December 24, 2010
Newsflash—we live in a completely mediated environment—a datascape of fulminating algorithms thick with the ugly remnants of human in/decision-making—our bombs are smart—our bombers are drones—our stock-market is a mass of computer-processors trading on the megascales that defy human logic—our regal game, chess, was downgraded to mere determinism by a series of what-were-increasingly-sophisticated computer programs—our vision of the cosmos comes through the intimations of cameras and rovers and satellites that send messages into the ether—our hospital patients are beeping, now, because the potassium IVbag has emptied and the nurses have been remotely notified and alerted—our robots are ready to vacuum the floors or report for hazardous chemical duty—our shopping preferences and Facebook “likes” are data mined to provide us with the best deals the fastest deals the deals we can’t miss.
So it should be no surprise that our children—yes, those tiny desiring machines pacified even as we write this by our smart phones and their sleek language-acquisition tools—feel more-than-comfortable with robots and artificial intelligence. They love Plex, the magic robot, from Yo Gabba Gabba; their intellectual capacities become augmented beyond our wildest my-child-is-clearly-gifted dreams.
And so, observe the following test case, wherein my 4-year-old, Athena, argues that robot and people are both alive. Cameo appearance by Kallista, 3.
Scene: The drive back from a day at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where we viewed, among other delights, several robot “arms” capable of drawing pictures, assembling models, etc.
Athena: Are robots alive? Those robot arms?
Me: No, they are not.
Athena: They are alive. They are.
Me: They are not the same as people. People eat food, and spend much of their time looking for, preparing, and consuming food.
Athena: Robots eat, too. Electricity or gas or something.
Me: Yes, but we give the robots their food.
Athena: You give me food. I don’t make it myself. But I want to. Can I get my own food, daddy?
Me: Sure, that would be great.Ok, let’s say robots and kids are the same in that we give both their food or fuel.
Athena: See, robots are alive. Like me and Kallista.
Kallista (robot voice): I am a ro-bot prin-cess!
Me: Yes, but what about this difference, we tell the robots what to do…?
Athena: You tell me what to do!
Me: Yes, but we “program” robots to do everything that they do. When a robot is first made, it cannot do anything on its own.
Athena: People are programmed too.
Me (taking on superior air): Really?
Athena: Yes. We program babies to learn to do everything. Babies cannot say words or walk or even chew. We teach babies. We teach robots.Babies do the things we teach them.
Me (less sure): So, we program babies?
Athena: Yes, and babies and robots are alive.
Intermission: discussion of a possible version of Cinderella done entirely with robots. Gus and Jacque, the two helpful mice, become computer mouses. The bland Prince becomes a super-intelligent robo-hunk. The Fairy Godmother is now the Roomba vaccum cleaner (see intro).
Athena (later, upset): I wanted _____ (her cousin) to play with me but she wouldn’t?
Me: Ah ha!See, we can tell robots what to do, but you can’t always get other people to do what you want them to do!
Athena (immediately recovered): Yes, you can!
Athena: You get people to do what you want by talking to them and getting them to do the things you want to do. You have to do this the right way with the right words. I have to try harder with ______ next time.
Me: Well, that’s different than how we make robots do things.
Athena: You could tell a robot to the wrong thing if you use the wrong words.
Me: So, you just need to use the right words to get people and robots to do what you want?
At home, out of the car:
Kallista: I am a princess and want to marry the Robot Prince.
Me (officiating): Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this Princess and this Robot Prince in matrimony. Do you, Princess, take this Robot Prince to be your husband?
Kallista (heavy robot voice): Yes, I do. I do.
Athena (suddenly voicing Robot Prince, heavy robot voice): I do too! (crawling on the floor like the Roomba).
Me (sigh): Ok, I give in. Robots are the same as people.
Athena and Kallista (moving arms like B-movie sci-fi robots): Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!