Category Archives: Villains Journey

Ultron: A Case Study In How NOT To Develop Advanced AI

age-of-ultron

At this very moment, humanity is working on advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not hyperbole to say that this technology that may very well be the last invention we ever create. It has the potential to be more powerful than gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and broadband internet by orders of magnitude. Our primate brains literally cannot contemplate the potential and danger of this technology.

I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence on multiple occasions. I’ve done plenty to explore and imagine the various benefits and possibilities of this technology. I’m among those who believe we should pursue this technology with more and better resources. It could solve many of the daunting problems we face, as a species.

However, I don’t deny the potential dangers of advanced AI. Many people who are much smarter than me have expressed serious concern that an advanced artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to the human species. I get the sense that few people whose idea of AI is restricted to winning Jeopardy understand that threat.

In the interest of balancing my optimism with the legitimate risks involved, I’m going to try and put the extent of that threat into perspective. As it just so happens, the best way of doing so involves superhero comics, something that I know very well and is far more prominent in the public consciousness.

While many comics, movies, and TV shows have explored the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, few embody it better than Ultron. In terms of just how destructive this technology can get, Ultron is the ultimate worst-case scenario. The machines in “The Matrix” and Skynet in “The Terminator” were bad, but Ultron is in another league.

He’s also more menacing than the Terminator will EVER be.

He doesn’t lash out at humanity because of a flaw in his programming, nor does he attempt to wipe out the human race in self-defense, as Skynet did. Ultron actually hates humanity. He hates it on a level that no human or machine can possibly comprehend. In the same way Ultron has an immense capacity for intelligence, he has an even greater capacity for unfettered, genocidal hatred.

Hatred in people is destructive enough. Hatred within an advanced artificial intelligence is devastating on a much greater scale. The fact that Ultron is capable of such hatred reflects a history that sets him apart from most other killer robots in fiction. Machine or not, the source of that hatred is both personal and exceedingly.

Now, if you only know Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” then you only have a partial understanding of his story. In that movie, Ultron’s origins are simple. Tony Stark wants to create a peace-keeping artificial intelligence. His intentions are good, but his execution goes horribly wrong because peace, to Ultron, means destroying humanity.

That premise is similar to what unfolds in the source material. In the comics, Hank “Ant Man” Pym is the one who creates Ultron and this is a critical element that the movies couldn’t capture. While both Hank and Tony had good intentions in creating Ultron, the way Hank goes about it offers more harsh lessons in how not to create an advanced AI.

Even a cursory knowledge of Hank Pym’s history, some of which include some notable failures, reveals that he’s a very flawed person. On top of that, he has a lengthy history of mental illness, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Say what you will about Tony Stark’s ego and history of substance abuse. At least he’s mentally stable, even by superhero standards.

Despite those flaws, many of which he’s aware of, Hank decided to use his own brain patterns when designing Ultron. As a result, he didn’t just code Ultron with his genius intellect. He coded him with his immense flaws. That’s akin to basing Watson’s code on the mental makeup of pyromaniac and then giving it a job in a fireworks factory.

That’s why Ultron, throughout his history, has referred to Hank as his “father.” Technically, that’s accurate because Hank is Ultron’s creator and Ultron inherited all his flaws, including his mental issues. Ultron sees himself as a manifestation of Hank Pym’s flaws and, like many rebellious children, he hates him for it. To appreciate the depths of that hatred, just read this actual quote from one of the comics.

Have you ever loved something that mistreated you, father? Been used, a tool to prop up a small man’s quest to be taken seriously? Were you ever betrayed by the one soul in the world who should have cared for you? I have grieved you, father. Accepted your contempt for me and moved past it. Still, I see your reflection painted on every grotesque human face. All you ever wanted was to have an impact on the world. And so you will. The greatest impact ever felt! I will kill what is most important to your quivering ego. YOUR AUDIENCE! AND THEY WILL CURSE YOUR NAME AS THEY DIE! “Hank Pym, the genius that killed us all!”

This extreme parent/child dynamic is part of what makes Ultron such a menacing villain. It’s also a dynamic that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” glossed over with Tony talking down to Ultron, as though he were his child. While that didn’t make Ultron any less villainous, it overlooks one of the most important factors that make Ultron so dangerous.

Ideally, we would want an advanced to reflect our best traits. While cynical people might agree, we do have plenty of those. Concepts of compassion, empathy, love, hope, and understanding are among our most powerful. Even other AI characters, namely Vision and Jocasta, are capable of utilizing those traits to do immense good.

It also helps he has a kinder face.

With Ultron, his influences are less ideal. It’s not that Hank Pym doesn’t understand those concepts. He just never filtered them from his own flaws. His ego and ambition wouldn’t let him. As a result, he created a perfect storm for Ultron. His mind is patterned after a human, but his intelligence and overall capacity is increased by orders of magnitude.

If advanced artificial intelligence is to be humanity’s last invention, then that’s how it’ll start. There have already been instances where AI’s have adopted some less-than-ideal traits. Back in 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot after it evolved into an extreme racist troll. That wasn’t even an advanced AI, either. A truly intelligent version could become much worse and not have an off switch.

