: The Human Age

Robots on a Date


Robots on a Date

Looking around Lipsons quiet lab, I sense something missing. You have real students sitting at the computer benches. I dont see any chatbots.

Lipson smiles indulgently. His chatbots have been a YouTube craze. That was just an afternoon hack. It went viral in twenty-four hours and took us completely by surprise.

He doesnt mean hack in its usual sense of breaking into a computer with malicious intent, but as highwire digital artistry. The Urban Dictionary defines its slang use like this: v. To program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets. Hacking is a subtle and arguably mystical art, equal parts wit and technical ability, that is rarely appreciated by non-hackers.

One day, Lipson asked two of his PhD students to bring a demo chatbot to his Artificial Intelligence class. Acting a bit like a portable, rudimentary psychotherapist, a chatbot is an online program that reflects what someone says in slightly different words and asks open-ended questions. It can come across as surprisingly lifelike (which says a lot about the clich?s that pass for everyday chitchat). But in 1997 a Cleverbot, designed by the British AI expert Rollo Carpenter, went online with a teeming arcade of phrases compiled from all of its past conversations. Each encounter had taught it more about how to interact with humans, including the subtleties of innuendo and pricks of friendly debate, and it learned to apply those nuances in the next chat. Since then its held twenty million conversations, and its verbal larder is a treasury (or a snakepit) of useful topics, ripe phrases, witty responses, probing questions, defensive expressions, and the subtle rules of engagement, gleaned from years of bantering with humans.

Lipsons grad students set the laptops face-to-face on a table so that they could t?te-?-t?te in a virtual parlor. On one screen a computer-generated male materialized, on the other screen a female. The man spoke with a slight British accent, the woman in a syncopated Indian voice. Fortunately, the grad students videotaped the encounter and posted it online, where the chatty Cleverbots have now enchanted over four million people with their oddly human conversation.

The robots begin with a simple Hello there, followed by pleasantries, but as they respond to one another they soon start to disagree, and the exchange grows funny, poignant, snarky, and thoroughly hypnotic.

You were mistaken, Mr. Cleverbot says to Ms. Cleverbot, adding sarcastically, which is odd, since memory shouldnt be a problem for you!

What is God to you? she asks him at one point.

Not everything, he says. Its a surprisingly plausible answer.

Not everything could still be something, she insists with jesuitical aplomb.

Very true, he concedes.

I would like to believe it is.

Do you believe in God? he asks.

Yes I do, she says emphatically.

So youre Christian

No I am not! she snaps.

They bicker and make nice-nice. He calls her a meanie, for not being helpful. She suddenly asks him a painful question, one any human might wonder about. Still, its disquieting to hear.

Dont you want to have a body?

And then, surprisingly, like someone who has accepted a fate he nonetheless laments, he answers: Sure.[27]

What else is there to say? Abruptly they freeze into replica humans once more, and the video clip is over. Some people detect animosity or sexual tension between the man and woman, others a marital spat. Were ready to accept fictional robots in movies and stories, but are we ready for a synthetic life form that feels regret, introspects, and conducts relationshipscreatures opaque to us, whose minds we cant fully mirror? Do the chatbots appeal because theyre so like us, or because were so like them?

There are scores of people in robotics who can fine-tune a robots movements, even design truly lifelike robots with delicately mobile faces. Italian roboticists, for example, have created a series of realistic-looking heads that synchronize thirty-two motors hidden beneath the robots polymer skin, and mimic all of our facial expressions, based on muscle movements, and can even capture the emotional space between furrowing the brows, say, and frowning. Such robots have already passed the stage of being a mere sensation in the robotics world. Fully-featured human faces are smiling, grimacing, exchanging knowing looks the world over. Unlike Madame Tussauds wax-museum stars, todays robots look lifelike enough to seem a bit creepy, with facial expressions that actually elicit empathy and make your mirror neurons quiver. Equally realistic squishy bodies arent far behind. One can easily imagine the day, famously foretold in the movies Blade Runner and Alien, when computers with faces feel silicon flavors of paranoia, love, melancholy, anger, and the other stirrings of our carbon hearts. Then the already lively debate about whether machines are conscious will really heat up. This was always the next step toward designing a self-aware, agile, reasoning, feeling, moody other, who may look like you or your sibling (but have better manners).

