Monthly Archives: June 2011

Stories of Creation Becoming Creator

Reading Sherry Turkle’s thoughts on social robotics got me thinking of other stories where we, as God’s creation, grasp at the chance to create some form of life ourselves. It has become rather common in recent science fiction, but the theme actually has quite a long and varied history.

The earliest expressions that I know of are the various golem legends from mystical Judaism (see Golem by Moshe Idel). The golem was a humanoid creature who, like Adam, was formed out of dust or clay, but by a human creator, not God. The mechanism by which the golem was then brought to life varies over time, but by the middle ages most stories attributed this animating power to the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, which was inscribed upon the golem’s forehead. Interestingly, the golem is later unmade by erasing the first letter of the word, resulting in the Hebrew word for ‘dead’.

In the most-cited stories, the golem is more like a monstrous beast who protects persecuted Jews from Gentile attacks, but in some of the older legends, the golem is more like a human and able to speak. One such legend tells of the prophet Jeremiah creating a nearly perfect replica of a human, which he animates by writing upon it the phrase “The Lord God is Truth” (see Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 279). But as soon as the golem is brought to life, it begins to rebuke Jeremiah for creating it. The golem explains that by creating a perfect human replica, Jeremiah has put himself in the place of God. Symbolically and quite provocatively, the golem wipes off the first letter of the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, leaving the phrase “The Lord God is Dead.”

The dangers associated with creating new life is also at the heart of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, Frankenstein. The book’s alternative title, The Modern Prometheus, is actually quite telling: the Greek Titan Prometheus is most often associated with introducing humans to the power of fire, but in some accounts Prometheus also played a crucial role in creating the initial humans by fashioning them out of clay. In Shelley’s novel, Dr Frankenstein becomes the modern form of Prometheus after he discovers the scientific basis for animating flesh. Driven by a lust to accomplish his task and become the greatest scientist in the world, Frankenstein never pauses to consider the ramifications of his work until it is too late. As soon as the monster is brought to life, Frankenstein turns from his creation in disgust and literally runs out of the room.

Interestingly, Shelley never described how Dr Frankenstein created the physical form of his monster, nor the mechanism he used to bring it to life. Our common images of Frankenstein robbing graves, stitching together various mismatched limbs with the help of a hunch-backed assistant, and animating them with electricity come more from the 1931 film adaptation than the original novel. That film also gave us the iconic portrayal of the monster as a zombie-like, mute creature with bolts in its neck, that moves more like a robot than a man. In Shelley’s novel, however, the monster is actually quite agile, emotional, and articulate.

Similar to the case of Jeremiah’s golem, the Frankenstein story pivots around a tense confrontation between the creation and its creator. The details are quite different though: Dr Frankenstein wants to destroy his monster (as it has just murdered Frankenstein’s brother); and instead of telling his creator to unmake him, the monster demands that Frankenstein create it a companion. Shelley seems relatively unconcerned about the moral implications of replacing God, concentrating instead on the unforeseen consequences of creating something that the creator is unable to control. Shelley uses this as a metaphor for her concerns about modern science and industrialization, but we could just as easily use it when discussing more recent creations, such as atomic weapons, artificial intelligence, and robotic humanoids.

A man holding a gun, a woman holding a cigarette, and a city-scape.This confrontation between disgruntled creation and creator also figures prominently in the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, which was based loosely upon the Phillip Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the movie’s world, the all-powerful Tyrell corporation has succeeded in creating artificial biological life forms, known as “replicants,” that are virtually indistinguishable from humans, except for their enhanced physical prowess. Replicants are used for dangerous work on other planets, but because they have a nasty tendency to revolt against their human overlords, they are created with a relatively short lifespan, and are banned from returning to Earth.

