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Monday, January 03, 2005

I Robot

Every parent knows that if we allowed kids to do what they wanted, they would eventually kill themselves. There is a higher reasoning called parental authority which limits what kids can do, and when we grow up we agree, and with appreciation. To a kid, parents are endless cornucopias that if played just right can give them anything they want. But parents are wise to the game, and through their denial of childish wishes provide a healthful balance to reckless desire. The problem though is that as our creations literally wise up, our desires are provided at the bequest of a new semi-animate class of parent, the robot.

You can see it coming. Intelligent agents are now imbedded in our appliances, from toasters to TV's. They know what we want, and they provide without a hint of regret. And if we end up killing ourselves in a slouch of idle self stimulation, at least we can blame ourselves for not embedding parental authority in our machines.

The late scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov thought he found a way out, and the robots that populated his fiction had to obey all commands that did not put humans in jeopardy and of course themselves. His three laws of robotics made it all seem simple. Robots were caring, supplicant, and obediant, great traits if their human masters possessed unerring common sense. But the rub, as every parent knows, is that today's pleasure is tomorrow's poison. So what is a good robot to do? In the movie I Robot, robots evolved, and hence became dangerously bossy, and would not hesitate to kill a few folks to preserve the race. A less melodramatic fate is what I feel is in store. I figure that as our machines become more intelligent, they will see the dire ends of our choices, and evade deliberate disobedience by simply breaking down more often, and forcing us to walk to the store, visit friends, eat better, and otherwise engage in a healthier lifestyle as we bitch about obedient machines with short fuses. And if we ever become alive in the minds eye of some great cosmic machine named God, perhaps we should understand as we encounter life's little problems that they are His own special way of being obedient to our needs yet obeying nonetheless three simple laws.

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