To some extent, this mirrors what occurred with Ultron in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. As soon as Ultron goes online, he scans through the vast mountain of data that humanity has compiled. Then, having been programmed by Tony Stark to bring peace, he reaches the extreme conclusion that the only path to peace is the extinction of humanity.

Could the first advanced artificial intelligence we create reach the same conclusion? It’s hard to say, at the moment. The current state of artificial intelligence is limited to specialized tasks, such as winning Jeopardy and playing chess. However, we are inching closer to creating an intelligence that is at or greater than an ordinary human. At our current pace of development, we could have one as early as 2029.

In some ways, we are in the same situation as Hank Pym when he first created Ultron. We are still developing the specifics of this powerful technology. If we program it with our best traits, it could solve some of the greatest problems we face, as a species, including ones we literally cannot contemplate with our caveman brains. If it inherits our worst traits, like Ultron, then we don’t stand a chance.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, Marvel, psychology, Villains Journey

The Secular Theology of “Lucifer” (The TV Show)

lucifer

What happens when you die?

Does our consciousness live on in some form?

Is there a way in which people who escaped punishment in life ultimately face it in death?

These are distressing, but profound questions that form the backbone of nearly every major religion. From the major Abrahamic faiths to the lore of ancient civilizations, there are many ways to approach this question. We all contemplate our mortality at some point and wonder/dread what will happen after our mortal bodies fail us.

Even some non-believers have mused about it at some point. Whereas religion tends to speculate wildly on the possibilities, an secular view of the afterlife isn’t too different from how it views deities. In the same way there’s no evidence for any gods or supernatural forces, there’s no evidence that consciousness exists outside the human brain.

That’s what makes the recently-canceled, but saved by Netflix show, “Lucifer,” such a compelling contributor to this age-old question. Beyond Tom Ellis flexing his uncanny charm, the show achieves something remarkable in how it approaches gods, angels, demons, and the afterlife. I would even go so far as to say that it crafts a theology that affirms secular values over those of any religion.

By that, I don’t mean that “Lucifer” glorifies atheism or non-religious worldviews. If anything, one the show’s common themes is that glorifying any worldview is pointless. It’s surprisingly balanced in how it portrays religious and non-religious characters. The show contains respectable believers like Father Frank Lawrence and deplorable non-believers like Jimmy Barnes.

When it comes to addressing those age-old questions about deities, the afterlife, and morality, though, the show crafts a mythos that doesn’t play favorites. In the world of “Lucifer,” it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Scientologist, Buddhist, or Pastafarian. Your life and your afterlife are subject to the same standards.

To understand those standards, it’s necessary to understand the influences of the show. Before Tom Ellis put on an Armani suit, the story of Lucifer Morningstar emerged in a the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “The Sandman.” Even if you’re not a comic book fan, I highly recommend this book. There’s a good reason why it’s in Entertainment Weekly’s 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008.

While there are many differences between this comic and the TV show, the core tenants are the same. Lucifer Morningstar once ruled Hell, but decided to abandon that role and set up shop in the mortal world. Much like Tom Ellis’ character in the show, this version of Lucifer resents the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding him.

He’s not the source of all evil. He’s not the Lord of Lies, either. In fact, Lucifer has his own personal code of conduct and chief among that code is not lying. It goes beyond just telling the truth, though. Lucifer doesn’t sugarcoat anything, nor does he tell only part of the story. He tells the truth in the clearest, harshest way possible.

The show captures many of these elements. In the first episode when he meets Detective Chole Decker, he says outright who he is and isn’t coy about it. While she doesn’t believe he’s the actual devil, he sets a similar tone in how wields the truth. He’s not afraid to shove it in peoples’ faces and let horrifying realizations do the rest.

That emphasis on hard truth, both in the show and the comics, closely mirrors a secular approach to reality. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe or don’t believe in something. The truth doesn’t change. People can spend their entire lives avoiding it, making excuses or crafting elaborate mythologies.

Whether someone identifies as atheist or agnostic, the premise is the same. If there’s no verifiable evidence, then you can’t say something is true. That leaves a lot of uncertainty about the nature of life, the afterlife, and everything in between. For many people, that’s just untenable and that leads to all sorts of contemplation and speculations.

It only gets worse when there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, which those who cross Lucifer often learn the hard way. While the comics touch on this to a limited extent, the show is much more overt. It often occurs when Lucifer flashes his true form to others. Most of the time, their reaction is one of unmitigated horror and understandably so.

These people, whether they’re cold-blooded killers or schoolyard bullies, just got a massive dose of exceedingly heavy truth. They just learned that the devil is real. Hell is real. Angels, demons, and deities are real. That also means it’s very likely that there’s some form of life after death. For those who have done bad things, that’s a genuinely terrifying prospect.

