Myths, Dreams and When The Robots Take Over

Myths and Fairy Tales (or Wonder Tales, as the Germans know them) occupy a powerful place in a culture’s psyche, and can offer a deep and direct view into it’s heart.

Grimm’s tales describe a timeless, archetypal view of the human condition, but also a powerful vision of life in Europe during the “Dark Ages” (hunger, famine, poverty and feudalism) and further back into our primitive past (wolves, forests).

Modern “urban myths” offer archetypal insights into the alienation and loneliness of our modern world – the animal side of ourselves that we repress as crocodiles and budgies breeding in the sewers, our self-hatred and vulnerablity in a social vacuum in many variants of the serial killer myths.

Ancient myths and modern ones can sometimes combine in unaccountably gruesome and beautiful ways under the extreme pressures that the disaffected people of the world live under. (If you’re going to follow that link above, give yourself time, and space, to absorb it. I’ve read few accounts of such hope and hopelessness, it makes me weep. One day, I’d like to do something with it, but that’s for another day.)

There’s a myth doing the rounds at the moment, with the support of such luminaries as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and several up and coming movies (with various degrees of intelligence, I might add!) The story that we’re busy telling ourselves around the digital campfire is that artificial intelligence is going to develop unpredictably quickly, bootstrapping itself to the point where it overshoots our own faculties faster than we can react.

On a pessimistic note, I can’t say that I find our collective reaction time to existential threats to be very fast. If global warming’s anything to go by, I’d advise AI to take it’s own sweet time at overshooting us. We’ll still be tripping over influential “skeptics” as they hop in and out of bed with vested interests, while politicians cook up hamstrung, half-baked non-solutions long after the point of no return. But I digress.

I’m interested in why these stories have so much traction right now. I doubt it has very much to do with us being near a tipping point in the emergence of AI. I suspect that we’re using fiction to talk about the present, as I wrote about in last week’s blog. The robots are a metaphor, but for what?

Humanity being subjugated by large, rapidly expanding non-human entities that can collectively out-think, out-manoeuvre us, and couldn’t give a toss whether we live or die. Why does that strike a chord with us, here and now?

Look around. I could throw in a few suggestive words at this point, like multi-national corporation, government, banking crisis, and post-Snowdon era. But that’s just my take on the story. What’s yours?

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