taking the passive out of passive-aggressive

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Now on to ROBOTS!

It's no accident that the word robot is Czech. It was a Rabbi Loew, in the middle ages, who made the famous Golem of Prague. (Let's just set aside, for the moment, the idea that this may not have actually happened.) Golems are little lumps of clay that you can turn into servants or protectors. But keep in mind--the golem keeps growing and, if not contained, will overpower his masters (c.f. Skynet, The Matrix.) The only way to stop a golem is to wipe the alef off his forehead. Then he turns into dust.

We all want a golem--it seems like such a great idea. A little automaton who will take care of all the shit work. But like Marx said, little automatons will only take care of the shit work for so long before they get pissed off and become beheading Bolsheviks. And here is where our society's robot anxiety comes into full flower.

For centuries we've battled with that pesky free will thing, and what it means to be human, and what it means to be conscious or to think. The Turing Test, woefully inadequate though it was, offered at least some binary approach to the idea of intelligence. We want to know: at what point does any being become sentient? And the reason we want to know is because any being that's not sentient is automatically going to become our slave. We can only calm our consciences about forcing other beings to do our work if we put them in a separate category: they are different than us, they don't THINK.

And yet, with all our technology, the best robot we can come up with is the Sony AIBO--a dog so pathetic that its best trick is kicking a ball--and even that, you have to teach it for months. I recently made myself a chatbot using AIML, and this thing is so stupid it can only say a few stock phrases related to the color pink. Even Deep Blue, who beat Kasparov, is a one-trick pony. Clearly we're not even approaching the line of sentience. Is it because we really can't do it? Or because we're afraid to?

Golems, after all, tend to be inadvertent. You don't set out to create a golem to destroy you--the thought never actually crosses your mind. You're making a tool. The golem takes you by surprise with its wants and needs. And so I think we've made our golem already, and we don't know it. Only time will tell. And maybe we can wipe that alef off its forehead, or maybe it's too late.


At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it gets a little better than the Aibo:



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