Zoomorphism has become my favorite new word. It seems that this idea, that animal characteristics can apply to inanimate objects has become the revolutionary idea transforming the way humans think about the robotic sciences. It seems that if we look at how animals do things, it can allow us to figure out machines that can replicate their successes, often which involve less complexity than the humans they will replace. It seems that engineers at EU Automation have been working on this problem and have learned from a BBC series, Spy in the Wild where robots of animals, in this instance, a baby Indian langur monkey, was introduced to a tribe of monkeys and while it was filming the tribe from high in a treetop, the monkey fell and the programmers decided to take the baby robot out of action. While the fact that we can make a robot monkey natural looking enough to fool real monkeys, which is pretty amazing, there were some other things about the event that were concerning. (Notice how the baby robot was “taken out of action”, or retired, like a piece of machinery. I believe the same verbiage was used in Blade Runner, where undesirable replicants were simply retired but I digress.) The thing that impressed me most was the way the other monkeys reacted. They gathered around the robotic baby monkey, mourning the loss and began to hug and console each other supporting each other in their grief. While studying animals may teach us how to create better robots, we can only hope that it might also teach us to be better human beings.
Igor Stravinsky liked a challenge. In his pieces, Octet and L’Histoire du Soldat he takes instruments that should never go together and makes them work in unlikely and strangely beautiful ways. He seemed to need the diversity of sounds to force him to be creative and to push himself beyond what he had done before. The same is true of musician Chad Lawson who works with a piano and I pad to create new sounds from a familiar instrument. Anyone who has had children knows the importance of setting limits or boundaries in our lives. Not limits on what we think or how we perceive ourselves but we need challenges to bring our creativity to life. When everything is available, what is there to discover, what is there to explore for ourselves. What would you do if you had to find the definition of a word and there was no internet, or bake a cake with no recipe or mix? In finding all of this information at our fingertips, let us hope that we never lose our natural curiosity and desire to explore for ourselves for finding answers is one thing but learning how to find answers is another. Let us not become too willing to accept what we find and still be willing to challenge ourselves working within limits to set our creativity free.
Of course, you know the old story, to boil a frog, you don’t drop it into a pot of boiling water but put it in cool water and slowly turn up the temperature to boiling. The same seems true of the ongoing debates over privacy and net neutrality. Lulled into a false sense of security or blinded by naiveté, we allow corporations to mine who we are and what we choose to treat us like horses with blinders on, seeing only what they want us to see, and now we want to give them the ability to fast track the online content of their choice while allowing other content to linger in the slow lane. It seems odd that the same legal bodies, corporations, that created the financial crisis in the savings and loan and mortgage industry, not to mention the opioid crisis in this country now want to create a world where they control our access to information for their personal gain. In an economy where the bottom line is at best the shareholder (or more frequently the executives) payout, why should we think our best interests are a concern. The entire point of the internet seemed to be to allow everyone accesses to knowledge for the betterment of all. If we allow our access to the free flow of information to be restricted, we will be no better than frogs in warm bath water on the stove.
In everyone’s life, in some way, you come to a place you say about something you are doing or not doing- is this really worth it? Malcolm Gladwell calls that the tipping point, or “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” at which change becomes either obvious or inevitable. It happens to all of us and in all sorts of situations, that moment when you realize that change is inevitable and perhaps the only choice. It seems that wiser minds than mine have come to this conclusion, as when I read in the BBC that African nations have begun to worry about the risk of job loss in Africa as robots automate many processes that can be brought back to the US or other nations and not depend on the cheap labour force that Africa and other nations have provided. Those who deride the coming economic disaster, suggest that if only the African nations would educate their children in the magic world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), all problems would be solved. These children would rise along with all the other stem fed children to ascend into the light of a technological new day. But don’t worry, for those who are left behind by the ever upward spiral of capitalism, there is always the promise of the universal basic income, a salary for everyone at the cost of social services, so that even those of us who are misplaced in this economic game of musical chairs can receive money to live and, of course, buy things to keep the whole spiral going. Yet, what happens to people with no other purpose than to consume to keep an antiquated and harmful system running? What is the meaning of a life that is only based on our ability to consume? What happens when we reach our tipping point and realize that we are no better than veal calf’s being fattened to make our masters fatter.
It is with a fair amount of interest that I have followed the debate in Europe over the role of AI and how it should be viewed or regulated. Readers of this post may remember the kerfuffle caused by Sophia, the robot that appeared at Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh and caused a stir as a robot, as a woman robot and as a woman robot in an Arab country without a hajib. Well, the discussion has come up again in Europe where the European Parliament, to the outrage of AI specialists, advised that robots be given legal status. Like a corporation, this would not hold the companies that created the robots legally responsible for their behavior. It seems to be step in the Alfred P Newman, “what, me worry?” theology that seems to be the order of the day. If guns don’t kill people, then why should we think that companies that make robots are responsible for what they do. And yet, what about the place of robots as human beings. Would they have all the rights of a human or would they have some fraction like the 3/5 voting rights proposed for slaves by the Constitutional Convention of 1787? We seem to have such a good track record of integration and inclusion in this country, it seems strangely natural that we would not even be the ones having this discussion. Europe is far ahead of us on matters of understanding and regulating the role of this new technology, asking questions that we do not seem yet to acknowledge as issues. We can only hope that the robots that we give human status will be better humans than we seem to be.
It was with surprise that I saw the article in the BBC, that doctors in Britan were treating brain tumours with a drug that will cause a tumor to glow so that in the edges of a tumor will glow giving doctors the ability to see the edge so that they can remove it during surgery. In a strange case of life imitating art, I was reminded of Kevin Brockmeier’s book, The Illumination. In the book, pain manifests itself as visible light after a mysterious event called “the Illumination,” revealing our greatest pain to be the most beautiful thing about us. In this new electronic age, it seems that media allows every one of our pains to glow, to be seen and re-lived at any moment. We can look at tragedies from yesterday to almost 100 years ago, keeping Parkland as present as Hiroshima to those who are willing to look. On the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is my hope that we might take a moment, find the courage to reflect on our own pain and give it the respect and reverence that deserves. It is truly one thing that while we may run from, we can not hide from it forever and in this world of the immediate now, perhaps its time to stop and see the beauty in our pain.
I like Chicago. No, that isn’t right. I love Chicago. Not only was it a place that I grew up but also a place that made me the person that I am today. For me it is the Billy Goat Tavern, The Burghoff, Rocky’s Fish House and many other haunts that no longer exit in the way that I knew them. Every so often I think about moving back to the Windy City and what it would be like to be back there. However, my thoughts are rooted in the city that I grew up in and not in the city that exists now. Unfortunately I am able to access this phantom city any time in my memory, no matter how far the reality may have moved on. This seems like the situation that many people are now finding with the internet, as search engines and algorithms that bring us the information that will reinforce our world view and keep us in that rut, unchallenged by different points of view and in some cases in a haze of fake news. We seem to find ourselves in funnels of yes men of information that no longer challenge our belief but instead reinforce them. Will we demand that this new media challenge us or will we take the blue pill and drift off on a missile of misinformation?