CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, September 20th -- Roger B. Blumberg

After Robots and Before

"Perhaps the most unsettling implication of this train of thought is that anything can be interpreted as possessing any abstract property, including consciousness and intelligence. Given the right playbook, the thermal jostling of the atoms in a rock can be seen as the operation of a complex, self-aware mind." Hans Moravec, ROBOT: From Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (1999) [199]

"The most radical change in the human condition we can imagine would be an emigration of men from the earth to some other planet. Such an event, no longer totally impossible, would imply that man would have to live under man-made conditions, radically different from those the earth offers him. Neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer." Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958) [10]

Introduction: Whither Humanity in a Robotic Future?

We'll begin today's session with discussion of the Robopet postings to the WebCT Discussion area. I've distributed both the complete set of your postings, and the complete set of postings and responses from last year's Seminar. We'll take time to identify some common themes in your comments, and some uncommon but fascinating responses, and assign a response by Friday.

In some ways, we've hardly done justice to Moravec's text, but aside from a host of technical details early on that might have been confusing, the basic arguments in the book are clear. Before moving on to a discussion of the final chapters, however, we should say something about Moravec's treatment of the "objections to the Turing Test" in chapter 3, and his discussion of "The Inner Lives of Robots" in chapter 4. One way to motivate this is to consider John Searle's "Chinese Room" example (first published in his "Minds, Brains and Programs" in 1980).

One way to wrap-up our discussion(s) of Moravec is to ask what connection(s) we can find between the quotations by Moravec and Arendt above. Specifically, can we identify assumptions that the authors share or clearly don't share about humanity (e.g. compare they views on a future society where "work" has disappeared), and decide which author most closely reflects our own assumptions?

Another way to wrap up the discussion of Moravec, and it's the sort of method we'll be able to use with other texts as well, is to ask how the author's arguments/visions have consequences for epistemology (i.e. the theory of knowledge), politics, and/or ethics. One of the most striking things about Robot is the way it urges us to revise our ideas about all of these aspects of human thought/action.

On Thursday, we'll jump even further into the past by considering the state of the world in 1869, and the background to Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.

Chad Jenkins, Roboticist

We're very fortunate to have Chad as a guest today. He is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department at Brown, having come from USC, where his 2003 doctoral dissertation concerned humanoid robots. For a more complete biography and details about his work, see his homepage: http://www.cs.brown.edu/people/cjenkins/. Today he'll talk about contemporary work in robotics, his own interests, and what's meant by the phrase "robot philosophy".

For Next Time:: Read the Introduction and the chapter called "Sweetness and Light" in Culture and Anarchy, and plan to respond to one of the Robopet postings (or to something that's suggested by the contrast between Arnold and Moravec &/or the Robopet exercise. can.

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