Monday, December 21, 2020

Rosenberg & Khmelevska, Arrival Mind (2020)

Louis B. Rosenberg, art by Anastasia Khmelevska, Arrival Mind. Outland Publishing, 2020. Pp. 35. ISBN 978-1-7356685-0. $9.95.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

As a child in the 1980s, I had a heavily illustrated book called How Things Work that explained the physical mechanics of everyday items as well as some architecture. One such spread included an extensive underground shelter through which a family would safely (it claimed) survive for several years following a nuclear blast. The cognitive dissonance of those playful drawings and their morbid reality which I experienced then recently returned upon reading Arrival Mind, a tract-in-verse on the dangers inherent in artificial intelligence. Designed as a storybook for adults, the volume’s format risks, however, undercutting the very message it wants to send.

Arrival Mind likens our burgeoning artificial intelligence systems to aliens, home-grown from our own software rather than descending from spaceships above. Sometimes drawn as a round camera (not unlike the one on my work computer) and sometimes as a pink fleshy sort of tardigrade with an eye-stalk, the AI develops tendrils that encompass the whole world, continents and cities, while brandishing missiles. Meanwhile, humans are depicted either as pink-beige people (sitting on couches watching television or staring at their phones) or as black stick-figures. Images and text make the author’s point clear: we are giving precious and dangerous powers of control away while the many amuse themselves and the few focus on profit gains. Eventually humans, drawn at a protest march bearing signs saying “Humans First!” and “Pull it!”, realize their error, “But when time came to pull the plug / we couldn’t yank the cord… / … We needed him / for everything he was our overlord” (n.p.). The story concludes with a burnt-out husk of a city and the self-same eye camera looking directly at the reader.

Rosenberg is currently the Chief Scientist of Unanimous AI, an American tech company that “works to amplify human intelligence rather than replace it.” The company is known for its Swarm prediction software, which attracted some public notice in November 2020 for accurately forecasting a number of political elections in the U.S. Presumably, Rosenberg knows whereof he speaks in the essay that closes the book, ‘Prepare for Arrival.’ In this piece he states in prose, more straightforward than the previous verses, about what artificial intelligence actually is (“Artificial minds are not created by writing software…[i]nstead we feed huge data-sets into simple algorithms that automatically adjust themselves… until an intelligence emerges—an intelligence with inner workings that are too complex for us to comprehend” (n.p.)) and why they are dangerous (“we are already designing AI systems to oversee our communication networks and our power grids and our food supply” (n.p.)). As ever, human beings are our own worst enemies in ceding control for convenience and abdicating intellectual responsibilities in managing our own data.

As a reader, I have very mixed feelings as to whether Rosenberg succeeds in getting his message across. I was drawn to the quirkiness of the printed book as an object, and the familiar form of couplets whose playfulness contrasts at all times with their own message as well as the menace evoked by Khmelevska’s art. At the same time, I’m in some ways the ideal reader who is already very careful in guarding my data. Given the surplus of articles on data collection and manipulation that were published in the wake of the 2016 elections, surely the readership that needs to be met is the one that is drawn staring at the screens of television and phone. How then to get them to pick up this book—and again is this the way to do it? (I also can’t imagine this book accidentally finding itself in the hands of actual children as the art is much too forbidding, and surely a reasonable adult would hesitate to present a child with something with this many nukes in it. On the other hand, see my childhood experience above.) Nonetheless, Rosenberg’s point is made and made well.

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