Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

Fear of the Artificial

As someone who dedicated four years—particularly long winter nights—to the cause of high school robotics, I found myself knowing quite a bit before I walked into the room. Now let me post a disclaimer here: I’m no techie. I’ve studied the humanities throughout my education and although I’ve been able to engineer a bookshelf or two, and even the occasional project with moving parts, the technical eludes me. I claim absolutely no expertise in it. So where was I going that robotics came to mind? A lecture on Artificial Intelligence. AI. You see, I’ve been a bit concerned about it for some time because I’ve seen what robots can do. A friend recently showed me some episodes of Battle Bots on YouTube (the relative who started this blog for me was doing quite well in the competition last season), and from my own experience watching hours of FIRST robotics competitions, I know enough to be afraid.

What could possibly go wrong? (DARPA photo)

What could possibly go wrong? (DARPA photo)

The lecturer assured us that we had nothing—or next to nothing—to fear. Artificial Intelligence, he assured us, is a misnomer. Machines have no will. No mind. There’s nothing they want. They do as they’re told. You write a program and feed it to your bot and your mechanical friend can do only what it’s told to do. This sounds uncomfortably like slavery to me and although I know I’m projecting, I have to wonder if robots think the same way about it too. No, the lecturer assured us, they do only the tasks assigned. They don’t think at all. Then he said something that made me shiver. That wasn’t his intent. He said something like, “We don’t even know what consciousness is, so how can we replicate it?” That was meant to be reassuring.

I took this idea and flipped it over in my head. Rotated it. Ran it through my own programming. If we don’t know what consciousness is, how can we be sure we haven’t accidentally created it? Herein lies the heart of fear. Scientists have been trying for decades to define, to explain empirically, what consciousness is. We simply don’t know. We all recognize it when we see it in other humans. We’re finally starting to recognize it in animals (long overdue). How do we know that it isn’t a function of complexity? And when does something become complex enough to qualify? I don’t know about you, but videos of swarm robots send me hiding under the bed. Not that it will do me much good. They’ll know where I’m hiding. Maybe I could use some intelligence right now. Even something artificial might help to stop me from shivering.

As (Not) Seen on TV

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Last night, I fear, I did not see “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman.” Our “double play” service already rivals the cost effectiveness of a ballpark lunch, and a triple play is out of reach for as little time as we have for television. This may be one case, however, where I’d be inclined to sacrifice some Sunday evening sleep to watch. I’ve seen numerous episodes of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noticed that over time the topics have grown more and more metaphysical. Yes, there is an uneasy after-shave burn to Occam’s razor. We’ve been told for so long that reductionistic materialism can account for everything, even these unorthodox thoughts in my head of an early Monday morning, and that religion is what’s left over after cleansing a dirty pig. Yet still, yet still…

A few years back, when I was still active in FIRST Robotics, I noticed a few things. Many of the mentors to the teams were not opposed to religion. Far from it. Not only that, but the national (now international) finals of the competition were met with religious fervor. Then, my last year as a mentor it was announced that “God himself” (aka Morgan Freeman, a reference, of course, to Bruce Almighty) would be present for the event. Science and religion are met together; technology and spirit have kissed each other. Perhaps this one size fits all universe is a bit premature?

“The Story of God” will spend six weeks on the National Geographic Channel exploring the origins of religious belief. People who haven’t learned that this is all nonsense will watch and wonder. Universities will, however, continue to close departments where such things are explored. Just because something is interesting doesn’t mean it’s profitable. One must think of such things when one has a business to run. I’m no prophet, but I do have to wonder if this might not be a sign. Maybe Occam’s razor-burn is chaffing a bit more than we thought underneath this white collar. Maybe it’s time to let the beard grow a little and see what the face really looks like. Maybe it’s time to watch TV.

