Artificial Mankind – do we mean intelligence?  Is man “analog” or can he be digitized?

I have been imbibing a lot of “popular culture” lately on the subject of man, machines, digital “thought”, etc.

Whether it’s AMC’s “Humans”, FX’s Legion, or, most recently, Paramount’s “Ghost in the Shell,”  it’s the newest mass contemplation:  can intelligent thought be digitized?  For a long time, the vast majority of the Western public would have said “no!”  For a large portion of Americans, we would have based that on Judeo-Christian concepts of man as created by God as in the chapter of Genesis.  A human created in God’s image through having had life “breathed” into him by his creator could not be replicated through digitalization, no matter how complicated the programming or even through an imitation of human-like qualities.

Speculation on the possibilities of this concept have been part of science fiction for the last century.  Today, some of our most widely lauded technology gurus are predicting that each person’s individual essence or personality can eventually be downloaded into artificial human-like creations that last for generations and can easily have defective or worn-out parts replaced like the 1950’s American automobiles in Havana.  Bill Gates says we should worry about getting replaced by these “robots.”  Stephen Hawking warns of them taking over society like Skynet in the Terminator series.

There are some major metaphysical questions that are behind all of this speculation: is man’s consciousness something that can simply be digitized in the future?  Will we even need reproduction in future centuries, since we can simply allow our digital consciousness continue infinitely by transferring it to a mobile entity of our choice?  Will future “man” simply be shopping for a “new model” for our unique thoughts to be “carried” in? 

The cultural vehicle which most closely reflects this projection is “Ghost in the Shell.”  I’m not giving away the store by explaining that the concept is that a person’s brain has been implanted into an android body, giving her super abilities and powers.  Based on a 1990’s Japanese anime film, the Scarlett Johansson vehicle spends some time considering how the “consciousness” known as “Major” becomes aware of her past and how she came to be.  In our world of “limitless life” where downloaded consciousnesses inhabit repairable bodies, one would expect that such transfers would be voluntary.  Who would choose to pass up “immortality?”

In the end, someone would have to volunteer to be an early experiment in these methods.  For many, this is a spiritual question as well.  We return to a key question: is man the result of a God-created soul or is he simply an organic version of digital computerization?  Can creativity, love, passion, innovation, “changing your mind,” be replicated in a “mother of all programs” in an AI version of individuality?

This is why the question of this possibility may have a great impact on religion, spirituality, and what constitutes individual thought.  Something to ponder…and we are seeing that pondering take place in modern popular culture.

The future is here…and there will be fewer workers

I went to McDonalds on a trip to SW Missouri to watch my eldest performance on a school team event.  I had the choice of going to the regular checkout line and give my order to a worker, or go to a kiosk and order my meal electronically.

I decided this was an opportunity to see the “Brave New World” first hand.  We are going to see fewer “entry level jobs” in the food industry folks.  While it’s probably been coming no matter what, I believe it’s being hastened by the “Fight for Fifteen” movement.  Many noses are being cut off to spite faces…

I first wrote about this in an early post on this blog which you can find here.  It was quick, understandable, and easy to understand.  You can do more specialization with this method.  McDonalds should take advantage of that.  Can you imagine what In ‘n Out will do?

I don’t think it will be long before the pace of automation at restaurants quicken.  People spend time on their smartphones, I suspect it will be part of ordering before you arrive and more over the next few years.

So, how was it?  About 60 secs after I sat down with my little buzzer (think Panera bread-type hockey puck) I had my #1 meal.

Specialization boys…go for the specialization.

A United Kingdom – Racism is a multi-colored affliction, but love can conquer all

It’s unfortunate that this excellent film seems to be relegated chiefly to the art house circuit, but my wife and I have looked forward to viewing this film after hearing good things from a family member who had seen it on the West Coast.

As a good history geek, I did quite a bit of research about the true story of Seretse and Ruth Khama and their controversial interracial marriage that threatened to divide his centuries-old kingdom of Bechuanaland.  I’m happy to say that they stayed quite faithful to the general narrative of this story.  I often complain when “Hollywood” (I include international film studios when I throw that term around) “messes” with many historical narratives.  When you honestly portray the truth of these “based on a true story” historical events, why should there be a need to fictionalize them!

This telling of the Khama’s story is winsomly accurate in portraying their meeting at a jazz-themed dance when he was in London studying to become his country’s future king.  We see Ruth’s family struggling to accept a black suitor for Ruth’s heart, but also see the same racial objections from his family and countrymen.  They marry in spite of the objection of individuals and the governments of England, Bechuanaland, and South Africa.  The marriage is tied up with Cold War politics as many of the nations in southern Africa are also rich in uranium.  In the early years of the atomic arms race, the conflicts of the bi-polar post-war world was the chief determinant of foreign policy decisions.  The Khama’s heretical marriage is a threat to the rising Republic of South Africa, it’s new policy of apartheid, and it’s all-important large deposits of the atomic mineral for Britain’s new atomic weapons stockpile.

