Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Robots are coming.....

Returning from the hospital visit today , one came across a huge poster, splashed across the fence railing outside, advertising a robot salamander. The students are having an annual tech festival, and anything with machine control is to be applauded, and studied, even if they are salamanders.

There are several reasons why this kind of thing may appear to be in bad taste.

Here we are, in one of Mumbai's nicely wooded areas, where there is a free run for all kinds of quadrupeds and bipeds of the living type. (There appears to be a free run, also to the type that has 2, 3 and 4 wheels, but that's another blog post). We have at least one alligator and/or crocodile in our lake. Plenty of dogs, monkeys, cows, bulls, wild wolves, and last but not least, an occasional leopard, that decides to visit. Snakes, cobras, several types of lizards, mongooses, rats, are in uncontrolled Brownian motion after dark. Mosquitoes, emboldened by the expanse of the lake, seem to be permanent residents, supposedly in cahoots with mosquito coil makers and mosquito screen and net manufacturers.

While salamanders may already be here (with thousands of their brethren), the last thing we were looking for, is a robot salamander.

This obsession with making machines behave more and more like humans, was what made Alan Turing such a great mathematician and scientist, and ever since then , folks are trying to make robots, that pass , what is called, since 1950, the Turing test. The whole idea is to make such a smart machine, that a judge, speaking simultaneously to a human and a machine must be baffled as to with who he is speaking after a while.

While most folks concentrate of making the machine "think like a human", the 2008 winner of annual Turing test contest won by convincing three of 12 humans it was just like them, by
acting like a human pretending to be a robot. He won the Loebner Prize.

I wish somebody would try to figure out why humans are behaving more and more like robots and machines.

In a recently released film called Ghajini,
a guy who has short term memory loss, tries to remember things by tattooing all kinds of details and facts about the case across his torso, and reacts to his own glaring angry self in the mirror by giving a very non-human scream. His pictures showing "so-and-so is a murderer", "so and so was killed by so and so" etc , tattooed across his abs , are flashed at most places and traffic junctions in Mumbai.

I wonder . Did the guy not have a family or friends ? If he did, why weren't they helping him? If they knew who killed, then what were the law enforcement types doing ? Was someone there related to a minister of the cabinet , who could hush up things? Why this abuse of a living, thinking society, while the effort to behave like a machine endures ?

Then you have the lone terrorist caught in the recent Mumbai carnage. This was probably beyond Turing's expectations, but here were guys (9 killed, one caught alive), who were programmed like machines to swallow one fact. The final objective was to do some supposedly supreme violently terrorist act that would get them priority entry into paradise, with a services upgrade regarding the various things available there. The programming succeeded, because certain folks, who have converted a great religion, that actually preached wonderful things, into an algorithm, that selectively picks up and twists facts, and spreads hatred through misguided violently programmed youngsters. Phone intercepts during the approaching end of the carnage show the bosses in a neighbor country telling them that they should fight on, not stay alive and prepare to reach their final destination, paradise. The lone captured terrorist chap, still says, that what he did was absolutely right, nothing wrong there, and his mind, amazingly is also programmed to ignore the fact that his country, refuses to acknowledge him as a citizen , despite the world press and DNA samples, proving it.

If there was an Inverse Turing prize, this guy's programmers would have got it. Man to Machine .

Then you take the student population. I mean students and exams are not new. Generations after generations of folks have been taking school and college and other entrance exams, as far back as I can remember, which is , say 55 years. excluding kindergaarten days. Passing and failing was all part of life. People were generally then a bit apprehensive about parents' wrath. You passed some, you failed some. Sometimes a new path lit up for you. Sometimes you learnt a lesson and tried to improve results. And succeeded well.

Today, one is astounded by news items occurring with increasing frequency,which talk about people committing suicides , as a reaction for failure. In a life, with such a possible colorful and wide spectrum, why this obsession with being either a 1 or a 0 ? What is turning these youth into binary thinkers, machines that think of only 2 types of status, ON and OFF ? Does success give so much unlimited value to life, that failure makes you a big Zero ?
The parents who should be the ones actually reassuring the children seem to be struck with the same malady. Life has become cheap. To be snuffed out. Instead of putting in constructive effort.

