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.