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Deep Learning

Frankenstein Was a Hippie

One of the most famous German legends of all time is a story about an erudite named Faust. Having excelled in all areas of learning, Faust becomes bored and frustrated by the limits of his knowledge and is tempted by a demon called Mephistopheles to make a perilous deal with the devil. Faust agrees to trade his soul in the afterlife for infinite knowledge and power while he is alive. The disastrous outcomes of his willingness to commit himself to eternal damnation in exchange for a higher understanding of earthly matters differ from one version of the story to another. But in every form – from medieval English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr Faustus to German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part play, Faust – Faust’s tale remains a cautionary one, warning people of the tragic downfall that awaits when moral integrity is sacrificed in the pursuit of intellectual ambition.

 

The moral of the story is one that is reiterated in Mary Shelley’s famous 1818 tale of Viktor Frankenstein and his monster. From a young age, Viktor displays an insatiable thirst for knowledge, but to his father’s dismay, this leads to a fascination with the mystical philosophies of alchemy.  Whilst advancing his learning at university, however, Viktor is convinced to turn his attention to modern science and chemistry. In an ambitious merging of the fantastical dreams of the alchemists with the logic of hard science, he seeks to create a new race of beings – but his experiment goes awry, producing a monster so deformed and terrifying in appearance that Viktor runs away from it, leaving his creation unsupervised. Though he tries, the monster is unable to successfully integrate himself into human society, a reality that results in the death of many people – including Viktor’s younger brother and his new wife. Like Faust, Viktor Frankenstein’s quest for super-human knowledge becomes his ultimate downfall.

 

Though hundreds of years old, these stories are particularly pertinent in the age of AI, where the drive to know more has gained unprecedented momentum and led to an attempt to produce a thinking creature, created in our own image. The goal of unsupervised deep learning is to use vast amounts of data and advanced processing algorithms modelled on the human brain to make machines that are capable of doing things more accurately and more efficiently than we are capable of in our normal human state – and to drive us, like Faust, towards a place of infinite knowledge. But like Frankenstein’s monster, modern AI has emerged out of an ambitious combination of mysticism and science, with little regard for the moral implications of such a pairing. The pioneers of Big Tech were, after all, once the hippies that drove an LSD-laden counterculture movement.

 

The idea that humans – in their normal, mortal state – are somehow limited in their ability to access and understand infinite knowledge is a theme that has been explored throughout time and across cultures. Psychedelic drugs have often been at the centre of the pursuit to access a higher level of consciousness, from the peyote used by the medicine men of North America, to the iboga used in initiation ceremonies by the Babongo in Gabon, the kava that features in the sacred rituals in the Pacific Islands, and the yagé used by tribes in the South American rainforest. And in contemporary Western society, we have lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

 

LSD was first synthesised by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938 and produces a range of perceptual, emotional and cognitive effects in varying degrees amongst different users. Common experiences include visual and auditory hallucinations, vivid mental imagery, synaesthesia, a broadening and intensification of access to one’s emotions, and increased cognitive flexibility. In the most powerful “trips”, users report a total sense of fluidity between the self and the external environment – a so-called oneness with the universe.

 

Neuroscientific investigations into the link between the pharmacological and phenomenological effects of LSD have produced insights about the drug’s biological effect on users. These studies have largely focused on the drug’s ability to improve communication between different parts of the brain through increased synaptic connections. In humans, the more synapses between neurons that are stimulated, the better our ability to learn. LSD has a particularly strong activation effect on serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in enabling the brain to process and integrate information from other regions and in making decisions. These findings have been integrated with generally accepted neurodynamic understandings of the mind, which suggest that the brain makes use of filtering or constraining mechanisms in our perceptual and cognitive systems to manage the overwhelmingly large amount of information it continuously receives from the external environment. This prevents us from becoming incapacitated by large amounts of information and facilitates efficient information-processing and decision-making in our daily lives. Researchers suggest that drugs such as LSD interfere with this information-processing limiting mechanism, literally expanding our perceptual, emotional, and cognitive capabilities. Neuroimaging studies have also revealed that LSD increases neural communication across synaptic connections between the parts of the brain that are involved in introspection and those responsible for sensory and perceptual processes. This accounts for the loss of boundaries between the self and the world that LSD users often report.

