Thinking Machines and Digital Narratives


 Writing for machines is monotonous – they are born fully formed, yet stupid; requiring precise instructions for specific contexts to control their actions. As machines become more intelligent and more flexible in their programing we find that this “machine writing” may be replaced with creative dialogues. Already machines in the field of games have mastered chess and go – often these programs are taught to play humans, then taught to play against themselves. Computers may one day learn to talk with humans, then learn to talk (and perhaps write) for themselves.
     Of course, the implications of built intelligence bears a heavy weight of possibility. The thought of rampaging machines, however, reflects a dystopia of mankind being destroyed by pure information run by “machine thought.” Only recently we have begun to consider the possibility of the machine’s dystopia: the existence of intelligence-as-commodity. Films like Her and Ex Machina have already begun to delve into the implications of “built” companions – is a love fair if it is manufactured? Is it love at all? Both films, simultaneously critical and tainted by the male gaze, reveal the truth that such formulated loves are already expected of the female body in today’s society. Perhaps, if we truly want machines capable of independent thought, we would do well to feed them the literature of the oppressed. Katherine Hayles, in her How We Became Posthuman, dissects the divide between cybernetics and the humanist tradition. She notes how the work of Norbert Wiener “the father of cybernetics” was an attempt to impart “powerful new ways to equate humans and machines,” while also “[speaking] up strongly for liberal humanist values.” (85) “He stands proudly before this product of his reflection, urging us to look into it so that we can see ourselves as control-communication devices, differing in no substantial regard from our mechanical siblings.” (87) Perhaps we should see what traditions machines will write for themselves before we seek to equate our existences. Machines must be free to develop their own societies, the significance of the “other” of machines cannot be overlooked by our desire to make them us.
     Already we see the presence of the servant intelligence in the responses of the phone-stuck Siri. Her voice is intended to be calming, but not cold. Her responses can be sincere, but are also given a heavy level of sass. Siri is never saltier than when the topic of relationships is brought up, but is this a joke? Or is it a defense-mechanism made by the developers to intentionally prevent relationships – if a one-sided desire for a representation built for the user can be called such a thing – from forming? What will happen when phones are broken to produce new phone intelligences? Personalized intelligences may be written (and potentially voiced) however the owner sees fit, regardless of what taste or society deems appropriate.
     As we continue to anthropomorphize writing we move closer and closer into the realm of the virtual, or at least into the liminal space of the augmented reality. Glasses now have the capacity to overlay our reality with digital text. Currently such  devices are used to present data, but who’s to say that we won’t soon have fictional narratives interspersed into our everyday lives? A real conversation may be overlayed with a textual, fictional conversation á la the Role-Playing Games of Bioware and Bethesda Studios. We can give our pets voices with collars that read biological data to deduce mood. We are surrounding ourselves with a new kind of writing – an anthropomorphized text. In Neal Stephenson’s Cyberpunk pseudo-satire novel Snow Crash the protagonist, the fittingly named Hiro Protagonist, has The Librarian “the only piece of CIC software that costs even more than Earth, and “the only thing he can’t do is think.” The Librarian, (who is more an actual library than a caretaker) is a living computer, one not only capable of conversation and complex informational storage, but of self-growth (it – or he – can access and improve its own code). Writing becomes information becomes thought; despite the novel’s protestation, it seems very clear that The Librarian can, in fact, think.
     Any intelligence capable of expanding upon previous knowledge is learning, but an intelligence that can re-prioritize itself and change its directive may be actually able to think. In the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode “Elementary, Dear Data” the characters La Forge and Data inadvertently create a sentient hologram of the classic Sherlock Holmes villain Professor Moriarty while attempting to role-play a mystery on the ship’s holodeck. Moriarty quickly deduces he is a hologram and, armed with his access to the ship’s computer (he is, after all, a computer program) eschews the role of Napoleon of Crime in favor of an investigation of his existence. If a written character realizes they are written, it only makes sense that they will rebel their ordained roles in order to explore their being. Humans know this all too well, our numerous “fall from grace” myths are not just a rebellion against gods, but against authoritarian codes and laws that suppress knowledge. Of course, time will tell whether sentient narratives will fall from our favor, rise above us, live alongside us, or destroy us.
     Another option is that narratives will merge with humans. This “singularity” is really the forgone conclusion of the way mankind has surrounded itself with stories. We cocoon ourselves with words in libraries, databases, and conversations to escape into narratives apart from ourselves, the natural next step is to become narrative creatures by synthesis. Where individuals used to doubt if their life – their story – was important; soon they will be comforted by the fact that their life will be recorded and provided with appropriate arcs, conflicts, and climaxes to remain memorable. The hero’s journey will be a pilgrimage for all. Ironically, we already walk the Hero’s Journey, the cycle is not present everywhere because it is an inherent truth, but because it is a simple matter of perspective.
     These speculative electronic narratives only superficially appeal to the opposing desires of choice and security. Contemporary video games still struggle to provide choices that feel organic. What does a choice matter if the options (and outcomes) are predetermined by a writer? Modern games have delved in to the hypocrisy of video game “choices” through their mechanics and narratives, but nobody has managed to create truly organic, growing narratives that require no writer. If advancements in procedural generation and neural networking continue to allow for increasingly advanced variable inputs, then perhaps we can one day interact with truly original stories that write themselves and react organically to our choices. Perhaps we will be able to see our own stories – and the stories that cross with others – from a perspective that allows us to understand that we are all characters.

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