The plot of the film follows one gang of replicants who have managed to come back to Earth for the purpose of confronting their creator and demanding more life. In the pivotal scene, the lead replicant (played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer) manages to get an audience with his creator and expresses his grievances. Here’s the clip, which I highly recommend watching, though it does get a bit gross at the end:

This scene is full of provocative references. Tyrell’s apartment has the look of a heavenly court, or some kind of temple. The disgruntled creation brings its case against the creator, demanding what it thinks it should have. The creator doesn’t exactly refuse the request as much as explain that it is impossible to comply given the reality that is already set in motion (similar to the weeds and wheat parable). The creator calls his creation “the prodigal son,” which prompts the creation to confess its sins, and the creator to absolve them. But this absolution, or perhaps the realization that his efforts are fruitless, causes a change in the creation, leading it to kiss and then kill its creator (perhaps an allusion to Nietzsche?).

As we continue to develop more advanced techniques in biomechanics and robotics, stories like these become even more important to read, ponder, and discuss. Do we fully understand the implications of creating new beings that could be considered to be “alive?” What is the difference between using our God-given creative ability to create art or artifacts versus creating a new form of life? Is there a difference between creating hybrid or genetically-modified plant or animal species and creating an “improved” human? As people of faith, at what point do our creative acts attempt to usurp God?

Catfish

A few weeks ago, two different sets of friends within as many days recommended that I watch the movie “Catfish.” I had never heard of it, but the summary sounded intriguing, so I put it on the Netflix queue and watched it a few nights ago. I loved it, and if you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Here’s the trailer:

It is difficult to discuss this film without giving too much away, but I will try to keep my comments vague enough so that I don’t ruin it for those who haven’t watched it yet. The film follows a relationship that develops between Nev, a 20-something photographer in New York, and various members of a family living in a small town in upper-peninsula Michigan. The filmmakers are Nev’s brother and friend, who all share an office.

The relationship begins when Nev receives an unsolicited painting in the mail that is a recreation of one of his published photographs. The note with the painting says that it was created by an eight-year-old girl, Abby, who Nev then friends on Facebook in order to thank her. Over time, more paintings arrive, and Nev becomes Facebook friends with more of Abby’s family, including a 19-year-old sister who begins to flirt with him. Their relationship begins to deepen after Nev talks with the older sister on the phone, and they soon develop an online romance through text messages and Facebook.

As you might expect (and as the summary and trailer reveal), Nev soon starts noticing things about this girl and her family that don’t quite add up, so he decides to go to Michigan unannounced to meet her. This is where the surprises start unfolding, and where I will end my summary so that you can watch it for yourself.

File:Internet dog.jpgI don’t think it would give away too much to say that this film reminded me of a classic New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, first published in 1993 (left). It shows two dogs, one typing away on a computer keyboard and saying to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It nicely captures the ways in which non-visual communication media allow users to play with their identities, projecting themselves online as something completely different from what they are in “real life.” When you interact with someone via Facebook who you have never actually met in person, there is little assurance that the other person is who he or she claims to be (after all, we all project an idealized version of ourselves online). In fact, there really is little assurance that the other is person is a actually a person, and not an autonomous computer program created to simulate human discourse (otherwise known as a “bot”).

I have yet to read reports of a “bot” posing as a Facebook user, but there are a few interesting historical examples of people having significant conversations with such programs. The most famous example is ELIZA, created by MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. ELIZA was programmed to emulate a psychotherapist, responding to a user’s textual input with questions designed to encourage the user to explicate and push deeper into whatever the user was discussing. For example, if a user typed “my mother is making me angry,” the program would respond with “tell me more about your mother,” which would encourage the user to reveal private details about the nature of the relationship. Some users were surprised and hurt to discover that ELIZA was simply a computer program, but even many of those who knew it was a program still interacted with it as if it was a psychotherapist, telling it their deepest and darkest secrets.

But all of this must be balanced with an interesting Pew research report that was published today. The researchers wanted to test some of the standard negative claims being made about social networking systems like Facebook. They designed a survey to investigate two related questions: “Do these technologies isolate people and truncate their relationships? Or are there benefits associated with being connected to others in this way?”

