Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence - Innovation should be checked by wisdomIn Brian Michael Bendis‘ story arc for Marvel’s 2013 graphic novel Age of Ultron, we are presented with an unexpected present that one would initially guess to be an alternate future. The artificial intelligence run amok known as Ultron has succeeded in destroying most of humanity. The handful of people who have survived in the world’s major cities have an even smaller handful of heroes among them, hiding underground and attempting to form a strategy to overcome Ultron. While Bendis deals with many themes in these pages, one of the most prominent is the need for what we view as progress. Bendis makes us privy to the internal dialogue of Hank Pym, the Avenger known as Ant-Man and the creator of Ultron, as he wrestles with the potential to benefit humanity that he sees in the concept of the Ultron artificial intelligence. The reader is left feeling…skeptical…of what Pym wants to achieve, understanding that his hopes are mis-placed. However, his motivations are clearly pure. He wants to help.

When faced with this extinction of humanity, Wolverine makes a more difficult choice. He wrestles with the decision of whether or not to travel back in time and end Pym’s life before he can create Ultron. The reader is even more dubious of these intentions, but Wolverine sees no other real alternative. The choice between one life or millions of lives is clear to him in that moment.

In the 2015 cinematic version of Age of Ultron, Tony Stark encourages Bruce Banner to assist in exploring the artificial intelligence that will become Ultron. He presses Banner to accept that this is who they are, the “mad scientists,” and must do what they do.

That is the intelligence that I would find artificial.

C.S. Lewis points out a sound philosophical truth: just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Yet, the logical fallacy that “can” must necessarily lead to “do” drives much of what we view today as progress. Humans as a race are always pressing forward, always confronted with our own mortality, seeking to make life more palatable not only for ourselves, but for our successors, our children. Once we discover that we are capable of something that we perceive as good, we feel an overwhelming drive to do that thing, hang the consequences.

Part of the tragedy of the character of the mad genius is that s/he works in isolation much of the time, experiencing an absence of feedback from other people about their plans. No one can see all of the failings of their own plans…everyone needs another party to hear their ideas, to proofread their work, as it were.

I think that our decisions, sometimes very important decisions, are becoming rushed. A desire to help others is a noble thing, but not every wonderful idea to better mankind turns out to be such a wonderful idea. In short, innovation must be checked by wisdom, and that wisdom is in short supply when crowd mentalities rush to gather around what is popular, without giving careful thought to what it is that they might be supporting.

I’ve been accused of being a futurist, because I become excited about the potential of what new discoveries and technologies can offer us. I see the problems that they solve, and dream of how much simpler life might be with that problem solved. Then I have to pause, I have to step back and examine whether or not my excitement is equivalent to Pym’s excitement as he dreams of Ultron. Sometimes I continue to see minimal negatives, and sometimes I feel uneasy, a misgiving that gives pause, and is usually justified when I think the issue through carefully. I’m no inventor…I don’t build exciting new things. I’m certainly no entrepreneur…while I dream of new stories and worlds, I don’t formulate new strategies to change the world as we know it. So, granted, I’m not in a position to truly understand many of these things. I am, however, a critical thinker. I believe in examining things through a lens of close observation. I think of what great science fiction writers have written, warning us of the potential outcomes of some of our innovations, and I recall Tillich’s observation that artists are the prophets of our time, warning of dangers before the rest of us can see them.

And I wonder about the dangers, unseen in the excitement over the good.

I wonder.

Photo, by Pascal, is public domain.

Superhero Role Models and Censorship

Wonder Woman lunchbox.When I was in elementary school, society was in the era of “don’t do drugs.” Each generation seems to have its own popular message that all school children must hear, and this was ours. Drugs symbolized all that were evil, and, like all important cultural messages, we entrusted this to our fictional role models to reinforce. I remember the day well. We were in my 5th grade classroom, and the teacher passed out the anti-drug-use comic books. They featured the New Teen Titans. Many of the kids in this classroom hadn’t heard of these characters, as they weren’t what one would really consider mainstream superheroes at the time. Having already developed my passion for the mythology, though, I thought that this was the perfect group to tell us the story that we needed to hear. I wasn’t in any sort of risk group to abuse substances, but eagerly dug into the pages to see how these heroes dealt with the problem.

Comic books provide us with a snapshot of where we are as a culture at any given point. They give us insight into ourselves, both our self-perception as well as our perception of others. They show us that to which we can aspire, an image of a larger truth, something outside of ourselves that is good, something in which we can believe. This is why superhero mythology is so powerful, why it has been so powerful long before the current trend in popular films, and will remain so when this trend has passed.

