Who Wears The Mask?

By Eric Le Roy

The Mask

"PUT off that mask of burning gold

With emerald eyes."

"O no, my dear, you make so bold

To find if hearts be wild and wise,

And yet not cold."

"I would but find what's there to find,

Love or deceit."

"It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what's behind."

"But lest you are my enemy,

I must enquire."

"O no, my dear, let all that be;

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?"

Content 18+ I vividly recall the horror films that used to come to the movie house in Martinsburg, West Virginia, back when I was a kid in the 1950s. The genre was so richly imaginative that if you weren’t scared to death when you watched them, you had to have been some sort of psychopath – in other words, more murderous by nature than any monster the film-makers could come up with.

But the point is that these really were monsters. This was long before the Home Alone and Freddy Kreuger stuff, where a bunch of cocky and careless but actually very wholesome American teenagers end up being decapitated and dismembered. And this was before the time of computer-generated special effects. No, back then, we mostly settled for Frankenstein, Dracula, and a host of mummies, zombies, and werewolves.

Sometimes we had visitors from outer space.

If there is one thing I learned back then, it is that people are almost always hostile to perceived threats from outside. And ‘Outside’ could mean anything from (remember, this was Martinsburg I am talking about) cars with New York license plates, to Commies from Russia, to Civil Rights workers (if you lived further down in the Deep South), and, of course, to Men from Mars.

Naturally, it wouldn’t have been any fun if all those little green men, those seething pods or ‘body-snatchers’ (as one famous film was called), had arrived with fresh lemonade and bouquets of flowers. They had to be bad asses, or there wouldn’t have been a tale to tell. Nevertheless, being astute in the strange, I guess unconventional way that I have always been blessed to be, I could never stop asking myself why it always came down to a desperate battle to save ‘mankind’ and the planet earth from being devoured by the hideous invaders. “Why can’t we all just get along?” I asked myself, as Rodney King wondered out loud after the LA race riots many years ago. A simple question but with an apparently complicated answer..

But what the hell. The good guys always won, and all the brain eating insects were shooed away. I am certain that God was especially proud of the human race after it had vanquished the

Blood-Sucking Bone Skinners and the Fiendish Fungus Toads.

Then there were the robots. For years and years, I saw them on celluloid: mechanical and stiff, clanking about with rigid night watchman arms, their deadbeat gaze locked inside slowly revolving metal heads, and always a sense of slow but inexorable inevitability. They were coming to stay, and they knew where to locate the nightmares in our skulls. Coming soon to a town near you. But then, for years, they didn’t come.

Now they have. Fast forward to Artificial Intelligence, and we arrive at where I really want to begin this essay.

My luminous colleague and fellow writer Artem is well-steeped in sophisticated knowhow regarding AI, and he has shared a lot of it with me. I personally –hardly an IT aficionado – confess to be utterly fascinated by AI. I even wrote a story a couple of years ago called “Benedetta” which was about some nondescript semi-loser of a guy in Moscow who, starved for love and affection, buys a life size doll from a backstreet shop and in due course falls in love with ‘her’. The story is never facetious or far-fetched. In fact, it’s the opposite.

It describes a man who is so needy of sharing his emotions with another human being and so despairing because of his inability to do so, that he is ready to settle for the next best thing. He is able to look past the fact that Benedetta is not real; indeed he lives with her in a state of growing love, treats her as a wife, and comes to cherish her in every way.

So it’s a love story. I am hardly the first to think of such a thing.

I sometimes ask myself if I could love an artificial intelligence generated woman, and, in truth, I waver in my attempt to arrive at a definite answer. Now, I am one of those guys who, if I say “I might”, it usually means “I will.” In short, I believe that I probably could fall in love with an AI woman. (She’d have to be absolutely the right ‘woman’, of course, and by that I don’t mean a barbie doll.)

