Monday, October 18, 2004

NY Times: Review of Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids

The New York Times: Premium Archive (may require annoying registration process - use if you want to avoid this dorky practice of gathering mis-information):

This review from last May of Perkowitz's book Digital People begins with the second most common fallacious argument in critiques of contemporary science and technology The first, discussed elsewhere on this blog, is a reference to some literary monster or monstrous technology - Frankenstein being a favourite. The second is to suggest that scientists or engineers, as analytical as they are, are less human, less sensitive, considerably more "mechanical" than the writer him- or herself is:

"A ROBOTICIST friend was perplexed. For the benefit of children living in apartments in which pets are prohibited, he built robot puppies that ''do everything a dog does.'' Yet, somehow, kids in focus groups shunned the robo-pups. ''Perhaps,'' I offered, ''it's because they are not alive.'' He considered this for a moment. ''No, that wouldn't be it,'' he said.

I find it maddening to talk to roboticists. One must avoid nuance, figurative speech and, above all, humor. Their limited awareness is their downfall and their strength. The biologist makes no distinction between human and nonhuman life-forms. The roboticist takes this a step further, refusing to distinguish between living and nonliving objects. An object is the sum of its behaviors. Duplicate the behavior of a person and your robot is human. Out of this obtuse worldview come simplicity and the singleness of purpose required to build metal-and-silicon men."


Blogger bumblepanda said...

"Duplicate the behaviour of a human, and your robot is human"... hmmm, this sounds an awful lot like the central debates in "Bladerunner" and "Do Androids..."
I am glad to have seen the puppy analogy, it somehow makes the HUMAN'S behaviour in both seem more understandable. However, it still remains probable that if human life were duplicated exactly, the robots would begin to develop human emotions... and thus blur the distinction entirely... hmm... could I really obtain a cyber puppy? What a sickenly attractive notion, an animal like being, capable of receiving and enjoying affection, but without the annoying "mess-creating" or allergy problems...

2:42 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

There are robot dogs already, like the Aibo from Sony. Not to mention robot vacuum cleaners, mowers, guards, and baby sitters (all linked to from a post a wrote a while ago at ).

As of yet I have not seen anything that is as effective of a social parasite as a (prairie) dog ( more details at ). I'd claim pets are surrogate children. One of the points made in "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" is about dolls being surrogate children too. Children are "made"/"bred", robots/dolls are made, dogs are bred. Is it not the case that we just haven't succeeded in making the robots "life-like" enough? Don't we need warm, cute, cuddly ones that look at you with soft eyes and inculcate that feeling of companionship?

Isn't it just that we haven't yet learned how to see that feeling of companionship within the robot, perhaps due to our own conditioning? One argument is that robots do not have a will of their own - they merely have a program. While one could argue that humans do not have a will on their own either, and that they merely have a program, this is something I will hold off on. Instead I will suggest that "having a will of it's own" is a purely subjective determination ( I touch upon this at ).

I'm sorry if it seems excessive that I include so many links to things I've written in the past. Let me know if it seems like I'm doing this too much and I'll stop.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

Andrew, all comments are welcome!

I guess my take on this would be that robots cannot really be surrogate children one defining aspect of children and pets is that they need, and thrive with, care and love. Maybe if someone were to build a more complex Tamagotchi, it would be close; but ultimately no matter how "programmed" people are, they're a different species. I suspect a robot could become a new species, like pets, but why would anyone bother to create a robot so needy and demanding as a child, or even a pet for that matter? Tamagotchis were interesting for a while, but one quickly grows bored of caring for a machine...

8:09 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

"but why would anyone bother to create a robot so needy and demanding as a child, or even a pet for that matter"

So that they could feel needed, and yet still be able to turn the thing off.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

Warning: Long, rambling post. You've been warned.

I think that there's nothing specifically wrong with people caring for robotic puppies, however demented it might seem. I think the reason that there is this sinister hue around the idea of a robot replacing an organic form, and with the division people insist on making (a completely illogical one!) that a DUPLICATED ORGANISM, in other words something that looks, smells, behaves, feels and sounds etc exactly like the real thing, yet is robotic, is "less real" - I think the reason for that, is that people can't accept that in caring for a robotic puppy they are just fulfilling an instinct of their own, the same way caring for a real puppy they are only fulfilling an instinct, with no real relevance "out there" (damn you Plato).

Now, to get really offensive, I noticed in Blade Runner in the briefing the cop told Harrison Ford that one of the Replicants was a "basic pleasure model, common to military clubs." I had to laugh, as this implied that they had built a duplicate woman, that men could just let loose their lust on with no moral (or an other kind) of obligations. I talked to one of my friends about this who pointed out that there are already "lifelike dolls" of that nature. So basically, people are just fulfilling an instinct whether they are actually having sex with someone or whether it is with some robot, correct?