If I were still teaching today, I would use a film like this to handle some of these issues, but also explain more of why the Cold War was the main focus of global politics in the early 1950s.  Most younger audiences are taught almost nothing of the Cold War other than that Joe McCarthy was an evil liar and the US was overthrowing governments at will in a mindless reaction to Soviet and Chinese communism.  By and large, the British opposition to Prince Khama’s marriage was about how it complicated issues with the neighboring racist regimes in South Africa and it’s neighbors, but the shunning of his white English bride was more based on race and class.  While Ruth’s birthing of Seretse’s daughter began to break the ice with her husband’s people, it’s these Cold War issues that seem most likely to either break up their marriage or prevent Seretse from ruling his country.

It’s an epic tale of love, courage, perseverance, and eventually one of democratic processes and the triumph of capitalism.  I once had a student from Botswana (today’s anglicized name for the country) and she explained to me that her country is the one of the most well off of the sub-Saharan nations.  The last 45 minutes of the film weaves in the sub-plot of Botswana’s mineral wealth and how to make sure that his poor country benefits from it and avoids the corruption and crony capitalism that had left so many other African countries with a small rich upper class and no middle class.

This is the one part of the story that I wish the filmmakers had time for: Seretse’s capitalist transformation of his nation into a black African nation with a burgeoning middle class and control of it’s own rich natural resources.  For an old capitalist like me, that’s an important lesson about changing the thoughts of the region.  It’s President Khama’s rejection of socialism and cronyism that results in the vibrant economy of today’s Botswana.

But that would be another less romantic and inspiring film for another time.  Both David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike give integrity and believability to their characters and seeing some photos of the Khamas during the credits support a sense that one has witnessed a fair portrayal of this unlikely couple.

Bring a few tissues and see this fine contribution to our modern culture.  You’ll feel like you have been witness to a story of two lives lived for purpose of blessing others.

Lion – a different take on an incredibly moving story

I passed on this film several times before my wife and I finally decided to take it in.  Let’s take a quick look at what the trailer promised:

An impoverished young boy in India named Saroo gets separated from his family and is eventually adopted by an upper class family in Australia, John and Sue Brierley.  In his early 20s, after a happy childhood and an education that puts him on the road to a lifetime of success, he gradually decides it’s important for him to locate his family in India and let them know he’s alive.

My reasons for pausing on seeing this film were personal.  I had witnessed elements to this story first hand when I experienced my former wife, who had been adopted at age 6, reconnecting with her birth family when she was in her 40s.  While it was a great relief to her aunt (whose phone call to the police many years ago had made her a ward of the state by separating her from her alcoholic and abusive father), it was an emotional threat to her adopted family.  That adoptive family had hoped that years of love, care, and embracing her as their own, would help her “forget” her painful past.  When adopting a child at 6, that’s unlikely.  The protagonist in this story was five, so I was mostly concerned about how the Australian parents would react to the young man’s need to reconnect.

My other reason was the fact that I am now, while not legally but in reality, an adoptive parent myself.  My brother and his wife adopted two toddlers from China in the mid-2000s.  She died in 2013, he in 2015, and my wife and I are now the “parents” (legal guardians) for these two adolescent girls.  We love the girls and believe that we are building a safe harbor of love and guidance for them.  We have introduced them to our extended family over the last few years and some of our children and grandchildren are embracing them as their own.  But it’s hard to tell how to best help them feel a sense of security when we are about the same age as their parents were when they passed.  Every time we cough or sniffle, the youngest asks if we are ok!  I understand her concern, and work hard to convince them that they have a family that will love them for decades to come. 

When it was clear that “Lion” was an obvious choice for our next film, my wife and I were a bit reluctant to engage in whatever the filmmakers felt were the key elements of this story.  So how did we like it?

First, we wept through much of it.  We both resisted the opportunity to look or talk to each other during the film because we were both afraid we would lose it.  I think most readers know how the film ends up.  It’s really not a spoiler to say that it’s a generally satisfactory ending to the film (along with some real footage of the people portrayed).  OUR concern was for the adoptive family.  I don’t say that because, in essence, we ARE an adoptive family, but because the easy emotional route for this kind of story is to simply have the viewer feel good because the protagonist gets what he wants and we feel release for him as the aggrieved party.  In the end, especially in today’s easy gratification culture, that’s probably the simplest and most satisfying result.  But it’s also the most selfish;  because it ignores the impact on the adoptive family.