Artem’s well-crafted essay called “The Path to Human-AI Harmony (or Partnership)” devotes a few paragraphs to this subject: love and (presumably) sex between human being and AI partner, and, as is his nature, he treats it with compassion and a well-trained eye for legality. For instance, would the ‘robot’ (just for convenience I’ll call it that) be entitled to any civil rights or protection under the law? Would it be conceivable that a guy could get charged with ‘rape’ because the robot did not give consent?

At one point, Artem states (and it is persuasive): “Furthermore, the commodification of love in the digital age raises troubling questions about the commercialization of intimacy. Are we on the verge of reducing love to a mere commodity, to be bought, sold, and traded like any other product? And what impact does this have on our understanding of human dignity and autonomy?”

So is Artem, in his graceful exposition, actually (falling into a trap unawares?) assigning human qualities and sensibilities to inanimate machines? Clearly, he cares about the civil rights of the machines. But isn’t this ‘personification’ an acknowledgement that he no longer sees the machines as only machines anymore? And, if that is so, then isn’t it a logical extension of such reasoning that, if you care about the machine’s civil rights and ‘feelings’, then you are on the point of seeing the machine as equal to you and not merely an obedient computing apparatus? And, furthermore, if that is true, then do you not secretly believe the machine capable of psychological intimacy – if it deserves such things as civil rights and protection against rape?

Yes, at first glance that sounds absurd, but I never foresaw a day when people would get upset if you didn’t address them with the ‘correct pronoun’. Or when broad-shouldered hulks with Adam Apples the size of the cranks they used to start Model-T cars back in Henry Ford’s time would change how they ‘identified’ and demand a place on the women’s swimming team.

Nope, never saw it coming. But hey, I’m flexible. Moreover, I fully understand how excruciatingly lonely this world is for many people. A lot of men and women don’t get far in the sex appeal sweepstakes, but that doesn’t make them any less human, any less needy or deserving of companionship and, yes, love.

I have also written about the fact that human beings often don’t tell the truth. Therefore, I have posited in the past: What would be the difference between a machine that treated you with love without being able to feel it authentically, and some ‘lover’ who claimed to love you when love was really the farthest thing from their minds? It sounds cynical, but I know a man who swears he would rather pay a prostitute (excuse me, sex worker) for a guaranteed result than blow a bunch of jack on a real woman who could turn him down or change her mind at any moment. The man put it like this to me over drinks one evening: “It sounds bad to pay money for this sort of thing, but don’t you pay one way or the other anyway? So I just slip the woman the cash and we forget about it. In fact, this one woman, I know her so well, it’s more like a gift – like I’m really just doing her a favor. We understand – both of us – what the money’s for and what’s expected, but somehow we just seem to forget about that, have a few drinks and get on with it. Guaranteed result and she’s always in a good mood.”

Well then. ‘It’s fake but who cares? We all leave the building happy.’

If you think about human ‘love’ relationships based on traditional ideals of devotion and fidelity, you see that many potentially unpleasant surprises pop up: (1) the two are not sexually compatible. This could be for countless reasons; (2) they are so bored with each other that when they copulate, they are both thinking about someone else; (3) either or both (most likely the woman) is faking. (4) The relationship is mostly based on finances: bedroom privileges in exchange for rides on a yacht. (5) loveless routine, with drugs, alcohol and sex toys required to get through the ordeal.

There have been many long periods in history where love was the last thing anyone cared about when arranging marriages. Besides, nowadays, divorce is so easy, hook-up culture so prevalent, and women becoming just as aggressive in prowling for partners as men have been through the ages – that sex and love often have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. In fact, for many ‘players’ Love is poison. Say that word and they are out the door faster than if an irate husband or wife suddenly showed up.

In addition to all that, I have heard and read from direct quotes that many women actually need a vibrator to ‘get off’, and that the gadget-generated orgasm is infinitely more pleasurable than Lover Boy’s puny, pathetic, pompous pudenda. Can you imagine your old lady saying something like this? “Hey Chump, can you hurry up and bust a nut, so I can plug in Mr. Eggbeater and get the Real Deal?”

