People often ask me whether human-level artificial intelligence will eventually become conscious. My response is: Do you want it to be conscious? I think it is largely up to us whether our machines will wake up.
That may sound presumptuous. The mechanisms of consciousness—the reasons we have a vivid and direct experience of the world and of the self—are an unsolved mystery in neuroscience, and some people think they always will be; it seems impossible to explain subjective experience using the objective methods of science. But in the 25 or so years that we’ve taken consciousness seriously as a target of scientific scrutiny, we have made significant progress. We have discovered neural activity that correlates with consciousness, and we have a better idea of what behavioral tasks require conscious awareness. Our brains perform many high-level cognitive tasks subconsciously.
I’d seen my dad approximately four times over 30 years, but I only remembered two of them: a visit when I was 12 years old, and one when I was 25. When I thought of visiting my father, I pictured the beige rooms, the beige uniforms, and how everything seemed to be nailed down. I always brought bags of change to use at the vending machines. I knew he had a sweet tooth, and I wanted to buy him something sweet. He always got reprimanded by guards for holding my hands too long.
The only real information I had about my dad came in his letters; he sent me dozens. Photographs included in those letters were precious. In the 30 years he was locked away, I only received four. That was the best he could do.
Alongside the end of each war came a new opportunity to never forget. But to what degree do we do anything with these memories besides allowing them to exist simply for their own sake? I recently posed this question to Roy Scranton, a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of War Porn. He chuckled, appending a corollary to the age-old quotation: “War is God’s way of teaching geography.” Added Scranton: “But he has yet to find a way to teach Americans history.”
Scranton and his peers occupy the twisting strands of literature and war that we can trace as far back as we’ve bothered to record history. In fact, if we go back far enough, any distinction between the disciplines nearly ceases to exist. All it takes is one look at the still ongoing debate over whether Thucydides’s central text, History of the Peloponnesian War, is more a work of literature or scientific history, though few would argue over its central place in our understanding of the conflict. Since then, historiography has become a more scientific enterprise, but the connection between memory, history, and literature still retains those fundamental ties forged between the mother Mnemosyne, Titaness of Memory, and her daughters, the nine Muses of art, literature, and science. However, the question stands: as the world and warfare grow more complex and strange, are those who seek inspiration from these figures outgunned by those who corrupt their tools?
My German father would visit my mother’s college room with dough cake and offer it in marriage to her preserve. Little did he know she preferred the strictures of rationing to such sensuous excess.
Indeed, one of the book’s many insights is that the best way to generate success is to be continually, nervily vigilant about failure. Hytner is an astute and unsentimental judge of others’ work as well as his own – and he admits to preferring live drama, where mistakes can generally be corrected, to film, where “you’re lumbered with what you shot for eternity”.