Episode 103 - Sci-Fi's Consciousness
Published September 9, 2014
SPECIAL GUESTS: Tom Lombardo & Jeanne Lombardo of the Center for Future Consciousness. Stories and myths have shaped humanity's perception of the future since ancient times. As our technologies have grown, the dreams and vistas that set the stage for our stories have grown as well. Where might we as a species be headed next? Can we learn anything from the way that Hollywood presents these stories? Is there a disconnect between the written art of sci-fi and its presentation in film? Tom & Jeanne join us to ponder some of these questions, as well as talk through what the Singularity might mean for humanity. Recorded 9/7/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
About Tom Lombardo, Ph.D.
About Jeanne Lombardo
Mindflight by Tom Lombardo with Jeanne Belisle Lombardo
Tom's List of the Best Science Fiction Movies
What is the Singularity (via Wikipedia)
Episode 15 - Robots Taking Over (where our computers explain the Singularity)
Who is Ray Kurzweil (via Wikipedia)
Ray Kurzweil's KurzweilAI site
Episode 91 - Waiter, There's A Phone In My Service... (where we talked about too much cellphone use when you're with other people)
Episode 41 - Facing The Book (where we talked about Facebook's negative influence on social activity)
Mike Johnston: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #103. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing. Everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday. I'm Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I'm Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us today from the Center for Future Consciousness is Tom Lombardo. Tom, thanks for joining us.
Tom Lombardo: Yes, hello Michael and Matt.
MJ: Hi. And also, Jeanne Lombardo from the Center for Future Consciousness.
Jeanne Lombardo: Yes, hello. Thanks for having us.
MJ: Could you guys tell us a little bit about what the Center for Future Consciousness is?
TL: Jeanne and I created the Center for Future Consciousness roughly 7 to 10 years ago some time. I had been teaching courses and writing on the future and Jeanne and I began to do some presentations together. I had already put up a website back quite a long time ago on the future and we decided to change the name of it to the Center for Future Consciousness. We are a education website that has tons of readings, tons of links; we do presentations, write articles, create books, do fantastic keynote slideshows on almost every topic imaginable under the big umbrella of the future. About 2 years ago, we also connected up with the Wisdom Page, which is a separate website. So, we have a lot of stuff up there on the development of wisdom and the connection between wisdom and education. One of the main areas that we have been interested in in the last year or two has been science fiction. But my interest in science fiction goes back to when I was a little kid and watched science fiction movies back in Waterbury, Connecticut. But the last couple of years, we've been into it even more intensely. If you want to read the deep, long history for the Center for Future Consciousness, you can get our book called Mindflight, which is up on the website, where you can order it. That's a short little history. Jeanne, she could add some things then, she'd like, to what I already said.
JL: Well, I think Tom is fairly articulate when he talks about the Center and Tom is the brain behind the Center. I do a lot of the administrative parts of it and edit all of his writings and I sometimes present with him. We're developing a writing portion for his latest presentation course, it can be customized on science fiction as a mythology of the future. When I met Tom almost 15 years ago, I was much more interested in the past than the future. So he sort of dragged me, kicking, into this whole arena, which, of course, I now find quite fascinating. I think it's a natural part of the whole continuum. I think you have to have an expansive awareness of time in general, and so the future is, of course, part of that.
MJ: That's certainly an area we're interested in. I mean, obviously, Robot Overlordz, we are interested in the ways society is changing and Matt and I do a lot of talking about movies in particular, and a lot of them have been sci-fi movies and looking at the way that portrays the way that the future has changed in the last couple of decades.
JL: Tom has a lot to say about science fiction in popular culture in general.
TL: For example, Mike, you just said the way the future has changed, whatever that's supposed to mean. What popped into my head was the line, ‘The future ain't what it used to be and never was.’ As generations, as times move along, our notions about what the future holds for us, they keep changing. So, our images of the future is in a state of constant transformation. We have a set of views about the future today, which in some ways are similar to ideas we had about the future before, but people have been thinking about the future for thousands of years, so it's been an ongoing interest of humanity since way, way back to early mythologies upwards to say, for example, the end of the world.
MJ: Yeah, well hopefully we're evolving around that.
TL: Not everybody. You know, there's lots of people who think that humanity is destroying the Earth slowly but steadily. You always can find people who think that the world is falling apart and that somehow we're responsible for it. But go on.
