Machines for the Ethical Treatment of People

As I continue the adventure of writing my current story on Wattpad – Machines, Learning – I keep coming up across readers’ expectations that in the future machines will have had “ethics” programmed into them, somehow. The details escape us. I’ve come across nothing that shows, practically, just how these so-called ethics are going to be introduced into machines, just that it had to happen so of course it just happened. There is bound to be a learning curve, however, and so there are bound to be stories that are set during this period. Where are those stories? Why not write one?

In today’s world, it isn’t ethics that prevents a self-parking car from running over a child, it’s geometry. Any vertical object within range of the camera is enough to halt the motion of the vehicle. A self-driving car avoids a person for the same reason it avoids colliding with a fire hydrant. Is there a geometrical component to morality?

That a machine would not “willingly” harm a person will beg the question of what is meant by harm. Is it merely physical damage? What if the machine is programmed to diagnose psychological conditions. What if the person is unhappy and the program can tell that this unhappiness manifests (is it cause or effect?) by a chemical insufficiency (of, let us say, serotonin) and that by means of medication this deficiency can be addressed – is it ethical for a machine to alter the chemical balance in the human brain in order to induce a state the human would experience as “less unhappiness”? What if there are bad memories causing PTSD? Can the machine erase those memories. Would it be ethical?

Who gets to make that decision? On what grounds? How does this program work?

Who decides the value of happiness versus perhaps the important life lessons that may be learned by not being so fucking happy all the time? What kind of world will it be when no one experiences anything but the perfectly balanced chemical condition deemed optimal by the short-sighted dweebs who wrote the computer programs that were trained by that eternally optimizing data set?

The thing is, computer programs do exactly what they are programmed to do, as long as they don’t run short of resources such as RAM, Virtual Memory or CPU. If there is to be an ethical program it will be a program written by humans with the understandings those humans have about the ethics they prefer, and is not ethics another word for “opinions”?

We are experiencing a rash of such ethics this week after the Daesh bombings of nightclubs and other civilian venues in Paris. The Western World is enraged while at the same time continuously ignoring the same types of bombings of the same types of civilian venues in Beirut, in Baghdad, in other locales apparently not considered to be of the same ethical value to the Western World. Who is going to write these ethical programs? The same people who write the programs that guide the drones and missile launchers that mercilessly “bomb the shit” (to use Donald Trump’s phraseology) out of the civilians who happen to dwell in the cities currently occupied by Daesh?

Many, if not most of the problems in the human world stem from an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. We insist on believing in our fictions, sometimes to a fanatical degree, such as those guided by an insane insistence on their own interpretations of the words of their prophets, and sometimes to a much lesser degree, such as those who “believe” that in the future people will engage in hand-to-hand combat using light sticks, or that machines will obviously and easily be programmed to behave “ethically”, while in reality they can never behave other than in ways programmed by the humans who design them and all you have to do is pay the slightest attention to the world around us to realize there is no such thing as an ethics, there is only contradiction, complexity and a hell of a lot of wishful thinking in magical make-believe.

Now Playing: Magical Futurism

If only I were a trend setter, a cultural maven, a gate keeper, y’know, one of those people who decide what things are called and everybody goes “hey, we’ll call it that”, then I would declare that the genre-du-jour shall be called “Magical Futurism”. Or at least that’s what I’m calling my own genre. It’s not Magical Realism because of the Realism part. It’s not Science Fiction because of the Science part. It’s not Literary Fiction because of the Literary part, but it’s got magic and it’s got futurism, so there you go.

All this by way of re-introducing “Entropic Quest“, now serializing on Wattpad. I co-authored this story with my son, who was around 8 years old when we began writing it. We would talk every night at bedtime about the characters and the plot and the world we were building, and what was going to happen next, and whenever we had enough to move forward, I would sit down and write that chapter.

It was a wonderful adventure. He was full of crazy ideas and so was I, and they fit together in a crazy Escher-like patchwork of infinite recursion. There is a shit ton of originality in this story, as creative and wild as anything I’ve ever read. We followed up with a pair of sequels that are also really bizarre, but this one, the first one, also holds a depth in parts that remains remarkable.

