The Machines in Our Lives
Joseph Ugoretz | March 27, 2010 | 1:16 pm | Technology Changes Us | No comments

The robot has become a commonplace not just of SF, but of general technological culture. From little toy dogs children play with, to the small pieces of software that help you search the web, to the machine that vacuums your floor while you are out running errands, to the highly synchronized, untiring extensible claw-arms of automobile factories, robots, both as real machines, and as characters and ideas, are everywhere.

The first use of the word, “robot,” was in the Czech play, R.U.R.robot from r.u.r.. The word “robot” in the play is derived from a Czech word meaning “servitude,” or “drudgery.” In the play, the robots end up rebelling against their masters. Once again, the role of these non-humans makes us think about how we treat, and how we see, the real humans around us–whether they serve, protect, think, feel, or rebel.

In the best SF stories, rebellion is always a possibility. In good SF, the robot is a fully self-aware and active subject. Although created by humans, these robots are true characters, with intelligence and emotions. They consider their own nature, and their own roles.

Isaac Asimov may be said to be the father of the modern robot in SF. His “Three Laws of Robotics:”

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being
    to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher order law.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders
    would confict with a higher order law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict
    with a higher order law.

neatly illustrate the human anxieties about the dangers of technology, along with its benefits, which are inherent in all the robot stories.

So we love these machines, we hate them, we’re scared of them, we appreciate them.

But what about the machines in your life? Have you ever named a car? Or a computer?  Are there machines that are like servants to you? Even friends?

Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligence, and Intelligent Artifice
Joseph Ugoretz | March 27, 2010 | 1:05 pm | Technology Changes Us | No comments

We’ve talked a little bit about having a “3G brain.”  The cyborg, or “cybernetic organism” is a human who incorporates artificial parts–generally enhancements. Some of you may remember (if you’re old enough) The Six Million Dollar Man and Woman Bionic Man and Woman from 1970’s TV (based loosely on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg). This was a pretty bad TV series (especially when they met up with Bigfoot), but it was evidence of the growing interest in the questions and problems people had with artificial enhancement of human beings. The idea of superstrength or megacomputing power in a human body is appealing, but the question of whether a person so enhanced is still a person is troubling. We may be moving toward a world where people become so connected to, and so dependent on technology, that they lose some of their essential humanity Wearable computing experiment.

I carry a lot of devices with me at all times–some of them fairly primitive tools (a handkerchief, a pocket knife–but those are technology, too, aren’t they?), others more advanced (an iPhone, a laptop).  And I have enhanced or improved my body in some ways with technology.  I wear eyeglasses.  I have fillings in my teeth. Yet I wouldn’t call myself a cyborg.  I’m definitely more of an organism than I am cybernetic.  But I wonder–as I make these connections to technology more permanent and complete, does it affect my status as a human being?  Where does the line get crossed?

And we can look at this from both directions.  If a human enhanced with technology is a cyborg, what is technology enhanced with humanity? Alive, self-aware computers are frequent characters in many SF stories. (“HAL,” in Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and “AI” in Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” are two inimical examples, and “Mike” in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a benevolent one).  Are these intelligent artifices all that far off? For a fun experiment in not-very-sophisticated artificial intelligence, which may make you want to punch your computer, download and try some of the chat robots, Alice screenshot like Alice, and Eliza, and others, that will make your computer hold a real conversation with you…well, sort of.

Multi-Tasking and Over-Connecting
Joseph Ugoretz | March 27, 2010 | 12:38 pm | Technology Changes Us | No comments

As I sit here writing this, I have earphones on. I’m listening to some music (The Be Good Tanyas, if you’re interested). I’m tapping my foot. And I have my email client open, so when an email comes in I hear a little “Bing” noise and can see it right away. And I have iChat open with windows for AIM, Bonjour, and Jabber (Google Talk) so my friends, family, and colleagues can reach me that way. And every few minutes my Twitter client pops up with a new tweet from someone I’m following. And my cellphone is next to me, in case I get a call or a text message. I have nine tabs open on my browser. A large file is uploading to the server in my FTP program, and a movie to watch later is downloading in iTunes.

I will say this.  I’m not watching television. 🙂

Is technology changing us? Am I over-connected? I can think of many things I’ve learned and ideas I’ve expanded because I have so many close connections immediately available.  If I want to consult on an idea for a Tech Fair or one of the Macaulay seminars, I can reach out on Google Talk or the ITF listserv and get good advice almost immediately.  I have people on twitter, faculty and instructional technologists all over the world who not only help me with specific problems or questions, but tell me about good restaurants, weather and natural disasters, funny stories and moral dilemmas, outrageous oppression and celebrations of birthdays and holidays.

As a human being, I’m social and need my connections to other people.  And technology has widened those connections, as we’ve been discussing, in many ways.  But we’ve all heard the stories, too, of over-sharing and over-connecting. The teenagers who send nude or partially-clothed pictures of themselves to their boyfriends or girlfriends, only to find those pictures distributed to the whole school.  The couple at a romantic dinner at a restaurant, both with their eyes and thumbs glued to their iPhones and Blackberries.  Would it be so wrong to disconnect–to not be in contact for a period of time?

Some of you have written about observing the Sabbath–of disconnecting from the electronic world for a period of 24 hours or more.  That kind of disconnection might really lead to closer connections.  I’m hoping to go on vacation for a week this summer–and I’m thinking of going to a place with no internet…but I’m making absolutely sure that there is still 3G coverage there.  Just in case.  A few years ago I went on a vacation to a beautiful resort in Hawaii (I know, lucky me, right?).  There was no internet, no phones, no television, no radio, no newspapers.  Not even air conditioning.  I didn’t even take an iPod.  It was a wonderful vacation, and I didn’t miss all those “connections” at all.

And there’s multi-tasking.  There is some dispute about whether or not such a thing is even possible.  Are our brains really even designed to do this successfully? People try to drive and talk on the phone (or worse!).  It’s pretty well documented that that doesn’t work out.  But I know that while working on an electronics project or cooking, I can certainly listen to a podcast or the radio or an audiobook.  It seems like there are two or more parts of the brain that can work on different things at the same time.

I’ve been following some of the discussion about the iPad, and one of the big complaints is that it doesn’t multi-task.  You can have one application open at a time, and to switch to another one, you have to really switch–closing the first one and opening the second.  But on my computer right now, if I switch away from writing this mini-lecture and go to my email or to search the web for an article I remember, am I really multi-tasking?  Or am I really switching back and forth–even if I’m doing that rapidly.  When I leave this post open, go to my email, and come back, is my mind still working on this post?

I’m sure everyone has had the experience of working out a difficult problem (in whatever subject).  You get stuck, and go do something else (sleep, eat, exercise, dance). And then (sometimes) if you come back to the original problem, the answer is right there waiting for you.  Your brain did its own multi-tasking, and even if you didn’t know it, while you had your “dancing” application open, your brain was still processing the “problem” application in the background.

Has technology changed this for you? Are you different than you were, or different from your ancestors, because of technology?