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Columns

Killing people and robots

Thursday 6 August 2015

   Is man kind? No. Yes. Some people, sometimes—though I’d be hard pressed to offer any names.

AirBnB’s provocative new ad launched this summer, raised the issue, insisting we “go out there”, into the world, and find out.

Well we did. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association we are on a killing spree. Since the beginning of 2015 we have reversed 55 years of falling US homicide rates. At the annual meeting of the Major Cities Chiefs Association on Monday, police chiefs grappled with the fact that some cities are seeing a 50% increase in murders compared with last year. In New York, the progressive and ever enterprising Mayor de Blasio tried to put a positive spin on it: yes, homicides have increased, but overall, crime rates have fallen. 

Take only the past few weeks: massacres—in churches and movie theaters; shootings at parties, on bridges, on the sidewalk. Stabbings in parks. When that was not enough, our bloodlust migrated abroad, killing lions. This, strangely, incited threats of vigilantism far more than any massacre of people. Maybe because we all subconsciously believe ourselves to be more or less non-innocent, necessary participants in this war the world is.

On Twitter, Nina Bernstein (@NinaBernstein1) the New York Times’ investigative reporter quoted a criminal justice expert as saying: "America is snowballing into the most violent summer the country has seen in decades." 

After that, those who, a week ago, insisted in endorsing the petition for a global ban of A.I. war machines (robots who may altogether replace humans in warfare http://futureoflife.org/AI/open_letter_autonomous_weapons) seemed rather sweetly and idealistically utopian. We seem very enterprising in combining all the old and new ways in doing harm to one another. The weapons we avail ourselves of generally do not include weapons of mass destruction (the robots potential power is being compared to nuclear weapons, whose deterrence factor has proven to be strong over the past few decades—as most recently evoked by the Iran deal.) 

Besides, as it turns out, artificial intelligence and robots are at risk from us, not the reverse. A sweet Canadian robot named hitchBOT http://m.hitchbot.me was “killed” on August 1st, in Philadelphia, by two men in a car. hitchBOT’s journey had started in Salem, Massachusetts, and it had hoped to make it to San Francisco, California. 

Enter the real world: RIP hitchBOT. The site dedicated to the robot now writes: “Though hitchBOT’s trip ended abruptly, its love for humans will never fade.” 

Therefore, hitchBOT joins the ranks of dreamers, gurus and gods, from Prometheus to Gandhi and Socrates to Jesus, who believed in humanity—and were betrayed.

It’s not really a tragedy because hitchBOT was not alive alive—right? Without wanting to dip into the murky waters of what exactly constitutes life; when it starts; and which forms of life should we sanctify, hitchBOT’s killing is pretty scary. If we can’t refrain from harming a cute dreamer robot, then we certainly can’t refrain from doing it to a person (who, by definition is not so placidly loveable and malleable as a small robot.)

Two weeks ago—even though it feels a lifetime ago—the NYTimes investigative reporter, Sarah Maslin Nir, decided to respond on Twitter to people asking her about an attack launched against Nir’s groundbreaking nail salon series, that claimed the story was flawed. Even though a seasoned reporter, therefore fully cognizant of human nature, at some point @SarahMaslinNir seemed to break down: “Reminder: I'm a real person here. If I answer your questions, please don't try to hurt me and belittle me as a rejoinder.”

That was exactly the point. It made no difference to the trolls and haters, whether Nir was a person or a robot. They just wanted to hurt someone (even better that Nir is a well-known journalist) so they could feel powerful, important. 

It’s probably to be expected in a world where emotion and empathy are the new commodity: a “how to become, be, and experience” booming business. Its god are multiple self-help gurus and newspaper columnists; even academics who are probably already working on parlaying this year’s graduation speeches into memoirs. More bucks for same bang.

Yet we pretend things are different. We rationalize. We explain. One perpetrator is insane; the other is on synthetic marijuana; the others were gang-related; the others were people who hated the race/religion/taste in movies of other people.

Article upon article in the Press drone on about how understanding and knowledge, are prerequisites to empathy; about how eye-contact transforms abstract, insignificant empathy, into real care and emotion. Even the first artificial intelligence movie, involving a hedgehog, was redone to have the hedgehog stare into the eyes of the audience—that was the only time people really reacted to the movie. 

It’s pretty much what dogs, and wolves do, to influence us emotionally; and why many people can harm others from…a safety distance. They can do so, while retaining their peremptory delusions of “being nice.”

I suppose it is possible, in a world where what one “should do” is increasingly, with an aspirational, inspirational opaqueness, shoved down our throats. “How to be good”; “How to live wisely”; sometimes I wonder: do those people really know how life is, and they’re just dissembling to make money? Or have they been so insulated in their lives?

But I’m not sold that “walking in another’s shoes” or looking into their eyes, generates the quality of empathy that makes humans humane. What about that terrible story about the ex ultra Orthodox girl who was at a New York rooftop bar-restaurant and dived off the roof while the others sipped margharitas calmly, during and after the incident? What was the reasoning behind their impassiveness? Sh didn’t make eye-contact with them before leaping to her death? Or did they not consider that leaping off a tower would lead to her death?