MJ: Certainly, that seems to make the easiest story. If you look at the kinds of movies that Hollywood tends to come out with, they do tend to be apocalyptic world-enders for the most part. It seems like they have trouble portraying positive images of the future beyond the technology.
TL: Yeah, you're right on target. In fact, my impression of futurist sci-fi movies is that, in general, they are very bleak and dark. It's very easy to imagine destruction. It's very hard to imagine evolution Especially, even though we might be able to imagine the evolution of new gadgets, more advanced technologies, we have a really hard time imagining the evolution of human beings. We talk about maybe, for example, things like technological augmentation, biological augmentation of humans but we have a very difficult time thinking out, ‘What would be a more evolved human?’ Science fiction writers have dealt with that over the decades but, by and large, what you see up on the screen is a lot of destruction and you see lots of people who, even though they have better gadgets, aren't really better human beings at all.
JL: Right. In particular, Tom also does another whole train, theme on the psychology of the future - How will humans evolve psychologically? Which is, of course, the critical thing here. We're not very good in certain ways and we continue to have all of these problems because of our ethical failings, basically. So, that's one thing that, I agree with Tom, in science fiction literature, you see much more creative exploration of that topic in films. I don't know, perhaps filmmakers don't think it makes for a good, exciting - well, it doesn't appeal to the demographic, which I've heard is adolescence boys, so. Until the moviemakers go after a different kind of demographic, we'll probably just continue to see that kind of thing.
TL: Well, actually my own recollection, which Mike and Matt, you've probably watched these movies, but as a kid, the first two science fiction movies I remember watching were War of the Worlds, where the Martians blow us up, and When Worlds Collide, where the Earth is destroyed. In neither case was it our fault. We were just standing around, minding our own business but still, science fiction movies very frequently focus in on great destruction. You may or you may not know this, but the earliest visions of the future, even ones that came out with the happy ending, usually had some kind of great war thrown in along the way, where humanity, often together with various spirits and supernatural entities, engaged in some kind of significant big, earthly battle before you finally got to the good stuff. So, we've had in our heads for thousands of years the notion that somehow in the future there's going to be some big, great war, there's going to be a lot of destruction and maybe we'll come out on the other side, and again, maybe we won't.
MB: I think part of that is it kind of always makes for a much, much more exciting story than filming a bunch of people dancing around in a utopia. When you can have a big war, at least on film and in print, reading or watching something like that is always going to be more exciting.
TL: Yeah, of course, you're right on target Matt. Of course, also related to that, villains often turn out to be more interesting than the good guys. The drama, the excitement of battles, of destruction, of conflict are, of course, much more gripping. What you want is you want some kind of a story where the positive or the good side has a struggle with the dark or the negative side. Then you can have your drama, you can have your elements of destruction or at least have something there that's creating tension and difficulty, but you see something progressive occur. Of course, special effects have a lot to do with this too, because we're so good with special effects now, we can really make a very forceful and graphic and incredibly mesmerizing disasters occurring up on the screen. It definitely appeals to our dramatic sense, they have a lot of war and destruction. But the fact of the matter is, that almost all of contemporary science fiction on film plays up the elements of violence, of destructive technologies, destruction of cities, the murdering of people right and left, as well as aliens too, or robots, on top of it all. It is rather weak on really cosmic ideas or visionary ideas. As I've often said about science fiction cinema, most of it is one replay or another of the Frankenstein story. There's some dangerous thing that gets created and that wreaks havoc on us. Matrix is like that, for example, or The Terminator. Then in the end, we have to destroy this technological monster that we've created.
JL: Yeah, and sadly when they do come up with a good theme, Hollywood manages to ruin it. I was thinking of Transcendence, which we saw, what was that, a year ago? Transcendence is a great idea and they didn't have to dumb it down at the end, the way they did.
TL: I thought they dumbed it down all the way through. They didn't understand Kurzweil, they didn't understand nanotechnology, they didn't understand much of anything about it. They had it all muddled up and in the end, they could not possibly grasp the idea that, somehow or other, technologically-augmented humans could be better and superior to normal humans. So, we had to wipe out all the computers across the face of the globe and Johnny Depp turns out to be crazy. In fact, I thought that was a beautiful example of a really muddleheaded, stupid science fiction taking a set of good ideas out of futurist technology and science and turning it into a really lame movie. But that's a whole different thing.
