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.

Al-jazari_robots

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.

Team102FinalAlliance

Next to Godliness

Catholics, secularists, and even a Pharaoh or two. Loud, pounding music. Dancing teenagers. It must be FIRST Robotics season again. Although I’m ambivalent about the implications of a world filled with robots, I can’t help but be impressed by what high school students can do when they are mentored so closely by adults eager to share the tricks of the trade. If you’re not familiar with FIRST Robotics, here are the basics: each January a new game objective is released. Participating high schools throughout the world have six weeks to plan, design, construct, and program a robot to perform the tasks spelled out. Since this is a busy time of year for many schools, dedicating extra hours to building a robot leads to complaints and loss of sleep—maybe a skipped supper or two. When they come together on the playing field, however, all that is forgotten and the wonder is that kids, who are often disparaged in our society, have managed to construct a working, complex machine capable of tasks impossible for many adults (for example, doing chin-ups).

Every year I can’t help but think how like a religious service these events are. The robots are like deities to be served and the technology flits about like mechanized angels. There is an increasingly complex hierarchy of officials telling you what you can’t do (now this is beginning to feel like work!). At the end of the day, however, the kids get to be the stars in a competition that puts brains over brawn. And the robots are treated with extreme deference, because we know that we wouldn’t stand a chance if they had a will anything like the deities of yore.

The religious imagery, however, is never absent. Technology represents humans doing things without divine intervention. These are empirically devised devices, performing according to the laws of physics. And yet, teams from Catholic high schools, bearing mythologically-laden names, join in the world where no gods need apply. Robots, as initially named by Karel Čapek, were human servants, the ultimate in godliness—making images in our likeness to do our bidding. And yet we can’t escape the language of religion when thinking about our own creations. The fascination applies to non-parochial schools as well, with some teams claiming names echoing themes from holy writ. Creating autonomous beings is next to godliness. We make our own future, and, god-like, we hope that nothing goes wrong.

Humans and machines

Humans and machines

A Tale of Two Bees

We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.

The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.

Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.

True bee or not true bee?

True bee or not true bee?

The Computer of Dr. Caligari

TheAtlanticTo be human is to be ethical. Not always in the best way, unfortunately. Nevertheless, our moral sensors are pretty much constantly running as we try our best to make the right moral decisions. This thought occurred to me while reading Jonathan Cohn’s article, “The Robot Will See You Now,” in this month’s The Atlantic. Having been a sideline watcher of FIRST Robotics for about four years now, I have heard countless stories of how robots perform some surgeries more efficiently than clumsy humans can. Cohn’s article starts off with the impressive potential of IBM’s Watson to sort through millions and millions of bits of data—far beyond any human capacity—and make more informed recommendations about medical treatments. After all, Watson won on Jeopardy!, so we know “he”’s smart. But he isn’t really a he at all. Still, in our reductionist world where humans are just “soft machines” computers and robots should be quite capable of helping us heal. To survive longer.

I am a veteran of Saturday afternoon science fiction movies and weekday episodes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (original series, both). The present is starting to feel like that impossible future I watched as a starry-eyed child. But what of Dr. McCoy? I remember literally cheering (something I haven’t done much in recent decades) when DeForest Kelley’s name appeared on the opening credits of Star Trek when season three began. Bones was always one of my favorite characters—the doctor who didn’t trust the machines upon which he relied so heavily. He was a down-to-earth country doctor, who seemed to feel out of touch with the human (and occasional alien) element with machines interposed between them. Medicine is, after all, a very personal thing. Our bodies are our souls. I know; scientists tell us we have no souls. Embodiment studies, however, suggest otherwise. That robot coming at me with needles and scalpels may know how to heal me, but does it have my best interests at heart? Where is its heart? Its soul?