But let’s veer away from sex. It seems to me that Artem views the human and the AI companion as ultimately irreconcilable in any true sense of their differences being dissolved. For example, he writes, “Asimov’s laws of robotics with their emphasis on prioritizing human safety and well-being, serve as the cornerstone of this trust, ensuring that AI remains steadfast allies rather than existential threats.” So he sees a pair of diplomats, essentially – one human, the other non-human – occupying the same congenial space on the proscenium of worldly affairs.

And he eloquently concludes with this: “By adhering to the principles of empathy, transparency, and ethical governance, we can forge a future where humans and AI coexist in harmony, enriching each other’s lives and propelling civilization toward new heights of achievement.”

Notice that he says, “enriching each other’s lives” – and I think that this Freudian slip – if that is what it is – unwittingly leads to a subtle yet profound shift in our collective mentality. We have our lives…but so do the AI entities. I have no way of knowing if Artem intended this or if it just slipped out, however, in my judgment it is a perfect demonstration of just how far we have come in our acceptance (and embracing) of the increasingly level ground we stand on: you, me, and the robots.

Artem still (and he knows more about this subject than I do) sees our relationship with AI entities as coexistence – which more than implies two things that are separate no matter how compatible. It reflects a sustained conviction that we are not the same at all (like black people and white people and yellow people?) but that we can all ‘get along’. This also assumes the ultimate condition of human control rather than vice versa.

Separate but equal – as they used to say in the Deep South of America to justify racial segregation.

But whereas Artem sees productive harmony between the human and the machine, I feel that something different is going on here, and for lack of a better way to put it, I will simply refer to it as ‘Evolution”. I think that the time is at hand to ask ourselves serious questions about what it really means to be human, because modern science and Big Data algorithm-based technology is calling into question just what Does it mean to be human? – and in many cases mercilessly challenging old ideas about human love, authenticity, and agency.

I myself am an old sentimental soldier when it comes to Love. I have said many times that without it, life is meaningless, and I still believe that. I know that, at age 74, Love still keeps me going, and, denied it, I would be lost. So I believe in it. But, the Information and Digital Age has forced me, as an honest man, to confront a number of unappetizing questions. To wit: is the ‘love’ I need essentially a spiritual or chemical response to the cosmos? I want it to be one thing, but more and more I am besieged by the possibility that it is another thing entirely.

To contemplate that this up till now defining aspect of my humanity may have been, forever and forever, based on and the product of, something so antithetical to my wishes that I can hardly face it, is stunning to me. It leaves me staggering in the doorway of life and death.

But if it is true, then, as the authentic existential being that I aspire to be while God is on holiday, I have to accept it and move on.

Accordingly, if every premise I have ever based my so-called unique humanity on has never been other than mere illusion, then I must embrace what is left. And in thus beginning to see myself as a machine, I am more at ease in accepting the agency of other machines. Even to the point of living with them and offering them the ‘love’ chemistry which, as technological ‘beings’, they should not be confused about at all.

I become one of them, and they become one of whatever I am. It graduates to a hybrid. To my mind this is a true expression of evolution. For who says that we humans are the finished product? We are mere homo sapiens, and in the sum total of earth’s history, 99.9% of it happened before we ever came along. Scrap your fingernail with a file One Time – rub it across – and you remove all human history.

So why are we so special? We have built machines – AI robots – that we are in the full throttle process of teaching to understand us, express our thoughts, and ultimately love us. Without judgment (the Big Selling Point). Think about it: with a machine you can be who you really are and not be rejected. Hey, It’s OKKKKK!!!

What is there not to like about being liked? Or…loved. Didn’t you love your teddy bear? Didn’t you miss him when he was left behind? So maybe Benedetta will miss you too. But is their love ‘for real’?

"O no, my dear, let all that be;

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?"

In this great tangle of emotions, is it what is behind the mask that counts, whatever that may be, or might the Mask be a true face after all? The robot girl (or man) shows you a look you like and an attitude that you enjoy. So you deliberate, long into the night, just like with a real lover, and then you go to them and say, “OK. I agree.”

And the robot, lovely as a spring morning, replies, “Then be my love, and live with me.”

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