The other day, I learned that a friend of mine was nigh unto death. Picturing Julie, her wide smile, her funny “voices,” her lanky frame, her gentle disposition, facing her own departure from this world, leaving behind all of this, was more than I could take. And yet, how could I not “take” it? It’s not a choice any of us have. And, yes, Julie has lived a few ripples out from my center these last many years. Still, riding the dusky hills of Cambria, overlooking the glittering sea with her, or currying the horses in the quiet orange groves of Rancho Santa Fe — those memories still breathe a wind of possibility into my mind. Why possibility? Because we were young and daring life to bring us anything at all. We could take it.
We could take the future because there was so much of the unknown about it. So many years ahead for our supple limbs and our smooth skin! What couldn’t we handle? We could love whoever showed up, we could take acid and trip wildly happy through the San Diego Zoo, getting lost in the fern jungles, ignoring the animals and their coming extinctions, dismissing warnings about valuable filters in our brains. We could stay up all night talking about wisdom. But now, with Julie staring into the portal of the unknown, it isn’t so easy to relegate death to a concept.
A couple of weeks ago, I had to put my beloved canine friend down. When her soft curly head hit my lap for the last time, I could not believe it was over. Wait. No. I mean, stop. Full stop. Her breath was finished and her bed empty. No more sound of lapping water. No more charging at the mailman on the other side of the door. Now she was on the other side of a different door and I haven’t been able to summon the abstract faith that I’ll see her again. Nor can I hope to see Julie again.
Then, at a Halloween party last night, I met a young man whose eyes seemed to look into my mind, right through the Renaissance-style cat mask he wore. Amazingly, we catapulted into a discussion of all the ways we humans try to avoid sorrow and death — the addictions, the constructs. As the rest of the people faded from my awareness, I wondered, who was this person? The mystery is behind everything, I told him, smoothing down my petticoat, as I felt that delicious sense of eternity when a total stranger connects. Here we are, among a gallery of strangers, everyone dressed in costume — vamp, warrior, rich man, poor man — and yet we find a way to meet the real human and talk of things that matter. I live for these moments! Disguise or no. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to hunting.
What do you do? I asked him. He seemed willing to keep talking to a middle-aged lady.
I work in A.I. he said. Artificial Intelligence. In particular, the way a computer makes meaning from the human voice. Voicings, phrase, tone. All musical terms that I know well, being a musician and a singer. When I plied him for more on the subject, he elaborated, casting a kind of spell on my imagination. He described the mechanics of how a machine listens and translates sound into machine components of logic — creating hypotheses, making meanings. I wanted to write it all down, it was so elegant.
Making Meaning. That’s what we studied in graduate school, English. What is the signified, the signifier, how syntax encodes a social order. Such a human construct — building a box that can do all that with numbers. That can send back a sound that makes sense to the human.
Actually, I’m terrified of all this artificial stuff. I didn’t want to tell him, though. His eyes had a time-lock and I needed to concentrate! Suddenly I didn’t want to finish my punch. I wanted to discover what’s just ahead for our civilization. Here’s this guy, an architect of that future! My brain was sizzling when he said, Sometimes, the machines don’t understand and that’s the challenge. All around me, people were talking loudly about the election, about horrible traffic, about going to Italy, about knitting.
What do you call that? I adjusted my wig, repositioned my fake cigarette holder.
We call it fuzzy meaning. Oh, my God. Fuzzy meaning! How do rationalists who design supercomputers come up with these phrases that are the epitome of silliness? The very word fuzzy. It’s mystery. Mystery is soft around the edges; the words are unclear, garbled, ragged. Uneven. Like a stuffed animal that gives comfort when all else lets you down. You can’t hold fuzzy up to anything, make it responsible for anything. It’s elusive.
So, if Siri gets what I say wrong, you call it fuzzy? Think. Think.
Yeah. I wish I could remember all the mathematical and procedural processes the cat man, who owns his own business, told me about. The systems Siri has to run through to try to attach my utterance to a recognizable file, then run a series of possible scenarios to solve my problem. So fascinating! I could spend years trying to decode the description this eloquent man shared with me in mere moments. We really understood each other. At least I think we did. I mean, can I know for certain that when I said Siri, he understood all the weird symbolism and fears I attach to that entity? (I hesitate to name it entity.) Can I be sure he got my feeling that, although I crave conceptual mastery, the prospect of Artificial Intelligence making decisions about my crazy, conflicted world (Have you seen “Her” or “Deux ex Machina”?) fills me with the most intense dread? Like almost unto death itself? When I’m not being abstract, I mean. When I’m not being fuzzy. I don’t know if I can take it, after all.