MJ: Definitely, I agree with you completely, Tom. I was very disappointed in Transcendence for how much it seemed to, throughout the movie, glorify the Luddite side of things, the anti-tech. The other thing that caught me that was particularly weird about that movie, not to get off on too much of a tangent about it, it was so small scale. It was really just that one town out in the middle of the desert. For those kinds of technologies, if you had access to that, I would envision it, particularly the kind of AI that they portray Johnny Depp's character as, to branch out into the world in so many different ways and taking advantage of the network technologies. To have it in just this one little town, I really felt that the Hollywood writers just really missed the boat on what our technology is actually used for.
TL: I think on that, that's one significant point right along the way there Mike, which is that if we had a virtual mind embedded in an artificial intelligence system which was networked into other systems across the globe, there would be no way to stop it if it was out. They had some crazy idea there on how they were going to disrupt it, kill it in the end. But once it got loose and replicated itself, I can't imagine - well, I probably could imagine - but I can't imagine how they ever could have stopped it in the end. But of course they end up stopping it at the end, because of course I'm going off on a little bit of a tangent but one of the interesting things about a lot of science fiction movies that have lots of high-tech in them and high-tech special effects, is that underneath, they are anti-technological because they will frequently portray advanced technology or technologically-augmented humans as somehow dangerous and undesirable and it's always the farm boy or the everyday Joe who just wants to have the nice, happy, simple life, who has to defeat these highly advanced technologies or technologically-augmented humans. I think we're afraid of our evolutionary descendants. I don't think humanity, in any sense whatsoever, is like a final chapter in the saga of evolution. We're just a step along the way. I think humanity, in general, is afraid of that, that we are going to be, in some manner or form, transcended. So anything that comes along which is transcendent to us is almost always portrayed in the negative light. We don't want to give up our feelings of being sovereign or special or whatever. And so, when something not just necessarily more intelligent but let's say even more ethically evolved were to be created, we have a hard time with it. We just have a very hard time with it.
MB: What are your thoughts on the Singularity?
TL: My thoughts on the Singularity - you could ready a couple of my articles on it but I'll summarize a couple of points. I think, in principle, it's possible to create a mind or intelligence which is more advanced than humans within a non-organic substrate. I think that there's no reason to suppose that can't happen. When I mean a mind, I mean a multidimensional mind, not just simply intellect, intelligence, but also emotionality, personality that is a holistic mind. I see no reason why we can't create or help to facilitate the creation of that. The counterargument that machines cannot be conscious, that they can't have emotion, that they can't have personality, etc. I think is a mistake because we don't understand how biological brains create those dimensions. So, we can't say that something that is non-organic can't support them because we don't understand how the organic supports them. But, on the other hand, I think that they have not come to grips with understanding what consciousness is. I don't mean in some spiritual or fuzzy-wuzzy sense, I just simply mean that our most developed theories and understanding and research revolving around the nature of consciousness and its connection with the physical world still have not solved or even partially solved the mystery of consciousness. I think that in order to create an intelligent, conscious being, we have to gain an understand of what is it about physical matter when it gets complicated or whatever it is, that it does give rise to consciousness, and what is consciousness? I think, though, that if Kurzweil and the other Singularity theorists, in any sense were correct, I think that whether it takes 10 years, 30 years, 50 years, 100 years, whatever it might be, if we do realize superhuman intelligence, that it will be a colossal shift and jolt to human history and human civilization. So in general, what I'm saying is I see it as possible, I see it nothing philosophically or scientifically wrong with the idea, but I don't think we understand consciousness or the human mind sufficiently well yet that we know how we would go about making a fully functional form of intelligent consciousness in a machine. But once we did, and then we could download ourselves into them, I would go for it because our biological bodies wear out in 70, 80, 90 years and, as far as I'm concerned, if you wanted to give me a physical substrate that would allow me to live indefinitely and amplify my intelligence and create a great virtual reality to go with it, I'm all for it.
JL: But having said how difficult it's been - I mean, the greatest minds have been trying to get at consciousness, right?
TL: For thousands of years.
JL: Part of the problem for thousands of years. So you can say once they do that, boom, we'll be there. But that's the huge challenge.
