As Tom moved from project to project within the larger Promise enterprise, he gradually grew less wary of the Big Brother aspects of it all. In fact, it was not all that different from how Google claimed to work: ‘Do the right thing: don’t be evil. Honesty and integrity in all we do. Our business practices are beyond reproach. We make money by doing good things.’ Promise’s management had also embraced the politics of co-optation and recuperation: it actively absorbed skeptical or critical elements into its leadership as part of a proactive strategy to avoid public backlash. In fact, Tom often could not help thinking he had also been co-opted as part of that strategy. However, that consideration did not reduce his enthusiasm. On the contrary: as the Mindful MindTM applications became increasingly popular, Tom managed to convince the Board to start investing resources in an area which M’s creators had tried to avoid so far. Tom called it the sense-making business, but the Board quickly settled on the more business-like name of Personal Philosopher and, after some wrangling with the Patent and Trademark Office, the Promise team managed to obtain a trade mark registration for it and so it became the Personal PhilosopherTM project.
Tom had co-opted Paul in the project in a very early stage – as soon as he had the idea for it really. He had realized he would probably not be able to convince the Board on his own. Indeed, at first sight, the project did not seem to make sense. M had been built using a core behavioralist conceptual framework and its Mindful MindTM applications had perfected this approach in order to be able to address very specific issues, and very specific categories of people: employees, retirees, drug addicts,… Most of the individuals who had been involved in the early stages of the program were very skeptical of what Tom had in mind, which was very non-specific. Tom wanted to increase the degrees of freedom in the system drastically, and inject much more ambiguity into it. Some of the skeptics thought the experiment was rather innocent, and that it would only result in M behaving more like a chatterbot, instead of as a therapist. Others thought the lack of specificity in the objective function and rule base would result in the conversation spinning rapidly out of control and become nonsensical. In other words, they thought M would not be able to stand up to the Turing test for very long.
Paul was as skeptical but instinctively liked the project as a way to test M’s limits. In the end, it was more Tom’s enthusiasm than anything else which finally led to a project team being put together. The Board had made sure it also included some hard-core cynics. One of those cynics – a mathematical wizkid called Jon – had brought a couple of Nietzsche’s most famous titles – The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil – to the first formal meeting of the group and factually asked whether anyone of the people present had read these books. Two philosopher-members of the group raised their hands. Jon then took a note he had made and read a citation out of one these books: ‘From every point of view the erroneousness of the world in which we believe we live is the surest and firmest thing we can get our eyes on.’
He asked the philosophers where it came from and what it actually meant. They looked at each other and admitted they were not able to give the exact reference or context. However, one of them ventured to speak on it, only to be interrupted by the second one in a short discussion which obviously did not make sense to most around the table. Jon intervened and ended the discussion feeling vindicated: ‘So what are we trying to do here really? Even our distinguished philosopher friends here can’t agree on what madmen like Nietzsche actually wrote. I am not mincing my words. Nietzsche was a madman: he literally died from insanity. But so he’s a great philosopher it is said. And so you want us to program M so very normal people can talk about all of these weird views?’
Although Jon obviously took some liberty with the facts here, neither of the two philosophers dared to interrupt him.
Tom had come prepared however: ‘M also talks routinely about texts it has not read, and about authors about which it had little or no knowledge, except for some associations. In fact, that’s how M was programmed. When stuff is ambiguous – too ambiguous – we have fed M with intelligent summaries. It did not invent its personal philosophy: we programmed it. It can converse intelligently about topics of which it has no personal experience. As such, it’s very much like you and me, or even like the two distinguished professors of philosophy we have here: they have read a lot, different things than we, but – just like us, or M- they have not read all. It does not prevent them from articulating their own views of the world and their own place in it. It does not prevent them from helping others to formulate such views. I don’t see why we can’t move to the next level with M and develop some kind of meta-language which would enable her to understand that she – sorry, it – is also the product of learning, of being fed with assertions and facts which made her – sorry, I’ll use what I always used for her – what she is: a behavioral therapist. And so, yes, I feel we can let her evolve into more general things. She can become a philosopher too.’
