Mars Bars

It brings tears to my eyes. A little guy millions of miles from home. The only spark of acknowledged intelligence on the entire planet. It’s his birthday and he’s singing “Happy Birthday” to himself. It’s downright depressing. The guy, however, is the Mars rover Curiosity. It is a machine. The headline, however, jerks an emotional response from all but the coldest of individuals: “Lonely Curiosity rover sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself on Mars.” It’s that word “lonely.” It gets me every time. Then I stop to think about machine consciousness again. Empirical orthodoxy tells us that consciousness—which is probably just an illusion anyway—is restricted to people. Animals, we’re told, are “machines” acting out their “programing” and not really feeling anything. So robots we build and send to empty planets have no emotions, don’t feel lonely, and are not programed for sadness. Even your dog can’t be sad.

Amazing how short-sighted such advanced minds can be.

We don’t understand consciousness. We’re pretty wowed by our own technology, however, so that building robots can be brought down to the level of middle-school children. We build them, but we don’t understand them. And we may be losing part of ourselves in the process. An undergraduate I know who works in a summer camp to earn some money tells me a couple of disturbing things. Her middle-school-aged charges are having trouble with fine motor skills. They have trouble building basic balsa-wood airplanes. Some of them can’t figure out how paperclips work. One said she couldn’t write unless she had access to a computer. This camp worker’s supervisor suggested that this is typical of the “touchscreen generation.” They’re raised without the small motor skills that we’ve come to take for granted. Paperclips, it seems to me, are pretty intuitive.

Some 34 million miles away, Curiosity sits on Mars. An exile from Earth or an explorer like Henry Hudson? Or just a machine?

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Machines don’t always do what you tell them to. I attended enough high school robotics sessions to know that. Yet at the local 4-H fair the robots have a tent next to the goats, the dogs, and the chickens. We’ve come to love our devices. We give them names. They seem to have personalities. Some would claim that this blog is the mere result of programing (“consciousness”) just as surely as Curiosity’s programmed singing to itself out in the void. I’m not for turning back the clock, but it does seem to me that having more time to think about what we do might benefit us all. This constant rush to move ahead is exhausting and confusing. And now I’m sitting her wondering how to get this belated birthday card delivered all the way to Mars.

Circus of the Absurd

As long as I’m thinking about ethics, my thoughts turn to the fair. Every August our county 4-H Fair becomes an event in our lives. Since my family has been involved with 4-H for many years, we always try to spend as much time there as we can afford. Jobs and daily life tend to get in the way, of course. While there we get to see the animals that are missing from our lives, and reconnect with art and culture. Robotics are now part of our local fair, and this is the first year that I’ve ever seen pigs there. And there were the political booths. Just around the corner from where the sheriff’s office was giving out free gun locks to prevent kids from shooting someone accidentally was the booth supporting Trump. I’ve never been so strongly tempted in my life to walk up to a total stranger and say, “You are kidding, right?” But no, like the Donald himself, a flashy large sign displayed their ignorance for all to see. We live in the era of the delightfully uninformed.

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I’m no political pundit. I tend not to trust any politicians much. I distrust businessmen even more. The fact is the only thing you need to be a viable candidate for President is money. Over the past several weeks Trump has shown himself to be anything but qualified for political office. Major newspapers run articles that seriously question his sanity. And yet here are good people who don’t have the sense to maybe put up an embarrassed, small sign saying “Sorry folks, we’ll try again in 2020.” We find it hard to admit our mistakes. Especially when the stakes are so terribly high.

I go to the fair to support 4-H and to enjoy an evening out with my family. Although I spend most of every day in a different state working in an isolated cubicle, I can always count on seeing people I know at the fair. I enjoy the arts tent where young folks are making their first steps into lives filled with creativity and imagination. The more technical tents can be intimidating where kids a quarter my age are launching model rockets and those under half my age are building robots. In the herpetology tent I see a snake amid a bed of shredded newspaper. He’s hiding under the photo of a prominent non-politician who has a large booth displaying his name just across the grounds. And I remind myself this is the first year they’ve had a swine tent. I wonder if anything will be the same next year.

Double Blind

When I read Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a child, I assumed that I’d not live to worry about them in real life. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us. Time magazine frightens me sometimes. This week’s offerings include a small blurb about drones. When I was a kid, a drone was a bee—dangerous in its own right—or it was a verb used to describe an uninspired teacher or preacher’s monotoned wisdom. Now drones are robotic planes that can operate themselves without human input. Time reveals that technology has been developed that would allow drones to kill without human input. Asimov’s laws have become truly science fiction. Proponents argue that “collateral damage” might be minimized if we allow robots to kill with precision, and some have argued that the research should be prohibited. The fact that it has been developed, however, means the line in the sand has been crossed. If it has been done once, it will be done again.

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Even as a daily user of technology, a deep ambivalence besets me. Maybe if it weren’t for the fact that every once in a while my computer (most often at work) freezes up and issues a command I can’t understand, I might feel a little more secure. Instead I issue a ticket for IT and when they call on me sometimes even a specialist can’t figure out what went wrong. Once the bullets are flying it’s a little too late to reboot. Maybe I’m just not yet ready to crawl into bed with a technology that might kill me, without feeling.

Just five pages earlier Time notes that 1 in 5 is the “Ratio of people who would have sex with a robot, according to a U.K. study.” All things are fair, it seems, in love and war. The part of the equation that we haven’t accounted for in our artificial intelligence is that thought requires emotion—which we don’t understand—as much as it requires reason, upon which we have only a toddler’s grasp. And yet we continue to build more and more powerful devices that might kill us with ease. Isaac Asimov was a prescient writer and a forward thinker. He was from the generation that aspired to ethics being in place before technology was implemented. At least as an ideal. We’ve reversed the order in our world, where ethics is continually playing catch-up to the new technologies we’ve invented. Now it’s time to decide whether to make love to it or to say our final prayers.

Paging Dr. Asimov

Who remembers Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.

Rockem Sockem

The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.

So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.

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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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?