Last night, in a drugstore, a rather manic girl was perusing vitamins with a sweetfaced girl. “People are nice here, really” she told the sweetfaced girl, treating her as if she were a recent transplant from another planet. “But be careful; not all people are nice; and most people anyway aren’t all that nice, you know? And it’s the summer, the rules are a bit suspended; so…” 

about the ebbing that occurs in your soul when you have no tickets to the show everyone else is at, so you climb to a high rock, overlooking the theater; but from there it is too far to allow for the suspension of reality, and all you can see are the sound machines and the guttural iron machinery of the theater’s steel skeleton. And, strangely, this makes you calmer, less in despair. It is all indeed like a dream, maybe even an actual dream, a prolonged midsummer’s dream. 

The truth is, the city is still too insulated in its midsummer languor, to go out in full armor and makeup, inhaling and invoking its myth. This summer especially, people appear more to have gone astray more than usual. Intense fierce looks alternate with somnambulistic ones.

Going out, the air is full with thick, soaking pellets of hot, heavy water. Half of the time it’s rain; the other half, drops of dirty water weighted down smog from the air conditioners whose thrum makes the city resound from afar as if an alien breed of bees has invaded it.

But we have the animals. They keep us sane. Primarily, our smart cats: a big NYTimes piece about piracy in the high seas, and how sailors are kept as slaves on big fishing vessels in East Asia, reverberated in our national psyche only as a revelation that America consumes most of the world’s global produce of fish. America as in Americats.

Still, here, the upper west, seems to have turned this summer into a refuge for bewildered wild ones: Two coyotes; one baby alligator ambling on the sidewalk; squirrels trying to cross Central Park West; racoons skittering down the underpass from Riverside Park to the boardwalk on the Hudson on 93rd; a family of groundhogs parked outside the Delacorte theater (probably not Shakespeare-philes, but fans of the “Shakespeare in the Park” New York experience); racoons careening down 81st all the way to Amsterdam avenue. Even the animals are flocking to New York, full of aspirations. 

Besides, it’s better to be an animal here in New York. You either get wined and dined by the NYPD, or adopted. We love our pets unconditionally. Maybe because they too, love us unconditionally, even if we’re monsters—or ghosts.

The homeless have increased. For some strange reason, on the East side of town they’re mostly middle-aged African American men. On the West side, they’re white and usually young—even if they no longer look it.

On the sidewalk, on the steps of churches, in the small street parks they lie on the ground between 73th and 105th. Many have created an illusion of privacy, using big cardboard containers. “Handle with care” says the writing on them. If you stop to think about it, your heart may break. So you just move on.

Teflon, I think they call it. 

Still better than anywhere else in the world. On the other side of the ocean, old dark Europe battles the demons engendered by its hypocrisy: the migrants; hordes of dispossessed and desparate fleeing countries of crisis, desiring what the powerful European nations considered a natural right only for themselves. 

Everything changes, massively each day. Even a few hours distance now suffice to obliterate the previous ones. 

The other day, in Sutton Place, outside an anonymous, Stalinist-esque creation of a highrise a woman, maybe a nurse because of the blue crocs and pants she was wearing, was speaking Russian into a cheap phone. And her face was contorted and she was heaving, in extreme grief or laughter. I don’t know which; I’m not sure she did, either.

Of course there are those moments (they usually involve dogs or kids, or both), precious to all of us, when we are soft, like the frozen yogurt we all devour now. Cheesily, I adore the NY cheescake flavor.

Yet you cannot afford to go too soft in New York City. We all have the same barbarian dream, of having it all…so there is always this in the city: a knowing hardening; and a softening; then, wham, the impermeable, breathtaking horizon. This anthithesis is especially overwhelming in Manhattan, I think.

Walking, through Brownsville or Morissiana in the Bronx, is what it always is. Maybe it’s a bit better actually because everyone’s out on the stoop, not just the people everyone else does not want to run into. Even though my skin tone, hair color, overall lack of New York swagger or heft that would earn me respect if not approval, assure that I will be noticed as an interloper, there is no moment I do not feel safe. Besides, the streets are overrun by tiny mischievous kids and shrieking mothers trying to reign them in. All I need to do is smile at them as I pass by. There is no neighborhood in the US whose natives will not ensure safe passage through to a woman smiling at their kid. The Freedom Tower shimmers beyond the housing projects. Some see it as a mirage, others don’t even look up.

On Park Avenue, in the 40s, two men in their early thirties moving along, hand in hand. Both handsome and exquisitely dressed, with cultured faces. One is elegantly disraught, almost screaming; the other nodding with a commiserating, slightly bored expression. 

“No matter how smart, how accomplished, how gorgeous you are….SHE DOESN’T CARE! BECAUSE SHE CAN AFFORD TO! She doesn’t care! Look at me, we all say. Look. At. Me. It makes no difference: she doesn’t care.”

It’s hot and hazy now. A convenient period for disappearing. But there is a cost for that too, so I console myself reading NASA’s articles on  brown dwarfs, sometimes called 'failed stars,' which can produce wondrously powerful aurora.

Late summer nights in Central Park are wonderful, and quite populated. Even so, especially in the more densely forested areas, we all instinctively hew closer not to the better lit routes, but to paths off the beaten track, where small lights from iPhones gleam like beacons. Apparently we all believe that smart phones make us safe people.

“Anything is possible in New York City” proclaims the city’s self-appointed chalk artist, Hauscha. I don’t think he realizes just how ambiguous this can be. 

Tonight will be the last night we will have Jon Stewart on our airwaves. The first, we will have Trump. 

Overall, it’s not a good summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
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