TBT: Caligula Gets the Nod

Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (A book I almost sorta read back in 2006, almost sorta because I had a one year old baby and could only read a paragraph per day), anyway, the book starts right around 98-108 A.D., the kind of golden "Marcus Aurelius" era and then ends around 1430, just before Columbus discovered the The Bahamas.

Not America.

The Bahamas.

Anyway, I thought this odd this morning when I looked up 'This Week in History" and saw that yesterday was the 1978th Anniversary of Caligula's appointment as Caesar. His uncle Tiberius had just died of 'natural' causes at the age of 78 and left the seat of the Roman Empire to be split between his nephew, Caligula, and his grandson, Gemellus.

Obviously the first thing Caligula does is declare half of Tiberius's will null and void.

The half which mentions Gemellus.

Like one does.

Followed by thirteen hundred years of Roman style CalvinBall.

What we know know of Caligula is that he opened up republican elections again, which Julius Caesar and Tiberius didn't think was such a good idea. He spent lavishly gaining favors. He reduced taxes. And then eight months into his reign he got really sick (possibly poisoned) and then went a little nuts. He started executing lots of people, raised taxes again, built things he didn't really need to build (though, in a wink to modern senators, at least his bridges went somewhere). He declared himself to be a living God, and then insisted on moving his seat to Alexandria.

It was that last part that got him stabbed about thirty times.

Fine . . . whatever . . . be a god . . . just don't make me have to pack.

What we kinda sorta know is that his insanity was went as far as to include debauchery, rape, incest, homosexuality, and a propensity for throwing spectators (not just christians) into the gladiator arenas to be eaten by lions.

We all get a little bored sometimes.

We only kinda sorta know those things because the contemporary historians conflict and because it was fashionable (still really really is) to make up horrendous stories about unpopular Caesars as long as it was done a few decades after they'd been stabbed thirty times.

Lots of Caesars got stabbed, and then posthumously become incestuous homosexual rapists.

That's how that's done.

Anyway, back to Gibbon, I was surprised to see that he skipped all the fun guys.

Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, John the Baptist, Jesus, Caligula, Nero.

Fun Fact: Pontius Pilot was the Prefect of Roman Judea between 26 and 36 A.D. which means that at the latest, Jesus was crucified just before Caligula came into power.

Jesus was a Tiberius man all the way.

Fun Fact 2: A.D. stands for Anno Domini (the year of our lord) because time should start with the possible birth of Jesus. Though if you want to be taken seriously at your TEDTalk you might want to use C.E. for Common Era. Atheists get all cranky if you don't conform to their version of the truth.

Fun Fact 3: Starting in the 1500's the world started moving from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar because the Julian Calendar didn't have a leap year and was messing up the true date of Easter.

Fun Fact 4: The British colonies didn't adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1752 and the having to recalculate history drove Thomas Jefferson crazy all the time.

Jefferson also being a former ruler who can later described as a rapist.

Can't have consensual sex with a slave.

That's not how that works.

Can't do it.

Anyway, Edward Gibbon, a devout christian when he began his volumes, slowly descended into a quiet atheism as he started to get a full view of what the roman Catholic church had been up to for so long.

He probably would've nailed his TEDTalk.

Which for some weird reason leads me to this week's TED expo and the debate over Artificial Intelligence.

Google unveiled it's plan to have self driving cars on the road by 2020. Cool. Then the head of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab, Dr. Fei Fei Li, spoke about machines that learn, followed by Philosopher Nick Bostrom's stand that we need to make sure that machines with Artificial Intelligence need to be "motivated to pursue our values."

Our Values?

Exactly what values do you speak of Nick?

Now . . . for the record . . . I'm fascinated by the idea of what the future will hold when it comes to artificial intelligence. I grew up in the era where we can envision C3PO all the way up to the Terminator. I read Asimov as a teen and felt a certain giddy pride that the computer who played tic-tac-toe with Matthew Broderick was named Joshua.

That's my name too.

Asimov was afraid of what robots could become. That's why he gave them the three laws, the ones about obeying and doing no harm through action or inaction. Ray Kurzweil also has misgivings about the future of artificial intelligence, but he's convinced that the era of future robots will be fueled by the baser of man's values, leading back to the Jeffersonian Dilemma of whether or not it's acceptable to have sex with 'property'.

Stephen Hawking addressed his fears recently, making headlines, but you can't blame him for that. There's a guy who really needs computers to act responsibly.

But back to Nick's values, I am hard pressed to find a single human value which isn't adulterated everyday by the kind of people that claim they are moral.

Name a commandment that you don't break every single day.

Name a law that you wouldn't fudge under the right circumstances.

Of course there are lots of things you wouldn't do. But that's your morality, probably my morality, but it's not OUR morality.

We don't have any universal values. We only have a certain amount of acceptable social behaviors that is, frankly, limited to our own particular tribe.

So what's the answer? How do we indoctrinate the new revolution of robots so that we don't accidentally raise to power another Caligula (the one who raised taxes and proclaimed himself a GOD)?

The answer is pretty simple.

Don't worry about it. It's not gonna happen.

It is our complete lack of universal values that will save us.

A lot of people who are a lot smarter than I am disagree.

And they can . . . sure . . . why not?

Yes we can build a machine to compute information faster. Yes we can teach them to learn. Yes, we're probably gonna give them the keys to our Range Rovers . . . and yes . . . they are gonna glitch.

They're gonna glitch hard.

With some disastrous results.

Which his gonna suck.

But in no way are they ever going to be able to glitch harder than us.

We are the glitch masters.

We glitch so hard and so often we can't even see it. No one in their right mind would create a machine that would be programmed to glitch as much as I glitch from one room to the next.

For instance:

A machine could look up in the sky and see a bird. It could tell you what kind of bird it is, it could tell you it's speed and direction and could probably synchronize and rewrite current worldwide understanding of migratory patterns just based on the geolocation and previous years observation.

You know what it's not gonna do?

It's not gonna run into the garage and build a plane out of bicycle parts.

Cause that would be weird.

It's not gonna send pictures of it's junk to interns and it's not gonna build bridges to no where.

It can beat me in Chess, but it sure as hell will never beat me at CalvinBall.

Cause you can't defeat someone who has the power to make up the rules.

Unless you stab him thirty times.

But don't think that will be the end of it cause his nephew Nero is like right in the next room.


  1. You mention Calvinball twice, did I miss a meeting?

  2. Calvin and Hobbes reference. They play a game called Calvinball where they make up the rules as they go along. Gee you're old.