Better health care is certainly much to be desired. But in a country where our lawmakers continually debate whether the poorest should have access to Watson and his ilk, I wonder where ethics has gone. Robot doctors, I’m sure, will not accept patients with no insurance. Does not compute. Having gone without health insurance myself for several years, despite holding advanced degrees, I know that if I’d had a health crisis I’d have been rightly ranked down there with the blue collar folk that I consider kin. You see, to be human is to be ethical. That doesn’t mean we’ll always make the right decisions. It’s a safe bet that Watson can play the odds mighty finely. And the soulless machine may be making the decisions about who lives and who does not. Now that I have insurance again, when I’m on that cold slab I may have a shot at seeing a robot doctor. If that ever happens, I’m going to hope that Dr. McCoy is at least standing in the corner, and that those waiting outside the comfortable walls of affluence will somehow enter Watson’s scientific calculations with me.

Robotics FIRST

Wired

I knew it! It was right there on the cover of Wired magazine. “The Robots Take Over.” And it is also the very day of the FIRST Robotics kickoff, the day when Dean Kamen and his team announce to thousands of high school kids, teachers, engineers, and interested parents, what the 2013 FIRST robotics competition will be, spurring us into six frenzied weeks of designing, planning, and building a robot to take to competitions. First Atlanta, then the world! It must’ve been their plan all along.

The article in Wired, by Kevin Kelly, does have hints of cheekiness throughout, but for the most part is on target. How many of us already use computers or some kind of robotic devices to complete our jobs? Kelly points to the inevitable: robots can do it better. The upside is that when robots take away jobs they create new ones, like Charlie Bucket’s dad getting a job repairing the robot arm that took his job away at the toothpaste factory. If you don’t want a tech job, too bad. That’s what the new definition of work is becoming, since labor is already being taken over by robots. Those who can look far enough ahead can see robots doing, as Kelly puts it, any job. What makes this sound apocalyptic to me is the fact that we, as a society, undervalue education. What will the undereducated do? Their jobs are the first to go. I feel the tremors of a revolution that hasn’t even started yet. People need something to do.

It is apparently without irony that Kelly suggests that any job people do, including in the service industry, can be done by robots. I am an editor. A robot may be able to find grammatical errors (Word and Pages already do this), but they can’t capture the soul of a writer. We write for the enjoyment of other people who experience being people in the same way that we do. There is an inherent arrogance in the Artificial Intelligence movement that believes (yes, it is a belief) that intelligence and mind are the same thing. There is no room for a soul in this machine. Many biologists would agree: we’ve looked, no soul. But even biologists know that they’ve got an identity, aspirations, contradictions, and emotions. It is the unique blend of these things that make, what we can for convenience call, the soul. There are entire industries built around the care for that soul.

Many scientists are still betting on the end of religion, the ultimate repository of those who believe they have souls. Religion, however, is not going away. When we see robot psychiatrists, robot social workers, robot clergy, robot writers and artists, and robot Popes, we’ll know the apocalypse has truly transpired.

Robo-Stop

I have just read the most disturbing book yet. And for me, that is saying something. The facets of fear that P. W. Singer’s Wired for War manages to cut are sharp and dangerous. That he was able to write the book with a good dose of quirky humor only ameliorated the troubles a minor bit. The subtitle of the book is The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. I was drawn into robotics by the FIRST Robotics competitions in which my daughter’s school competes. Not an engineer or programmer, I merely sit on the sidelines and cheer along those who understand mechanics, hydraulics, and electronics. Quite often I get the sense that since science works so well there is little room left for serious consideration of the humanities. Particularly religion. By the end of Singer’s book, however, my choices in life were reaffirmed. I would rather spend the limited days left to the human race celebrating our humanity. For, it seems, our days may be numbered indeed.

