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Plug and Pray

June 14, 2010

The other day I attended the screening of a documentary called Plug and Pray for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). It was an interesting film about artificial intelligence and the questions it raises. It answered less questions than it asked, but it served as a very interesting survey on the future of artificial intelligence and allowed the viewer to peak into the future of a technology that will have a very significant impact on the way we live and perceive the world.

The film looked at a few different robotics laboratories from around the globe, and interviewed scientific pioneers at the forefront of AI research. Some of the areas included:

• A team from Italy that were mastering the movement of robotic limbs. They discussed how robots learn to move and respond just as humans do. First making many mistakes and moving clumisly. But as the algorithm controlling the limbs picks up mistakes it corrects itself, making future movement more efficient. They also argued for the need of human-like appendages in artificial intelligence. The argument being that in order to have human-like intelligence they need to have human-like bodies. For we experience the world through our body. And a robotic mind would only be able to replicate a human’s mind if it had a human-like body.

• They interviewed a robotics laboratory in Kyoto, Tokyo that were developing assistant robots to help in everything from hospitals to department stores. They pointed out the spiritual nature of the Japanese. And how they believe that everything has a soul: humans, cats, dogs, rocks- and yes, even robots. They argued that this cultural belief would allow for easy integration of robots into a future society.

• They interviewed a German team of scientists developing artificial intelligence for military use. In particular they were developing a car which could intelligently follow a lead vehicle in a convoy. They asked the scientists whether or not they had ethical concerns developing “weapons” for the military. Many of the scientists saw no problem developing tools for the military. Citing either that they were using the technology for saving people, or that they “… could not think that far ahead” in terms of its use.

• They interviewed students from a Japanese University which focused on developing robotic technology. They raised interesting points about the ethical concerns for robots in the future. Citing examples from Manga, they asked how robots would be held responsible for their action. Now it’s easy, usually the robot’s creators/engineers are responsible for their actions; but as artificial intelligence decvelops, and robots become more autonomous how do you hold a robot liable for their own actions? And how do you punish a “bad” robot?

• They interviewed scientists developing nano technology. They discussed the fusing of robotics and chemistry. They discussed how robotic technology would get smaller and smaller, until it was eventually the size of a human cell. Nano robots could patrol our blood stream and take care of our health- cleaning our arteries, discovering disease, and even slowing the aging process itself.

• They interviewed Ray Kurzweil, a developer of everything from speech recognition to optical character recognition to electronic piano synthesizers. He is a strong advocate for the development of artificial technology, and foresees a world in which nano robots will allow us to hold our breath underwater for hours, where AI will replicate the human brain by 2029, and that the synthesis of a robotic brain will allow us to “back-up” our entire mind (intelligence, thoughts, and memories).

But I think the most interesting part of the film was the constant narrative thread provided by interviews with a former MIT Professor Joseph Weizenbaum. Escaping Nazi Germany in 1935 he moved to America and studied mathematics. His study eventually led him to the study of computers, and he became one of the forerunners in studying computer technology. He later became dissuaded by the conception of artificial intelligence, arguing that computers would never be able to replicate human compassion or wisdom. An example he uses in the film comes from his development of a program called ELIZA (check out this link to have a chat, it’s actually very interesting). ELIZA replicated a psychologist by asking open-ended questions to a human who responded by typing into a computer. Using language recognition and pattern matching the program would converse like a psychologist, including saying things like “I understand”. The program’s creator Joseph Weizenbaum was fundamentally against the popularity of the program. He knew that the computer didn’t truly feel empathy towards the “patient”, it was merely programmed to say phrases that sounded sympathetic.

To me the argument he raises summarizes my biggest problem with technology in general. With the exponentially increasing development of technology we can create almost anything we can imagine. But the problem is our technology has vastly out-run our ethical thought. To me the question is not, “can we do it?”, but “should we do it?” We probably will be able to develop a robotic mind capable of replicating human thought, develop nanorobots that can keep us alive forever, and create robots to make major decisions for us, but is it right? How much God should we play? (For the record the Vatican claims God gave humans the power of creativity, and we’re free to exercise that creativity to its fullest capacity).

I think robots equipped with artificial intelligence can offer many many good things to the world. Perform tasks that are too unsafe for humans. Make calculations impossible for the human mind to compute. Or aid in many day-to-day functions. But I also see many problems. A single robot replaces a hundred human jobs, placing many out of work. Drones already dissociate war with violence and human death. And war robots armed with AI would devalue the costs of war even more. Nano technology could aid in health, but to what extent do we allow ourselves to sacrifice our humanity for the cause of living forever? I think tartificial intelligence and robotics can bring much good to this earth, but I think we should take a few steps back and think about our consequences before we rush ahead and declare a technologically utopian future.

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