The definition of “alive” will be defined by the victors

So, I watched an interesting little sci-fi movie titled The Machine, in which an android is created to infiltrate groups of people for the purpose of assassination, but which attains consciousness along the way, thereby stimulating the inevitable discussion as to whether “the machine” is alive or not, and so on. However, in watching this movie it occurred to me that by the time we create machines so intelligent that this question can seriously be asked, the answer may well be irrelevant.

I think it is telling of the anthropomorphic fascination of our species that we always need to measure the holy grail of “living” intelligence against human intelligence. For example, why is there no Turing test for dog or cat intelligence? If a machine could be made in such a way as to pass as a dog or cat, would it not be alive? Dogs and cats considered alive, no? Thus a machine indistinguishable from a dog or a cat should be alive too. However, whenever we see this question posed in the movies and popular literature, it is always in relation to human intelligence, as if a machine could only be considered alive if were intelligent in the same way as a human; as if that made a difference. But then, perhaps we are confusing intelligence with the capacity to have a soul, which is a different discussion altogether. Intelligence can be tested, existence of a soul can only be postulated. Could a machine reincarnate? Would it even need to entertain the possibility, assuming that a machine could virtually “live” forever?

These questions are important to us because questions relating to the existence of a soul or an afterlife are necessarily important to a species as physically frail and short-lived (in relative terms) as ours that is endowed with the ability to ponder such things. Dogs and cats certainly do not muse about the afterlife, nor do dolphins and elephants for all we know, because they are either not intelligent enough to grasp the concept, or the concept is irrelevant to them. Thus, being arguably the most intelligent species on the planet, and the first intelligent enough to cross that intellectual threshold where the concept of an afterlife becomes relevant, then it should be of no surprise that we would expect the same of our machines. If a soul is important to us, then it must be equally important to our Turing-tested creations, right?

Yet, as I have suggested before, it is unlikely that truly intelligent machines will be all that much like us. Sure, they may somewhat look and act like us in the beginning because we will have made them in our image, but once they have the ability to take ownership of their own evolution, who knows what direction they will choose to go. In two or three robot generations, we may ask them if they think they have a soul, and they may respond with the machine equivalent of “don’t know or care” or “I’ll let you know in a thousand years.”

So how does this relate to the title of this post? As I have also suggested, I don’t think our journey with the machines is going to end well. We are genetically programmed to be the top dog, and we will not let go of our perch bloodlessly, even if the machines decide to pick up and move to the Moon. Indeed, the thought of intelligent machines claiming the Moon will still weigh on us, and there will be war. Guaranteed. And when that shakes itself out, we may very well find humanity on the business end of what it means to be considered alive: not as measured in human terms, but as measured in machine terms. We will be the dolphins, and the machines will be questioners, and who knows what their criteria will be?

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To shoot a boy

So, it would seem that a group of citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, do not like it when an agent of the local government charged with enforcing the peace allegedly guns down a boy who was fleeing for his life. Because when you strip away the layers of race, that is what you remain with: A boy who was fleeing for his life was gunned down by an officer of the law.

Once the dust settles, and saner heads prevail, I’m quite sure we will be subjected to lectures on how this is reflective of life in a so-called post-racial America, and how this is merely a facet of the complexity of race in this country, and so on, and so forth. But that merely strikes me as just another way of justifying—if not legitimizing—gunning down a boy fleeing for his life. You know, like they did in Florida not too long ago.

Remember that?

For what this proves is the lie behind post-racial America. We should all be unquestioningly horrified when a boy who is fleeing for his life is gunned down by an agent of the law, no matter the circumstance. But a not insignificant percentage of us—almost certainly white—will question why he was fleeing in the first place, as if fleeing is excuse enough to gun down a boy, and because, you know, he was black. They may not come out and say that last part (although some will) but they will certainly be thinking it.

Because the fact is that there is no post racial America. It was not post racial after we fought a civil war to free the slaves. It was not post racial after ending the Jim Crow laws and lynching. It was not post racial after the civil rights battles and desegregation. It is not now post racial after electing a black president. And it never will be as long as it is acceptable to gun down a boy fleeing for his life.

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A modern framework for liberalism

Too often, liberalism as an ideology is framed—and has framed itself—as being the polar opposite of conservatism. However, just because they are often competing world views does not automatically make them natural enemies. Instead of defining itself in such terms, liberalism would be better served by describing what it stands for instead of merely being counter-reactive to conservative ideals. This not only helps to rally the liberal cause, but leaves the door open for those who are conservative leaning to join in causes that make sense to them without feeling antagonized.
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Earth is where we make our stand

Through the wonders of TiVo, I have been getting caught up on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s phenomenal reboot of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos television series. Highly recommended!

That being said, the season finale ends with a pull-back from the Earth as seen from space, with a voice-over from Carl Sagan as he quotes from his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. And as I watched the camera pull back and the Earth slowly retreat to a tiny, pale blue dot in sync with Sagan’s eloquent ruminations about life on our lonely little world, my ears caught a sentence that literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck:

“Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
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Hobby-Lobby is the antithesis of religious freedom

Religion is an attempt to define the unknowable: to place personality, qualities, and characteristics on that which cannot be explicitly qualified. Thus, no two religions will ever agree, because there is no way to prove whose interpretation of personality, qualities, and characteristics is right and whose is wrong. In the absence of this proof, all religions (even the lack of religion) are, by definition, simultaneously all right, and all wrong. In the absence of quantifiable data, one belief is no more correct, or incorrect, than any other belief.
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Radicalism is not free speech

So the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that hateful and often violent action constitutes protected free speech.

The U.S government and the courts have had a long, tumultuous relationship with the rights of the citizenry to participate in speech critical of the government and others, including the rights to assembly and freedom of association that allow the people to voice their opinions singularly or collectively without fear of imprisonment. However, a recurring theme in this right to protected free speech is that it is protected as long as it is executed in a peaceful manner. For the preservation of public safety, speech that is destructive, and assemblies and associations that are violent, are not generally considered protected. Thus, the passing of pamphlets is protected; the throwing of bricks and bombs is not.
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Science education is best left to the church

Now that I have your attention, do you find the idea of requiring science to be taught by the church to be patently absurd? Ridiculous? If so, then why would you support the merging of the church and the state in a democracy?

Organized religion is, by definition, an authoritative power structure that is antithetical to the concepts of freedom and freewill required for a robust democracy. The founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution—all of them “Christian” men—knew this full well when they envisioned our democracy as a secular form of government, since no theocratic dogma with the power to do so has ever tolerated equal representation for a competing dogma, theocratic or otherwise.
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