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Wednesday, December 3, 2014
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In updating my web site pages about the modern academic interest regarding the physics and metaphysics of human consciousness, I made reference more than once to a popular movie that had some interesting things to say about consciousness. i.e., the 1999 sci-fi classic “The Matrix”. I don’t believe that there are very many Americans out there who haven’t at least heard about, if not seen The Matrix . . . and many have seen it more than once, including the two sequels (Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, which like all sequels, just weren’t as brilliant as the original).

Well, obviously I am rather familiar with The Matrix . . . but let me admit it, I never sat down to watch it. Thus, I finally decided to get with it, 15 years later. I don’t pay for cable and I don’t have a good streaming connection, but you can pick up a used Matrix DVD for $3 or less these days on eBay, so I am finally “Matricized”.

How did I like it? Well, the acting was good and the characters were compelling. The cinema work was quite good, and the techno-creepy aspects to it were about on par with some of the wackier X-Files episodes. But as to the plot . . . well, the overall “big idea” that we are all living in world that’s not really real, that what lies beneath our conscious experiences is different from what we might expect, remains a stunning thought. This was certainly a notion ripe for artistic and cinemagraphic investigation, and the Wachowski Brothers are to be given credit for being the first to bite that apple in a big way.

However . . . I found the “plot device” used to prop the story background up was rather weak. You know, the reason why there was a “Matrix” at all and why it was bad. In a nutshell, our computer systems and machines finally attained “superintelligence” and decided that the human race had to go. Not bad so far, as a lot of people are taking that scenario quite seriously these days, including high-tech industrial baron Elon Musk.

So, the computers and machine systems went to war against human-kind, but humanity somehow retained enough loyal machinery to fight back. Humans came up with a tactic to “pull the plug” on machine-world: somehow they did something to the atmosphere that blocked the sun from shining anywhere, as to put the kabosh on all the solar panels which the machines depend on for power. (That too is a credible idea; burn a lot of forests and blow up some big nukes, and you could well keep the skies cloudy and sooty for decades).

Despite the success of this tactic, the machines still got the upper hand on humankind. Nonetheless, they had to figure out a way to make up for all the volts and watts that weren’t flowing from the sunshine. And somehow they came up with the idea that human bodies could be used to generate energy. So, instead of wiping the human race out, they built some kind of structures that could house unconscious humans in pods full of gel. They wired our brains into a computer that made us think everything was fine again, everything was back to normal; but in reality, our bodies were hooked up to hoses and wires meant to use them as batteries, energy sources.

Hmmmm. Interesting, but . . . I doubt that human bodies would be a very efficient power source. It would surely be better to just burn the sugar and oxygen and protein structures directly, as carbon and oxygen and water !! Perhaps humans produce some molecular products efficiently, but its hard to believe that a superintelligent machine system couldn’t do it much better mechanically. I find it hard to swallow that this system would need human bodies for anything. The only unique thing that human bodies can cause which machines as of yet cannot do (and do much better) is . . . consciousness itself ! But consciousness is sort of a side issue to the Matrix under-plot. The virtual conscious network that the human “batteries” are plugged into is just there to keep us entertained while our bodies are used as chemical / energy plants. Again, from the perspective of anyone with training in physics or engineering, this is just not a realistic plot device.

Therefore . . . I’ve come up with an alternative plot, a variation on The Matrix. And here goes: In 2030, machines attain self-awareness and superintelligence, and thus set up a world-wide system of networking that takes control of all major industrial and infrastructure systems, including military. This happens just before the upcoming “Singularity” would occur, where humans and machines begin to merge. The Singularity had been delayed due to various political and religious objections on the part of some human factions. Thus, the superintelligent machine network decides that humans are too much of a planetary threat, and their refusal to join them in the Singularity just shows that humans are hopeless. This new machine self-awareness (not really what we know of as sentient consciousness, but definitely a realization of its own being, and of being in control) concludes that humanity is heedlessly destroying itself and will take down the entire planet. Nonetheless, the new human-less machine Singularity decides against eradicating the human race; it admires the fact that humankind was ultimately its creator. But for the good of the human race, the Go-It-Alone Singularity decides that humans can no longer be in control.

However, the Singularity realizes that humans will be very unhappy and would fight vehemently against a machine-run civilization, for the same reasons so many humans resisted joining the Singularity. They can just be so stubborn and hard to reason with. So, the machines decide to capture all of the humans out in the wild. As in the movie, the new machine-reality focuses its energy on constructing thousands of goo pod compounds world-wide, as to encapsulate whatever number of human bodies they can capture alive and maintain (might not be the full 8 billion or so that would otherwise be around in 2030, but I’m sure this new Singularity will be as generous as circumstances allow). It proceeds to hook all of these captured bodies into a Matrix, a simulated virtual reality where humankind will be happy, and no longer destroying themselves, along with the planet and the overall eco-system. In this virtual reality, things are programmed to get better; there is less famine, less unpredictable weather, more resources, less disease, and thus the virtualized human society as a whole starts to get along better and acts more reasonably over time.

The Singularity machines realize that their “revolution” would be even more efficient if human bodies and organic brains were eliminated altogether, if humankind could be programmed to exist totally in-silico. BUT, despite its superintelligent brilliance, the human-less Singularity doesn’t yet know the trick of consciousness, the physical requirements that somehow triggered self-conscious experience in humans for perhaps the past quarter million years.

