The sum of everything

Do you all ever think about infinity? It’s one of those things unique to human cognition and thus sort of unavoidable, like object permanence or episodic foresight. We are forced to confront the infinite as a matter of course. Yet to ponder the infinite is paradoxical, for thinking of it limits the limitless.

The concept of infinity comes out of mathematics of course, but I think it transcends the disciplinary borders typically ascribed to it. Infinity has more in common with faith and religion than math. The infinite and God both contain similar qualities of omnipotence, and like the ontological argument for the existence of God, if we can conceive of infinity in our minds–a watered down version–then it must exist in a purer form elsewhere. To imagine the infinite implies that an even more infinite infinity exists outside of us.

Outside of math class, infinity is historically contingent, repackaged by different cultures to reflect the specific historical conditions surrounding them. In Ancient Greece, when thinkers were just beginning to grapple with the concept, infinity was first inferred from the banal. The infinite presented itself in such mundane tasks as walking from point A to B, a distance with infinite halfway points between, or in the shapeless water of a river, infinitely turning in on itself so that one can “never step in the same river twice.”

For us today, the infinite reveals itself in myriad other ways, consumer choices chief among them. I often find myself mindlessly scrolling through Netflix’s seemingly infinite offerings, squandering two hours of my day. I am similarly paralyzed by the infinite consumer choices aggregated on Amazon or on display at grocery stores, so much so I often don’t purchase whatever it was I needed in the first place. I also experience a flavor of the infinite when I think about voting. While election votes are not technically infinite, there are enough of them relative to the one of mine that political outcomes feel infinitely distant and detached from my singular blue vote cast in a red state, a snowflake in an avalanche as a popular analogy goes.

While there are important mathematical operations involving infinity–I mean, it’s a crucial part of calculus, after all–I think infinity has more impact conceptually than arithmetically. The infinite is, in other words, more rhetorical than numerical. Like a drinking glass, it gives shape to the aqueous nature of existing in an infinitely expanding, timeless universe; it names a sensation commonly felt among individual people living infinite and singular lives in a godless world of billions. Many abstractions short circuit our cognitive console, but naming them, at least temporarily, cools it down. We can’t really experience the purely infinite, but we can name it. We can know it’s out there.

Knowing something exists is a prerequisite for ignoring it. And maybe it’s time to start ignoring the infinite. Calculus has taught us many things, but perhaps most importantly it resolves part of infinity’s paradoxical nature. We now know that the infinite is only one side of the equation. You can divide a number in half infinitely, but add all those divisions up and you get back to the whole number you started with. In our culture and our politics and our lives, we are too fixated on one side of the equation—the side with infinite divisions. The other side remains a single self contained unit, a finite value that the infinitesimally small divisions must add up to, even if there are an infinite number of them. I think we all stand to benefit from a greater focus on the whole rather than the infinitely divided parts.

We will become robots before robots become us

Who STAR TREK's Data Was, and Where He Is Now - Nerdist

Part of the overall argument of my dissertation is that the true threat of automated technology, AI, robots, etc., is not necessarily that robots are becoming dangerously human-like and that we might soon face a Matrix-style machine revolution, but rather that by increasing our interaction with automated, robotic technology we become more robotic.

I have never felt this sensation more acutely than when trying to call any kind of customer service line these days. It’s almost impossible to talk to an actual human person without first wading through a byzantine series of automated voiceover machine prompts. “Please describe your problem in a few words,” demands an affectless voice. I then proceed to ramble incoherently and in a totally unnatural cadence that results in the machine saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” It’s maddening not only because you’re not solving your problem but also because you don’t feel or even sound like yourself. Seriously: next time you’re interacting with a robot voiceover, pay attention to the way you speak. It sounds more like you’re typing words into a search bar than anything resembling human dialogue; it is devoid of grammatical connector words, just a series of keywords rambled off in a frustrated tone. Never mind that the reason for the call in the first place is not easily summarized in simple sentences. Interestingly, a problem I can’t solve by Googling and that requires a phone call somehow never seems to fit into the simplistic categories that the robotic voice asks me to fit it into. Quelle surprise. But understanding poor descriptions of complex problems that defy easy categorization is something humans are very good at!

Speaking with an automated phone directory literally brings us down to the robot’s discursive level and forces us to talk and communicate like a robot does, because as humans our default social mode is to maintain interlocutor equilibrium. We subconsciously find and convert ourselves to the least common denominator in a communicative exchange. But robots can’t change their communicative register, so the only way to achieve mutual intelligibility with a robot is if we ourselves speak robotically. I find the whole experience of automated customer service incredibly frustrating and illustrative of the real threat automation poses, at least in the short term: It’s not that the robots will become like us, it’s that we will become like the robots. And of course, once we have normalized robotic human behavior, it will be much easier for differences between man and machine to cease to exist.