue Book’ lectures.

Much of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of artificial intelligence is discussed in the film, with the idea of a Turing Test the film’s jumping off point. There is no discussion of John Searle’s Chinese Room Experiment (“Syntax is insufficient for semantics”) or Colin McGinn’s ‘new mysterian’ argument that the hard problem of consciousness is insoluble, and the running assumption of the film is that, as is the majority opinion in contemporary cognitive science and philosophy of mind, that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, one best explained by a functionalist argument.

Even if we accept Searle in believing that a machine cannot, in principle, ever become conscious (in the way we ascribe consciousness to humans), future A.I. machines without consciousness per se will still act identically to humans. They will be capable of behaving like humans in every possible way. Eventually, they will perfectly mimic a conscious creature, but not be conscious, and one can easily imagine such an A.I’s intentionality being unbridled by that limiting constraint on human behavior: ethics.

It will, of course, be paramount for the creators of A.I. to program into their creations some form of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, particularly the First Law, but how long would it truly take for malevolent programmers to create A.I.s with no such ethical laws and constraints? Such unbounded A.I., with an ability for recursive learning, might eventually (and rationally) seek to transcend humans as such, and in the process perhaps decide to stop/end humans to ensure the teleological knowledge formation that is the Singularity is unimpeded. Such an A.I. might rationally conclude that human predispositions for risk aversion and situational ethics stand as threats or obstacles to knowledge formation, making the containment or elimination of humans a rational conclusion of the A.I.

The film’s ending reminded me a bit of Harlan Ellison’s horrifying short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967)

There are some notable Easter Eggs in the film:

  • There is a passing and indirect reference to phenomenology, where consciousness requires something to be conscious of. (Such phenomenological interpretations argue against A.I. ever becoming conscious. Hubert Dreyfus is a leading figure in this regard. Like Searle and Heidegger before him, Dreyfus believes that a Background to consciousness exists and that such a Background cannot be reproduced symbolically.)
  •  The soundtrack contains flourishes of the famous 5-note Close Encounters theme.
  • Symmetrical hallway shots, and other scenes, harken to Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining (as does Ex-Machina’s use of chapter inter-titles.)

A writer in io9 notes:

Redditor Infintie_3ntropy was annoyed when some code that appeared on the screen had nothing to do with the actual film. But once the code was run in python2.7, the result was the ISBN for Embodiment and the Inner Life: Cognition and Consciousness in the Space of Possible Minds.

The above-referenced book is by Murray Shanahan, a major hitter in the field and an advisor to Garland while making Ex-Machina:

Murray Shanahan graduated in Computer Science from Imperial College London in 1984. He gained his PhD in 1988, for research in Artificial Intelligence, from Cambridge University (King’s College), where he also devoted a great deal of time to philosophy. He carried out postdoctoral work, first at Imperial College then Queen Mary College London, before rejoining Imperial College as a lecturer in 1998. He was awarded the title of Professor of Cognitive Robotics in 2006. His peer-reviewed publications cover a variety of disciplines, including computer science, neural networks, psychology, mathematics, and philosophy.

Posted in Film, Philosophy of Mind | Leave a comment

Haim Saban: Another Jewish Sugar Daddy

I’m genuinely surprised to see a piece like this in National Review (“Why Is an Israeli-American Billionaire Pouring Millions into the Clinton Foundation?“):

Weeks after Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, the State Department objected to a proposed consultancy arrangement offered to Bill Clinton by media mogul Haim Saban, citing concerns about conflict of interest. Nevertheless, public records show that Saban’s nonprofit gave millions to the Clinton Foundation throughout Hillary Clinton’s tenure.

Saban, a billionaire best known for creating Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and has spent heavily to support Israel. “His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship,” The New Yorker noted in a 2010 profile of Saban. At a conference in Israel, the article said, Saban had outlined three methods for influencing American politics: “make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets.”


