CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, September 13th -- 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 this traditional distinction arbitrary, unnecessary and/or chauvinistic. We'll start today with everyone chiming in on this issue.

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 the "dehumanizing" character of factory work (see e.g. 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 At first glance, such visions may seem out-of-date in the face of computer technologies and the post-industrial workplace -- compare the elements of Modern Times and The Matrix that are designed to provoke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. Last year, one student wrote of the difference between the human-machine relationship in Modern Times and The Matrix:

One can argue that it lies in Trinity's ability to do all that "weird agent stuff," as in the Matrix it appears that there is nothing forcing her to act in that manner. In fact, the whole concept is that her movement is representative of movement free of the matrix. Chaplin is an extension of his machine and a representation of the control of the industry. Trinity, on the other hand, is a representation of the break from control.

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 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:: For Thursday please read the Turing paper, and the Robopet essay. Plan to finish Moravec's ROBOT for Tuesday the 20th We'll use the WebCT account to post a first round of responses to the Robopet essay by Friday.

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