Can Machines Dream?

Ronny Siebes is a researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam. He and I met recently in The Hague and the ensuing email exchange represents only a small facet of the longer discussion that we had.

Ronny Siebes
I thought about the question you asked "Can machines dream" and have the following answer:

First, I would like to give my definition of what human dreaming is. Most humans know that they sometimes dream and may remember what they have dreamt, like the images, sounds or other impressions. Obviously, these things like pictures are not really there in the head because we don't have eyes in our head to look at them and if we had, it is too dark to see it (Dennet:). I'm not an expert on neuroscience but I guess that the brain works like this: images (encoded in a parallel bundle of light beams) that our eyes receive trigger a set of neurons that are responsible for interpretating visual input and these interpretations are stored in our memory. When we dream, parts of our memory become active and are manipulated by a script generated by fears, angers or other chemical impulses.

For this information to be remembered, the outcomes of these manipultion processes which are generated by the scripts are stored back again into our memory. Our consciousness (whatever that may be) walks through our memory and recognises that there is new information, namely the new stuff that was added by the dream process.

Computers are also able to receive, store and manipulate information from the outside world. For example, take a computer that has a web-cam connected to it and stores the bitstream on a hard disk or other kind of memory. It is easy to build a program that reads out the bits that represent the movie and to manipulate it. This manipulation would currently be very rude (for example just change some colors, or cut/copy- and paste some shots), but also very advanced like algorithms that detect scenarios and are able to replace objects by other objects. These manipulated movies can be stored again and after a while be 'played' (my free definition of becoming conscious) in a macromeda or windows media player.

Thus to summarize my point: if we describe human dreaming by its functional properties, we can apply it to its artificial counterpart.

Response by Ron Burnett

Imaging of the brain can provides pictures of the connections between different parts, but imaging cannot provide details of what Gregory Bateson has so aptly described as the set of differences that make relations between the parts of the mind possible. “The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time… (Bateson, 1972: 92)

Difference is not the product of processes in the brain. Thought cannot be located in one specific location; in fact difference means that the notion of location is all but impossible other than in the most general of senses. Bateson goes on to ask how parts interact to make mental processes possible. This is also a central concern in the work of Gerald Edelman, particularly in the book he co-authored with Giulio Tononi (2000) where they point out how the neurosciences have begun to seriously investigate consciousness as a scientific ‘subject.’ (3) Edelman and Tononi summarize the challenge in this way:

What we are trying to do is not just to understand how the behaviour or cognitive operations of another human being can be explained in terms of the working of his or her brain, however daunting that task may be. We are not just trying to connect a description of something out there with a more scientific description. Instead, we are trying to connect a description of something out there — the brain — with something in here — an experience, our own individual experience that is occurring to us as conscious observers. (11)

The disparities between the brain and conscious observation, between a sense of self and biological operations cannot be reduced to something objective, rather, the many layers of difference among all of the elements that make up thought can only be judged through the various strategies that we use to understand subjectivity. Edelman and Bateson try and disengage a series of cultural metaphors that cover up the complexity of consciousness.

One of these metaphors is that the brain is like a computer and that human memory stores information much like a hard disk. There is simply not enough evidence to suggest that the metaphor works. So, machines cannot dream because among many other things, we don't have an adequate definition of what the mind does when it dreams. All we have is the language of metaphor and description, a semantically rich space that cannot be reduced to any single or singular process.

Blade Runner 2049: No hope in the dystopia

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers.

 While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book explores power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. (Handout)

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book explores power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. (Handout)

I went to see Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, with great anticipation. The original was so unique and although I was ambivalent about the film’s story and politics, many of its images have stayed in my mind for over 35 years. I have even used Blade Runner in my film studies classes. Yet, I left the theatre severely disappointed. Blade Runner 2049represents a failure of the imagination. The film is a series of vignettes strung together and is the definition of solipsism — steeped in narcissism, excessive self-absorption, isolation and regressive politics. 

The set up for the original film was brilliantly articulated by critic, Pauline Kael in a 1982 New Yorker review. She wrote that Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, “sets up the action with a crawl announcing the time is early in the twenty-first century and that a blade runner is a police officer who ‛retires’ — i.e., kills — ‛replicants,’ the powerful humanoids manufactured by genetic engineers.”

To varying degrees, the original Blade Runner anticipated numerous contemporary debates about artificial intelligence and robots. Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which so much of the original film was based, is a profoundly dystopian yet ultimately hopeful novel about human engagement with artificial life. 

 The dystopia cityscape from Blade Runner 1982.

The dystopia cityscape from Blade Runner 1982.