Interestingly, the study found that Internet users, and Facebook users in particular, were more likely to be politically engaged, have more close friendships, and receive more emotional and tangible support from their friends when in need. Obviously, as with any popular survey, some of this must be taken with a large grain of salt, but I was particularly impressed with the increased tangible support that Internet users tended to receive. Tangible support, such as bringing someone meals or giving them money, requires real sacrifice and risk, which is something that many technology critics think is absent, or even incapable, from online relationships.

The report also details the average composition of the respondent’s Facebook friend networks. Nearly 90% of the respondent’s Facebook friends were people they had met in-person more than once, 3% were people they had met only once, and only 7% were people they had never actually met in-person. Assuming that some of those 7% are famous artists, authors, or personalities that the respondents admire, these findings indicate that people are using Facebook predominantly to stay in-touch with people they already know offline, and not to meet new people online.

How do you use Facebook, and what sort of benefits have your experienced by being connected with people online as well as offline? Are you Facebook friends with people you have never actually met in-person? If so, how would each of you find the other different from your respective Facebook selves?

Supplements and Substitutes

About a month ago, a family riding their ATVs came upon a woman in a van in the remote wilderness of northern Nevada. The woman had been stranded there for seven weeks, rationing her food and drinking muddy water; she was very near death. Her husband had set off on foot to find help a few days after their van had gotten stuck in the mud, and as of this writing, he still has not been found.

Porsche Design P'9611 GPS Navigation SystemThis story is tragic enough, but what is even more heartbreaking is how the couple got stranded in the first place. According to news reports, the couple was not from the area, but were instead attempting to take a scenic route to Las Vegas. Unfamiliar with the local terrain, they had followed the advice of their GPS navigation system, and taken a road that even in good weather would have been unpredictably treacherous. A few miles in, their van became mired in mud and they were unable to turn around.

This story, and others like it, have been causing me to ponder why we seem to put so much faith in these kinds of technological systems. I don’t presume to know the full details of this couple’s ordeal—the reports in the press have so far been too vague—but I wonder why they trusted the advice of their GPS navigation system in such a remote and potentially dangerous area? Why did they continue down what was clearly not a main road when they were unfamiliar with the area, and it was getting close to dark?

As I have been thinking about this, a new distinction has been forming in my mind, a distinction between treating a new artifact or system as a supplement to existing skills, or as a substitute for them. GPS navigation systems are often marketed as if they can completely substitute for more rudimentary navigation and route-choosing skills. But when approached in this way, users might be tempted to wander off into potentially dangerous territory, thinking that their devices will always safely guide them to their destinations. But what happens when the information is out of date, or simply misleading? What happens when the system malfunctions?

When we approach a GPS navigation system as a supplement to existing, hard-won skills, the devices can indeed be quite helpful. My friends have told me stories about how their devices have guided them successfully through unfamiliar cities, but each of them would also override the system’s advice if it started to take them in what seemed like the wrong direction, or through what looked like a dangerous area. Their existing navigational and evaluative skills are still in charge, and the GPS navigation system is acting only as a supplement to them.

This is not to say, however, that we should never let a technology become a complete substitute for existing skills, but we do need to be aware of the costs that come along with letting that happen. Although my furnace and thermostat are a substitute for the skills of building and maintaining an open-hearth fire, I certainly do not think that is a bad thing. There are costs to this substitution—I would have no idea how to fix it if it broke, and thus would need to hire an expert to repair it, and it creates a reliance on fossil fuels, as well as the loss of what Borgmann calls a “focal” thing—but those costs do not outweigh the benefits it provides. In the end, it is a trade-off that I am willing to make.

The trouble, I think, comes when we do not even consider the costs, or put so much faith in the system’s reliability that we think those costs will never occur. We too often accept the claims of marketers without critical evaluation, and fail to consider carefully the trade-offs we are making. Some of those trade-offs are desirable or even necessary, but others are perhaps not. Only through reflection and discussion can we determine which is which.

Is this distinction between supplements and substitutes helpful to you? Can you think of other examples where you have substituted a technology for more rudimentary skills, and do you think that has been a net benefit for you? What other kinds of technologies need to be approached as supplements rather than substitutes?