I guess my point is THERE IS NO DIVISION. I really do think that philosophically, you can't beat an arguement that states people "just have a program" and are no different from machines on an essential level. It's just that most people want life to "mean something more" and if all they were was a machine fulfilling instincts that were built into their genetic code and spiked by their environment, whether it's caring for a puppy (robotic or not), having sex (with someone robotic or not) or eating a giant donut (whether the food is genetically modified or not), then that would be bad for them and they couldn't accept it, even though it is logical to believe that. Now, to indulge in some bitterness, for people such as these along comes religion, which makes no sense, but because they can't accept what does makes sense they just go with it anyway.

In Minority Report, there's a virtual reality/drug where people get to live out their fantasies (this also shows up in Strange Days), and one guy's is just him being congratulated and worshipped by everyone he knows. Sure, in real life he may be a HUGE LOSER, but isn't he just fulfilling instincts for social contact and success whether people in reality really like him or not, what is the difference between the exact sensory input of the fantasy version and the exact sensory input of the real thing? Nothing, other than knowing that the former is false.

1:04 AM  
Blogger bumblepanda said...

Okay... let's drag the Matrix into this as well then. "but isn't he just fulfilling instincts for social contact and success whether people in reality really like him or not, what is the difference between the exact sensory input of the fantasy version and the exact sensory input of the real thing? Nothing, other than knowing that the former is false". Then why do the characters in The Matrix choose to live outside of the matrix? Because the guy who gets false congratulations IS a loser...because there is something inherently "human" about wanting to connect with another human, and that human WANTING to connect with you- (no agency = no humanity) or about wanting to receive praise, or to feel unconditional love and need from an animal- and the satiation of these desires with something false could never be equally satisfying. In our present social state, wouldn't these tools simply serve as a reminder of how you had failed to actually quench your human thirsts?

3:03 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

The characters in The Matrix choose to live outside The Matrix for two reasons. First, humanity has historically had, and continues to have, an obsession with the idea of "Truth." If something is false, people feel it to be inferior to the so-called real thing.

Yet in modern, industrialized society, almost everything we consume is processed and manipulated before we consume it. If there is no conscious or ultimate purpose to the universe, which I hold to be the case, then there is no intrinsic reason a truth is any better than a lie, because there would be no objective values of any kind. I have what I would call a personal preference for the truth, but I do not attempt to back it up philosophically because I don't think you can.

Characters in the Matrix (well, the ones you're supposed to sympathize with, anyway) choose the truth over a lie based on a series of philosophical assumptions; humanity is unique, humanity is important, there is a point to life, and etc. Given that the Matrix is entertainment, it cannot go about challenging the underlying assumptions of its audience, regardless of how much its marketing/aura claimed to "change the way people think." It takes a very brave author or screenwriter to write a story that does not follow the conventions that the Matrix follows, which are essentially the same as those in Spider-man, Star Wars, or any other modern fairy-tale. People like the idea that "the truth will set you free," such an optimistic worldview, in itself setting up justifications and rewards for conventional values.

For example, if person A acts as if they like person B, but they are really just looking for something (say money, that's a good example) person B would feel "used." Yet if person A really liked person B, they would just be getting the pleasure of feeling cared for and the pleasure of having conversations on topics of common interest, rather than the pleasure of money. Is there really an intrinsic difference?

4:54 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

Re. the Matrix line: It's such a strong desire we have, to want to believe that we're not being duped by an illusion, being "drugged" with soma or advertising, that our reality is not just those shadows in Plato's cave barely approximating what is "really" out there. Perhaps there is a cultural resistance to accepting that we cannot know reality as opposed to illusion. So, as Dustin says, what difference does it make if our sensory experience tells us something is "real" when in fact it is "illusion" or "artifice"? This goes back to Descartes too.

However, there is something incredibly and profoundly striking about the statement "In our present social state, wouldn't these tools simply serve as a reminder of how you had failed to actually quench your human thirsts?"

Let's say you have a doll or a robot dog that fulfills all your desires, that you can care for and that is programmed to care for you. I think there is truth in the notion that without agency there is no humanity (and yet, and yet...we are all so drastically without agency in so many ways...). Human thirsts so often are for community and companionship (an evolutionary trait that helped us to survive and so perhaps also another indicator of our lack of agency) that most of us find the idea of an artificial lover somewhat distasteful, or weird, or perverse - maybe even an indication of failure. Would that change if we couldn't tell the difference between "real" and "artificial"? But then if, as Andrew says, we would want an artificial pet or child replacement because we could shut it off, then how much does the thing really need us? It comes down again to what "human" is: are we made human by solely by sensory contact with other humans? By our love for other organic beings?

9:42 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

...and, on the other hand, if there is no sensory information to tell me that the person I am loving or the life I am living is "artificial" or illusion, then perhaps there's nothing wrong with it. Perhaps the only horror implied by the Matrix or Animatrix films is learning you've been duped.

9:56 PM  
Blogger bumblepanda said...

