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 Andrew Chen 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 Chen 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 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  

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