TL: Yes, it is a challenge. Consciousness is a big challenge. Kurzweil does talk about the mind/body problem and consciousness and consciousness in machines. I think he's got some halfway decent ideas about it but I still don't think he's - definitely he doesn't have it. I follow the science of consciousness out of brain research and psychology. They don't have it either. Although, there's interesting ideas around, but we don't have anything like a good, solid theory of it the way we have some good, solid theories of quantum physics or relativity or other areas in science dealing with the physical world. We have trouble with consciousness in the psychological world still, in science.
MJ: Along those same Singularity lines - Tom, you mentioned technological enhancements, this is something that Matt and I have talked about before, I tend to think of my cellphone as my external brain almost. A lot of people no longer remember phone numbers or addresses or things like that, that people used to, in the past, just know. Instead, that's kind of cleared out to make room for other things. Do you think that people don't realize how far along the path towards almost being a cyborg we already are in everyday life?
TL: Yeah, actually Mike, you didn't say it in a strong enough fashion. We have been cyborgs since Australopithecus, since we first picked up rocks and stones and we broke them and we used them to cut animal skins. That is, a cyborg the way I would define a cyborg, is a functional synthesis of the technological and the biological. In that sense, we have been cyborgs since we started using tools. Tools are detachable body parts, they're ways in which we augment our capacities biologically. Of course, humans would not be humans without all of the instrumentalities that we have developed, which shape us as much as we shape them. So, I would say we are already cyborgs. No question about it. It's maybe become more noticeable to us in some ways but I'm not even sure about that. The word is a relatively recent word in the human language. But yeah, we've been hooking with and using machines and gadgets for thousands and thousands of years. If you took all the machines and gadgets away, we wouldn't be human anymore.
JL: Well, we're Homo Habilis, right? Before we're Homo Sapien? Is that correct?
TL: Homo Habilis before we're Homo sapiens; Homo Habilis is just the species.
JL: Oh, really?
TL: Yes. I mean Homo Faber, the toolmaker. We're the toolmaker but the tool also makes us too. So, yes indeed, we don't really remember our phone numbers. There's lots of things we're not able to do and here's where we butt into an issue, which is that in our ongoing development of technologies, we want to develop technologies that are going to support and enhance our most important traits and qualities and capacities. We don't want to develop technologies which are going to diminish our humanity. The fact that we don't remember our phone numbers anymore, well, that's fine. But when we lose the capacity to meaningfully interact with other human beings or maintain our attention spans for more than 30 seconds, I think we have to rethink the particular technologies or tools that we're using. But I agree right off the bat Mike, even more so. We are all cyborgs. For sure.
JL: That's a whole other conversation. Social media supposedly enhances connectivity among humans but there's the other side of it, where you can't have two people sitting in the same room together anymore without tapping into their technology and completely ignoring -
TL: Being socially isolated.
JL: And being socially isolated, yeah.
TL: You know there's lots of ongoing research. For example, Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows, recent things on education and technology or social skills and technology, where people will look at and question whether certain gadgets or contraptions or systems are actually helping us or hurting us, are they making us more feeble. Of course most of us can't go out and hunt the animals anymore, even though all of us used to be able to do that and we have given that up to other people to do instead. So obviously, in some ways, we have weakened our capabilities by the development of various technologies that we use. But as far as our general mental abilities go, you have to stop and think about, ‘Is this technology making me dumber in the end? Or is it helping me to be smarter?’ I would hope that the technologies we develop help us to be more intelligent, not less intelligent.
TL: One thing that we did not get into, but that would be another whole dialogue, is why I think science fiction is the mythology of the future. But that may be another whole half an hour.
JL: I thought that's what we were going to discuss today but we went off on a tangent. We laid the groundwork.
MJ: Well, there's nothing wrong with tangents, certainly, and like I said, we'll definitely be happy to have you back as well, to maybe dig into that.
TL: Well, if you get a chance, Mike and Matt, go look at the website. There's some short keynote videos up there on science fiction and a lot of other stuff too.
MB: Yeah, absolutely.
MJ: Definitely. That's all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Tom, Jeanne, thanks for joining us.
JL: Thanks for having us.
TL: Yes, thank you.
MB: Thanks a lot for joining us.
MJ: Once again, I'd just like to take a second to thank all of the fine Mechanical Turks out there that have worked on our transcripts. You guys do great work. Thanks everyone for listening.