We need to believe in good. We want to believe in someone good who will defend us from the evil that we cannot overcome ourselves. We need a symbol of a light in our darkness. This is especially true of certain groups and populations that are a bit more deprived of strong, hopeful role models than others.

Because I believe that this is bigger than just pop culture, and gives us a window into that hope…that it contains a theological insight that will only serve to spark positive discussions lasting far beyond mere entertainment value if it is truly engaged…that I become so frustrated when some treat this as a trivial thing, as a problem, as something subject to censorship.

Because I believe this, my shock and frustration are beyond words at the ignorant and narrow-minded reaction of an elementary school who considered a girl’s Wonder Woman lunchbox a dress code violation. I would think that the public education institution…an institution in which I increasingly lose faith (a reaction only strengthened by news such as this)…would choose to engage this, to discuss it, to help students begin to formulate their own reactions and thoughts to the mythology at whatever level they are capable. Obviously, if a student is recognizing Wonder Woman as a strong female role model, which is an excellent choice, then she is already engaging the subject and identifying with positive aspects of the character. I would think that this sort of critical thinking would be encouraged early in education. Obviously I’m mistaken.

And, while I’m particularly frustrated with this situation because I hold superhero mythology so closely, I would have this reaction to the censorship of any fictional character.

Wonder Woman is known historically for her bracelets which defend from attack, and her Lasso of Truth…neither of which are offensive weapons. Captain America’s symbol is a shield, something that stands between evil and it’s victims. Superman, arguably the most well-recognized superhero, is an upright symbol of strength, having no aggressive imagery about him. Batman abhors firearms and refuses to use them. Blanket policies and so-called “zero-tolerance” mentalities, being void of critical thinking themselves, only serve as a barrier to developing critical thinking in an educational setting. In this case, defining (arbitrarily, it seems) all superheroes as violent characters simply ignores too much evidence to the contrary in the literature, to say nothing of examples specific to educational settings.

Certainly, superheroes engage in violent actions. They take extreme actions to handle situations that cannot be handled otherwise. The actions of superheroes would place them on the wrong side of many viewpoints in our modern culture, as a well-respected comics author points out.

The value in this is the healthy ideas and discussions that come from engaging in the material, from thinking it through. None of this can occur when we prohibit our children from engaging their role models.

It seems that the public education system would have larger priorities.

Image of the actual lunchbox, from Imgur.

Rock N’ Roll Dreams

Music in the message. A photo of the Hard Rock Cafe that I took in Washington, D.C.One Friday night a couple of years ago, Karen and I were sitting in a restaurant, and there was a family behind us. They had a daughter…I’m not sure how old she was, but I’d guess around 15. The daughter was talking about music, and she specifically mentioned the band Skid Row.

Have you ever had one phrase stop all the other sounds around you, so that you could only hear the person who said it? That’s how oddly impactful that name was to me.

You see, I went through my metal phase in high school, and Skid Row was one of my favorites during that rebellious period. I can still scream out the chorus to “Youth Gone Wild” with little thought involved. It was just funny to me that someone of that age would be conversant with 80’s metal (although I think Skid Row released a new album within the last couple of years).

A few days later, I saw a boy, younger than 15 by my best guess, wearing a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, the one that corresponded to their Appetite For Destruction album. I’m so clearly able to recall the edgy intro to “Welcome To The Jungle,” or the seducing guitar line to “Sweet Child Of Mine.” Again, I was struck by how…out of place…this seemed.

Also, I’m a little disturbed that oldies music for them is what I grew up on. Geez, this smells like a mid-life crisis.

I’ve seen music from that era used with some frequency in video games (relatively) recently, but some of this is a bit of niche in which to be interested in these days, confined, perhaps, to a random Pandora station listened to during commutes by…well, by someone like myself, I suppose. I’ll confess that I’m a bit of a snob in my assumptions that today’s pop music will never manage a resurrection like that, but will only fade into obscurity as music with poetry and emotion continues to take its place in…video games…

Please don’t disabuse me of that notion.

Seriously, though. Isn’t that funny?

Heroic Actions to End Bullying

Screenshot of Rocket Racoon STOMP Out Bullying coverI’ve been intending to write about this for over a week now (he says as he blows the dust off of his neglected blog), but have you seen these variant covers that Marvel comics did for STOMP Out Bullying? If you haven’t, take a moment to look.

Marvel Entertainment was approached by the national anti-bullying organization to assist in promoting National Bullying Awareness Month, and these variant covers were the result. Particularly a nice approach by Marvel, as variant covers tend to be the sorts of things that collectors pounce on, and thus I imagine these were received well.