(this is the 3rd time I have written this argh!)
Okay, Firstly, on the point of Descartes- lest we forget that it was indeed an EVIL genius whom Descartes hypothesized was keeping our brains in the vats... I feel this is significant because it again goes back to agency. He is EVIL because he renders us powerless- we have no choice in the vat, and I feel this is probably why the characters in the Matix CHoose to leave-just because they are given the opportunity to choose (Why do I get the terrible feeling that more I write now the more I undermine my previous argument...)and secondly, (I am paraphrasing here) "would it still feel like a failure if you were unable to tell the difference between the reality and the illusion" I don't know, and here's something else I am undecided on that is related... would it still be a failure if the thing you were using to fulfill your needs was unaware of their own inhumanity? This is the central shebang in Bladerunner, as the replicant Rachel is totally unaware of being a replicant. I feel that we are meant to sympathize with Rachel (and Ford who I suspect is also a replicant)... Both Ford and Rachel have agency, independant thought, emotions, etc- thus they have humanity despite being inhuman... I'm confused... I guess my tangent leads me to believe that the puppy is incapable of truly fullfilling the human needs because you can turn it off- it would never choose to run or bite you - or the pleasure model who was incapable of denying her suitors, these are false... but if they had the ability to change their minds, to say no and to run- then it would be fare game because they would be real enough to provide a genuine sense of satisfaction...

2:16 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

I thought Blade Runner was awesome, the idea that the replicants could be in some ways more human than the so-called real thing was exactly the kind of question-provoking philosophical ambiguity that I feel is lacking in many modern films, including the Matrix. In The Matrix, as in Terminator, the machines are simply bad, and that is it. About the only thing you could learn from such machines is a) never make your microwave too smart, for your own safety and b) the machines, in Terminator at least, are only acting the way humans do (conquest and domination), but without any of the masks humans often place over it (the machines don't try to bring in abstract values, they simply go right ahead and murder). Perhaps one of the more disturbing scenes in Terminator II is where the Terminator simply replies "Why" to every attempt the child makes to say "you can't kill people." Perhaps there really is no ultimate reason. What I would really like to see is a film where the truth is not a good thing, as this would totally turn traditional values upside down and really challenge the audience. This is why I am a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, because he is the one author who dares to do precisely that. In his work, which expresses extreme skepticism of the notion of "progress," scientific study leads to the revelation of truth - which in the world created by his fiction, is not at all a good thing. Furthermore, there aren't good protagonists who triumph over bad antagonists as there are on so many (in my opinion) cheesy stories.

In The Thing (1982), a film influenced by Lovecraft, an alien being samples the DNA of organisms and imitates them exactly (not unlike the T-1000 in Terminator II). One character says "If I were a copy, an exact copy - how would you know if it was really me?" I don't think you would.

A guy I know told me about some science fiction book where any emotion or experience can be produced mentally. So if you wanted the feeling that comes after a long, productive hard day's work, you could just push a button. Or the feeling that comes from an intense love affair, just push another button. Other than knowing it's false, I think there is no difference. I wonder what will happen if technology on that level is ever invented.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Warren said...

Disclaimer: far-fetched rant that won't make any sense:

I am on soma... I am being duped...

I want to understand the "truth". BUT, but, this need to feel that I am not being duped relies on a very screwed up paradigm.

The "something" employing my state of dupedness could be of a totally different culture or better yet a totally different ______, something we don't even have a word for. Who says that they feel, think, or have any similar perspectives to that of humankind? If the Matrix scenario were correct, would we have any way of fathoming the complexities of our situation from inside the machine? The thing that controls our state of oppression could actually know (yes know) that this is what we need to want, a soma existence. Instinct is installed only as a method of controlling our existence. The one thing we are supposed to rely on, as being human or as being natural, is actually the most artificial aspect of our human make-up. And if this were the case then this thing that controls our present existence could be assumed, or as we would understand it, to be higher on some kind of scale than us, and may have a clearer understanding of any sense of "truth" if it existed and therefore would be correct. In this case we would forever be helpless because our ethics would be based on false claims of right and wrong, of anything, including any sense of what is true.

As abstract as this seems, go back to the age-old religious question "If there is a God, why do so many people have to suffer?". Ah yes, take away the soma and welcome to the new world: What you thought was "suffering" is actually "bliss". NOW, you have to ask yourself have you been duped or have you been blessed? You instincts tell you... oh wait...

Why do we fear death? Because on another plain, another higher existence of knowing, death is actually life... and a search for truth in human existence may suppose to lead to failure for a reason we do not want to understand, so we CAN die - something our false instinct will not let us understand. If there were another existence, than the worst thing possible would be being stuck here knowing that this other existence existed. But for this paradigm to work, the search for knowledge, or better yet, obtaining the truth - the climax of our search for knowledge - would essentially be a bad thing, something in need of punishment, an idea employed by oppressors for the past how many years...

3:29 PM  

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