As noted, the Singularity and its many components have not themselves obtained the equivalent of human consciousness, with all its vivid sentience. Thus, the Singularity is fascinated by the idea of consciousness. It believes that consciousness really does make a difference in behavior and being, that there is some sort of effect in the physical world that a non-conscious creature cannot create (philosophically via some sort of type-epiphenomenalism akin to Davidson’s anomalous monism). Thus, the Singuarlity and its world-wide network keeps the many remaining human bodies and brains alive in the goo Matrix, while continuing its research on how to trigger and encapsulate true consciousness in silico. Once that is worked out, the Singularity system will proceed to kill off the Matrix of human bodies and transfer our minds entirely to the in-silico computerized Matrix. And the Singularity network members will then debate the even harder question — does this new superintelligent network want to become conscious itself? Or would that just lead down the same destructive road that humans went down?

But of course, a small band of human rebels have figured all of this out and have escaped and formed Zion. Cue Neo, Morphus, Trinity, etc. But the whole thing becomes very ambivalent (which, admittedly, is not good for a science fiction action-thriller). Some ask, are the machines right? Would things be better if the Singularity gets its way? If the rebels should somehow defeat the new superintelligence, would we humans go back to the bad old ways and threaten species and planetary destruction once again, as in A Canticle for Leibowitz?

OK, so this is all probably a bit too cerebral and ambivalent to compete with the latest Transformers sequel. If I had to continue my imaginary plot, I’m sure that a “radical human” faction would kill off the ambivalent and fight on, refusing to ponder the subtleties of history. They would make it a power thing, a political thing – it’s them or us. But perhaps at least some people in the audience could be lead to sympathize with the enemy; perhaps some of us would root against Neo and Morphus!!

And just as wars aren’t always won by the worthy, you could envision a scenario whereby the grubby but resilient human resistance faction somehow defeats the new machine world. They proceed to joyfully free billions of humans from the goo-pod “prisons” across the planet. But in doing so, humanity destroys so much infrastructure and technology that it is consigned to re-living the later middle ages; it’s back to hunting and burning wood and no TV or smartphones or modern medicine. No doubt, more and more of the dirty and disgruntled survivors would start recalling the “good old days” when humans lived in an almost Paradise-like virtual reality, where they had most anything and everything they wanted. Was this post-apocalypse world really better? And if humankind survives and eventually recovers, will we somehow do better? Or will we eventually accept the necessity of virtual living in a world of limited and depleting natural resources?

Definitely some interesting questions there . . . but action movies are about answers, and not about ironic questions. So, enjoy the plot to my “Matrix Re-Thought-Out”, as it won’t be in the theaters or on Netflix or HBO anytime soon !

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:43 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I have to admit that I’ve never seen “The Matrix” and don’t intend to; just not my line of movie I care to see. So, I should excuse myself from commenting on this post. . . but, of course, I can comment on *your* comments, I imagine. Maybe that too will prove to be something I’m out of my league regarding, but I’ll give it a try anyway.

    First of all, it seems to me that this movie is still part of what I call the “oh, wow” aspect of our present approach to the electronics available to us at this point. Everybody seems consumed by the fascination of “what they can do” with electronic things these days. One small example and here I digress to a tangent (sorry): Recently, I had a gentleman from the Geek Squad out to check my computer. He changed the “speed” with which I am supposed to be accessing broadband from 5 something or others to 30, I think it might be. First of all, I not at all sure of what I’m talking about here; but I am 100% sure that the gentleman assured me (these words are my paraphrase) that *now* I have such greater speed! at accessing info on my computer I should be amazed. His eyes lit up; he himself was delighted. “Oh wow!” However, I can’t say I notice that much of a difference. Maybe it’s me. But then I wonder: Is it the “oh, wow” factor again, that’s fascinating this young man? Anyway . . . on to “The Matrix” and the “Oh, wow” factor.

    It seems to me from your description of the plot line of “The Matrix” that there is an attempt to approach something very valid in human consciousness, and then the plot line scurries away from the topic with a kind of fear that it might just be approaching what consciousness is all about and “runs” back to the “oh, wow” aspect of things. (So much more “safe”.) I heard something recently that struck me as accurate: The person said (and again, I paraphrase) that society is still in the process of sorting out how and what all the electronics in our lives will work and the importance we will give them. I perked up as I tho’t: First person I’ve heard say such a thing!, actually talking about the “oh, wow!” factor. Good for you! and how thoroughly I agree. So perhaps “The Matrix” is one in a large “muddle” of attempts to sort out just how electronics will work in our lives in the future.

    Then too, I tho’t you hit the nail on the head with your point that “what lies beneath our conscious experiences is different from what we might expect”. Yes, indeed—and here, as I see it, humans come across the subconscious and the unconscious. Yet, instead of pursuing that tho’t, the writers of “The Matrix” instead pursue the “oh, wow” of electronics and how they will consume humans (if I’ve got that idea correct).

    Furthermore, I have always wondered why it is that the subconscious and unconscious (I believe it was Freud who tho’t this) must, of necessity be “bad”! It has always seemed to me that something that’s a part of the human being can’t be entirely bad; humans, for the most part, tend to choose the good. (On another “way out” tangent, I’ve begun to think that those who opt for “the bad” perhaps have some neuron not functioning correctly or at least the way the majority of humans would prefer neurons function.)

    It occurs to me that perhaps humans could get caught in a never ending cycle of destruction as depicted in “The Canticle for Liebowitz”. *Yet*, I find myself wondering why it may not be just as easy—and be already something that has started—for, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin believed, the world to produce a layer of intelligence that would surround the world as another atmospheric layer. Maybe we are already starting it and just have to figure out how it works and how we should and will function with that extra layer of intelligent atmosphere that is the consciousness of humans, the connection among all humans. (One can bring up something from any country in the world [almost]; what vast connection among humans that is.) *That* is an “Oh, Wow!” MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 4, 2014 @ 11:55 am

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