Thursday 16 November 2017

A Sign of the Times: Artificial Intelligence in Children’s Books - Heather Dyer

Last week, after an oral examination that marked the end of a 4-year life-consuming PhD in creative writing, I watched the entire 7 series of the sitcom Cold Feet.

One thing I found charming about the early episodes is the way they’ve dated. In series one, only the character playing the financial advisor owned a mobile phone. A character with a cutting-edge job in ‘computers’ sat in front of his huge, boxy PC exploring the first-ever chat rooms. Because using the Internet meant tying up his landline, his friends could never get in touch. Plots relied on characters not being able to call one another’s mobiles and having to across the city to save them just in time.

This brought home the writer’s dilemma of being up-to-date when writing children’s fiction. Characters in realistic fiction need to reflect reality. However, technology changes so quickly that very soon it becomes dated, making your story sound old-fashioned. The same goes for language. Expressions like, “Super!” or “Sick!” date quickly. What to do?

Avoiding up-to-the minute phrases, brand names and specific games or programs will prevent readers from pinpointing the time or place too specifically. I suppose the thing is to find a balance between being ‘current’ and being ‘fashionable’.

But what do you do when you’re writing a time travel adventure, as I am, now? What will things be like in future?

Artificial Intelligence
When I started researching future technology, I soon found myself reading about artificial intelligence (AI). What I read blew the lid off my world – and not just the world of my book, either.

I had never understood what people meant when they said they feared that AI would take over the world. Even if computers did acquire organic intelligence, I thought, surely all we have to do is pull the plug? At the end of the day, we control the power source, don’t we?

Then I read about Neuralink (Elon Musk’s brand of brain-machine-interface (BMI)), and realized I had been getting it all wrong. Artificial intelligence isn’t necessarily about computers becoming cleverer than us - it’s about us becoming cleverer because our own brains will be modified via computer technology. The separation between computers and us (or between our devices, and our organic selves) will no longer exist. We will truly become part-human, part-machine. We will be the artificial intelligence.

I must confess that I’m no expert in either neuroscience or computer technology. However, Tim Urban of the ‘Wait But Why’ blog was commissioned by Elon Musk to explain it – and he does a great job. Here’s my understanding, in a nutshell:

BMIs like Nerualink will insert a thin layer of silk between the brain and the skull. The size of our skulls is what limits the growth of our brains – but this layer of silk will increase the surface area upon which neurones can grow. This massively increase our intelligence. And before you say, “I’m not having my skull opened up!” think about what life will be like if everyone around you has an implant, and are so much more intelligent than you, that they’ll see you as some sort of pet.

But that’s not all. This ‘web’ in the brain can be wirelessly connected to other people’s webs. So, someone can send an image they’re seeing to someone else on the other side of the world. (Apparently this can already be done.) Not only that, you can download an entire whole-body experience from someone else – in real time or retrospectively. The possibilities for less-abled people – and for porn – are just the tip of the iceberg.
Of-course, the potential for hacking into this web of thought-experience is horrifying. I’ve heard that we’ll share so much mental activity that it will be difficult to know which thoughts and feelings are originating from ourselves and which are coming from outside. This threatens to blur the edges of our whole identity.

But aren’t we already manipulated by the media? BMIs give us the opportunity not just to download knowledge but experience. Imagine being able to know how someone else experiences something? Imagine being able to empathise with others because you – quite literally – know exactly how they feel?

Despite the inevitable misuse, I predict a situation where our ability to understand each other – and therefore empathise with each other – will increase exponentially. And does it matter if the edges of our own ‘identity’ blurs? Might it be a huge relief? Isn’t the ‘egoic self’ – the mental construction that we’re discrete entities completely separate from everything outside of us – the source of all conflict? Eastern philosophy has always claimed what quantum physics can now demonstrate in a very material way: we are ‘all one’. And with BMIs, we’ll realize it.

Actually, I think I’d better revisit my book. This may have implications for my plot…


Susan Price said...

It will end writing. Who will need stories or films?

The world will be sharply divided between those who can afford this upgrading and the 'pets' who can't. How will the pets respond? They can communicate with each other off-line.

How will criminals use this interconnectivity? They have always been among the first to inventively exploit new technology.

A deeply interesting blog, Heather - thank you.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Sue, yes the mind boggles doesn't it? No need for stories means no need for 'self' according to David Lot (The World is Made of Stories). Hmm...