CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, September 14th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Hans Moravec's ROBOT: Session I

Introduction: Animals, Humans and Machines

For about two thousand years, an important question in natural philosophy was what distinguished humans from (other) animals. It is perhaps a sign that we've moved on to other problems that a large number of people consider the traditional distinctions chauvinistic.

In the middle and late 19th century, industrial technology seemed to possess the power to transform the life of human societies as well as humanity's self-images. This power inspired anxiety and thus were born philosophical concerns about the relationship between "man and machine". In 1844, Karl Marx wrote:

"The machine accommodates itself to man's weakness, in order to turn weak man into a machine." (from Marx' Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 3rd Manuscript (1844) [Italics his].

Even 50 years ago we might have been most concerned about the sorts of ominous visions of technology and contemporary life that characterize Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. At first glance, such visions may seem out-of-date in the face of computer technologies and the post-industrial workplace -- compare the elements of Modern Times and The Matrix that are designed to provoke anxiety (and we should talk about Nina's WebCT posting here -- and indeed we're tempted to believe that computer technology has solved many of the problems inherent in industrial technologies. In any case, the contrast between the organization of industrial and "information" work is our society remains striking.

So, some themes for the day/week:

Reading Moravec's ROBOT

"Preface" and "Escape Velocity"

In the Prologue to his 1988 book, Mind Children Moravec had written:

"Our biological genes, and the flesh and blood bodies they build, will play a rapidly diminishing role in the new regime. But will our minds, where culture originated, also be lost in the coup? Perhaps not. The coming revolution may liberate human minds as effectively as it liberates human culture." (p. 4)

"Caution! Robot Vehicle!"

Computers, Animals and Humans

From the very beginning of Moravec's book, he mentions non-human forms of life. What have animals to do with Moravec's claims/arguments/theses? What is your own view about using terms like "learns", "knows", "believes", and "understands" to describe animals like snails, rabbits and cats? How does this view of yours compare to your attitude about ascribing such capacities to robots?

Let's turn to "Power and Presence".

For Next Time:: We will not meet on Thursday, the 16th, and will make up the class at some time in the future. For Tuesday the 21st, finish Moravec's ROBOT, but before that consider a response to the "Robopet" exercise Tom Dean and I wrote some years ago. We'll use the WebCT account to post a first round of responses by Friday. We'll have our final discussion of Moravec on Thursday the 23rd.

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