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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Unmaking Existence

The large tent is filled with the Turkish Cypriot legal community and its visiting guests from the Greek Cypriot associations whom have gathered for an annual summer ball.

I loosen my tie as I look around the large crowd gathering in the traditional pole marquee. It's a suit and tie function, but I hate dressing up at the best of times. In this heat, however, it feels like hell.

"How are you holding up?" B asks, as she comes over with two glasses of red wine.

"I want to strip."

"Be my guest. But when the big-wigs invited you as guest of honour, I don't think they had that in mind."

"I've never understood the need to dress up, and I never will."

B hands me one of the glasses, and puts her free hand under the arm holding her wine glass. "So how do you feel?"

"How am I supposed to feel?"

B gives me a light brush on the cheek with her lips. "Like you deserve to be here mister. Proud that your achievements are being honoured."

"What achievements, B? I haven't done anything at all."

"You know, like standing in line for something, it is such a British trait not to boast, but you take it too far sometimes."

"Trying not to boast is boasting in a way y'know Missy. If I say I haven't done anything, it's because I genuinely believe I haven't done anything that deserves commendation. Not when there are so many people out there doing so much more."

"See here mister, I-" B begins, but suddenly changes the subject. "Don't look now, but the old wolf approaches," she whispers at me through teeth clenched between a large smile. "We managed to lose his daughter in the crowd, but we're going to get caught this time!"

"Ali, my dear boy! Good to see you!"

I turn around to greet Mr X. "Hello, sir. It's good to see you, too."

"You know my daughter tells me you're still single. Don't you ever feel you want to just marry and settle down?"

"Billions of people in the world at this moment are doing that right now sir. I don't think our civilisation will collapse if I put that on hold for a little while longer."

Mr X laughs, and lights a cigar. "So, I take it that means my girl hasn't been able to convince you to marry her yet?"

"I don't know what you mean, sir."

Mr X pretends not to understand me. "I also hear from my daughter that you scored the winning goal in that charity football match."

"No sir. That wasn't me. I just helped set it up."

"Well as good as, then. So how goes things?"

"Very well, until they put me into this suit."

"You never did like wearing suits did you? Even when working for me... We've never stopped missing you at the office," he says sincerely. "I would be glad to have you back, as a partner if you wish."

"And I've never stopped feeling honoured, every time you make the offer sir," I reply. "But I think that my life is on for a change of course."

"What again? Wasn't travelling around the whole of the south of Cyprus last year and documenting the problems of refugees enough?"

"Life needs changes, new challenges."

"And what are your grand plans?"

I smile, taking a large sip of my drink. "Well I don't aim to invent a computer with an imagination. My plans are small things to do with my own desires."

Mr X sucks on his large cigar. "Computer with an imagination? It's funny you should say that. I was having a discussion about that hoax chess-playing machine called The Turk just now. Chess is one thing, but computers will never match us in music or writing or dancing."

"Well, not unless someone figures out how to upload a right-brained imagination," I reply in jest.

The old lawyer shakes his head slowly. "If we get to the point computers can best humans in the arts, those splendid, millennia-old expressions of the heart and soul of human existence, then why bother existing?"

I wave away some cigar smoke with a hand. "If one is bested, the struggle to be the best doesn't end. But I don't think that's the actual fear we have of computers making art. The fear is something else."

Mr X flicks some ash. "And what is that, son?"

"Have you ever read Jorge Borges' short story from over half a century ago, The Library of Babel? It's about a huge library filled with every story, and every variation of every story."

"No, I haven't."

"Computers creating art upsets us mostly because of what it means about our humanity, that we are predictable, down to the last thought. If a computer is able to reproduce all scenarios and predict all outcomes, it would be unsettling to realise that such a machine might have the ability to tell your story for you before you even know you have a story."

Mr X looks at me as I continue, "But we shouldn't be afraid of predictability, because it is one of our most human traits, as is our way of being unpredictable." I want to go further in the conversation, but B surreptitiously gives my side a pinch, so I stop.

Mr X takes another suck on his cigar. "So, in short-?"

"So if computers do make art one day it won't unmake our existence, because the making is just the pursuit not the meaning of it. To do that, a computer would have to become human enough to create human art. It would have to find, feel, absorb reality to the point it is overcome, to the point it sobs for release. A computer perhaps could replicate every possibility, but could never transfer the energy art requires to exist in the first place. A computer can generate a book, but will there be any soul in it?"

B, having stayed uncharacteristically silent for so long, now laughs. "Mr X said in short Ali."

I smile apologetically. "Real content speaks to real people. Computer content may have the power to make the thing itself, but to give that thing meaning will take more than just engineered imagination."

"You can't engineer imagination," B says.

"Exactly," I reply. "In short, I was being ironic. Read Science Daily's article "Why Musicians Make Us Weep And Computers Don't" to see what I mean."

Mr X slaps me on the back, as someone rings a gong to silence the crowd. "I'll take your word for it my boy."

With the crowd called to quiet, B gives my hand a squeeze. A speaker gets up on a prepared podium and begins his speech.

"When you take the podium to give your speech," B whispers with a giggle, "just make sure you don't make us weep up there, okay?"

"Honey B, I doubt I could make you cry even if I rubbed onion in your eyes."

She looks up at me, and smiles. "Ali, I've said it before, so I'll say it again - you not only amaze me with how much you know, but sometimes you amaze me by how little you know, too."

"Well at least I'm consistent," I whisper back, as upon hearing my name called and the customary round of applause, I hand her my half-empty wine glass and make my way to the front.

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