SPECIAL GUESTS: Tom Lombardo & Jeanne Lombardo of the Center for Future Consciousness. We're joined once again by Tom and Jeanne Lombardo of the Center for Future Consciousness to take a look at how science fiction is shaping the ways in which society is changing. We're nearing the cusp of true artificial intelligence... and the stories we tell ourselves can already teach us a lot about how to handle this moment of transcendance. It's also the perfect opportunity to revisit some great movies from 2014, Her and The Machine. Recorded 10/12/2014.


You can download the episode here.


Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:

Science Fiction: The Evolutionary Myth Of The Future, by Tom Lombardo, PhD (Center For Future Consciousness)

Episode 103 - Sci-Fi's Consciousness, previous guest appearance by Tom & Jeanne

Episode 69 - Of Machines And Pigs, our review of The Machine

Episode 45 - Love Bytes, our review of Her

More links and info coming soon...



Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #114. 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.

Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.

Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.

MJ: And joining us again on this episode are Tom Lombardo and Jeanne Lombardo from the Center for Future Consciousness. Guys, thanks for joining us.

Tom Lombardo: Yes, hello Matt, hello Mike.

Jeanne Lombardo: Yes, thanks for having us.

MB: Thanks for joining us.

MJ: Always fun to have you guys. So Tom, you’ve got a new article up on your website and I believe it is called “Science Fiction: The Evolutionary Myth Of The Future.”

TL: Yes, correct. The evolutionary mythology of the future. I’ve been a science fiction fan since I was a kid, and I’ve thought about it, and I’ve begun to write some rather lengthy descriptions of it. It has hit me that science fiction can be a way of life for people. One can become totally immersed in it and enhance one’s holistic future consciousness through watching and viewing science fiction. Science fiction, in fact, is about the future of everything and it impacts all of the different aspects of our psychology. Science fiction is future’s narrative, which is what makes it so psychology resonant with us because, in fact, we are storytellers and we like to tell stories about ourselves and society likes to tell stories about themselves. That gives either individuals or groups their identity, meaning, and purpose in life. Science fiction as future’s narrative are thought experiments, scenario building about the future set in the form of stories. Well, it hit me, as I was exploring science fiction, that, in a sense, science fiction is very similar to the mythologies of the past. There are a lot of ways in which science fiction today does the same things, has the same functions that myths of the past did. There’s archetype of themes in it, there’s cosmic and transcendent themes in it, there’s deep truths about life revealed in it. There’s always imaginative and fantastical realities, it taps into your emotions, motivation. It’s got an aesthetic dimension to it, you become immersed in it. There’s various icons and totems and objects in it that have deep and significant meaning to them. So, in lots of ways, it’s just like the myths of the past, except it’s, generally speaking, informed by contemporary scientific thinking, contemporary issues of today and what we think of reality today, informed by science as opposed to the way people thought about reality in the past, which was informed more by spiritual, supernatural and religious ideas. I would say that science fiction creates myths about the future that will engage and guide us, inspire us in the future in the ongoing creation of the future. It could predict, it could prophesize, it could warn, it could experiment with ideas. Also, I like the word “evolution” thrown in, because science fiction as a genre has been continually evolving. In fact, its history goes back at least 2,000 years. What science fiction does is that it is purposefully evolving our consciousness of the future. We keep experimenting in the writings with different ideas about the future, and we frame the whole area of science fiction in terms of a cosmic evolutionary framework, and we think, in particular, about the future of the evolution of humans and also what may come after humans, whether we technologically augment ourselves, or whether we create technological children who would be our evolutionary descendants. We have lots of stories and lots of movies about how we might envision our technologically augmented children or descendants. Two movies that came out recently that were stories about technological creations that were human in their mental qualities but, in various ways, transcendent of present-day biological humans were the movies Her and The Machine. That leads us into those two contemporary movies as being good examples of how we end up telling mythic stories within science fiction -- in this case, mythic stories about the future evolution of humans and our technological descendants.

MJ: We’re big fans of both of those movies. In our episode #45, we reviewed Her and in episode #69 we reviewed The Machine, and both of those stories, I don’t know if you noticed this, but I thought that both of them were just fascinating examples of a little bit more of a positive take than something like The Terminator, or even going back to something like Frankenstein, as far as humanity giving birth to a new form of intelligence.

