Baxter, a friendly robot colleague who'd love to hang out with you after work. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)
As robots move into more and more workplaces in the coming decades—not just high-tech manufacturing but eventually everything from hospitals to supermarkets—one of the big challenges employers will face is making their carbon-based workforce comfortable with the new arrivals. That's the topic of an interesting story in The Economist (h/t Kevin Drum) that focuses not just on the technology but on how the robots make us feel, and what must be done to keep people from freaking out when they find out their new partner is made of metal and plastic. It seems that the psychology of human-robot interaction is going to be a burgeoning field in the next few years:
The news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns.
AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Grace Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom or write a paper while Texas was in danger.
The non-fiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, "Heaven Is For Real," an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? "Heaven Is For Real" has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on the New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list.
The top spot on that list is held by this year's non-fiction publishing phenomenon, "Proof of Heaven," a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it have been a dream he had while emerging from his coma? Nah. And so what if he turns out to be something of a charlatan? Any way you slice it, near-death trips through the Pearly Gates are box-office boffo. Which is why a new study on what happens to rats when they reach the end of their terrestrial moment is particularly interesting:
Could you fall in love with Siri? OK, let's not say Siri in particular, since Siri is as dumb as a stump and doesn't understand anything you ask her. But what about a version of Siri that's a few generations away, one with not only better voice recognition but a real personality, one that learns and changes and gets to know you, one with which (whom?) you build a complicated relationship? Could you fall in love with that program?
That's the question that Spike Jonze's new movie Her seems to be asking. Check out the trailer:
Attentive readers will recall that I'm rather interested, as a human whose body stubbornly continues to age, in the prospect that science will one day enable us to extend our lives far beyond what is possible today. Throwing the "immortality" word around tends to turn people off, since it sounds so absurd (after all, nothing lives forever, not even our sun), but what about just living a whole lot longer than most of us expect to even when we're being optimistic? Is that something you'd want?
My answer has always been, "Of course—are you kidding?" If advancements in medicine and technology can dramatically extend our lives—and assuming that we don't end up like Tithonus, the figure from Greek mythology who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth, so lived forever in a tortuous ever-increasing decrepitude—then I'm all for it. There are strong arguments that living for an extra 50 or 100 years (or more) might be great for you as an individual, but bad for society as a whole, but I've been surprised as I've asked friends and relatives this question over the last few years that most of them say that getting 80 or 90 years on Earth is just fine with them. And now, the good folks at the Pew Research Religion and Life Project have asked a representative sample of Americans the question (or at least one form of the question), and they've gotten similar answers. Interestingly enough, most people think that while they don't want to live past 120, they think most other people disagree:
This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)
Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers.
It's Friday, which of course means we have to talk robots. Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) unveiled Atlas, a humanoid robot it's using as part of its robotics challenge, in which teams of engineers will compete to write software that best employs Atlas' human-eradicating capabilities. Kidding, of course—they'll actually be trying to perform a series of tasks that might be needed in a disaster scenario.
Frankly, I've always been skeptical about the potential of humanoid robots. Sure, it helps us to relate to them if they look like us, but the human body has a lot of limitations. For instance, hands are great, but should a robot have only two? Why not four or six, or eleven? The more hands, the more things you can do with them. And legs are extremely useful, especially for navigating uneven environments where wheels won't work well, like the rubble of a building that has fallen over, or the stairs in your house. But are two legs better than three or four?
GENEVA—Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is a slight, Chinese woman prone to power shades of lipstick. At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, where ministers of health from the U.N.’s 194 member countries gathered to discuss the world’s most pressing illnesses, Chan’s lip-color ranged from a light rose to fire-engine red, but her attitude never swayed.
Robots: Not just for nuns anymore. (Photo from Paro Robots U.S., Inc.)
In the movie "Castaway," Tom Hanks' character, stranded on an island with no human companionship, dresses up a volleyball to look vaguely like a person's head, gives it a name ("Wilson"), then spends years having conversations with it. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is making his desperate attempt to return to civilization on a raft, Wilson gets washed overboard. There's a poignant moment when Hanks tries to reach Wilson, who is drifting away from the raft, then realizes sadly that he'll have to let it go if he's going to save himself. Because no matter how much emotion he's invested it with, in the end it's just a volleyball.
Here in the actual world, there are lots of people who go through their days lacking companionship, many of whom live in nursing homes. As the Baby Boom generation ages, there are going to be a lot more of them. Which naturally leads to the question: Can we use robots to make their lives a little less miserable? Slate's Future Tense brings us the not-really-surprising (at least to me) results of a small pilot study where a group of nursing home residents were each given a Paro robot, which is a baby harp seal stuffed animal that has some sensors and actuators and responds to your touch. Here's what happened:
If you're one of those Northeastern elitists who read the New York Times, you turned to the last page of the front section Friday and saw an op-ed from a Verizon executive, making the case that "the United States has gained a global leadership position in the marketplace for broadband," and don't let anyone tell you different. "Hey," you might have said. "Didn't I read an almost identical op-ed in the Times just five days ago?" Indeed you did, though that one came not from a telecom executive but from a researcher at a telecom-funded think-tank. And if you live in Philadelphia, your paper recently featured this piece from a top executive at Comcast, explaining how, yes, American broadband is the bee's knees.
At one point in Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, Emily Brady’s account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book’s subjects—a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace—talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma’s dorm room wall.
“Did you know all these people who died?” she asked. “Yeah, I grew up with all of them,” Emma replied. “Oh my god, that seems so tragic.”
Neuroscience has come a long way in recent years. Our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, even as we grasp more and more just how spectacularly complex the blob in your head really is. And as we gain new understanding and new tools to look at what's going on in the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it's not surprising that there are people—both legitimate scientists and hucksters—eager to push the technology where it might not be quite prepared to go. For instance, people are working on turning fMRI machines into lie detectors; there are even companies that claim they can use a brain scan to tell whether you're lying. But there's still disagreement about how reliable these methods are.
So it's also not surprising that as neuroscience advances, we're seeing something of an anti-neuroscience backlash. Some of it is perfectly reasonable and measured, but some of it—like today's column by David Brooks of the New York Times—leaps right from criticism of ambitions racing ahead of our current knowledge to something that looks a lot like rejection of the potential of science itself. Here's some of what Brooks has to say:
In reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining, I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate.
If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider.