Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The First Church of Robotics

My friend Stacey e-mailed me the following from The New York Times:

August 09, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor: The First Church of Robotics

The concept of artificial intelligence clouds our view of the world.
Stacey said in the e-mail, "don't have time to read this but Church and Robotics are your subject!" It was very interesting and got me thinking.
Jaron Lanier is the author of You are Not a Gadget. He lives in Berkeley, California and his homepage is here. Lanier is and innovator and technologist himself, but is also a harsh critic. In the Op-Ed piece, he asserts that, at times, those working in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence approach their work with a religious zeal that encourages the belief that our machines can can become like us - or more than us - or replace us. Lanier believes that this also leads us to think of ourselves in less human terms and more like the machines we build. This degrades our uniqueness as human beings. We should not confuse what is human with what machines can do. Lanier believes that this way of thinking is a new sort of religion or belief system.
The article expresses a fear of technology or rather a fear of the way we think of our technology, that is different from the standard - Robots are going to take over the world! - motif. It did get me thinking about something that I noticed on our summer vacation though and until his article, I never thought of myself as working for competing camps!
So, I decided to write him. I explained that I was a priest and roboticist. Here is a portion the an e-mail I sent to Lanier:
 I recently felt the tension expressed in your article though while on our family vacation this summer. We traveled from Louisiana to California so that I could officiate at the wedding of a former youth group member. On our return trip, we took our children to Disneyland. In Tomorrowland, there was an Honda ASIMO demonstration presentation. ASIMO brought in the paper, played with the kids, helped out around the house and so forth. I remember feeling frustrated by the presentation. I knew ASIMO could not do those things in reality. I also knew that so much of what ASIMO really can do was not presented. The amazing technology of the real robot was not shown, and instead a vision of a C-3PO like helper was demonstrated. Your article wrestles with these issues and points toward some of what I was feeling.

I hope that religion and technology are not competing fields, but can be partners. But as you point out, we must first be honest about what is actually possible and the limitations and areas of expertise of each field.

I do understand though a generation of technologists and engineers who long for a robotic companion and workmate. The vision that they (we?) saw in Star Wars as children may spur them to get us closer to that reality some day. Our love of such machines, like our love of cars, says more about who we as human beings are than about the machines themselves.
He will probably think I am a goof-ball. His article and these ideas are definitely some things to think about! Maybe doing so will make us better human beings and better roboticists.

Photo - Lanier from his homepage.

Update - I just got a reply from Jaron Lanier. It said:

thanks much and good luck to you in all your roles- jaron

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