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I’m not a number! Hold on, I’m an algorithm – allegedly….

April 10, 2017

I rarely drink wine. One minus point. I love Marmite, but I don’t eat a spoonful a day. Half a plus point. I drive a diesel car. Six minus points. I eat five a day, but not ten a day. One plus point. I walk at least twenty miles a week. Three plus points. I pour cream over my porridge. One plus point for the porridge, one minus point for the cream. I spend too much time on the web reading about Donald Trump. Two minus points for raised blood pressure. I fly into a rage whenever anyone mentions Brexit. Three minus points.

A hundred other facts about my lifestyle, my genetic preconditioning, my upbringing, my opinions and my relationships with others can be reduced to a set of numbers. Numbers which can be used to sell to me, to persuade me to vote for one party or another, to predict how long I’m going to live and to work out whether I’m a threat to national security.

If you read books like Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, you might end up convinced that there is no god and we have no souls. Moreover we don’t even have an essential self to which we can be faithful, and efforts to strip away the non-essentials of life in order to connect with that self are therefore futile.

We are, according to the script, biological algorithms. Lots of them, cohabiting, interacting and occasionally fighting with each other. If anyone could actually figure out how these algorithms work, it would be possible to predict our behaviour, to modify it and ultimately control it.

Plenty of research into brain function and biological structure is leading us to that conclusion. According to Harari and the scientists whose work he cites, we are conscious, but machines are not – yet. And anyway, our consciousness may turn out to be irrelevant when machines become infinitely more intelligent than we are. Because consciousness is merely the end product of an algorithm, right?

Machines don’t care about global warming, the end of our species, and whether or not I live to be ninety. They don’t care about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They only care about what they’re ordered to accomplish. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as care. Only instructions. And since they’re now capable of learning without any prompting from us, who knows what conclusions they might come to which will impact on us humans who have grown dependent on them?

We should therefore be careful what we instruct them to do. And, in a myriad of ways, be careful what we wish for.

Harari claims that we are witnessing the birth of the first new religion since humanism. For him, a religion is purely a belief system – the divine doesn’t come into it. Humanism is all about us. We are the pinnacle of life. Our lives are sacred, and we have an inalienable right to self-expression, self-development and self-fulfilment.

Our new religion is Dataism. We are part of an infinite, interconnected web of numbers. Of codes, genetic or artificial. We should be sharing our codes with others – humans and machines – and by doing so we will produce health and happiness for the many. By integrating with machines, we will become super-humans. Eventually the super-humans – or at least those of us with the wealth and the power – will evolve into an oligarchy, whereas the rest of us will potter along, seduced into passive compliance by machines that know us better than we know ourselves.

By implication, those of us who decline to share our data – our likes and dislikes, our strengths and weaknesses, our DNA – will become marginalised, and perhaps actively ostracised. If we are reluctant to join the data revolution, we will not share in its bounties. We will live in metaphorical mud huts, swept away by seasonal floods and subject to disease and disaster from which we have no protection.

Observers of Big Data cite Brexit and Donald Trump as fruits of our ability to predict and influence behaviour using numbers. The data owners use Facebook likes to understand us better than we understand ourselves. They target us with messages – fake or otherwise – that reinforce our prejudices. They make promises that chime with our fears – big walls, taking back control, stopping immigration, banning Muslims. Insert these messages at a cellular level – not at groups of people but at individuals living in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Sunderland. The votes thus garnered then tip the balance and produce the desired result.

All this sounds pretty logical if you have no faith in any particular god, and you live your life surrounded by things that connect with each other without your having to make any particular effort – Laptops, IPads, Facebook, Amazon, online banking, Skype. And you could argue that even the millions of people for whom belief in the divine – in a God who make rules, who approves and disapproves, and who hands out brownie points to the devout – provides a fundamental structure for living, are being seduced by Big Data without even being aware of it.

But the idea of Dataism falls apart somewhat when you consider that the Masters of the Data Universe saw fit to achieve the election to the most powerful office in the world of the ultimate collection of screwed-up algorithms – an ignorant, unpredictable podgeblaster called Donald Trump – who is quite capable of reducing all our treasured data to little more than particles of radioactive silicon. It doesn’t seem so inevitable when you consider that a significant minority of our planet’s population have no connection to or interest in the great river of data, and are concerned only with getting enough to eat and protecting themselves from earthquake and famine. And when you consider that even if Trump doesn’t blow up the world, that minority will still have to contend with the effects of climate change as cities are swamped and fields turn to desert. Indeed, the minority might become a majority in the not too distant future.

Should the unthinkable not happen, and wildly unstable biological algorithms fail to bring us to our knees, we may yet become subordinated to unconscious intelligence and ultimately eliminated. So be it.

I’m not one of the privileged few who will ascend to super-humanity. And no scientist will be able to unravel the contradictions of my personality in my lifetime. If it comforts me to believe in some form of divinely inspired code of behaviour, I shall continue to do so. If my lifestyle leads me to live a shorter life than those who measure their blood pressure, their heart rate, their food intake and the number of steps they take in a given day, then to hell with the data. And to hell with everyone else’s data. What will happen will happen.

Not that I don’t care. I find these theories fascinating. I find data fascinating. I’m endlessly interested in the quirks of human nature – also known as psychology. And since it’s given to me – and not to the machines that make my life easier – to care about people poisoned in Syria, about madness in the White House and sociopaths in the Kremlin, about family, friends, dogs, dolphins and endangered butterflies, I shall continue to do so without reflecting too deeply on why I care.

And don’t anybody try and tell me that from the perspective of a lowland gorilla, a Chinese river dolphin and any other endangered creature, life will be even more tenuous when the machines take over. It might even get better when the top predator shuffles off. At least machines are unlikely to use rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, to eat their way through a continent’s supply of buffalo or make jewellery out of elephant tusks. Yes, they might end up turning the planet into one vast industrial estate, but we’ll be long gone by that time.

Right now I have far more important things on which to pay attention. Glorious sunshine encouraging the leaves to emerge pristine in sharp colours on my trees. The two robins in my back garden visiting me to show me how to build a nest. The pleasure of my wife’s company and that of my children. Sergio Garcia’s heartwarming triumph in the US Masters. And profound gratitude that I’ve clocked up so many years and lived through so many crises without being blown up, gassed, starved or tortured to death. Yet not enough years to stop caring about those who haven’t been so fortunate.

If all that luck is down to an algorithm, I can live with the thought. And store it away with all the other algorithms.

I don’t know about you, but what I see every day is miracles and tragedies, joy and grief, contentment and sadness. If all that stuff is just an illusion, at least it’s my illusion. And that’s good enough for me.

2 Comments
  1. Tony Palys permalink

    Way back in 67 we were certainly having a serious identity issue, especially when preparing to “Join Up” with the prospect becoming a “Number” for 25 years …….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nW-bFGzNMXw

    • Well done Tony – you picked up the reference! One for our generation, I think….

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