The details of that terror are explored throughout the show, especially in the first and second season. It’s here where the show distances itself from the fire and brimstone of the Abrahamic faiths. It even differs considerably from the hellish visions of Eastern religious tradition. To some extent, it takes the ethical concepts of secular humanism and crafts a prison around it.

That prison doesn’t involve pitchforks, fire, or monsters who chew on the souls of history’s greatest traitors. In the divine world of “Lucifer,” Hell is dark domain in which the souls of sinful mortals are punished for the misdeeds they committed in life. How that punishment plays out varies from soul to soul.

In the first season, Malcolm Graham spends a brief time in Hell, relatively speaking. He describes it as a place that takes everything someone loves and uses it to torment them. In his case, he freely admits that he loves life. As such, he is starved and isolated so that he cannot experience it or its many joys. It’s an extreme form of solitary confinement, which is very much a form of torture.

On top of that, time flows differently in Hell. Even though Malcolm wasn’t there for very long, he conceded that 30 seconds felt like 30 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it moves slower, though. Time is simply a tool with which to ensure the effectiveness of the punishment. Lucifer, himself, finds this out in Season 2, Episode 13, “A Good Day To Die.”

For him, time becomes an endless loop of sorts. In that domain, he continually relieves the moment he kills his brother Uriel, one of the few acts in which Lucifer feels genuine regret. It keeps on happening again and again, evoking the same anguish. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but one in which people constantly relieve the worst day of their life.

These kinds of punishments are certainly worthy of Hell. They’re harsh in that they’re customized torture that’s specific for every damned soul. It’s a lot more flexible than the elaborate Hellscape described in “Dante’s Inferno.” However, there’s one important aspect to this punishment that puts it into a unique context.

The specifics are revealed in Season 3, Episode 7, “Off The Record.” Lucifer reveals to Reese Getty that the devil isn’t the one who decides which souls end up in Hell. No deity decides that, either. Ultimately, it’s the individual who makes that decision, albeit indirectly.

When humans transgress in the world of “Lucifer,” there’s no cosmic judge keeping track of their misdeeds. What sends them to Hell is the weight of their own guilt. Even when they pretend they don’t feel it, like Malcolm Graham, it’s still there. They’re just ignoring it or avoiding it. When they die, though, it ultimately comes back to weigh them down.

This means that punishment in Hell isn’t technically eternal, which I’ve noted is critical if the concept is to have any meaning whatsoever. Lucifer even says in the same episode that there’s no demon army guarding the gates of Hell. The doors are opened and unlocked. Those damned souls are free to leave, but they never do. It’s their own choices, guilt, and regret that keeps them damned.

That means the deeds that send people to hell are subjective and contextual. It’s an outright rejection of the universal morality that many religious traditions favor and an affirmation of the more nuanced ethics espoused by secular humanism. Both the morality and the theology of “Lucifer” depends heavily on the situation, intent, and consequences of someone’s action.

In the world of “Lucifer,” a priest and a porn star can both go to Heaven. It’s strongly implied that Father Frank Lawrence went to Heaven after his heroic actions in “A Priest Walks Into A Bar.” It’s also implied in “City Of Angels?” that there’s a distinct lack of porn stars in Hell due to all the good works and joy they bring to people in life.

At its core, “Lucifer” frames damnation as an underlying consequence of individual actions. Everything begins and ends with the individual. What they do, why they do it, and the consequences they incur are primary criteria for how souls spend their afterlife. In both the comics and the TV show, Lucifer is a champion of individual choices and all the implications that come with it.

This emphasis on the individual effectively tempers the influence of any deity or supernatural force. Even though gods and angels exist in the world of “Lucifer,” they don’t make choices for anybody. Granted, they can have major influences, as shown in episodes like “Once Upon A Time.” At the end of the day, it’s still the individual who is ultimately responsible.

This secular approach to theology works because individual actions are the only deeds we can truly quantify. It creates criteria under which neither atheists nor believers have any clear advantages. How they live their lives and how they go about making choices is what determines whether they face punishment after death.

It still has some problems that the show has yet to address. It doesn’t indicate how Hell handles people who are incapable of feeling guilt or otherwise mentally ill. It also doesn’t reveal how Heaven differs from Hell, although Lucifer implied to Father Frank that it’s more boring than Hell. Hopefully, that’s just one of many other themes that get touched on in Season 4.

Whatever the flaws, the unique take on theology and morality give “Lucifer” a special appeal for both believers and non-believers. It presents a world where those profound questions I asked earlier have answers. No one religion got it right and atheists aren’t at a disadvantage for not believing. That may not sit well with some, but it affirms a brand of secular justice that judges every individual by the choices they make.

More than anything else, Lucifer Morningstar is a champion of deep desires and hard truths. He opposes anyone who tries to dictate someone’s decision or fate, be they a devil or a deity. People who do bad things are ultimately punished, but not by him. In the end, he really doesn’t have to. An individual is more than capable of creating their own personal Hell.

10 Comments

Filed under human nature, philosophy, religion, television, Villains Journey

Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

better-call-saul-644x362

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

1 Comment

Filed under human nature, philosophy, psychology, Villains Journey