The Temper of the Machine

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Temper – Tempus – Temporal: Machines are clocks, but they have no temper.

I had the pleasure this week of addressing the Royal Irish Academy on the subject of Digital Citizenship, which, rather than addressing the narrow construct of person-state relationship, instead took in a broad sweep of life in the digital world. Part of a series themed around the constitution, it focused on issues of growing up a teenager in the digital world, data protection (there were a lot of lawyers in the room, not least my fellow presenter Oisín Tobin of Mason Hayes & Curran), privacy, artificial intelligence and the politics of all that. In two hours, it was a hurried skip across disciplines and dystopias, which illustrated in equal measure the interest and enthusiasm people have for addressing the issue (there was barely a seat left in the hall), and the strange paucity (it seems to me, at least) of opportunities that there are to pursue in particular the ethical, policy, and political implications of our digital lives. Convened by Dr John Morrison, the Academy Chair of the Ethical, Political, Legal and Philsophical Committee, and expertly chaired by Dr Noreen O’Carroll, perhaps this is the beginning of an attempt to address that.

One of the more provocative contributions from the floor was a suggestion that, had algorithmic governance been in place upon the referendum in London last week, the result might have been different. A curious observation, which like so many in that forum could have spawned a dozen other conversations, it occurred to me that while machines have significant advantages over humans in many aspects of life, we should be careful what we wish for. As a species, we have learned to suppress the harsher elements of our nature, our base desires. These are complex mechanisms – psychological, biological, even perhaps Darwinian. The word temper reverberated around my brain for a couple of days afterwards. Machines needed to be tempered. They needed to be temperate.

Temper is a very interesting word. Modern usage rarely extends beyond anger management (learning to ‘control one’s temper’) or something to do with metallurgy (tempered steel). Walter Skeat’s Concise Dictionary of English Etymology describes the verb as to ‘apportion, regulate, qualify…[a]llied to tempus, time; see Temporal.’ The expressive state of anger  – where one’s temper has been lost – is one of compromised control, a reversion perhaps to unreasonable or irrational animalism at some level (though I personally remain unconvinced that the distinction between the animal and rational man is simply some divine gift of ‘reason’). There is inherent in this understanding a separation between the rational capacity to temper, to exert self-control, an expression of civilised man, and that of the base animal. The base animal, when we consider AI, can be replaced by a computer. Temperate, civilised man is more difficult to construct in code.

The virtue of forgetting – so easy to overlook.

Another crossover point is the concept in technology circles of the right to be forgotten. Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s 2009 work Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age highlighted the problem in algorithmic governance: that there is an element of temporal atrophy to information in human relationships that is missing from the machine. As human beings, we forget things, we move on. Changed, perhaps; influenced; evolved; but things that are in the past – while contributing to the structure of the present – no longer explicitly exercise us. While there are specific reputational concerns at stake (a man falsely accused of a crime may find it difficult to have the accusation forgotten in the digital age), there are also elements of this in the broader dominion of the temper of the machine. Forgetting is about time, and temper, in its etymology, is similarly about time. It is about change, and about order, not about states, or any static being. Lewis Mumford regarded the clock as the key machine of the Industrial Age (Technics and Civilization, 1934). As he put it, ‘[t]ime-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing…Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.’ Perhaps it is trite to say it, but there is an existential quality to the concept of time, a fundamental element of identity.

Time is a dominant determinant of identity and relationships. It softens the edges of our excitement, our passions. Things that are shocking, frightening, and tending towards absolute emotions regulate (see Skeat’s etymology), over time. Our reactions and engagements with each other and our environment are governed by both remembrance and forgetting, by education and judgement. Any of us who have had arguments with our partners will empathise with how high passions can soar at the height of a disagreement, and yet – despite sometimes exhausting efforts! – those passions cannot be sustained. So our judgments and arbitrations over our fellow man and our society are considered, and measured – though measured by no strict rule.

So as we abdicate control over our lives to machines, how do we ensure that their temper is appropriate? Machines have no passions; they have no soaring sense of euphoria, no crushing disappointment, no blinding anger to guide them, and no memory of such sensibilities. Are they therefore doomed to fail in their attempts to empathise with human beings, no matter how extraordinary their capacity to learn? Perhaps more pointedly, machines have no time, they have no temper. They are themselves, fundamentally, clocks: ticking and tocking not as they measure themselves, but as they measure us.

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