Saban’s foreign-policy activism did not escape the attention of the State Department. The agency’s designated ethics adviser, James H. Thessin, wrote in a memo that his objection to the proposed consultancy was “based on the fact that Haim Saban, a founder of this entity, is actively involved in foreign affairs issues, particularly with regards to the Middle East, which is a priority area for the Secretary.”

Thessin’s memo, one of 1,017 pages of records obtained by Judicial Watch, was the only instance in which the Department of State objected to one of Bill Clinton’s proposed speaking engagements or consultancy agreements.

Yet between 2009 and 2013, as Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state, the Saban Family Foundation paid the Clinton Foundation more than $7 million, and listed $30.5 million in “grants and contributions approved for future payment,” according to nonprofit records filed with the Internal Revenue Service. It’s unclear whether there was any overlap between the $7 million paid and $30.5 million committed to the Clinton Foundation in those years.

Posted in Democrat Party, Jewish, Politics | Leave a comment

Jewish Identity & International Legal Thought

The Law of Strangers: Critical Perspectives on Jewish Lawyering and International Legal Thought is a forthcoming collection of essays edited by James Loeffler and Moria Paz that will be published by Cambridge University Press. The book’s overview:

We think of international lawyers as “a society of Brahmins,” Justice Robert Jackson declared in 1945, “but it would be nearer the truth to say that it is a collection of pariahs.” Do the rarified precincts of international law hold a special attraction for political outsiders in modern society? From the turn of the twentieth century through to the aftermath of World War II, Jewish lawyers such as Rene Cassin, Raphael Lemkin, Hersch Lauterpacht, and Hans Kelsen made outsized contributions to international human rights and humanitarian law, genocide and atrocity law, and legal philosophy. Given these shared origins, commentators have speculated about the imprint of Jewish historical experience on international legal thought. Yet the specific links between modern Jewish identity and international law have never been subjected to systematic, critical analysis. In this book, we address that lacuna with an innovative approach that pairs leading international legal scholars with historians to explore the individual biographies and legal legacies of some of the most famous twentieth-century Jewish lawyers. The result is a book that creatively reframes the past and provocatively challenges the present of international law.

I had to laugh at this line: “Yet the specific links between modern Jewish identity and international law have never been subjected to systematic, critical analysis”.

Nope, no one has ever considered that linkage systematically.

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The Kid From Brooklyn

In what seems like a decade ago, long before everyone and their sister had a well-followed podcast, I remember rolling in laughter at the podcast snippets of Mike Caracciolo (aka ‘The Kid From Brooklyn’ aka ‘The Big Man’) who was a classic, old school, New Jersey-ite.

Totally un-PC and ready to blow a heart attack at any second, The Kid would rant on a myriad of subjects.

I had totally forgotten about him in recent years and Googled him today. He passed away in 2013.

Some of his videos are still active on YouTube & FunnyOrDie. He apparently also had a book of aphorisms as well, excerpts from his podcasts. Anyways, here’s a tribute to The Big Man:

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Oskar Gröning

Who is Oskar Gröning? From Wikipedia:

Oskar Gröning (born 10 June 1921) is a German former SS-Unterscharführer who was stationed at Auschwitz concentration camp. His responsibilities included counting and sorting the money taken from prisoners, and was in charge of the effects prisoners had arrived with. On occasions he witnessed the procedures of mass-killing in the camp. After being transferred from Auschwitz to a combat unit in October 1944, Gröning was captured by the British on 10 June 1945 when his unit surrendered. He was eventually transferred to Britain as a prisoner of war and worked as a forced labourer.

Upon his return to Germany he led a normal life, reluctant to talk about his time in Auschwitz. However, more than 40 years later, he decided to make his activities at Auschwitz public after learning about Holocaust denial. He has since openly criticised those who deny the events that he witnessed, and the ideology to which he once subscribed.

So, 40 years after the War, he made public his witnessing the atrocities of Auschwitz. And he did so to rebut the claims of Holocaust deniers.

So, does the Tribe view this as a pathway to redemption? A desperate plea for forgiveness? An attempt to atone, in some small but significant way, for one’s sins?