TL: Yes, indeed. They are both positive forms. To use the example of Her, in Her, the evolved technologically-embodied mind doesn’t attempt to conquer us. Rather, in the end, it transcends us and says “Adios!” as it breaks off its relationship with the central male character. So, it’s not a conquest, although it is a transcendence, and it is a movement beyond what humans of today can understand or grasp. Which is, in a sense, aligned with the idea of the singularity, where technological intelligence goes beyond human intelligence. But in this case, it isn’t to conquer, it isn’t to diminish us, but rather it is to move to some higher level or reality. And that’s positive; even if we feel insecure about it, that there’s something smarter than us that exists at a higher level. Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which came out about 20 years ago, with nanotechnologically-grounded, higher intelligence that transcended humanity at the end too. That one is definitely positive in its vision of the future of intelligence which is superior to humans. The Machine is also the same way. One ends up feeling very emotionally resonant and supportive of the central female character, who is a robot, who clearly is superior to humans and, in fact, is ethically superior to some of the humans within that story.

MJ: I thought in Her, it seems like the story wrestles a little bit with how to end that somewhat transcendent technology, whereas with The Machine, it had a little bit more of a solid ending. It seems like filmmakers and even written storytellers in general struggle a little bit with that, and I think that’s the whole reason they call it “the singularity” -- it’s kind of hard to see past it. So, from a dramatic standpoint, to make stories that relate to those of us on this side of that dividing line, sometimes they struggle a little bit with how to end it and I think that’s actually a pretty big criticism, we mentioned it last time, of Transcendence as well.

TL: I thought the ending in The Machine was very good because, as I just mentioned, she indeed is ethically superior to a number of the human characters in the story. Which goes back, in fact, to Isaac Asimov's vision of robots as ethically superior to the everyday human being. She becomes, in fact, the mother for a technological intelligence that has no physical form but is rather embedded within a computer, which is the scientist’s daughter after the daughter had died, but the scientist had uploaded the daughter’s mind into a computer. So, in the end, one has a great of identification and sympathy for the female robot because of her capacity to connect and link with the daughter and, in fact, the daughter in the computer rejects the father, in a sense, as being her central parent and would rather play games with the female robot at the end, as opposed to the biological father.

MJ: Do you think that says something about our insecurity with these possible future children of humanity, so to speak?

TL: Yes. But whether insecure or not, to me, it makes sense that if I was a virtual mind housed within a computer, I might be able to relate or resonate better with a mentally augmented robot than a biologically non-augmented human. So yes, we might be insecure about that of course, but it still makes sense. It makes sense that she wanted to play the games with the robot as opposed to her biological father. I found that very interesting.

MJ: Tying back into your theory, or your paper on myths as a narrative that we use to suss out a little bit of the future, do you think that some of those themes are things that a lot of people spend time thinking about or are maybe subconsciously a little anxious about? That a lot of these sort of, not necessarily repressed, but worries that we have of the future and about being replaced, all of that, that something of that is going on in a story like Her or The Machine, or something like that?

TL: Oh yeah, for sure. When we look toward the future, we look at it both with hope and fear. We look at it as an adventure that we can’t predict with accuracy, and so that uncertainty generates -- and this is part of the future consciousness that we have about the future, that there’s an emotional dimension. There’s both fear and there’s hope. It revolves around an issue of uncertainty, with respect to what’s going to happen to us and what’s going to happen to society and to the human species. But myths should reflect both our hopes and our fears. They provide an arena in which to tell stories that embody both kinds of emotions, and other emotions too, and help us to work out what we’re feeling and thinking inside, what we’re reacting to with respect to our future. Ever since the beginnings of modern science fiction with Frankenstein and other stories, there’s been this ambivalence about the future. We look at the wonders of science and technology, we think about how everything is great and is getting better, and blah, blah, blah. Then at the same time, we worry about whether it’s going to dehumanize us, whether the machines will turn against us, whether it will become superior to us and whatever other fearful images we may have. So myths aren’t necessarily positive -- they’re both positive and negative, just like science fiction both creates utopian scenarios but also dystopian scenarios too. So, it’s an arena in which we explore the various feelings and ideas within our consciousness, and even down below in our unconsciousness. The movie Alien is a good example of deep-seated fears we have about outer space and what we might encounter when we go out there. But on the other hand, we have Close Encounters, which reflects very positive and uplifting, almost heavenly images we have of what we may encounter when we go out there.