Considering that Wired for War was published three years ago, the technology must surely now be even more advanced than it was when the book went to press. That such technology as Singer describes exists is not in itself too much cause for worry, but the fact that such technology rests in military hands is decidedly disturbing. One of the few resources able to tap into the tremendous budget of the United States with impunity, the military services have been able to commission robots that are even now deployed in our various conflicts. A strong ethical question run through Singer’s account: we are racing ahead with lethal technology and artificial intelligence—and no one is really driving this machine. Shouldn’t someone be?

One of the more sobering aspects of Singer’s account is how humans are increasingly left “out of the loop” when it comes to lethal decisions being made by robots. Their logic is flawless, as is their aim. Their understanding, however, is purely mythical. As I read this gripping account, several issues spiraled out to be considered on their own. I arrived home disheartened and concerned for a future that seems to be inevitably in the hands of those I fear most: those with excess capital. Military robots do not possess empathy or compassion, just physics and trigonometry. And they already exist. When those powerful enough to wage war discuss the rules, their decisions are tellingly called “the doctrine of war.” Doctrine, whether military or religious, is always a sure sign of danger to come. And the robots aren’t coming. They’re already here.

Robot Crossing

With my new job I haven’t been able to be as active on our high school’s robotics team this year. Not that I ever contributed much beyond moral support, but there is a very profound satisfaction at seeing teenagers concentrating on such technological marvels and building self-esteem. Yesterday was spent at a regional competition. Noisy, colorful, chaotic—it was like being a teenager again myself. I overhead engineers talking during the course of the day about the great technological marvels of the future made possible by robots. These people have no apocalypse hidden among their endless optimism. We’ve got robots on the ocean floor and rolling around on Mars, snaking into our bodies even down to the cellular level. No end of times here, only forward motion. I know that computers now define my life. If I miss a day on this blog I grow dejected; one of my biggest worries about going to Britain later this week is how I will continue posting from overseas. But I sometimes feel as if our love of technology will be our undoing.

Experts—of which I am not, I hasten to add, one—tell us that within a lifetime artificial intelligence will be indistinguishable from real intelligence. As I watched the robots playing basketball (this year’s FIRST Robotics challenge), I began to wonder about the motivation of our robot slaves. Humans are driven by biological and emotional needs. Robots, as far as we can tell, do not want anything. It is a vacuous life. Yet as the robots played basketball all day, I noticed they didn’t suffer the obesity problems so evident among humans, nor the weariness that accompanies having to awake before dawn to catch a school bus to the competition. They are built for a purpose and they stick to it. Even as I watched hours of competition, I began to miss my laptop—driven by my own emotional needs as I am. I begin to wonder who is really the slave here.

Last night my family participated in Earth Hour. We try to do it every year with a kind of religious fervor. Turning off all electronics, including lights, we sit in the dark and talk by candle light. There is a profound peace to it. As my daughter commented on how spooky the shadow play could be, I imagined our ancestors who had no choice but to rely on pre-electric light in drafty houses where real wild animals still prowled the dark nights outside. How quickly that would become a trial for us. The same thought occurred to me as I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village again last weekend. We are helplessly tied to our technological advancement. We might like to get away from it all for a few days or weeks, or even months. But we want the comfort of knowing that the robots are waiting for us when we turn back to reality again. Perhaps no apocalypse is needed after all.

Robot crossing

Don’t Let Them Frack You

One of the consequences of having been born into a post-industrial society is the sense that others have managed to set the parameters even before I became aware of them. In the summer of 2010 I learned about the Deepwater Horizon accident. Prior to that, I had no idea that semi-submersible, deep-water drilling was even possible, let alone already happily lining billionaires’ pockets. I felt violated. This is my planet too. That same year, while attending a FIRST robotics competition in Trenton, the high school kids were greeted after the event by a lone protestor wearing a sandwich board warning of the dangers of fracking. In New Jersey it is very easy to find people protesting. Sometimes their nemeses are purely delusional. “What’s fracking?” I asked one of the kids (all of whom are arguably smarter than me). He didn’t know. I looked it up once I got home, and once again had the feeling that somebody was messing up my planet without me knowing.

