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Posts Tagged ‘Robot

“Do you think that the soul first shows itself by a gnashing of teeth?”*…

In January 2020, as a new plague began to upend life on Earth, a small research team from Tufts, the University of Vermont, and Harvard announced that they, too, had turned life on Earth upside-down. Their discovery wasn’t quite so dramatic at first glance. Any regular person peering through a microscope at their creation would see little more than a few globs of dirty pond water in a petri dish. But those globs were alive; in fact, they were alive in a way that nothing has ever been alive before, in an uncharted space between biology and technology. They called them Xenobots, the world’s first living robot—the world’s first programmable organism.

Xenobot: Xeno as in Xenopus laevis, a voracious frog native to the wetlands of Sub-Saharan Africa; bot, of course, as in robot. It’s an unconventional name for an unconventional organism, so novel that even its makers struggle to conceptualize it. “The terminology that has served us well for many years is just not any good anymore,” concedes Michael Levin, the team’s iconoclastic biologist. His collaborator Josh Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert, has called Xenobots “novel living machines.” Sam Kriegman—the team’s postdoc—prefers the term “Computer Designed Organism,” although he’s been trying on “living deepfake” for size recently.

And they’re all right, in a way. Xenobots are deepfakes in the sense that they aren’t what they seem. They’re robots in the sense that they’re autonomous, programmable agents. They’re Computer Designed in the sense that their morphology—the form their tiny bodies take—was designed by an evolutionary computer algorithm in Bongard’s UVM lab. They’re living in the sense that they’re made of embryonic frog cells, and they’re machines in the sense that humans are machines: biological mechanisms made up of constituent parts.

Xenobots are the first living creatures whose immediate evolution occurred inside a computer and not in the biosphere. The result is a simple organism. Xenobots have no brains; the shape of their bodies is what determines how they behave. And yet, Levin and Bongard do not fully understand why Xenobots behave the way they do. “What you’re seeing de novois a completely novel creature with new proto-cognitive capacities, preferences, capabilities, IQ,” Levin explains. “All of those things appear out of nowhere.” Sometimes a Xenobot will head in one direction and then abruptly double back, as though changing its mind. What force guides such behaviors? Can a frog’s cells, in some way, think? Xenobots seem to have “nano free-will,” Levin jokes.

And this is where the can of worms—or tadpoles, maybe—pops open…

The word “robot” recently celebrated its centennial. It comes from the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s 1920 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” about a worker uprising in a robot factory. Čapek’s robots are biological, the result of a vaguely alchemical process involving “albumen” with a “raging thirst for life.” Our conception of a robot as being something metallic, with clanging gears and servo-motors, is more recent baggage, a consequence of the science-fiction stories and films of the mid-twentieth century. In order to understand what Xenobots might mean for our future, we’ll have to divest ourselves from the idea that a robot—or any kind of autonomous being—can be wholly defined by its materiality…

As Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, observed: “Let us remember that the automatic machine is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.”

Claire Evans (@TheUniverse) explains how “Xenobots may change how we think about intelligence.”

For apposite background, see also “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness.”

Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or in English, Rossum’s Universal Robots)

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As we ponder life itself, we might recall (with, perhaps, a touch of nostalgia) that it was on this date in 1959 that Texas Instruments (TI) demonstrated the first working integrated circuit (IC), which had been invented by Jack Kilby. Kilby created the device to prove that resistors and capacitors could exist on the same piece of semiconductor material. His circuit consisted of a sliver of germanium with five components linked by wires. It was Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, however, who filed for a patent within months of Kilby and who made the IC a commercially-viable technology. Both men are credited as co-inventors of the IC. (Kilby won the Nobel Prize for his work in 2000; Noyce, who died in 1990, did not share.)

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Written by LW

March 24, 2021 at 1:01 am

“A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God”*…

A scan of the workings of an automaton of a friar, c1550. Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano (c1500-85), probably Spanish.

The wooden monk, a little over two feet tall, ambles in a circle. Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. Throughout his supplications, those same lips seem to mumble, as if he’s quietly uttering penitential prayers, and occasionally the tiny monk will raise his empty fist to his torso as he beats his breast. His head is finely detailed, a tawny chestnut colour with a regal Roman nose and dark hooded eyes, his pate scraped clean of even a tonsure. For almost five centuries, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but before that he resided in that distinctly un-Catholic city of Geneva. His origins are more mysterious, though similar divine automata have been attributed to Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs. Following Philip II’s son’s recovery from an illness, the reverential king supposedly commissioned Turriano to answer God’s miracle with a miracle of his own. Scion of the Habsburgs’ massive fortune of Aztec and Incan gold, hammer against the Protestant English and patron of the Spanish Inquisition, Philip II was every inch a Catholic zealot whom the British writer and philosopher G K Chesterton described as having a face ‘as a fungus of a leprous white and grey’, overseeing his empire in rooms where ‘walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin’. It’s a description that evokes similarly uncanny feelings for any who should view Turriano’s monk, for there is one inviolate rule about the robot: he is creepy.