MB: When we talked about Her the first time, what struck me about the movie Her, and even to some extent The Machine, was neither one of those movies seemed that far into the future, especially Her. Her didn’t seem that much farther away than Siri or Cortana or whatever you have on your phone. That’s kind of what struck me -- a lot of science fiction, you have to suspend your disbelief for a bit or think “Hey, this isn’t going to happen for the next 20, 30, 40 years.” But what struck me with Her is that the technology is almost really here, and that movie almost seemed more like a couple of years into the future, as opposed to 15, 20, 30, or even 100 years down the line.

TL: Yes, Matt. In fact, that very scenario was done on Big Bang Theory already, where Rajesh ends up having dates with Siri and develops a romance with her. On TV, he doesn’t have sex with her like the character in Her has sex with his virtual intelligence. But yeah, the ongoing evolution of artificial intelligence involves the dimension of personification in making our AIs more and more human and more and more personal and apparently sensitive. So, I’m sure people engage already with all kinds of different psychologically rich types of relationships with their AI machines. In fact, there’s a sense in which that’s been going on for decades and decades, because humans have been personifying their machines and gadgets for all of the 20th, back into the 19th century. We personified them.

JL: But I think it’s been a little bit one-sided, and that’s what I’ve been sitting here thinking about, is that some of these movies -- I have not seen Her, but having read multiple reviews and talking to you about it, and The Machine, they really focus in on the relationship. Whereas some earlier science fiction has as well; I think that Robin Williams movie where he’s a robot.

TL: The Bicentennial Man.

JL: Right. But these two movies specifically deal with that. We might have named our cars in the past, but we certainly didn’t have very much interaction on an emotional or psychological level with them. It’s more projection. Whereas these movies start to address more of that question of a relationship with our “technological offspring.”

TL: Matt’s point, I think though -- I agree with you Jeanne too; Matt’s point is well-taken. What we saw in Her, to a certain degree, is already going on and something closer to what we see in that movie can’t be far down the line. I’m sure that there are people out there who engage in vicarious sex with AI personality and minds right now. I’m sure that’s going on. As the AIs get more interactive, more apparently sensitive and respondent or emotions, what you’re saying, the sexual encounter and social interactions will become even more real. But we’re already moving in that direction for sure. Jeanne’s point that the car doesn’t respond back to you -- yes, that’s true. But both with the car and with the present AIs, human in fact do project and do see human qualities in the machines and, consequently, react to them as if they are human in various ways.

JL: That’s the whole point. There is no entirely independent artificial intelligence. You might have gaming, right? There are always humans behind those avatars that are out there interacting with other avatars. There’s nothing like Her yet, where there’s an actual independent intelligence on the other side of things.

TL: And you don’t think Siri have any of that at all? Doesn’t she have at least a little bit of that?

JL: No. Siri is programming, right? She has memory, so she can respond. The more information I enter my own device, the more she will seem to be individualizing that to my experience. But she wouldn’t be able to do that unless I programmed her.

TL: Did we see here now this ongoing debate that has been going on regarding “Is a computer intelligent in the same way in which a human is? Do they have the capacity for independent thought and creativity? Or is it entirely just simply a consequence of programming?” Because of course the response would come back that human intelligence, to a great degree, is a consequence of programming by other humans. So, as more knowledge comes in and more interaction comes in, and the mind gets increasingly more rich and complex and flexible, it looks as if they actually are conscious and have a personality and are intelligent. You could say that it’s just simply a lot of programming in there, but of course we have artificial intelligence systems that learn and develop -- in fact, that’s what happens in The Machine. She’s learning and growing as she interacts and learns. Of course, she gets lots of instruction along the way, and lots of “programming,” but I don’t know whether you could draw a clear line between “Oh, that’s independently initiated” vs. “That’s just simply a result of programming.”

JL: That’s a very good point, and I think of the feral children experiments in the 70’s, where human beings, if they are completely isolated and are not in an environment where they’re learning, they don’t exactly seem to be fully human.