In “Lion”, it’s not all sweetness and light in Australia.  The family also adopts a second Indian boy with implied severe mental and emotional challenges.  The family has the same problems as children mature that any family has.  The biggest challenge for the family in “Lion” is that the Brierleys have begun their parenting, as my wife and I say, in the “middle of the movie.”  It takes time and many many persistent attempts at communication to delve into what is going on inside a young person’s thoughts.  They often don’t want you to see what is going on, and it’s difficult to see how to best help them develop into a happy independent mature person when you don’t have a lot of past experiences to go on.  You also begin with a big “emotional bank account” with them when you adopt.  It requires patience, firmness, persistence, and consistent standards with children that you “take on” when you adopt them as children with memories of their parents, younger experiences, and certain established expectations.

To his credit, Saroo is very aware of what the Brierleys have done to turn his life from disaster to great promise.  He is very protective of them and walks carefully, and quietly, along his path of investigating the few facts he can count on in order to locate his Indian family.  It’s a well-written, beautifully acted story that treats all families involved with love but also doesn’t close it’s eyes to the difficulties involved in addressing the complications for Saroo, the Brierley’s, and his adoptive brother.  There is also an Australian girlfriend who has to balance her love for Saroo with his troubled search for his Indian family and his attempts to deal with his troubled brother.

We are glad we saw “Lion.”  It’s not all sweetness and light, and there are many moments in the film where things could have ended very badly, and more often do in these situations, but the themes it covers, and the way it portrays them, are well worth the 5 hanky experience in the watching.

“The Founder” – Hollywood’s split personality over capitalism

After seeing the trailer for this film, I was, once again, uncertain that I would want to see it.  It was clear that the main protagonist was not going to be a terribly sympathetic character, so what would be my motivation?

I’m sensitive to how capitalists are portrayed in film, having been a history teacher and an investment advisor.  In American schools, today’s students are being told that capitalism is evil, that rich people don’t pay “their fair share” of taxes.  The history of America as taught in today’s classrooms is of a country that has become wealthy by raping the land, profiting from slavery, and taking advantage of poor uneducated immigrants.  It’s a tale of slave owners and rich “robber barons” who “stole” their way to the top of the wealth pyramid.  There are plenty of facts that can be used to support this and it is a main thrust of one of the more popular “alternative” history books today:  Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.”  But this is a “stacked” series of facts that fail to show how much capitalism has also blessed this nation, and by it’s success, this nation’s wealth has benefitted the world.

As a former US History teacher, I was a great believer in informing students of the various aspects of our history, warts and all.  But, where I differ from the “it’s all our fault” version of US history, is that this nation has repeatedly involved itself in great waves of reform throughout our first 300 years(I include the decades leading to independence).  When talking about the colonization of the continent by English settlers (because it is as English colonies that true American government, culture, law, and language was formed.  We she should ask ourselves what was the incentive was for those settlers to leave their life in England and strike out for the uncertainty of the New World?   The average life-span was significantly shorter in the Americas than if they had stayed in the Mother Country.  In other words, why did they risk it?  The most common reason, for almost ALL Europeans who would emigrate to the New World (to this day) remains the promise of individual achievement through CAPITALISM.

As an advocate of capitalism, I am painfully aware of Hollywood’s schizophrenia toward the subject.  As popular as it is to portray almost every villain ever used in films as motivated by money (or the power money will give), it’s curious that I don’t see anyone in Hollywood advocating GIVING AWAY TICKETS FOR THEIR MOVIES.   (Michael “Capitalism: a love story” Moore, I’m looking at YOU, big boy).  All the Bond villains, most super hero villains, even Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, are all about money.

Now we have Ray Kroc, modern “founder” of McDonalds as the driven “capitalist” who will stop at nothing to fulfill his dream.  After failing to succeed as a salesman for milk shake machines, he spots two guys at a hamburger stand in California who have hit on a system that will revolutionize the drive-in concept to our familiar “fast food” modern American world.  He’s part salesman, part con-man, part visionary, and all-American capitalist.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.  For the most part, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) stays fairly faithful to the actual narrative of this true story.  Writer Robert Siegel gives Kroc’s character plenty of juicy cutthroat lines on his way to the top like “If I saw a competitor drowning, I’d shove a hose down his throat.” Michael Keaton inhabits the character of Kroc so well, I forgot who was portraying the entrepreneur.  What is it about the ability of men who get their start in comedy and then show great talent in serious drama?  The list is long:  Keaton, Hanks, Nicholson…

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive being the son of a longtime corporate executive.  I saw people like my father portrayed as heartless souls who were all about winning, success, and money.  While my dad succeeded in all of those ways, I never met a man who was more honest and when he passed many years ago, everyone who worked with him described him as a man of towering integrity.

I think “The Founder” is worthy of being shown and discussed in an class on economics and entrepreneurialism, even if simply as a point for debating the good, bad, and ugly parts of capitalism.  But I do still believe that portrayals like this are a bit hypocritical coming from Hollywood.  If you want to know what I am talking about, go rent/stream/whatever both “The Player” and “S.O.B.” if you want to see how Hollywood, when talking about capitalism, speaks with forked tongue.