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Vanity Fair, Elon Musk, AI, and Frankenstein’s (unexpected) Monster

Vanity Fair magazine recently ran a profile of Elon Musk that focused on the ways that Musk is at odds with other tech gurus about the relative merits of artificial intelligence (AI). Musk, who thinks that A.I. is humanity’s biggest threat, is quoted as saying “sometimes what will happen is a scientist will get so engrossed in their work that they don’t really realize the ramifications of what they’re doing.”  Musk doesn’t reference it directly, but his fears about a scientist who gets carried away with his work, with disastrous results, perfectly describe Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Victor Frankenstein’s ambition to “penetrate the recesses of nature” leads him to create a human being, which he thinks will become a new species that will “bless him” as the creator. Victor’s creature, as we all know, does not turn out the way Victor expects, and when the creature comes to life one November evening, Victor flees in horror, leaving his creature defenseless and alone—and outside of Victor’s control. Eventually, after the creature learns to read and think, he confronts Victor and demands that Victor make him a female companion. The creature plans to flee with the female to South America, where they will live on nuts and berries and exist in complete harmony with nature. Victor initially agrees to this plan and then changes his mind, fearful that the female creature “might refuse to comply” with the plan. He destroys the female creature, which sends his first creation into a vengeful rage. The final chapters of the novel focus on the battle between man and creation, each trying to destroy the other.

The novel is about the dangers of ambition, yes, and about not realizing the full ramifications of your actions, but ultimately, “Frankenstein’s monster” is not the problem.

At the heart of the novel is what happens when women are neglected and their experiences denied by male ambition. Frankenstein wants to create life all by himself, without women; he cannot bear the thought that the female creature might not “comply” with what men want her to do; and when the creature kills Frankenstein’s bride on their wedding night, it’s because Frankenstein never thought that the monster would bother with anyone else other than him.

Maureen Dowd, who wrote this article, also interviewed a number of other players in the tech world as a way to map the spectrum of attitudes about AI developments.

Here is the infographic that accompanied the article:

 

Notice anything? It’s like Frankenstein talking to himself: apparently only men have opinions about AI, which I guess explains why Dowd’s article only contains interviews with men. Musk talks about other male entrepreneurs, who then talk about Musk, themselves, and each other. It’s a giant reflecting mirror of men talking about their accomplishments—past, present, and future.

And yet, as Heather Roff pointed out in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, as developments in AI continue, no one seems to be asking key questions: “Are there abuses of power? What is the value happening here? Why are we doing this? Who is subordinate? And who is in charge?” Questions like these are embedded in feminist theories but I’m going to bet that none of the guys on that infographic are very well versed in the writings of Donna Haraway or bell hooks.

The men in Dowd’s article are terrifically accomplished, there’s no doubt, but they (and we) should take a lesson from Mary Shelley and her nineteenth-century nightmare: when you leave women out of the equation(s), the results are disastrous.

 

 

 

Infographic credit

 

Continue Reading · 0 on April 28, 2017 in Children, Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics, tech life

Techambivalent

Let me say first that I have a bit of an internet obsession. I stay way too connected to faraway friends on Facebook and I am a too frequent visitor to Tom and Lorenzo. My books float through the ether from Amazon and land in my kindle, like Mike Teevee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but without remaining pocket-sized.

I tell you these things so that you’ll see my tech ambivalence: I love the internet and I am also sure that we’re going to end up (or we already are) utterly co-opted by it, so much so that any complaints about “loss of privacy” are utterly besides the point.

That ambivalence is the subject of this week’s column in The National, which you can read here.

Through a series of coincidences, the great god google recently unearthed some vintage family photos, which is making me feel quite fond of the machine that is eroding my private life (apparently with my permission).

It found me riding a bicycle; I remember both bicycle and dress (red velvety corduroy), but I have no memory of being so dangerously close to flashing people as I pedaled. red_bike_Wilmette

And google also showed me this picture of my younger brother, now a Hollywood bigshot but at the time apparently planning on a career as a landscaper: backyard

If google can find that level of adorableness for you, how can you not love it?