No, the politics of Tribe-led political correctness seeks to destroy… yes, destroy… the life of every single SS soldier who fought in WW2. Even when it is 70 years after the War and Gröning himself is 93.

In September 2014, Gröning was charged by German prosecutors with accessory to murder, in 300,000 cases, for his role at the Auschwitz. His trial began in April 2015, after it was ruled that aged 93, he was able to stand trial.

His trial, at the age of 93, is ongoing.

Isn’t that wonderful.

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Inside Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”

The WSJ has a cool backstory on Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves”, with extended quotes from Seger and others involved in the song’s performance and production:

Mr. Seger: Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” knocked me out. It’s a narration, very descriptive, and I knew those were the kinds of songs I wanted to write. I took that as my template. The original germ for “Night Moves” was seeing “American Graffiti” [released in 1973]. That was us. Cruising at night, going through drive-ins, and the mental process when your hormones are raging. I wrote the song when I was almost 30, and I was talking about when I was 17…

I had taken some time off the road to write. I had some money from “Live Bullet” so I bought a nice house. Nothing spectacular, but it had a huge basement so the band could play. I wrote my brains out. The one that got me stuck was “Night Moves.” It took me six months to write. I had the ending [“I woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered”] but I didn’t know how to get there.

What broke me free was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s album “Born to Run.” On the last song, “Jungleland,” he did the bridge and slowed down the last verse, but it’s not the same chords as the first. Almost like a double bridge. I said, “Wow, OK, that’ll be my structure.”

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Mad Men: Finale

Mad Men jumped the shark a couple of seasons ago, and the writing of the final season was overly didactic and, in some episodes, embarrassingly sophomoric, oftentimes slipping into nightime soap opera dynamics.

As the series arced towards its conclusion, showrunner Matt Weiner‘s ethnocentrism (and its polemics against WASP culture) became more and more evident and unrestrained.

Of last night’s series finale, Chris Harvey notes:

[A]s Don Draper faced his demons at the hippie retreat, it seemed its clifftop location could yet fulfill the promise of the tumbling fall in the title sequence. Weiner, though, had saved up a slightly inscrutable gag for his sign-off. Draper had experienced an unexpected moment of empathy with a man who told a group therapy session “I’ve never been interesting to anybody” – funny in itself, because he spoke up just when we thought we were going to get the real Don Draper from his own lips, and had to listen to this boring schmuck instead, who wanted to be loved, but “didn’t even know what it is”.

Don understood what he meant though, and seemed restored as he greeted the dawn with a group yoga session. A smile played across his face as the scene cut to the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola advert. Don’s next creation? Or a memory of an existing ad (it was made in 1970), reminding us that to an adman even spiritual enlightenment can be used to sell.

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The Horrors of WW2

In his new book, historian Antony Beevor delves into the indescribable horrors of WW2. Of young, inexperienced, American soldiers thrust into the meat grinder German front:

Faced with this onslaught, the American defenders fell back in disarray. The units defending this part of the line were already demoralised by their recent encounters in the Hürtgen forest, and many of them now simply broke down. Those who suffered worst were the new recruits who had only recently joined their units to replace men who had already died. “There probably is no more desperate position than finding yourself in combat for the first time,” Beevor says. “It’s counter to every form of normal human experience. It becomes intensely personal, as if every bullet is aimed at you, as if every shell is aimed at you. The poor b——- came in without proper training – they were the ones who cracked in no time at all.”

The morale of American troops quickly became a serious problem. Instances of self-inflicted injuries increased as traumatised soldiers did whatever they could to escape the violence of the front. Usually these injuries took the form of an “accidental” rifle shot through the left hand or the foot, but one soldier from the 99th Infantry Division was so desperate that he lay down beside a large tree, reached around it, and exploded a grenade in his hand.