Robots cannot actually think on their own. They have to be directed to do so, either by real time instructions or hardwired/software programmed instructions , but instructions nevertheless.

Today , so many of our regional parties exist solely because of a dedicated cadre of mindless followers, who are willing to do various acts of destruction, intimidation etc on the instructions of their top people. Their is no individual reasoning, thinking of pros and cons. One more example of conversion of a vibrant society into a jungle of robots.

Someone needs to introduce a prize for this. Something like a Anti-Turing prize. Have all these robotic people in competition. Then the winner can have all kinds of things tattooed on his or her torso like the Ghajini There will be posters all over the city, breaking news on news portals. He will give a robotic smile. Suddenly switch back to a frown.

Left-brained to the limit with a pea sized right brain. Thanks to the programmers.

Its all this 1-0 thinking.

I wonder if the robotic salamander , that is to appear on our campus, thinks like that. I wonder what commands it will follow. I wonder what it will do if a real lizard darts towards it in the grass, a wild dog barks at it, or one of our wonderful campus cows steps on it. Will it hiss, moo, or cry out ? Or simply wait, for its controller. to press some buttons to tell it what to do and say ? Much like our society , obsessed with the either/or philosophy....

The great man Alan Turing was supposed to have said " “I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much, that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

He was thinking of different ones.

I hope that these current society machines will be spoken about, I hope they are questioned and contradicted.

Machines and Robots converted back to honest thinking people.

And once more , we will be back to real salamanders, real woods, and real people , striving to work and think on their own, for the betterment of all.


  1. So coincidental that my latest post is also after a hospital visit.
    Extremely well written with different messages to assimilate. Well in Mumbai, most of us have become robots considering our daily grind, and the right hand not knowing what the left hand does.

  2. Hmm...I am somewhat hesitant to post. I agree the world does not need a salamader robot at all. The real ones are so much more interesting. However, I do love technology such as the internet, my new Ipod, and cell phones that work for me to keep me in contact with others in the world and with those I love.

    There was a film similar to the one you mentioned called "Memento"
    Here is a link to the info about it It was an interesting film in that he had short term memory loss and took photographs so he could try to remember. I wonder if the films are similar.

    Out of robotics has come good in that prosthetics are much better these days than the old peg leg of old. Children must learn if we are to keep going, even if it is a weird little salamander they "created".

    About the children committing suicide if they fail, is there tremendous pressure to win in India? In America only those who are highly motivated or their parents are expecting too much from them do that. Most of our children just think they should get a pass/fail in everything and if they do anything at all they should be praised lavishly. It is very worrisome to me who is going to be running the country when I'm even older than I am now.

  3. I do agree with you completely -- although I have to admit that I'm as hooked on my computer as any robot, my cell phone, on the other hand is for emergencies only. I hate seeing what is happening to so many young people and for me young means anyone 50 and under. The suicide rate is frightening and so much of it is due to expectations of parents, role models etc. I too would like to see two legged machines converted back to loving, honest, thinking people. I'm ready to sit in the real woods, with real people. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Many messages there Suranga. It would help so much if we all encouraged curiosity, lateral and original thinking and challenges to the status quo. And longer term planning and action. I don't think universal robots would have a chance if this became the case now.
    Do you agree?
    June in Oz

  5. I loved the "Inverse Turing prize" concept and the description of the "lone survivor of Mumbai carnage (26/11)" ... never thought it the way to put it ...

  6. Surprising, how we were thinking similarly at the same time, no?

    Amazing how we decide how a human must think and therefore how a robot must think too in order to convince a human judge that it is human.

    The whole purpose of SCIENCE is to stereotype. To prove that there are certain codes in operation among animate and inanimate creatures/objects in nature.

    In my 10th standard Maharashtra Board exam, one of my English paper essay topics was 'Science - bane or boon' and I remember not being able to stop writing till I realised there were other questions to answer too and that time was running out.

    Why do we all want to be God when we're yet to become human?