What happens when people are different, when they are Other from the majority, is one of the Great Problems of the human world, and we did deal with that a bit, along with the sheer madness of the central tale of an epic anti-quest featuring anti-heroes in an anti-task that must by definition fail and fail in a most unexpected fashion.

It’s my own horn I’m tooting here, and also that of my son, and I’m not given to much horn-tooting, but I do believe this one is worth an occasional shout out.

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Recommended: The Price of Being … With Sunita

If only I were capable of giving a fine book the review it richly deserves, I would be doing that right now for ‘The Price of Being .. With Sunita’ by Michael Graeme (on Wattpad from the link above). Like many of Michael’s books, this story is classifiable as sci-fi/fantasy but is also literature in the classic sense. Michael is right there in my mind with the great patient chroniclers of human behavior, a Thackery or Zola for our time.

The novel begins with a very ordinary and even uncomfortable situation – a middle aged man is shyly ogling a beautiful woman. She, we soon discover, is far more than that. She is a being with powers, but far from simply serving as a metaphor or an archetypal goddess, Sunita is a complicated creature whose abilities raise difficult moral issues, the permutations and ramifications of which Michael carefully and thoroughly explores.

If you could do good for others, merely by wishing it, what would be the consequences? In a fabulous turn of wish fulfillment, Sunita is also noticing our poor, bland middle-aged dude, Derek. She believes he also has powers, and wants to train him in the ways. Derek is happy to follow along, he’s a puppy with a heart of gold and as they journey together in ways beyond mere mortals, they come across a series of obstacles, all of which are very much rooted in the present – terrorism, the surveillance state, racial profiling, and the lust of evil men, while at the same time encountering the limits of charity and good will.

Nothing is as easy at it seems, not even for those with magical powers. There is always a cost, a price to be paid, and sometimes the price can be ‘being’ itself.

Michael tells a great story and he writes with style, grace and patience. I was fortunate enough to be able to read the story as he was writing it, serially, eagerly anticipating the next chapter. It is now complete, and I believe he brought it off well. Highly recommended.

Recommended: Seamus and Tessa

It took us quite a while – two months of nightly bedtime reading – but last night my son and I finally finished Seamus and Tessa: The World is Just the Beginning, and we were both left wishing for more. One of my constant refrains on the subject of fiction – of fantasy and science fiction in particular – is the lack of innovation in nearly all of it. You’re making stuff up, so make stuff up! Don’t just give me leprechauns again, even if this time they have machine guns (looking at you, Artemis Fowl). Let’s see you really use your imagination.

In Seamus and Tessa, Jim Maher veers towards imagination overload. He invents, he innovates, he makes stuff up with a vengeance and with only a couple of exceptions (there are pirates), everything in this amazing fantasy novel is fresh and original. Kids don’t just eat ice cream, they prefer the Peaches and Gravy flavor. There are snow farmers who work with special seeds that glow and only grow in the snow and have to be moved every twenty minutes or so. There are bald patches that are critically important, and life or death haircuts, and fire wolves and a variety of “scrubbas” and scientists who live in their labs in the bellies of undersea beasts. It’s not only a work of maximum creativity, but it’s also funny and fun and wild and outrageous.

I can only imagine that living with this book in his head must have been even more exhilarating and joyous than just being someone else reading it. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to be a writer and for that reason it’s exactly the kind of book you want your kid to read.

Goodreads Giveaway: Dragon City

Unfortunately, the Goodreads Giveaway Widget doesn’t work on WordPress, but anyway …

I am doing a Goodreads Giveaway of the paperback version of Dragon City, five copies to be shipped to winners picked at random by Goodreads, but the epub ebook version is also available for free from Goodreads consisting of all four books in the series: Snapdragon Alley, Freak City, Dragon Town and Happy Slumbers (which are all also available for free from Smashwords and Feedbooks in any case)

I was a bit lazy about getting my cover to work with CreateSpace’s cover designer, so I went with a simpler design using one of their built-in formats. Still pretty nice, I think