First Stronghold

FIRST Robotics has a way of getting into your blood. Like many people of my generation, I learned about FIRST Robotics through my daughter. Our local high school has a robotics team and, as we quickly learned, the decision to join FIRST is a four-year family commitment. My wife and I were both involved at some level, despite being the world’s least likely engineers. I even served a term as the president of the foundation (responsible for funding the team). We made lasting friendships and grew in the lingo and odd humor that is FIRST. The founder and chief promoter of FIRST, Dean Kamen, is an unapologetic geek and has helped develop what some journalists are calling “the new cool.” Yesterday was launch. If you are a FIRST follower, I don’t have to explain that. In case you’re not, “launch” is the revelation of this year’s game. Teams now have six weeks to plan, design, and build their robots.

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Launch is a big deal. We haven’t been part of the competition for three years now and we still watch the live web-broadcast. The major players (Kamen, and Woodie Flowers) get in character and meet kids from various teams. They give inspirational talks. Dean Kamen told the kids “Don’t get stuck into today.” Technology changes too fast. What you learn in school are tools, because facts are available instantaneously on the internet. Those of us who retain facts are so yesterday that we’ve become the trivial pursuit generation. Any computer, let alone robot, could beat us. Woodie Flowers told the young audience thinking about careers that they must do what machines cannot do, otherwise their jobs will become obsolete. What could be more human than religion? What’s religion got to do with it? This is science and technology!

This year’s competition is FIRST Stronghold. The entire buildup of yesterday’s launch was a takeoff on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What is this I see before me? History? The Middle Ages were nothing if not religion run wild. This was a world ruled by bishops, popes and nobility. It was a world where no matter who you were, God trumped all. Technology meant that a trebuchet was a pretty sexy device and long distance communication traveled at the speed of a horse or human runner. (Or, I suppose, a trebuchet missile.) Now that the humanities have fallen victim to science, we look back to them for inspiration. It reminds me of John Keating in Dead Poets Society: “And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” This hasn’t changed since 1989. Or even 932 for that matter.

Mad Charles

Moving to New Jersey was made easier by Weird N.J. I found out about the magazine while still domiciled in Wisconsin when the series of books produced a Weird Wisconsin edition. I read it cover-to-cover and learned about the magazine. When weirdness would have it that we’d be moving to that self-same New Jersey, I began reading the magazine religiously. Lately, however, it has become more mainstream and less weird, but still, it is a great source of local information. We landed in Somerville because of its educational reputation and closeness to Piscataway, where I worked. I’ve always had a thing about being able to pronounce the name of the town in which I live (and I’ve even resided in Oconomowoc), so Piscataway was out. In any case, Somerville High School has an engineering program and the expected robotics team that goes along with such pedagogy. When my daughter joined the team, the whole family was drawn into four years of endless fundraising and promotion for an underfinanced club. So it was weird when I saw a story called “Rock em’ [sic] Sock ‘em Robot: Somerville N.J. vs. Mad Charles, the World’s First Singer Songwriter Karate Robot” in the latest Weird N.J. In my four years in the club, I’d never heard of Mad Charles.

Robots and religion are topics I’ve often related on this blog, so I read with amazement that about two decades before FIRST Robotics ever got its start, there was a somewhat famous robot in Somerville. Eugene Viscione was the inventor of Mad Charles, a robot that was built to help improve karate moves. The robot, as often happens in small towns, went on to other things, such as cutting records that, according to the article by J. A. Goins, are quite rare. In the 1970’s, however, Mad Charles was a local sensation, now all but forgotten some four decades later. There were even Mad Charles tee-shirts available. While we sat dreaming up new ways to get money out of the locals, and even set up a booth for the Somerville street fair not far from where Mad Charles at one time could have been found, nobody mentioned the karate robot. I doubt anyone had heard of it.

History is a fickle friend. Of course, being from a small town myself, I know it is very hard to get noticed, and even harder to be remembered. So those sleepy, pre-dawn weekend bus rides to robotics competitions, it was sometimes easy to consider how one gets overlooked. This past November, many hardly noticed as NBC didn’t make a big deal of it, FIRST robots opened the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Somerville’s latest robot was not among the horde (we have always had a problem keeping enough charged batteries on hand), but as the robots rolled through Herald Square, I was thinking of Mad Charles and a legacy that has been forgotten. Come to think of it, I guess that is weird after all.

