Thursday, November 23, 2023

In Pluto, the quest for humanlike AI reveals our worst side

Can we build machines that think like us without teaching them to hate like us?

Someone is killing the world's most advanced robots one by one. The same perpetrator seems to also be targeting robot rights advocates. Since robots are programmed to not kill humans, why can't the police find any evidence of a human murderer? What does it mean that every crime scene is found staged with huge ominous horns? How does the obscure past of Europe's top artificial detective fit into this mystery? And is it a coincidence that the killed robots were veterans of a ruinous preemptive war that was declared for fictitious reasons?

The new Netflix series Pluto weaves these parallel plotlines with admirable skill, closely following the structure of Naoki Urasawa's sweepingly applauded, Astro Boy-inspired manga series. What begins as a bizarre police case gradually morphs into an international conspiracy of technological espionage and postwar malaise, which culminates in a world-shattering clash of philosophies about the purpose of hatred and the possibility of escaping cycles of violence. Although the manga was originally written during the Iraq War, in the two decades since its publication, the relevance of its themes hasn't changed: from Mosul to Grozny to Aleppo to Khartoum to Aden to Bamenda to Maiduguri to Donetsk to Imphal to Mekelle to Stepanakert to Gaza, every war reenacts and reproduces the same basic defect of humanity.

Pluto is set in a future world where robots have achieved legal equality, but anti-robot prejudice is still common, to the point that the mere unfounded suspicion of a robot army can spark a world war. The cascading consequences of that conflict still haunt the characters in this story: the robots who were ordered to kill fellow robots now carry the same trauma and regrets that would be expected in human soldiers. One of them has become an environmentalist, another is an aspiring musician, and another flat-out refused to fight and opened a foster home for war orphans. Even far from the battlefield, in the prosperous cities of the European Federation, casual disregard for the dignity of robot life still leads to daily microaggressions that from time to time snowball into self-perpetuating rounds of revenge.

One of the many fascinating arguments implied in Pluto is the robots' counterintuitively enhanced capacity for hostility. They're forbidden, both legally and electronically, from attacking humans, but in a society where robots are supposed to have the same rights as humans, that restriction is egregiously one-sided, not to mention fated to fail. A convenient counterweight to human belligerence is that we have the luxury of forgetting, whereas a digital brain with a grudge will always carry a perfect memory of it. Let that emotion fester long enough, and any machine will snap. If human hatred has already proved harmful, a robotic form of hatred could be cataclysmic. In several scenes, characters who are experts on the matter claim that AI is unable to hate, but the story goes on to demonstrate that it wasn't even necessary to program hate in its code. All it took was interaction with human insensitivity.

Despite this easy recipe for disaster, each time a piece of the puzzle is solved, hatred is exposed in its pointlessness. One character schemes to avenge his dead brother and puts his entire family at risk. Another wants to hunt down the invaders that bombed his homeland and loses all sense of who he is. Another makes the moral calculation that the lives of his country are worth endangering all the rest, and is easily manipulated into almost blowing up the world. In most of these cases, the wasteful effort of hatred is spent in response to a similar act of hatred that was sparked by a previous one. You can't summon the god of death into your service without then becoming his servant. So the script is careful to represent the opponents' motives as understandable without once taking their side. Its plea for empathy is not a defense of retaliation.

Taking advantage of its mutually mirroring subplots, Pluto contains copious internal references. Often, a scene will literalize the point made more symbolically in another. A beautiful instance of this technique is noticeable in a character who researches agronomy. He's quoted as having remarked that flowering plants typically die after producing seeds, and then he discovers a flower that stays perpetually in bloom, intact for years, never giving seeds. However, to produce that flower, an entire field around it had to die. The implied theme, developed more explicitly over the rest of the plot, is that the pursuit of survival at the cost of other lives results in fruitless stasis.

Here Pluto finds a space to address the horror hidden just under the surface of the manga series that inspired it: as you'll recall, the whole reason for Astro Boy's existence is as a replacement for a dead son. This backstory is transformed in Pluto into an exploration of the risks of trying to bypass the reality of death. For one of the villains, the goal is many deaths at the acceptable cost of an aberrant life. For the secret mastermind villain, the goal is an aberrant life at the acceptable cost of many deaths. Atom, this story's version of Astro Boy, is the first to transcend this poisoned bargain. His second chance at life is fueled by extreme hatred, but he avoids becoming a perpetuator of death by realizing the true nature of hatred: there is pure emptiness inside of it.

The show restates this argument in the form of a thought experiment. Suppose that a human programmer wanted to design the smartest AI possible. Having only human tools at hand, one solution is to feed the program with the intelligence of every human being, a balanced whole containing all our wishes, personalities and inclinations. However, to simulate all of humanity would paralyze the digital brain. It would never decide anything. In Pluto, one character theorizes that the way out of this problem is to give the balanced whole a good shake. To unbalance it with our worst primal impulses.

What makes this scenario even more interesting is that a set containing every human being is a not very veiled metaphor for the world. The character who cynically suggests pushing the simulated collective of humanity with hatred represents the philosophical position according to which violence is the driving force that moves the world. Atom's success at integrating his rebuilt self represents the refutation of that position.

By refraining from a straightforward portrayal of war and focusing instead on its painful aftermath and the passions that feed it, Pluto squares the circle of telling a story about war that doesn't inadvertently glorify it. In addition to boasting formidable complexity in the way its structure effortlessly juggles numerous flashbacks set at different points in the timeline, as well as featuring a cast of the most compellingly human robots this side of Blade Runner, Pluto is a profoundly moral story where grievous destruction follows naturally from the ancient, unrelenting sin of counting any life as expendable.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

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