Scott Brinton

Technologists beware: ‘The Matrix’ may be nigh

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In the dystopian world of the 1999 science-fiction drama “The Matrix,” extended kung fu battles, rapid-fire gunfights and chase scenes involving all manner of vehicles overshadow a deeper message — that machines might well replace humans as the dominant “creatures” on Earth someday.

I was at once horrified and intrigued when I first watched this “cyberpunk” classic, in the early 2000s, but I wasn’t especially worried by it. Now I am — and no, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. Just hear me out.

Last weekend, I viewed the three installments of the franchise — “The Matrix,” “Matrix Reloaded” and “Matrix Revolutions.” This time, I didn’t see the trilogy as the wild imaginings of Hollywood futurists intended simply to entertain us, as I previously did. Rather, I thought of it as a warning, over the top though it might be: As an increasingly technology-driven and -dependent society, we might be headed for trouble.

Before I get to why, a primer on “The Matrix”: The film portrays the world of 2199. Machines, developed with artificial intelligence in the early 21st century, rule it. There is the real world, in which the great cities that humans created are nightmarish shadows of their former selves, blown apart in a relentless war between machines and humans. They are dark, fog-covered places, nearly lifeless except for small bands of rebel humans who have survived through the centuries.

Then there’s the virtual world — the Matrix — that replicates the reality of 1999. It is a computer-generated illusion, however, constructed by the machines to beguile the billions of real-world people whom they have enslaved to extract their biochemical energy and generate electricity. The comatose humans are stuffed into slimy, chemical-filled pods, with an array of cords plugged into their backs and appendages. In effect, people have become batteries, but they don’t realize it.

Three rebels — Neo (Keanu Reeves), Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — set out to free humanity from the cyberworld in which they are ensnared.

The very notion of “The Matrix” seemed preposterous in the early 2000s. A world in which machines can out-think humans? In which people live perpetually in a virtual reality? Nonsense.

Fast-forward to Nov. 1, 2018, when I heard Stanford University Professor Emma Brunskill speak on “reinforcement learning,” which employs sophisticated computer programs to help students improve language and math skills. Essentially, the programs hurl questions at users. Harnessing the power of AI, they “learn” increasingly more about users with every answer.

With mind-numbingly complicated algorithms, these programs can predict, with ever-greater precision, which questions users will get right and wrong, and they hit them with the troublesome ones until they are answered correctly. Millions of children educated in the United States since 2000 have tried RL programs in school or at home. The popular IXL tutorial is an example of one.

Brunskill, who spoke at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute, projected black-and-white drawings of RL at work on a large screen. The icons, mostly of computer screens, represented reality. Next to them, she showed the ridiculously long algorithms behind RI.

Suddenly, images of “The Matrix” flashed through my mind. In the film, the virtual reality is built on a matrix of cascading green numbers that create the false perception of an intact world. There before me at Columbia were the numbers and symbols behind reinforcement learning. I felt uneasy. I had to watch “The Matrix” again.

Earlier that day, coincidentally, I had shown the first episode of the two-part PBS “Frontline” documentary “The Facebook Dilemma” in the Online Journalism class I teach at Hofstra. Most people might think of Facebook as a digital diary or scrapbook that connects us to family and friends. As a Facebook user, I believe that’s true. The documentary makes clear, though, that Facebook is, at its core, an algorithm — perhaps the most complex in history — that learns more about us with each keystroke we make. In computer-speak, the program is “responsive.”

All of our data — all of it, including our likes, dislikes, comments and even personal messages — is stored in Facebook’s massive servers. The algorithm, which is proprietary (that is, secret), mines the data to piece together meticulous profiles of each of us to determine which products we’re likely to buy and streams ads for them in our News Feeds. In marketing parlance, it’s called microtargeting.

In short, Facebook is a vast, increasingly sprawling form of artificial intelligence — which, in certain ways, can be likened to the AI that “The Matrix” warns against. I also learned that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acquired Oculus VR for $2.3 billion in 2014. The company develops virtual-reality glasses that offer the illusion of reality, not unlike the Matrix. Yikes!

Where is all of this headed? In our inexorable push to technologize the world, I hope and pray that we continue studying poetry, art, history, philosophy and religion — the humanities — to provide a modicum of guidance. Otherwise, “The Matrix” might, at least in part, become our reality.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.