As you see, the covers feature prominent super heroes from the Marvel universe intervening in the sorts of situations that children face in our school systems every day, as well as situations that follow them outside of the school system (such as cyberbullying). Having spent a great deal of time working with kids who didn’t fit in with the mainstream, I’ve seen how cruel children can be to each other. It only takes one to create a herd mentality that follows the leader in targeting the one without support. More than what I’ve seen in professional pursuits, however, I know what I experienced in school. I was a geek, a misfit, the one who tried to do well in his classes. I didn’t hang out with the popular crowd, because I wasn’t accepted by them. I know the terror that comes with being isolated in a stairwell between classes by someone intent on doing me harm based simply on the fact that I was different. I know the nightmares that follow, the intentional alteration of the routes that you take through the school building. I remember that all too well. There’s been much research into what causes this phenomenon, all of which is valuable, but I will tell you this…what the child being bullied needs is to feel empowered, to know they are not alone.

The nature of a hero is that he or she with more power fights the battle that we cannot. They defend us from the evil to which we would inevitably succumb were we to not find help. Look at the covers from Marvel carefully. The heroes aren’t reacting with force against the bullies. I particularly find this striking in the cover featuring the Hulk, one of the characters that we would immediately expect to retaliate against an act of aggression. Instead, they offering compassion to the child being bullied, offering companionship. In doing so, they are empowering that child, showing the child that they are not alone, and are, in fact, very much like very good people.

The child who is bullied needs that heroism, that support. And we, each of us, can be the hero who helps them in some capacity. We can reach out to offer them that companionship, to let them know that they are not alone and that they are in good company. This is not an activity isolated to professionals…in fact, what has consistently been proven is that family and family friends have more of a positive impact on children than professionals who may be involved in the child’s life. Part of the nature of a hero is that the desire to be a hero, to help the helpless, is wrapped up so deeply in the human experience. Initiatives like this help us to see the small ways in which each of us can act on the desire to be a hero to those in our lives less powerful than ourselves.

Transformations and Ponies

My Little Pony has gone through many transformations since it began

Our daughter has recently developed an affinity for My Little Pony. Which was sort of cool the first thousand times she watched it. Now, I tend to experience some neurosis whenever I hear the theme, but…such is parenthood.

I’ve met a lot of people who are into the My Little Pony culture, or Brony culture, as the case may be. It’s really interesting to hear them talk about this show that they love, a sort of specialized genre of geek…and I’m all about anything that’s geek (going through a bit of culture shock about the lack of it in the South, but that’s another post).
Whenever our daughter shows interest in watching something, Karen and I do our research. We’re very choosy about her screen time, and there’s a high bar of standards that something must pass to end up on her to-watch list (five programs have made it so far). So, we did our research into My Little Pony, also, because, while it’s been really cool to listen to people I’ve known discuss the show and it’s fan culture…there’s still those standards.
So, to the Interwebs we went.
I’m far from an expert, and I defer to anyone who is, but it’s really interesting to watch how the characters that comprise My Little Pony have changed in the years since they first released. In fact, the show as it exists today is quite different than it was at it’s debut, as is the toy line. The version that our daughter enjoys is not the most recent, which has a more anime flavor to it’s appearance and is still a bit frightening for a toddler, but rather a previous version with softer, friendlier ponies and very little-girl-friendly story lines about special wishes and dancing in the clouds. I love hearing her imagination run wild and watching her spin new tales based upon what she’s seen.

The Transformers have gone through many evolutions since they began

When I watched the first Transformers movie, I had a bit of an issue with Barricade, the Decepticon who assumes the guise of a police cruiser. My issue was that he hadn’t existed prior to this film incarnation. It’s no secret that I’m a purist, but my issue with Barricade was a knee-jerk reaction that I quickly released. I don’t hold the Transformers to the same standards that I do many other science fiction characters. The reason is that there was no canonical literature at their inception. They were a toy line first, and their literary and film history spun off of that. Many incarnations of the Transformers have existed (some less intriguing than others), and the evolution happens much more fluidly because all of the literature is adaptive. The same is true for My Little Pony. Partly due to licensing issues with the original copyright holders, and partly due to the natural fluidity as the creators allow conceptualized characters, rather than fully realized characters, to develop in front of us, the process in much less finalized. And, for perhaps exactly that reason, the process doesn’t really annoy purist geeks such as myself.

The process actually smacks quite a bit of improvisational theatre to me. I never really excelled at that particular discipline (I liked to be well-rehearsed), but I certainly appreciated it. And, while I don’t have the history with My Little Pony to appreciate it’s characters’ development, I’m sure that, as our daughter gets older, I will have.

I just hope that I can get that theme song out of my head…

Photo Attribution (in order): 

Joriel Jiminez under Creative Commons