Dick’s book can be despairing and hopeful at the same time, and it is this tension that actually turned the novel into a rich piece of science fiction. Because in spite of the many challenges they face, the characters actually learn both from each other and from the replicants. They learn that power corrupts and it doesn’t matter whether you are human or robot, but feeling emotions of varying sorts makes the difference between a meaningful life and one that has no meaning. 

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book makes profound comments on power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. Crucially missing from both the new and the original film, is some history and context. Why are we in such a mess? Why has society degenerated to such a degree?

As if the back story doesn’t matter, Blade Runner 2049 is not really set up at all. Audiences are shown that replicants are everywhere, integrated into society, that blade runner police are ubiquitous and that some of the older versions of the replicants are, as before, still unruly and therefore need to be killed. Society is dominated by a seemingly endless horde of people going nowhere in particular and buildings are rotting in the rain. 

The story is strung together

As the film opens, K, played by Ryan Gosling, a programmed blade runner, is asleep at the wheel of a vehicle he later calls a car, that is flying through the darkness towards an unknown destination. All of this is covered in the one of most expensive fog-and-mist scenes ever produced for a film (the production rings in at just over $150 million). 

The wasteland is interrupted when K reaches his destination and encounters a replicant who is targeted for death and who says before he is killed, “you don’t know what a miracle is.” The miracle he is referring to is clarified a bit later on in the film as the birth of a human child, which he witnessed. 

The entire film then circles around the search for the miracle child with K discovering that he himself might be human, then watching his hopes dashed but not before he meets his supposed father, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford who reprises his original role from 1982. 

Deckard and K develop a relationship and Deckard, of course, becomes a paternal figure to K. Deckard has apparently been living alone for an untold number of years in the remains of Las Vegas. In the portrayal of Vegas lies an implied critique of the reasons for the decay of humanity with Las Vegas representing all that is superficial and wrong about humans. The film does not explain this, it just alludes to the fall of humans as if, because of our past hedonism, we deserve to live in misery, a common theme in dystopian films. 

In this vision of the future, we repeat all the clichés of voyeurism that dominated the previous century. (Handout)

Screenshot 2017-10-15 17.00.52.png

Like the original, the story is unimportant and the approach is also derivative relying on the clichés of dystopias drawn from dozens of similar films. Blade Runner 2049 also suffers from a bad script and some odd stylistic filmmaking choices. It is essentially a series of events, strung together within a special effects universe, that Villeneuve thinks represents another world or another phase of history. Do we care about flying cars and exploding buildings and robots who fight each other shattering into pieces that fly off into the dark landscape? The fetish for special effects is killing the storytelling in Hollywood.

The opportunity for social commentary is lost. How does industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), maker of replicants, come to have such enormous power? He determines whether real humans should be killed — to preserve, what exactly, his business? His supremacy? The corporate entity over which Wallace rules is so sophisticated that it knows everything about everybody — a not so subtle variation on the original film and a banal reiteration of endless variations on the themes of absolute power and the human response to fascism. Niander Wallace’s actions may lead us to hate him but we don’t understand his motivations and even if his lack of motivation is a shallow critique of industrial capitalism - is it enough to make us care? 

All life leads to death

All the characters, even the holographic ones, live in isolated circumstances with no social encounters of any value. If we accept that it is 2049, then why are women portrayed as sex objects? Why do their nude bodies appear everywhere? In Villeneuve’s dystopia, sex is provided through an illusory construction of desires that are mechanical and mechanized. Yet, even if this were seen as a critique of the society Wallace and his fellow industrialists have invented, it remains a fact that we have screwed ourselves and our planet and how we decide to survive is to repeat all the clichés of voyeurism that dominated the previous century.

Blade Runner 2049 has successfully created a solipsistic universe - where humans are isolated from real feelings, celebrate selfishness with gusto and are completely involved with their own needs, so self-centred that it matters little whether reality or illusion are the guideposts. Either will do because both will lead you nowhere. The overarching principle behind this film is that life is ultimately going to lead to death and all people and robots have to do is survive all the crap in between. 

Here K, the male hero, suffers for the good of others as a consequence of a semi-religious conversion, which means he must make the ultimate sacrifice - his own life. Sound familiar? K’s death solves nothing - and brings no hope - unless the hope is hinting at a sequel. Perhaps Harrison Ford will play God in the next film. Kael suggests that the original Blade Runner was a victim of its own depiction of decay suggesting that it has “nothing to give to audiences,” and this, Villeneuve has succeeded in replicating. 

“Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce.” Blade Runner 2049 Trailer (Warner Bros. 2017)