When I was around nine years old I got a robot for Christmas. I still remember calling my best friend Eric to let him know I’d hit pay dirt. My “Verbot” was to be my own personal R2D2. As was clear from the picture on the box, which I again remember as clear as if it were yesterday, Verbot would bring me drinks and snacks from the kitchen on command- no more pestering my sisters who responded with their damned claims of autonomy! Verbot would learn to recognize my voice and might help me with the math homework I hated. Being the only kid in my nowhere town with his very own robot I’d be the talk for miles in every direction. As long, that is, as Mark Z didn’t find his own Verbot under the tree- the boy who had everything- cursed brat!
Within a week after Christmas Verbot was dead. I never did learn how to program it to bring me snacks while I lounged watching Our Star Blazers, though it wasn’t really programmable to start with. It was really more of a remote controlled car in the shape of Robbie from Lost in Space than an actual honest to goodness robot. Then as now, my steering skills weren’t so hot and I managed to somehow get Verbot’s antenna stuck in the tangly curls of our skittish terrier, Pepper. To the sounds of my cursing, Pepper panicked and drug poor Verbot round and around the kitchen table eventually snapping it loose from her hair to careen into a wall and smash into pieces. I felt my whole future was there in front of me in shattered on the floor. There was no taking it back.
Not that my 9 year old nerd self realized this, but the makers of Verbot obviously weren’t German, the word in that language meaning “to ban or prohibit”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement on a product, and more like an inside joke by the makers whose punch line was the precautionary principle.
What I had fallen into in my Verbot moment was the gap between our aspirations for robots and their actual reality. People had been talking about animated tools since ancient times. Homer has some in his Iliad, Aristotle discussed their possibility. Perhaps we started thinking about this because living creature tend to be unruly and unpredictable. They don’t get you things when you want them to and have a tendency to run wild and go rogue. Tools are different, they always do what you want them to as long as they’re not broken and you are using them properly. Combining the animation and intelligence of living things with the cold functionality of tools would be the mixing of chocolate and peanut butter for someone who wanted to get something done without doing it himself. The problems is we had no idea how to get from our dead tools to “living” ones.
It was only in the 19th century that an alternative path to the hocus-pocus of magic was found for answering the two fundamental questions surrounding the creation of animate tools. The questions being what would animate these machines in the same way uncreated living beings were animated? and what would be the source of these beings intelligence? Few before the 1800s could see through these questions without some reference to black arts, although a genius like Leonardo Da Vinci had as far back as the 15th century seen hints that at least one way forward was to discover the principles of living things and apply them to our tools and devices. (More on that another time).
The path forward we actually discovered was through machines animated by chemical and electrical processes much like living beings are, rather than the tapping of kinetic forces such as water and wind or the potential energy and multiplication of force through things like springs and levers which had run our machines up until that point. Intelligence was to be had in the form of devices following the logic of some detailed set of instructions. Our animated machines were to be energetic like animals but also logical and precise like the devices and languages we had created for for measuring and sequencing.
We got the animation part down pretty quickly, but the intelligence part proved much harder. Although much more precise that fault prone humans, mechanical methods of intelligence were just too slow when compared to the electro-chemical processes of living brains. Once such “calculators”, what we now call computers, were able to use electronic processes they got much faster and the idea that we were on the verge of creating a truly artificial intelligence began to take hold.
As everyone knows, we were way too premature in our aspirations. The most infamous quote of our hubris came in 1956 when the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence boldly predicted:
We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.[emphasis added]
Ooops. Over much of the next half century, the only real progress in these areas for artificial intelligence came in the worlds we’d dreamed up in our heads. As a young boy, the robots I saw using language or forming abstractions were only found in movies and TV shows such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers and in books by science-fiction giants like Asimov. Some of these daydreams were so long in being unfulfilled I watched them in black and white. Given this, I am sure many other kids had their Verbot moments as well.
It is only in the last decade or so when the processing of instructions has proven fast enough and the programs sophisticated enough for machines to exhibit something like the intelligent behaviors of living organisms. We seem to be at the beginning of a robotic revolution where machines are doing at least some of the things science-fiction and Hollywood had promised. They beat us at chess and trivia games, can drive airplanes and automobiles, serve as pack animals, and even speak to us. How close we will come to the dreams of authors and filmmakers when it comes to our 21st century robots can not be known, though, an even more important question would be how what actually develops diverges from these fantasies?
I find the timing of this robotic revolution in the context of other historical currents quite strange. The bizarre thing being that almost at the exact moment many of us became unwilling to treat other living creatures, especially human beings, as mere tools, with slavery no longer tolerated, our children and spouses no longer treated as property and servants but gifts to be cultivated, (perhaps the sadder element of why population growth rates are declining), and even our animals offered some semblance of rights and autonomy, we were coming ever closer to our dream of creating truly animated and intelligent slaves.
This is not to say we are out of the woods yet when it comes to our treatment of living beings. The headlines of the tragic kidnapping of over 300 girls in Nigeria should bring to our attention the reality of slavery in our supposedly advanced and humane 21st century with there being more people enslaved today than at the height of 19th century chattel slavery. It’s just the proportions that are so much lower. Many of the world’s working poor, especially in the developing world, live in conditions not far removed from slavery or serfdom. The primary problem I see with our continued practice of eating animals is not meat eating itself, but that the production processes chains living creatures to the cruel and unrelenting sequence of machines rather than allowing such animals to live in the natural cycles for which they evolved and were bred.
Still, people in many parts of the world are rightly constrained in how they can treat living beings. What I am afraid of is dark and perpetual longings to be served and to dominate in humans will manifest themselves in our making machines more like persons for those purposes alone. The danger here is that these animated tools will cross, or we will force them to cross, some threshold of sensibility that calls into question their very treatment and use as mere tools while we fail to mature beyond the level of my 9 year old self dreaming of his Verbot slave.
And yet, this is only one way to look at the rise of intelligent machines. Like a gestalt drawing we might change our focus and see a very different picture- that it is not we who are using and chaining machines for our purposes, but the machines who are doing this to us. To that subject next time…