Elizabeth King, an American sculptor and historian, notes that an ‘uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy … it engages even the 20th-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way.’ The late Spanish engineer José A García-Diego is even more unsparing: the device, he wrote, is ‘considerably unpleasant’. One reason for his unsettling quality is that the monk’s purpose isn’t to provide simulacra of prayer, but to actually pray. Turriano’s device doesn’t serve to imitate supplication, he is supplicating; the mechanism isn’t depicting penitence, the machine performs it…

The writer Jonathan Merritt has argued in The Atlantic that rapidly escalating technological change has theological implications far beyond the political, social and ethical questions that Pope Francis raises, claiming that the development of self-aware computers would have implications for our definition of the soul, our beliefs about sin and redemption, our ideas about free will and providence. ‘If Christians accept that all creation is intended to glorify God,’ Merritt asked, ‘how would AI do such a thing? Would AI attend church, sing hymns, care for the poor? Would it pray?’ Of course, to the last question we already have an answer: AI would pray, because as Turriano’s example shows, it already has. Pope Francis also anticipated this in his November prayers, saying of AI ‘may it “be human”.’

While nobody believes that consciousness resides within the wooden head of a toy like Turriano’s, no matter how immaculately constructed, his disquieting example serves to illustrate what it might mean for an artificial intelligence in the future to be able to orient itself towards the divine. How different traditions might respond to this is difficult to anticipate. For Christians invested in the concept of an eternal human soul, a synthetic spirit might be a contradiction. Buddhist and Hindu believers, whose traditions are more apt to see the individual soul as a smaller part of a larger system, might be more amenable to the idea of spiritual machines. That’s the language that the futurist Ray Kurzweil used in calling our upcoming epoch the ‘age of spiritual machines’; perhaps it’s just as appropriate to think of it as the ‘Age of Turriano’, since these issues have long been simmering in the theological background, only waiting to boil over in the coming decades.

If an artificial intelligence – a computer, a robot, an android – is capable of complex thought, of reason, of emotion, then in what sense can it be said to have a soul? How does traditional religion react to a constructed person, at one remove from divine origins, and how are we to reconcile its role in the metaphysical order? Can we speak of salvation and damnation for digital beings? And is there any way in which we can evangelise robots or convert computers? Even for steadfast secularists and materialists, for whom those questions make no philosophical sense for humans, much less computers, that this will become a theological flashpoint for believers is something to anticipate, as it will doubtlessly have massive social, cultural and political ramifications.

This is no scholastic issue of how many angels can dance on a silicon chip, since it seems inevitable that computer scientists will soon be able to develop an artificial intelligence that easily passes the Turing test, that surpasses the understanding of those who’ve programmed it. In an article for CNBC entitled ‘Computers Will Be Like Humans By 2029’ (2014), the journalist Cadie Thompson quotes Kurzweil, who confidently (if controversially) contends that ‘computers will be at human levels, such as you can have a human relationship with them, 15 years from now.’ With less than a decade left to go, Kurzweil explains that he’s ‘talking about emotional intelligence. The ability to tell a joke, to be funny, to be romantic, to be loving, to be sexy, that is the cutting edge of human intelligence, that is not a sideshow.’

Often grouped with other transhumanists who optimistically predict a coming millennium of digital transcendence, Kurzweil is a believer in what’s often called the ‘Singularity’, the moment at which humanity’s collective computing capabilities supersede our ability to understand the machines that we’ve created, and presumably some sort of artificial consciousness develops. While bracketing out the details, let’s assume that Kurzweil is broadly correct that, at some point in this century, an AI will develop that outstrips all past digital intelligences. If it’s true that automata can then be as funny, romantic, loving and sexy as the best of us, it could also be assumed that they’d be capable of piety, reverence and faith. When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond?..

Can a robot pray? Does an AI have a soul? Advances in automata raise theological debates that will shape the secular world; from Ed Simon (@WithEdSimon): “Machine in the ghost.” Do read the piece in full.

Then, for a different (but in the end, not altogether contradictory) view: “The Thoughts The Civilized Keep.”

And for another (related) angle: “Is it OK to torture a computer program?

For more on the work of sculptor and historian Elizabeth King on the Smithsonian automaton friar, please see her articles here and here, and her forthcoming book, Mysticism and Machinery.