A Somerville robot (center)

A Somerville robot (center)

They, Robots

Somehow I knew robots would continue to be part of my life. After all, they are a staple of science fiction and they are indeed also a staple of science fact. As my association with FIRST Robotics taught me, robots are everywhere. (And they can play frisbee better than I can.) So when I saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Robots Aren’t the Problem: It’s Us,” I knew I was in for a scolding. It’s not so much the robots that worry me, it’s what they say about us. People thrive in environments of complexity. Even a simple robot has me standing next to a bunch of teenagers scratching my head. I don’t know what half the parts are and have no idea what the other half do. Even the components can be complex. A good case can be made that the natural world is equally, if not more, complex. I can imagine how, for instance, being confronted by a tiger in the wild would offer a bewildering variety of complex implications. And yet, robots are the world we’ve constructed for our selves.

Not every job is immediately threatened by mechanical replacement, but we know that in the industrialized world some jobs have disappeared. Our choices of how to find meaningful vocation are being conscripted by the machines we make. Like God we make them in our own image. Unlike God, we make them more powerful than ourselves. Richard Florida, in his Chronicle article, notes that some claim the robots will free us to become more human. Only if the economic barons will allow it. Even today, at the very beginnings of the robotics revolution, it is awfully hard to find a satisfying job. Even with very extensive education. I know this from experience. At the end of the day you end up working to make money for somebody else. Robots didn’t steal my vocation, business did.

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I appreciate Florida’s point, but I wonder if we can’t point a finer point on it. All people are greedy, to a point. In most of us a human, all too human, conscience starts to bother us when we realize that we are unfairly advantaged. Some people even actually do something about it. Those who run the business, however, didn’t get to the top by obeying the dictates of conscience. The apotheosizing of money demands that humans be treated like, well, robots. We are all servants to those who aren’t shackled with quibbles and moral qualms. Robots, on one end, are reducing the number of jobs. On the other end entrepreneurs are seeking whom they may devour. The mass of humanity is caught in the middle. When it is time to beg for mercy, from what I’ve seen, the far safer bet is with the robots.

RoboStop

Although few objects are as soulless and mechanistic as robots, I still feel strangely emotional about them. Had my daughter not been interested in them, I would never have become involved with FIRST Robotics, even serving for a year as an officer in the Team 102 foundation to help raise the thousands of dollars needed to run such a club. Like most people with a background deep in the humanities, I would’ve not pondered too deeply how much of ourselves we put into our machines. Right now I’m reevaluating that hypothesis.

No one doubts that an artist or musician puts her- or himself into her or his work. Those who do it best are most highly valued (after we let the artist die off, usually, after having lived a difficult life). We admire those who are able to catch the human spirit in such forms of expression while many scientists inform us that there really is no spirit at all—it is just chemical reactions and electrical circuits in the soft tissue of our brains. When we see the Mona Lisa, or hear Beethoven’s Seventh, however, we know they must be wrong. What we make becomes part of us. And I’m thinking that may apply to robots too.

I’ve just attended my last FIRST Robotics competition. It is difficult to convey, if you’ve never been, what such an event is like. Hundreds of screaming high school students excited about engineering and the thrill of competition. A playing field is constructed to exacting specifications and six teams in two alliances facing off their creations to emulate human—sometimes superhuman—behavior. All the while the thumping rock beat of loud music and the play of colored lights give the event the emotional charge of a football game and homecoming dance rolled into one. Only you really don’t have to move very much at all.

I’m not a robot designer or builder. It is difficult to imagine anything further from my training (except perhaps accounting). Still, I’m a little let down after my last FIRST competition. Four years ago it seemed so novel, and there have been some difficult moments along the way. I’ve seen kids build robots that play soccer, hang inflatable tubes, play basketball, shoot frisbees, climb towers, climb poles, and do many other seemingly impossible tasks. I’ve been up before dawn to ride a chilly school bus across the state to compete, coming home in time to fall in bed to get up early for work the next morning. But most of all, I’ve seen kids putting themselves into more than machines. I’ve seen them putting themselves into a team. Although we didn’t win this year, and next year I probably will be consumed with other concerns, I am proud to have been, in my small way, a part of Team 102. Way to go, Gearheads! Maybe robots do have souls after all.

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