 

But the long-term effects of LSD use can be devastating, and can result in ongoing hallucinations, paranoia, cognitive disorganisation, and mood disturbances. Use of the drug can also trigger severe mental illnesses, such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. In The Doors of Perception (1954), Aldous Huxley – who took inspiration from William Blake’s famous poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – describes the brain as a “reducing valve” that limits our ability to access full consciousness. Recent neuroscientific research on the brain’s constraining mechanisms provides uncanny biological proof of Huxley’s suspicion that the brain, in its normal state, limits thought. But what Huxley and so many others have failed to consider is that this may be a crucial development in our evolution, rather than a flaw. During childhood, the brain streamlines its functions through a process of synaptic pruning, and this is what enables us to learn. Neural connections are formed and those that are repeatedly activated – because they have proven to be useful or rewarding patterns of thought – are physically reinforced, whilst those that are unused are dissolved. Cognitive biases also pervade our thinking on a daily basis, providing a set of heuristics that make our decision-making faster and more effective. In short, there is a reason our brains have developed these constraining mechanisms, and without them a person can become so overwhelmed by the sensory information they receive, that they become dysfunctional. LSD may enhance the number of connections the brain makes, but these are rarely useful and can often lead to long-term psychological damage.

 

Unaware, or perhaps unconcerned, about the high cost of accessing higher knowledge using LSD, Hofmann’s “sacred drug” – as he referred to it in his memoir LSD: My Problem Child (1980) – was popularised during the counterculture movement as an aid for accessing “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.” During this time, Timothy Leary – a clinical psychologist working at Harvard – famously developed a theory of consciousness expansion through psychedelic substances, after experimenting with their controlled use in the treatment of alcohol addiction and criminal behaviour. He argued that the drug allowed people to gain unprecedented insight into themselves and increased their alertness to the external world, leading to consciousness-expansion and releasing them from the consciousness-narrowing effects that result from the ritualistic compulsions of addiction. Leary was dismissed from Harvard for failing to give his required lectures, although the fact that he was pressuring students to take psychedelics, and taking the drugs himself with them, were more likely the true causes of his employer’s discontent.  But he continued his research off-campus, hosting retreats at a mansion in New York that combined psychedelic experiences with meditation, yoga and group therapy sessions. His most famous catchphrase was “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, and through this he urged people to make use of psychedelic drugs to sensitise their brains to the world (turn on), to engage with the new perceptions they could access as a result of these drugs (tune in), and then to question established social norms and authorities (drop out).

 

Leary’s theory quickly became intertwined with more spiritual and mystical ideas as his patients described their accounts of the life-altering awakenings they had experienced whilst taking LSD. These mystical experiences became central in the pursuit of knowledge across multiple fields, owing to the commonplace use of the drug among university students. The archetypal hippie was not only free-thinking and politically liberal, but often intellectual and highly educated as well. The counterculture movement produced some of the most famous art, literature and music of our time, and it was also the era in which many influential modern civil rights movements gained a foothold. After the Kent State shootings – which left four students dead after a protest against bombings in Cambodia by US military forces – the movement became explicitly political, with protests against the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War spreading general dissatisfaction with the government, and the traditional values it had promoted.

 

The role of LSD use among the future leaders of Big Tech during the 1960s has also been well-documented in John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (2005) and Ryan Grim’s This is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America (2009). Innovators who seem to owe their ideas, at least in part, to LSD include Doug Engelbart (the inventor of the computer mouse), Kevin Herbert (the inventor of virtual reality), and Steve Jobs, who openly claimed that “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin.” Like Viktor Frankenstein bringing alchemy and chemistry together to create his monster, so the pioneers of the tech industry have merged the other-worldly imaginings produced by LSD with the logic of science in their attempts to create a robot with human-like cognitive abilities. But there is a chilling irony in the fact that these inventors were attempting to replicate the functions of the human brain, whilst physically altering their own. Given what we have recently learnt about the manner in which personal data has been used by Big Tech companies for commercial gain, it could also be argued that, like Viktor Frankenstein, they have been blinded by their ambition, unleashing their creation on the world, imperfect though it is, and with little regard for the damaging impact it may have. And whilst Viktor Frankenstein was something of an anomaly in his time, the mad scientists of our generation wield incredible influence in today’s society.

 

Timothy Leary re-emerged in the 1980s, describing computers and the internet as “the LSD of the 1990s” and altered his catchphrase to urge people to “turn on, boot up, jack in.” But just as LSD users of the 1960s punted the benefits of the drug with little regard for the damage it could cause, we are not yet fully aware of the implications that our digital LSD could have in the future. Certainly, through the power of smart technologies, we have gained access to a vast amount of information – but this access is worryingly restricted to a select few, monopolised by Big tech firms such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. And it seems that whilst the forerunners of this industry may have once marched for the noble political ideals espoused by the counterculture movement, the legacy they have left is one driven by profits and devoid of an ethical code or a sense of social responsibility. That knowledge is power is a truism that has echoed through history, and it is deeply concerning to realise that those who currently have access to the most knowledge may have sold their souls to acquire it