Alan Perlis (first recipient of the Turing Award)

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As we enlarge the tent, we might send revelatory birthday greetings to Albert Hofmann; he was born on this date in 1906.  As a young chemist at Sandoz in Switzerland, Hofmann was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant when he fabricated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); handling it, he absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943– a day now known as “Bicycle Day”– Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD then rode home on a bike, a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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“You want to know what a robot’s designed for”*…

 

In examining the history of famous robots, you’d be forgiven for overlooking a 1950s children’s toy named Robert.

Robert the Robot, who was a product of the once-mighty Ideal Toy Company, didn’t do much, at least compared to the standards set by science fiction at the time. Unlike the helpful humanoids of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Robert was just a 14-inch-tall hunk of plastic that could utter a few phrases, wheel around with a tethered remote control, and grip objects in his mechanical arms.

Still, Robert deserves credit for being the first plastic toy robot made in the United States, and the first toy robot to become [as your correspondent, a delighted recipient of Robert as a Christmas gift, can attest] an American sensation. He was the subject of children’s songs, enjoyed a Hollywood film cameo, and was quickly imitated by rival toy makers. He also preceded the industrial robotics boom by several years, capturing people’s imagination long before we truly understood what robots could do…

Before Rosie and R2-D2 became pop culture icons, a humble toy named Robert paved the way: “The 1950s Toy Robot Sensation That Time Forgot.”

* Daniel H. Wilson

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As we turn the crank, we might spare a thought for Rube Goldberg; he died on this date in 1970. A cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, he is best remembered as a satirist of the American obsession with technology; his series of “Invention” cartoons used a string of outlandish tools, people, plants, and steps to accomplish simple, everyday tasks in the most complicated possible way. (His work has inspired a number of “Rube Goldberg competitions,” the best-known of which, readers may recall, has been profiled here.)

The self-operating napkin

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Goldberg was a founder and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year.

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Written by LW

December 7, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords”*…

 

Under the general heading “the robots are after my job,” Kevin Roose, the News Director of Fusion, on how he “wrote 7 blog posts in less than 3 seconds.” (Spoiler alert- it’s all about robojournalism…)

[image above from here]

* frequently-heard riff on Joan Collin’s immortal line (“I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords”) in the 1977 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Empire of the Ants. For more on ants, see yesterday’s (R)D

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As we polish our people skills, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876 that Seth Thomas was granted a patent on something that we may no longer need– an alarm clock.  U.S. patent No. 183,725 was issued for the metal case of a one-day back-winding alarm clock, the first American patent for an alarm clock of this familiar type.

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Written by LW

October 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Why, the whole world will pay to see this!”*…

 

Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion pioneer who originally brought King Kong to life in 1933, hit the skids pretty hard by the late ’40s. He spent the last decade of his life pitching assorted Kong scripts around Hollywood with little success. Finally, in the early ’60s, the script for a movie he was calling King Kong vs. Frankenstein (which seems an awfully unfair fight, if you ask me) ended up on the desk of Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. Tanaka had always wanted to make a Kong film, but he had no use for O’Brien’s slow and pricey stop-motion animation when rubber suits and miniature sets worked just fine. Still, he bought the script, made one small correction and was good to go.

Directed by Ishirô Honda, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla would go on to become the most successful Godzilla picture Toho ever made, even if its giant gorilla looked more like an orangutan with mange. The film was such a huge financial hit in both Japan and the States that a follow-up was inevitable. O’Brien had since died, but with Kong now an indelible American icon (even after being Japanified into a mangy orangutan named Kingu Kongu), it only made sense for Toho to make the film as a U.S.-Japanese co-production.

Unfortunately, the Americans they teamed up with turned out to be Rankin/Bass, the insidious duo who’d inflicted Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other holiday-themed nightmares on an unsuspecting public…

More of this monstrous story at “That Time They Built a King Kong Robot.”

* “Carl Denham,” King Kong (1933)

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As we cling to a Wray of hope, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that Astor Pictures released Cat-Women of the Moon.

Variety averred, “This imaginatively conceived and produced science-fiction yarn takes the earth-to-moon premise and embellishes it with a civilization of cat-women on the moon … Cast ably portray their respective roles … Arthur Hilton makes his direction count in catching the spirit of the theme, and art direction is far above average for a film of this calibre. William Whitley’s 3-D photography provides the proper eerie quality.”

The New York Times, on the other hand, wrote, “They [the Cat-women] try to get their hands on the visitors’ rocket ship, hoping to come down here and hypnotize us all. Considering the delegation that went up, it’s hard to imagine why.”

Notably, the score was composed by the celebrated Elmer Bernstein,** though his last name is misspelled as “Bernstien” in the opening credits.

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** Elmer was not related to the even-more-celebrated composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein; but the two men were friends, and even shared a certain physical resemblance.  Within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard)– and by the fact that they pronounced their last names differently: Elmer’s was BERN-steen, and Leonard’s was BERN-stine.

 

Written by LW

September 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

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