Paul also usefully intervened. He felt he was in a better position to stop Jon, as they belonged to the same group within the larger program. He was rather blunt about it: ‘Jon, with all due respect, but I think this is not the place for such non-technical talk. This is a project meeting. Our very first one in fact. The questions you’re raising are the ones we have been fighting over with the Board. You know our answer to it. The deal is that – just as we have done with M – we would try to narrow our focus and delineate the area. This is a scoping exercise. Let’s focus on that. You have all received Tom’s presentation. If I am not mistaken, I did not see any reference to Nietzsche or nihilism or existentialism in it. But I am be mistaken. I would suggest we give him the floor now and limit our remarks to what he proposes in this regard. I’d suggest we’d be as constructive as possible in our remarks. Skepticism is warranted, but let’s stick to being critical of what we’re going to try to do, and not of what we’re not going to try to do.’
Tom had polished his presentation with Paul’s help. At the same time, he knew this was truly his presentation; he knew it did reflect his views on life and knowledge and everything philosophical in general. How could it be otherwise? He started by talking about the need to stay close to the concepts which had been key to the success of M and, in particular, the concept of learning.
‘Thanks, Paul. Let me start by saying that I feel we should take those questions which we ask ourselves, in school, or as adults, as a point of departure. It should be natural. We should encourage M to ask these questions herself. You know what I mean. She can be creative – even her creativity is programmed in a way. Most of these questions are triggered by what we learn in school, by the people who raise us – not only parents but, importantly, our peers. It’s nature and nurture, and we’re aware of that, and we actually have that desire to trace our questions back to that. What’s nature in us? What’s nurture? What made us who we are? This is the list of topics I am thinking of.’
He pulled up his first slide. It was titled ‘the philosophy of physics’, and it just listed lots of keywords with lots of Internet statistics which were supposed to measure human interest in it. He had some difficulty getting started, but became more confident as his audience did not seem to react negatively to what – at first – seemed a bit nonsensical.
‘First, the philosophy of science, or of physics in particular. We all vaguely know that, after a search of over 40 years, scientists finally confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle, a quantum excitation of the Higgs field, which gives mass to elementary particles. It is rather strange that there is relatively little public enthusiasm for this monumental discovery. It surely cannot be likened to the wave of popular culture which we associate with Einstein, and which started soon after the discovery already. Perhaps it’s because it was a European effort, and a team effort. There’s no discoverer associated with, and surely not the kind of absent-minded professor that Einstein was: ‘a cartoonist’s dream come true’, as Times put it. That being said, there’s an interest – as you can see from these statistics here. So it’s more than likely that an application which could make sense of it all in natural language would be a big hit. It could and should be supported by all of the popular technical and non-technical material that’s around. M can easily be programmed to selectively feed people with course material, designed to match their level of sophistication and their need, or not, for more detail. Speaking for myself, I sort of understand what the Schrodinger equation is all about, or even the concept of quantum tunneling, but what does it mean really for our understanding of the world? I also have some appreciation of the fact that reality is fundamentally different at the Planck scale – like the particularities of Bose-Einstein statistics are really weird at first sight – but then what does it mean? There are many other relevant philosophical questions. For example, what does the introduction of perturbation theory tell us – as philosophers thinking about how we perceive and explain the world I’d say? If we have to use approximation schemes to describe complex quantum systems in terms of simpler ones, what does that mean – I mean in philosophical terms, in our human understanding of the world? I mean… At the simplest level, M could just explain the different interpretations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but, at a more advanced level, it could also engage its interlocutors in a truly philosophical discussion on freedom and determinism. I mean… Well… I am sure our colleagues from the Philosophy Department here would agree that epistemology or even ontology are still relevant today, aren’t they?’
While only one of the two philosophers had a very vague understanding of Bose-Einstein statistics, and while both of them did not like Tom’s casual style of talking about serious things, they nodded in agreement.
‘Second, the philosophy of mind.’ Tom paused. ‘Well. I won’t be academic here but let me just make a few remarks out of my own interest in Buddhist philosophy. I hope that rings a bell with others here in the room and then let’s see what comes out of it. As you know, an important doctrine in Buddhist philosophy is the concept of anatta. That’s a Pāli word which literally means ‘non-self’, or absence of a separate self. Its opposite is atta, or ātman in Sanskrit, which represents the idea of a subjective Soul or Self that survives the death of the body. The latter idea – that of an individual soul or self that survives death – is rejected in Buddhist philosophy. Buddhists believe that what is normally thought of as the ‘self’ is nothing but an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents: skandhas. That reminds one of the bundle theory of David Hume which, in my view, is a more ‘western’ expression of the theory of skandhas. Hume’s bundle theory is an ontological theory as well. It’s about… Well… Objecthood. According to Hume, an object consists only of a collection (bundle) of properties and relations . According to bundle theory, an object consists of its properties and nothing more, thus neither can there be an object without properties nor can one even conceive of such an object. For example, bundle theory claims that thinking of an apple compels one also to think of its color, its shape, the fact that it is a kind of fruit, its cells, its taste, or of one of its other properties. Thus, the theory asserts that the apple is no more than the collection of its properties. In particular, according to Hume, there is no substance (or ‘essence’) in which the properties inhere. That makes sense, doesn’t it? So, according to this theory, we should look at ourselves as just being a bundle of things. There’s no real self. There’s no soul. So we die and that it’s really. Nothing left.’
