I Robot For Real

When I was around eight, I loved to play “pretending” games with my friends to the point that I figured out it was something I liked to do more than my friends did. I know this because of how many times they said no, they didn’t want to. Pretend games like soldiers, cowboys, aliens, and if a girl was around and had any say so, the old standby – house. But my favorite by far was robots. The jetsons were on tv and our comic books were full of them. When I discovered I Robot by Isaac Asimov, I was in more than heaven, I had discovered a world that I desperately wanted to exist. 

War games involved pretend shooting, pretend dying, and unlimited resurections. Space ships and aliens games were more fun because they had the added element of adventure and making up places to go. I thought my friend Jed was on board when he decked out the crawl space under the stairs with blankets and food supplies including PB and J sandwiches. It was an early saturday morning, and I volunteered to go on an extended solo mission to a distant planet. After a Long voyage in a dark spaceship, I came out and to my surprise everyone was gone, apparently off to a movie. I don’t think it was on purpose, but at some point everyone forgot I was there. 

Science fiction books picked up for me where comic books left off and I read as many as I could get my hands on. By the time I started high school I was excited about taking electronics and computers as my Grade 10 elective, but this was 1968, and a computer in high school then was literally a wooden dowel with a crank and holes to stick nails into to “program” it. The nails would either hit something in it’s path or not. Truly primitive beginnings of our logical universe, but I remember thinking it was cool. 

In 1976 I worked a masters degree in music composition at North Texas State University. One of my professors had been a partner with Robert Moog, and the synthesizers we worked with looked like telephone switchboards with patchcords and jacks to alter the sounds. I saved up and bought a Korg instrument that had a short keyboard built in and though it could only play one note at a time, I learned the ins and outs of programming it. This was 9 years before my first personal computer, an Apple Mac Plus which cost $3000 and let me connect my synthesizers to it for programming and recordings. 

All of this was in the context of what I knew could be so much better. The recording studio I came to build evolved at no small expense from three rooms full of pricy boxes for reverb or compression and drum machines and giant mixers with miles of cables to what is now a free app on a smart phone. Many scientists including Stephen Hawking are preaching the inevetibility and dangers of AI combined with robotics putting us out of business as a species. So here in 2017, we have robotic vacuum cleaners that require a fair amount of human mainainance, and that’s about it. ATM’s have been in banks and grocery stores for decades now, but we are now used to them and they are the same now as when they first came out- we still bag our own groceries and humans are needed for supervision and mainainance. Turns out from an employment perspective this is a great thing. 

So nearly 60 years since I first pretended I was a robot and here we are in a weird space where gloom and doom surrounds an industry which is still largely behind the scenes and not in our homes. The Jetsons seem even more ridiculous now, because their robots were so friendly and fun, and Mr. Jetson’s job was never threatened by the automated domestic help. Worse, even if they were all that, we would suffer from lack of exercise. The robots made today are nothing close to I Robot, but they are beyond the pay grade of even the moderately rich. Everyone talks about how quickly things happen but for me the road to having a robot friend grows longer with each step I take, and everyone seems to be in agreement that robots are evil. The little boy in me hates this, but I am not completely thick, I get it. 

So it doesn’t seem likely that I will see how this plays out even if we can predict how enevitable the conflicts are. I do believe we can control the outcomes of our technology, but it seems our collective intelligence is not that great, even with genius proliferating at the individual level. It may very well be that the robots will have mercy on us and help us survive ourselves after all. Hopefully mercy and empathy will be at the core of the AI to come. 


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