Continue Reading · on June 17, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, Children, family, tech life, The National

Dave Eggers Has a New Book…and Big Brother look like a nice guy by comparison

I wrote a review of Dave Eggers’ new book, The Circle, for the newspaper here, and in their quest for space, the editors cut the first line of the review.  (I know–my deathless prose, snipped! Unbelievable.)

Here’s the line: “I didn’t like Dave Eggers new book, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

And that’s the paradox: because as a novel, as a gripping story populated with characters we understand, it’s not that great. But as a novel of ideas–most of which are terrifyingly possible but I hope to god not accurate–it’s brilliant.

All of which is to say that probably you should read The Circle–but be warned: you will start to be warier about your whole social media world, if you have one. And if you don’t have a social media world, well, then, this book will scare the bejesus out of you, too.  And yes, of course I see the irony of me telling you about this technophobic thriller here, on this here newfangled interwebs thing. Of course. And frankly, I’m going to ask you to “like” and “tweet” and just generally social media my review all over the place, irony be damned.

Here’s the review--and I’d love to know what you think of the book, after you’ve finished it.

Continue Reading · on November 3, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, tech life, The National

Living on Jordan Time. Sort of

It all would’ve been fine if Caleb and Liam hadn’t quarreled about who woke up whom at what time.

There we were at breakfast at the wonderfully named Moevenpick Hotel (say it out loud: move-n-pick, like pick-n-roll but without the ball), just outside the gates to Petra. We’d spent the entire day before climbing around ruins that had been ruins since Christ was a boy—literally—and now my own darling boys were wrangling about whether Caleb woke up at 6AM or 7.

Liam, adamant, insisted it had been six; Caleb, equally adamant, insisted that it had been seven.

Husband solved the problem by consulting the oracle of google,which told us that Jordan had instituted “winter time” (daylight savings time) that night, so that, in fact, both boys were right: it had been seven AND six.

Wicked early, no matter how you slice it, but it stopped the bickering.  We dutifully turned our watches back an hour, took one more look out the windows at Petra’s sandy hills, and then packed our car for the three-hour drive up to the Dead Sea.

So lucky, we told ourselves, that Jordan had turned back the clocks: it meant that we could take our time on our drive, but still have most of the afternoon at our Dead Sea hotel.  We puttered along, in our rented Citroen (has ever a car been more aptly named?), marveling at the view (okay, Husband and I marveled at the view; the boys marveled at the sights unfurling on their iPads. Upside: no bickering, no whining, no whenarewegonnabetheres. Downside: they saw almost nothing of the splendid, ancient countryside).

Indeed, that extra hour gave us more time in the Dead Sea, where we bobbled around until sunset, watching the lights come on in the tiny towns on the opposite shore (Israel, the country that can be seen but not named).

Blissfully scrubbed, skin gleaming from our self-applied mud baths, we presented ourselves at the hotel restaurant for our 7PM dinner reservation.

“Oh no,” said the host. “You’ve missed it. You’re an hour late.”

An hour late? How could that be? We checked our watches, showed him our iOracles, all indicating that it was 7PM on the dot.  We explained that we’d even been so clever as to adjust our clocks back, to account for Jordan’s daylight savings time.

He nodded, pitying comprehension dawning on his face. “There is no daylight savings this year,” he said.  “On Wednesday, the government decided not to.”

Just like that?  Like an entire government of Bartlebys, they simply preferred not to?

Apparently so.  And our oracle, the god google, as is the case with oracles, refused to admit its mistake and could shed no light on why Jordan would simply withdraw winter time; nor would it tell us what time our plane would leave the next day.

Here’s how I see it: if my kids hadn’t argued about who had woken up when, and if Husband hadn’t consulted google and found out about the time change, then we wouldn’t have changed the clocks…And we’d have been on time.  So my children, google, and the King of Jordan are to blame for our confusion.

Our flight the next day, by the way, was listed online as leaving Amman at 3PM.

We arrived at the airport to discover that the flight was leaving on time.

At 4PM.

 

 

 

 

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Continue Reading · on October 28, 2012 in expat, family, Kids, lost in translation, Travel, Uncategorized

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