At this point, one of the philosophers in the room was thinking this was a rather odd introduction to the philosophy of mind – and surely one that was not to the point – but he decided not to intervene. Tom looked at the audience but everyone seemed to listen rather respectfully and so he decided to just ramble on, while he pointed to a few statistics next to keywords to underscore that what he was talking about was actually relevant.
‘Now, we also have the theory of re-birth in Buddhism, and that’s where I think Buddhist philosophy is very contradictory. How can one reconcile the doctrine of re-birth with the anatta doctrine? I read a number of Buddhist authors but I feel they all engage in meaningless or contradictory metaphysical statements when you’re scrutinizing this topic. In the end, I feel that it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that the Buddhist doctrine of re-birth is nothing but a remnant from Buddhism’s roots in Hindu religion, and if one would want to accept Buddhism as a philosophy, one should do away with its purely religious elements. That does not mean the discussion is not relevant. On the contrary, we’re talking the relationship between religion and philosophy here. That’s the third topic I would advance as part of the scope of our project.’
As the third slide came up, which carried the ‘Philosophy of Religion and Morality’ title, the philosopher decided to finally intervene.
‘I am sorry to say mister but you haven’t actually said anything about the theory of mind so far, and I would object to your title, which amalgamates things: philosophy of religion and morality may be related, but is surely not one and the same. Is there any method or consistency in what you are presenting?’
Tom nodded: ‘I know. You’re right. As for the philosophy of mind, I assume all people in the room here are very intelligent and know a lot more about the philosophy of mind than I do and so that why I am saying all that much about it. I preferred a more intuitive approach. I mean, most of us here are experts in artificial intelligence. Do I need to talk about the philosophy of mind really? Jon, what do you think?’
Tom obviously tried to co-opt him. Jon laughed as he recognized the game Tom tried to play.
‘You’re right, Tom. I have no objections. I agree with our distinguished colleague here that you did not say anything about philosophy of mind really but so that’s probably not necessary indeed. I do agree the kind of stuff you are talking about is stuff that I would be interested in, and so I must assume the people for whom we’re going to try to re-build M so it can talk about such things will be interested too. I see the statistics. These are relevant. Very relevant. I start to get what you’re getting at. Do go on. I want to hear that religious stuff.’
‘Well… I’ll continue with this concept of soul and the idea of re-birth as for now. I think there is more to it than just Buddhism’s Hindu roots. I think it’s hard to deny that all doctrines of re-birth or reincarnation, whether they be Christian (or Jewish or Muslim), Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever, obviously also serve a moral purpose, just like the concepts of heaven and hell in Christianity do (or did), or like the concept of a Judgment Day in all Abrahamic religions, be they Christian (Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant), Islamic or Judaic. According to some of what I’ve read, it’s hard to see how one could firmly ‘ground’ moral theory and avoid hedonism without such a doctrine . However, I don’t think we need this ladder: in my view, moral theory does not need reincarnation theories or divine last judgments. And that’s where ethics comes in. I agree with our distinguished professor here that philosophy of religion and ethics are two very different things, so we’ve got like four proposed topics here.’
At this point, he thought it would be wise to stop and invite comments and questions. To his surprise, he had managed to convince cynical Jon, who responded first.
‘Frankly, Tom, when I read your papers on this, I did not think it would go anywhere. I did not see the conceptual framework, and that’s essential for building it all up. We need consistency in the language. Now I see consistency. The questions and topics you raise are all related in some way and, most importantly, I feel you’re using a conceptual and analytic framework which I feel we can incorporate into some kind of formal logic. I mean… Contemporary analytic philosophy deals with much of what you have mentioned: analytic metaphysics, analytic philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind and cognitive science,… I mean… Analytic philosophy today is more like a style of doing philosophy, not a program really or a set of substantive views. It’s going to be fun. The graphs and statistics you’ve got on your slides clearly show the web-search relevance. But are we going to have the resources for this? I mean, creating M was a 100 million dollar effort, and what we have done so far are minor adaptations really. You know we need critical mass for things like this. What do you think, Paul?’