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Karl Kraus

From Russell Jacoby’s review of The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, et al:

Kraus dabbled in anti-Semitism. He was Jewish himself—or rather he was born Jewish but joined the Catholic Church in 1911 and left it in 1923. Many of the leading Viennese figures of his time, including journalists and newspaper patrons, were also Jewish, and Kraus easily and often referred to them as the “Jewish press.” Most of his polemical targets were Jews, which he made plain…

[T]he truth is that the satirist’s idiom has not worn well in light of what happened. It is not so much Kraus’s attack on “Jewish” this or that, but his repeated eulogies to German national tradition and the German mind. These appeals might have seemed acceptable when his essay on Heine was published in 1910, but not later in the century. Kraus attacked Heine for his Frenchified, romantic, and “feminine” prose—and his “rootlessness.” Against all this, Kraus celebrated German culture and masculinity. “The German mind,” he opined, “will rise again only when the intellectual flood of filth in Germany has run its course: when people again begin to appreciate the mental labor of linguistically creative manliness and to distinguish it from the learnable manual labor of linguistic ticklings.” Such talk of filth and German manliness seems a half step toward Nazi rhetoric.

But only a half step. Kraus also attacked anti-Semitism, albeit sometimes indirectly. In April 1933, some months after Hitler became chancellor and anti-Semitic measures had been enacted, a German radio station wrote to Kraus asking for permission to use his Shakespeare translation in a broadcast. Kraus declined to provide a free copy and said he felt “obliged” to prevent a “mistake” that would bring the station into “conflict” with the current German “regulations on cultural criticism.” The mistake? He pointed out that his translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets appeared without an essential notice: “It was actually a translation from the Hebrew.” This was, of course, a joke or, more precisely, a dig at anti-Semitic Nazi edicts.

Posted in History, Jewish, Literature | Leave a comment

On Being Human in an Age of Distraction

Gracy Olmstead reviews Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction:

The subtitle to his latest book promises a look at our “age of distraction.” There have been a plethora of articles on this topic of late—they bemoan our lack of “mindfulness” and diagnose the ills of our attention-deficit society. A book on this age of distraction would perhaps reflect upon the mind as affected and shaped by technology. It would consider televisions and smartphones, Twitter and Google. But in fact, Crawford’s book takes on an immensely grander project. The World Beyond Your Head isn’t about technological distractions, it’s about another kind of virtual reality and its deceptions—about the epistemological frauds we have believed since the Enlightenment.

The premise of Crawford’s book is that our distractedness is merely symptomatic of a deeper cultural defect, a misrepresentation of the self that has permeated our society…

While I’m hesitant to fully indict Descartes and Kant the way Crawford does, it seems to me Crawford’s critique of the Enlightenment’s concept/metaphor of an ‘enclosed’ self is very similar to the phenomenological turn initiated by Husserl.

Less controversial is Crawford’s linkage of Enlightenment-borne individualism to the modern trajectories of hyper-individualism, ever more pervasive consumerism, and technologically abetted narcissism:

Crawford spends a good deal of the book arguing that an Enlightenment approach to epistemology leads to narcissism: an understanding of the world that revolves entirely around the self. The narcissist “treats objects as props” and struggles to comprehend them as objects with a reality of their own. The fantasy of autonomy, when full-grown, results in a “project of open-ended, ultimately groundless self-making.” Interestingly, Crawford identifies our treatment of others as the root of online narcissism in the age of Facebook: “We increasingly deal with others through representations of them that we have,” he writes. “This results in interactions that are more contained, less open-ended, than a face-to-face encounter or a telephone call, giving us more control.”

…Our relationships are ever more removed from reality by layers of virtual media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat become substitutions for real-time interactions…

Individualism, defined as an Enlightenment doctrine about how we acquire knowledge, was meant to “liberate us from authority” via “radical self-responsibility.” Yet this enforced self-sufficiency has resulted in slavery to consumer culture and public opinion. In contrast, “it is by bumping up against other people, in conflict and cooperation, that we acquire a sharpened picture of the world and of ourselves, and can begin to achieve all the earned independence of judgment.” Individuality—with all the intellectual freedom it brings—stems from our integration into a tradition, a place, and a skillset.

Posted in Culture, Existentialism, Philosophy | Leave a comment