No doubt robot sociology and robot psychology will emerge as important disciplines, because theres an interesting thing that happens when robots become self-aware. Just like people, they sometimes get wrong impressions of themselves, skewed enough to create robot delinquents, and we might start to see traits parallel to psychological problems in humans.

When I used to volunteer as a telephone Crisis Line counselor, it wasnt always easy finding ways to help the callers who phoned in deep despair or creased by severe personality disorders. Self-aware robots with social crises, neuroses, even psychoses? That might prove a challenge. Would they identify with and prefer speaking to others of their kind? Suppose it concerned a relationship with humans? Colleges have popular schools of International Labor Relations, Human Ecology, and Social Work. Can Interspecies Labor Relations, Robot Ecology, and Silicon Social Work be far behind? How about a relief order for aged, infirm, or incarcerated robots, such as Android Daughters of Charity or Our Sisters of Perpetual Motion?

What would the Umwelt (worldview encompassing thoughts, feelings, and sensations) of a self-aware robot be like? Were no longer entertaining such ideas merely as flights of imagination, but contemplating how to behave in a rapidly approaching future with the startling technology were generating. If, as Lipson says, our new species of conscious, intelligent robots will learn through curiosity and experience, much as children do, then even robo-tots will need good parenting. Who will set those codes of behaviorindividuals or society as a whole?

CAN WE LIVE inside a house thats a robotic butler, protector, and chatbot companion all rolled into one, an entity with its own personality and metabolism?[28] Its brain would be a robotic Jeeves (or maybe Leaves), who tends the meadow walls and human family with equal pride, and is a good listener, with a bevy of facial expressions. A fully butlered house with a face that rises from a plastic wall would monitor the energy grid, fuel the car (with hydrogen), while exchanging news, ordering groceries, piloting a personal drone to the post office, and preparing a Moosewood Restaurant lunch recipe that includes herbs from the herb-garden island in the kitchen, and arugula and tomatoes from the rooftop garden. In some high-tech enclaves, smart locks are now opened by virtual keys on iPhones, and family members wear a computer tracking chip that stores their preferences. As they move through each room, lights turn on ahead of them and fade away behind, a thermostat adjusts itself, the song or TV show or movie they were enjoying greets them, favorite food and drink are proffered. The houses nervous system is whats known as the Internet of Things.

In 1999, the technology pioneer Kevin Ashton coined the term for a cognitive web that unites a mob of physical and virtual digital devicesfurnace, lights, water, computers, garage door, oven, etc.with the physical world, much as cells in the body communicate to coordinate actions. As they cabal among themselves, synchronizing their energy use and activities, they can also share data with the neighborhood, city, and wired world.

Combining animal, vegetable, mineral, and machine, his idea is playing out in the avant-garde new city of Songdo, South Korea, where the Internet of Things is nearly ubiquitous. Smart homes, shops, and office buildings stream data continuously to a cadre of computers that sense, scrutinize, and make decisions, monitoring and piloting the whole synchronous city, mainly without human help. Theyre able to analyze picayune details and make sure all the infrastructure hums smoothly, changing traffic flow during rush hour as needed, watering parks and market gardens, or promptly removing garbage (which is sucked down through subterranean warrens to a processing center where its sorted, deodorized, and recycled). Toiling invisibly in the background, the council of computers can organize massive subway repairs, or send you a personal cell phone alert if your bus is running late.

Its a little odd thinking of computers taking meetings on the fly and gabbing together in an alien argot. But naming it the Internet of Things domesticates an idea that might otherwise frighten us. We know and enjoy the Internet, already older than many of its users, and familiar now as a pet. In an age where even orangutans Skype on iPads, what could be more humdrum than the all-purpose, nondescript word things? The Internet of Things reassures us that this isnt a revolutionary ideathough, in truth, it isjust an everyday technology linked to something vague and harmless sounding. It doesnt suggest brachiating from one reality to another; it just expands the idea of last centurys cozy new technology, and animates the idea of home.

In J.G.Ballards sci-fi short story The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista, there are psycho-sensitive houses that can be driven to hysteria by their owners neuroses. Picture sentient walls sweating with anxiety, a staircase keening when an occupant dies, roof seams fraying from a mild sense of neglect. Some days I swear Im living in that house right now.


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