Paul thought a while before he answered. He knew his answer would have impact on the credibility to the project.
‘It’s true we’ve got peanuts as resources for this project but so we know that and that it’s really. I’ve also told the Board that, even if we’d fail to develop a good product, we should do it, if only to further test M and see what we can do with it really. I mean…’
He paused and looked at Tom, and then back to all of the others at the table. What he had said so far, did obviously not signal a lot of moral support.
‘You know… Tom and I are very different people. Frankly, I don’t know where this is going to lead to. Nothing much probably. But it’s going to be fun indeed. Tom has been talking about artificial consciousness from the day we met. All of you know I don’t think that concept really adds anything to the discussion, if only because I never got a real good definition of what it entails. I also know most of you think exactly the same. That being said, I think it’s great we’ve got the chance to make a stab at it. It’s creative, and so we’re getting time and money for this. Not an awful lot but then I’d say: just don’t join if you don’t feel like it. But now I really want the others to speak. I feel like Tom, Jon and myself have been dominating this discussion and still we’ve got no real input as yet. I mean, we’ve got to get this thing going here. We’re going to do this project. What we’re discussing here is how.’
One of the other developers (a rather silent guy whom Tom didn’t know all that well) raised his hand and spoke up: ‘I agree with Tom and Paul and Jon it’s not all that different. We’ve built M to think and it works. Its thinking is conditioned by the source material, the rule base, the specifics of the inference engine and, most important of all, the objective function, which steers the conversation. In essence, we’re not going to have much of an objective function anymore, except for the usual things: M will need to determine when the conversation goes into a direction or subject of which it has little or no knowledge, or when its tone becomes unusual, and then it will have to steer the conversation back into more familiar ground – which is difficult in this case because all of it is unfamiliar to us too. I mean, I could understand the psychologists on the team when we developed M. I hope our philosophy colleagues here will be as useful as the psychologists and doctors. How do we go about it? I mean, I guess we need to know more about these things as well?’
While, on paper, Tom was the project leader, it was Paul who responded. Tom liked that, as it demonstrated commitment.
‘Well… The first thing is to make sure the philosophers understand you, the artificial intelligence community here on this project, because only then we can make sure you will understand them. There needs to be a language rapprochement from both sides. I’ll work on that and get that organized. I would suggest we consider this as a kick-off meeting only, and that we postpone the organization of the work-planning to a more informed meeting in a week or two from now. In the meanwhile, Tom and I – with the help of all of you – will work on a preliminary list of resource materials and mail it around. It will be mandatory reading before the next meeting. Can we agree on that?’
The philosophers obviously felt they had not talked enough – if at all – and, hence, they felt obliged to bore everyone else with further questions and comments. However, an hour or so later, Tom and Paul had their project, and two hours later, they were running in Central Park again.
‘So you’ve got your Pure Mind project now. That’s quite an achievement, Tom.’
‘I would not have had it without you, Paul. You stuck your neck out – for a guy who basically does not have the right profile for a project like this. I mean… It’s reputation for you too, and so… Thanks really. Today’s meeting went well because of you.’
Paul laughed: ‘I think I’ve warned everyone enough that it is bound to fail.’
‘I know you’ll make it happen. Promise is a guru already. We are just turning her into a philosopher now. In fact, I think it is the other way around. She was a philosopher already – even if her world view was fairly narrow so far. And so I think we’re turning her into a guru now.’
‘What’s a guru for you?’
‘A guru is a general word for a teacher – or a counselor. Pretty much what she was doing – a therapist let’s say. That’s what she is now. But true gurus are also spiritual leaders. That’s where philosophy and religion come in, isn’t it?’
‘So Promise will become a spiritual leader?’
‘Let’s see if we can make her one.’
‘You’re nuts, Tom. But I like your passion. You’re surely a leader. Perhaps you can be M’s guru. She’ll need one if she is to become one.’
‘Don’t be so flattering. I wish I knew what you know. You know everything. You’ve read all the books, and you continue to explore. You’re writing new books. If I am a guru, you must be God.’
Paul laughed. But he had to admit he enjoyed the compliment.