Sure, human habitation has a tremendous impact on the environment. It is part of the curse of consciousness. Nevertheless, at some level we must know that our actions threaten not only other species, but also our own existence as well. A story on CNN about fracking, back in my own oil-industry state of Pennsylvania, demonstrates the dangers all too clearly. I grew up in the shadow of a petroleum refinery—Pennsylvania is where the oil industry began. Unfortunately it also has a history of poisoning its own environment. The CNN story highlights the dilemma of Dimock, a tiny town with water contamination caused by fracking. Not even a hundred miles away to the south lies Centralia, still slowly asphyxiating from its fifty-year old mine fire. Our lust for fossil fuels—and more importantly, the wealth they bring—has bankrupted our sense of responsibility to our planet and to each other.

I am certain free-market entrepreneurs would characterize what I sense to be injustice as mere complaining. But there comes a point at which we have to ask if the extra energy is worth the cost. Maybe we could do with a little less. I know that’s blasphemy in capitalist ears, but it is a truth whose scars scrawl across the landscape of this nation. Just about 150 miles southwest of Dimock lies Three Mile Island, a testament to our love of power. Over on the western edge of the state sits the ghost town called Pithole. An oil boom town, it ran out of steam when deeper pools were discovered elsewhere. When I stand in its deserted streets, returned to nature after the many decades of neglect, I realize that it is a silent symbol of human ambitions. We should not give up on our earth, lest it give up on us. It is not too late. Yet.

Borrowed from the National Fuel Accountability Coalition

Send in the Robots

The FIRST Robotics kickoff is an event that is difficult to describe for those who’ve never attended. First, it must be noted that FIRST Robotics is sometimes described as “the varsity sport for the brain.” While engineering students with a penchant for athletics are not unheard of, the majority of robotics team students are not cut from the same cloth as the athlete. The FIRST kickoff, the first Saturday in January, is the opportunity for these kids to be told it is cool to be smart and that application of brain power is not the liability that many of the electorate seem to think it is. At this event the competition for the year is unveiled, and the kids (with some adult help) have six weeks to design and build and program a robot to do some very complex tasks. It is a season of sleep deprivation, programmed Saturdays, and the celebration of learning. Before NASA shows the game animation—the competition for the year—celebrities and other people in the public eye endorse the program. It is a time for praising the benefits of science.

Yesterday’s kickoff, however, was marred by the appearance of one of the guest celebrities. When George W. Bush was announced as a supporter of the program, a sense of disbelief fell over the room. This man who advocated for creationism in the classroom, who fought to stop research in cutting edge disease control, who began a war as a personal vendetta, was showing his dully beneficent face on the big screen telling the kids what a great program it was. A chance, as he said, to use your “God-given talents.” He ended his brief—and obviously scripted—sound-byte with his characteristic “God bless you.” I could not stomach the hypocrisy. I’ve blogged about religion and the science of robotics before, but to have a president who did nothing to strengthen the cause of higher education and fought science with eight years at his idle hands was just too much. If I was Dean Kamen, I would have insisted that that clip be left on the cutting room floor.

The former W represented religion in its guise as the enemy of science. It should be clear to my readers that I do not believe science has all the answers, but I also believe it is wrong for religion to stand in the way of knowledge. Science is something that we shouldn’t give lip-service without backing it up with programs and funding. That one minute of disingenuous, religion-riddled speech trumped all the other endorsements, including the sensible one by Bill Clinton who emphasized the need to work together even with those who are your opponents. This was a point W obviously missed. There comes a time when some public figures, like overused cattle, should be put out to pasture. There are some cowboys that should just stay on the ranch. I understand that presidential endorsements are important to FIRST, but in this case integrity should not be compromised. Especially when most of the teenagers watching the kickoff possess far greater potential than a mere politician elected on religious sentiment and dubious counting.

Does this face inspire science?