TL: Right. And we mirror, we model. That’s how we grow mentally, to a great degree. I know we’re creative, and I know we go beyond that, but you could say that these early AIs that appear to have independent intelligence go beyond it too. They’re just not anywhere near as complex yet, and we have this debate about whether they’re conscious in any sense whatsoever. So, we just went on there for quite a while. Excuse us, Matt and Mike.

JL: What do you two think about that? Is there anything as a purely artificial independent intelligence?

MB: Not yet, no.

MJ: It’s funny. The discussion reminded me quite a bit of a scene out of The Machine, early on in the movie where he’s kind of applying sort of a Turing test to a prototype unit that ends up being somewhat the foundation for the actual machine that the movie is about, where he’s asking questions. That reminds me quite a bit of the news stories, I think they were last spring, about a chatbot or something that managed to pass a couple levels of a Turing test. I’ve also read some people taking the various chatbots and things, particularly in some of the sex chatrooms, and taking what they say to the people on the receiving end and feeding that back to another chatbot and seeing what kind of interactions they get, which I find to be fascinating, to be honest.

TL: This whole issue here, we were talking about it last time, of consciousness and intelligence in machines, whether that’s coming, how we would realize that, to whatever degree they might have them now, that’s been an ongoing issue/theme within science fiction. In fact, that may go back to ancient myth, from all I can gather from looking at the history of the whole thing. We make things and then we personify them, and at some point they seem to come alive, and we were worry about that of course, too. The Machine, I thought, was a very good movie in addressing that, and they put it as “Is she alive?” But of course what they meant by that is “Is she conscious, and does she have a conscious self?” That’s what it really was all about. By the way Mike, and for the readers too, in the New York Review of Books, the last issue, there was a book review on two new books on AI and information theory, where the argument is presented that the Turing test should not be taken as a way to ascertain conscious intelligence in the subject that you are testing. That it won’t work, that it misses the whole point of internal self-consciousness. So, if you want to go off and look at it, it’s by John Searle, who’s a very well-known philosopher of mind and consciousness. But yes, in The Machine they used that for a benchmark for whether or not the machine has consciousness. In Queen of Angels, the question was the computer has to figure out whether or not they are conscious, which is a mind-numbing, twisting kind of mental activity. The computer is smart enough to create the question, and then has to somehow figure out whether or not it is conscious. But how could it possibly not be conscious if it could make sense out of the question “Am I conscious or not?” But it’s an interesting place where that particular angle on the consciousness question comes up too -- Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels.

MJ: Well, it seems like we’ve had that question just relating to other humans for centuries as well.

TL: Yes, “Are they really conscious?” If one is a solipsist and entertains the possibility that “I’m the only one who’s really conscious and they’re all simply figments of my imagination, or creates and dreams I’m having” -- in fact, Heinlein did that in the science fiction story They, written back in the 1940’s, a solipsistic science fiction story. On those two movies, and other movies like them, I think we are engaging in mythic consciousness and miscreating, because we’re dealing with very deep and fundamental issues and archetypal themes. “What is a self? What is a human being? Will our creations transcend us?” We engage fundamental human emotions in those movies as well, too. And there’s a fantastical element to them. Even if it seems as if that kind of thing may happen very soon in the future, like with Her. But there is a fantastical element in them, too. So again, I see them as mythic and that we’re trying to work out our thinking and ideas on the future. Of course, people who watch them get stimulated and informed, which includes computer engineers, computer scientists who may watch the movies and think “Well, you know, that’s an interesting angle on the question” and it may, in fact, influence what they do, as far as their own research in the future. So, science fiction is like thought experiments that stimulate us into thinking and working it out more, the future that is.

MJ: Yeah, I would think we definitely agree and that’s really the whole modus operandi for our show. Once again, thanks for joining us Tom, Jeanne.

MB: Thanks.

JL: It’s been fun.

TL: Yes, thank you Matt, and thank you Mike. It always goes by really fast.

MJ: Yeah.

TL: Alright, so take care Matt, take care Mike, and talk to you soon.

A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at Robot That’s it for our radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We are Robot Overlordz with a Z.

MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.

MB: Thanks.


Image Credit: By Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons