The Uncanny Absurdity of the Uncanny Valley

The problem with programming a machine to feel for others is, of course, that the machine might start to develop other feelings, ones unproductive to her work.  But Klara’s evolving emotions are crucial to our understanding of the novel as a technology of interiority.  The reader experiences Klara’s care for Josie through Klara’s empathetic narration, in which her desire to see Josie flourish and grow fails to completely suppress Klara’s desires.   [From a review by Jane Hu in the New York Review of Books.  2021-11-04]

I am completely baffled that a Nobel Prize winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro, would be responsible for such rubbish, or that a reviewer in the New York Review of Books would countenance such an observation.

I thought, perhaps Klara is a biological creation, as the replicants in “Blade Runner” may be (it’s not completely clear that they are).   When Roy Batty demands “more life”, he is expressing a desire, a want, an aspiration, which no machine can ever have.  That might be intriguing, but, of course, that essentially makes an argument for slavery.

But no: Klara is a robot.  She is at times relegated to a closet.  In the end, when Josie goes off to college, she is sent to a dump.

It appears that Ishiguro wants it both ways, in which case, he has failed as a novelist (I haven’t read the book– so I’ll come back to that when I do).  If, inevitably, humans become aware (as they are in the book) of the fact that robots have feelings, they won’t, presumably, leave them in the closet.  I leave open one possibility: Ishiguro has imagined a new  kind of relationship that the humans experience with their robots that blurs the distinction between mechanical and emotional.  But that does not seem likely given that the characters in “Klara and the Sun” sincerely believe that Klara does have feelings and treat her accordingly.  (It is perceived as an act of kindness when one of Josie’s friends prevents another of her friends from tossing Klara into the air to see if she can land on her feet.)  On the other hand, they put her in the closet.  Which is it?

Yes, many smart people really believe that it is possible for a robot to have feelings.  The theoretical framework for this concept rests on the perverse idea that human consciousness is formed by a quasi-mechanical process that takes place in dense particles.  If you have enough dense particles, eventually a “consciousness” can develop.  This fundamental to the belief in AI.

AI, my friends, is a myth.  Come back to me in 20 or 50 years and you will see I am right.

I have argued that this process cannot possibly produce a being with an aspiration or desire or emotion or any other biological characteristic.  Where does it come from?  How can you add 1 plus 1 and get 5?  There is no component of feeling or consciousness in any of the raw elements of a machine.  No matter how many 1’s and 0’s are in a computer brain, they cannot produce a 2: only a sequence of 1’s and 0’s.   Biological cells are not mechanical: they aspire to eat, to consume, to fuck, to absorb, to kill.   A robot only ever does what it is programmed to do“.  Klara can never be sad about losing her relationship to Josie because she could never have been glad to have it in the first place, and Ishiguro’s concept is absurd and Jane Hu’s review is a hollow, empty shell of misconceived rubble.

In “Never Let Me Go” the Klara’s are biological creations who exist only to give up their organs to other humans.  It’s a strange, alien concept (to us at the moment, in the civilized part of the “civilized” part of the world) which he made believable and sad.  I have no problem believing that such a circumstance could, at least theoretically, exist.

There is no way, theoretical or otherwise, a robot with feelings will ever exist.  Whatever we get– and I’m sure we’ll get it, given our surrender to every commercialization of every device ever– will be something mimics feelings which many stupid people will believe are just as real as their own.

Fuck them.  This is a dangerous course of intellectual development which, if it happens, will have dire consequences.

 

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