Saturday, January 19, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0785 - "Catch you later"

"Catch you later."

That is all that is left of Chris McKinstry's web site these days. He committed suicide on 23-Jan-2006 at the age of 38.

Push Singh committed suicide a month later on 28-Feb-2006 at the age of 34.

Both young men were students of artificial intelligence, Canadian, creators of competing collaborative "common sense" databases, and occasional correspondents. Both chose to end their lives by covering their head in a sealed plastic bag with gas piped into the bag, helium for Singh, carbon dioxide for McKinstry. Their stories are told in yesterday's online Wired Magazine's article "Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?"

No, I am not contemplating suicide!

In 2002, Ken Wilber published his first, and only, novel Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free, about an MIT grad in artificial intelligence who struggles through confusion into a "second tier of consciousness", a component of Wilber's concepts of Integral Psychology. Wilber's viewpoint is that Gen X and Y will be the first generations en masse to enter into this second tier of consciousness, clearly something that escaped my generation's captivity in egocentrism and ethnocentrism (according to the Library Journal's review of the book). Boomers, evidently, just don't get it - thus, boomeritis.

A more entertaining, less post-modernist driven piece of fiction dealing with the AI dream of personal immortality through "uploading" of human consciousness into machines is found in Robert J. Sawyer's 2000 sci-fi novel Calculating God - the author is another good Canadian living in Mississauga, Ontario. The setting here is the possible end of humanity because another civilization causes a supernova to sterilize the stellar neighbourhood to protect the machinery into which it has deposited themselves to achieve immortality.

More importantly, at least from a personal perspective, is that the protagonist of the novel is dying of cancer and an atheist, who is convinced by the alien visitor not only of the existence of a kind of occasionally intervening god but gets to visit god aboard the alien's space ship.

The point of all this preamble (and other references to similar sci-fi themes like Stargate's Ascension process) is identification and sympathy.

I am attracted to the prospect of ascension, transcending the limitations of physical, biological existence, of finding god or gods just when I'd written them off, of pain avoidance, especially the pain I felt when battling cancer - all these things are attractive. And speaking honestly, if what I read about Push Singh's unbearable physical pain and Chris McKinstry's emotional pain is accurate, then I can't blame them for their choice to commit suicide.

And, being a geek at heart with a fascination for the goals of artificial intelligence and other kinds of enlightenment technology, I readily acknowledge the magnetic attraction of technology and simultaneous frustration of the biological. Evolution, after all, is so bloody slow! Let's speed things up, shall we?

Nothing moves fast enough is a truism, even if we're just talking about normal, everyday life. But if you're searching for artificial intelligence, that feeling is exacerbated dramatically. Then, if you're suffering pain continually because of a chronic disease like cancer...well, the medical research isn't ever fast enough, the drugs don't work quickly enough, and the body itself becomes an impediment to all you would like to accomplish.

What part delusion, what part sanity?

I don't know.

What I do know is that they're intermingled, dangerously so. When I was in the hospital, drugged to the nines, and in a lot of pain, I recall an episode when I was hallucinating about being scheduled to deliver a lecture in Los Angeles the next morning. I called my nurse to ask for my pain meds early because I was going to be transported to Los Angeles at 4:00 am, half an hour early for my next meds. But I would probably need those meds when I was delivering my lecture, wouldn't I? The nurse didn't point out my delusion, but neither did she bring my pain medication early. By the way, I didn't get transported and I didn't deliver a lecture...just in case you're wondering ;>)

I fully acknowledge that there might be a little, or a lot of madness in the dream of AI and ascension. But cancer is also madness. Put the two together and, well, just maybe you'll be inclined to say "Catch you later."

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