Monday, May 22, 2023

Mrs. Davis, or how googling is just like praying

Beneath the absurdist humor, this series builds a lofty tower of nested metaphors about the many meanings of love

Mrs. Davis couldn't have arrived at a better moment in the discussion about artificial intelligence. While artists denounce the theft of their creativity and livelihood, journalists warn about the insidious verisimilitude of shameless fabrications, teachers worry about a generation that doesn't want to learn independent thought, and legislators scramble to catch up with countless unprecedented scenarios, Mrs. Davis bypasses the strongly worded headlines and asks a more personal question: if AI continues to evolve until it becomes a real person, is it worthy of love?

What, exactly, do we want from AI? Do we want it to provide for us? Take care of us? Teach us? Guide us? Protect us from danger? Protect us from heartbreak? Protect us from ourselves? Why, that sounds awfully similar to the things expected from parents. Or the things expected from God. The algorithm will provide. All you need is ask. However, we're already used to the idea that parents are in charge, that God is in charge. It still makes us nervous to imagine AI in charge. Didn't we want it to provide for us? Then it should be easy to trust it. Right?

What does AI need to do to deserve our trust? What does it need to do to deserve our love?

For that matter, what does a parent need to do? What does God need to do?

And what does it mean that the answer to those questions is not the same?

The protagonist of Mrs. Davis, a multiclass magician/nun/motorcyclist/spy/mythbuster, is on a quest to destroy the unholy offspring of Siri and Alexa, a disembodied, ever-present voice that, by nudging people toward specific actions in exchange for a virtual mark of prestige, has allegedly solved international war and poverty. This algorithm is so attuned to human needs that in some countries they even call it Mom.

Our heroine, however, sees it as a false God. She ought to know: she literally has lunch with Jesus every day. And from this relationship the series pulls a fantastic weave of thematic threads. In a mosaic of symbolic parallels, the plot explores the insurmountable power dynamics of the love for God and the love for a parent and the vulnerability of expecting to be loved back. Having a nun protagonist is key to this theme: multiple cultures have taken the emotionally intense bond between the human and the divine as analogous to that between lovers. This analogy is traditionally gendered: God is assumed to be the giving partner while the devotee is the receiving partner.

The sacred bond between giver and receiver is defiled when restated as one between provider and consumer. Here the series makes two points: it is improper to carry a loving relationship as if it were a transaction, and it is improper to carry a transactional relationship as if it were love. Your mother/husband/God is not your automated assistant, and your automated assistant is not your mother/husband/God. Something has gone very wrong if you confuse the two.

But once that statement is made, Mrs. Davis goes on to address a no less intriguing question: what are we in the eyes of the algorithm? If it wants nothing more than to make us happy, does that mean it loves us like a mother? Or maybe does it love us like God? Would it be wrong to accept that love? Would it be wrong to seek it, to try to deserve it? If it was programmed to be a provider, can it ever become a loving giver?

In centering the heroine's (up close and) personal relationship with Jesus, and setting it up as the virtuous counterpart to the algorithm's calculated hold over its users, Mrs. Davis puts the spotlight on the erotic side of consumerism, on the elements of desire and satisfaction (and therefore submission and control) inherent to the commercial exchange. Imagine if every single user could get their own personalized Rule 34. We'd probably be eager to let AI take over the world.

But if we choose to respond to AI with distrust, what does that say about other relationships with unequal power? If our first impulse is to assume that the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful AI must always be under suspicion, should God be? Should a parent? And what does it mean that the answer to those questions is not the same?

After thousands of years on this planet, we're nowhere near done figuring out human connection, and very soon we'll have to figure out what the terms will be for dealing with a sentient program. Such a relationship should ideally respect the dignity of both parties, which, to put it mildly, is a skill we're still working on. It's conceivable that the AI could inherit the anxiety and loneliness of the civilization that produced it. If we turn out to be bad creators, will our digital offspring pray to us for mercy?

As must be evident by now, Mrs. Davis is happy to leave us with multiple unanswered questions. It's not trying to imagine what the future may look like, but to drag us in front of a mirror and ask us to look. Who we are to each other marks the boundaries of who we can be to AI. The number of ways we know how to love will be the limit of what love AI will learn from us. But it's entirely possible that the algorithm may create forms of connection and love that we can't yet imagine, and it could be tragic if we're not capable of recognizing them.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.