Sunday, May 06, 2007


Americans have often mourned the loss of their first cars, Tom Hanks in "Castaway" risked his life to save a soccer ball called Wilson and American soldiers care deeply when one of their own robotic comrades is hurt in action.

Near the Tigris River, operators even have been known to take their bot fishing. They put a fishing rod in its claw and retire back to the shade, leaving the robot in the sun. Of the fish, Bogosh says, "Not sure if we ever caught one or not."
The Washington Post tells this story:

The most effective way to find and destroy a land mine is to step on it.

This has bad results, of course, if you're a human. But not so much if you're a robot and have as many legs as a centipede sticking out from your body. That's why Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built something like that. At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.

Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.

The human in command of the exercise, however -- an Army colonel -- blew a fuse.

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.


In the hypothetical event that the universe is infinite and existed an infinite amount of time, every possible event could occur in it. Every color, song and marvel; every suffering and every monstrous cruelty would come to pass. Happily not everything in the universe is equally likely. Wherever we look we find non-random data. Train our telescopes where we might, we find structures repeating themselves across the visible range. The universe likes to choose certain outcomes rather than others. Though in what way exactly we are at loss to know.

It is without doubt a very powerful computing machine. But for the simple the most important question is not whether the universe can compute but whether it contains love. And in one indubitable sense, the universe does contain love. For as long as men exist who can care for their children, their pets and even feel sorry for the little robots they come to rely upon in clearing roadside mines, then hope is not truly lost.

A robot by itself will always be a piece of inanimate plastic and steel until it comes in contact with us. As Margery Williams describes in her classic story, the Velveteen Rabbit we have a magic about us that that can make the things we care about Real. One toy in a nursery gave this advice to another about the process of becoming Real in the presence of a child.

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

People are the magic, the one known instance of foolishness and love existing in this universe, though they may be others and it may be more widespread than we think. It may in fact be what the universe is all about. Personally I'm glad the Colonel stopped the test. Of all the things of power that America has, nothing is more powerful or bears a greater mark of greatness than the place it gives to the human heart and the magic that makes us Real.


Blogger Mətušélaḥ said...

life => love
love => greed
greed => imbalance
imbalance => difference
difference => hate
hate => indifference
indifference => death

5/06/2007 10:29:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

At the risk of sounding heartless toward robots, I would much rather see a robot getting its feet blown off in a mine field than send a boy into a mine field with a plastic key around his neck. I would rather send a pack of trained dogs into a minefield than see people sent in.

There are many things that can be forgiven, but I don't think I will ever be prepared to forgive the cavalier murder of children caused by the late Ayatollah Khomenei. I regard his behavior to be down there with Jim Jones ordering parents to poison their children.

Although I am not averse to the idea that robots may become so technologically advanced that they can be regarded as legitimately sentient and self-aware, I would rather ensure the destruction of ten thousand robot caterpillars than let a human being clear a mine field. During the Civil War, General Sherman paraded Confederate prisoners in front of his troops to ensure that Confederate land mines (or "torpedoes", as they were called then) killed Confederate soldiers instead of Union soldiers.

The only people I regard as worthy of clearing a mine field are those who incite others to don the suicide vest. Let the parliamentary delegation of Hamas be marched through a mine field before one child walks through.

5/06/2007 10:48:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...


That's the nub of it isn't it? We all get our chance to be human. But the important thing is to know in what the question consists. When the Iranians sent thousands of children equipped with their little plastic keys to Paradise across Saddam's minefields to clear them, they were supplying both the question and the answer -- as it appeared to them.

But it goes back to the debate between Paleologus and his unidentified Muslim interlocutor, though he need not have been Muslim. Many Western points of view will do. For Paleologus goodness was recognizable to Man. To others this was nonense. God need not be bound by pity, nor love nor reason. It was man who was bound to some prophecy to which he had to submit or to defy. The twentieth century was an age in which we set up our own pitiless deities who required that the world be purified through the concentration camp, the oven and the machinegun. Minefield clearance with the human boot was invented by Stalin before the Ayatollahs had heard of it.

What is the difference between civilizations? Is the difference between the plastic key and the robot or is it in our conception of what is truly worthwhile?

5/06/2007 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

A guided missile is also a kind of bot. It has plenty of smarts programmed into its microprocessors, all aimed to solve the problem of hitting its target and destroying the target, and itself in the process. I wonder what the colonel in the story thinks about that.

We're programmed to make connections with things, including those that have the simplest levels of intelligence. Pet Rock anyone? Soldiers may be primed to have this sentiment more than the rest of us. They are in a place and in a job where they get a lot of hate. Anyone, er thing, that
helps them get in and out safely is going to be loved. Puff the magic dragon anyone?

I often wonder about those company mascots that you often see in WWII photos; some mutt that they picked up in Bastogne or somewhere that rode in a jeep across Europe with them. What ever happend to those dogs? I doubt they came home to the US. I don't guess these bots will come home with the boys either. How can anyone trust an entire civilization that doesn't like dogs anyway?

5/06/2007 11:04:00 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

Cavell on the status of dolls

5/07/2007 02:43:00 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

You want dolls?

Give Rushdies Fury a shot....

5/07/2007 03:43:00 AM  
Blogger R said...

The game is always the same: It's either you or me, and I prefer it be you! I don't need no stinkin' robots when I got you!

5/07/2007 05:24:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

A few years back I wrote an article about the experiences of a friend of mine who was the maintenance chief of the first USAAF aerial reconnaissance unit deployed to India in WWII.

They had to rebuild their P-38E’s (F-4 recon versions) when they got there – the airplanes had been all but hacked to pieces by the stevedores who had crammed them into shipping crates. One of these airplanes got bombed on the ground by the Japanese, riddled with shrapnel, and they patched it together enough to fly it to the repair depot.

A year later the repair depot said they were giving up on the old F-4. They had put a lot of work into it but it just was not worth any more effort. They offered it back to the original unit “off the books” – it had been declared destroyed.

They could not let it be scrapped. It was THEIR airplane. So they cranked it up and it limped back to their base. Then they went to work.

They took the engines and other useful parts off two brand new P-38J’s that had been destroyed on the ground when a C-46 went out of control. They built themselves a Hot Rod.

Actually they were trying a new idea to improve reconnaissance capabilities. But that did not work out too well, so they ended up with an airplane that proved capable to outrunning and outclimbing even the new late model Spitfires the RAF had just received.

When the unit was sent back to the U.S. at the end of the war, their older airplanes were scrapped in India. The irony is that if someone had saved that old F-4, today it would be worth 5 or 10 million bucks.

It is not just the machinery, but the spirit the people who build, operate and maintain it imbue it with. It's not just a machine; it is part of us.

5/07/2007 05:52:00 AM  
Blogger java_thread said...

Echoing rwe:

From "The Soul of a New Machine" page 272

"Presumably the stonemasons who raised the cathedrals worked only partly for their pay. They were building temples to God. It was the sort of work that gave meaning to life. That's what West and his team of engineers were looking for , I think.
"Look, I don't have to get official recognition for anything I do. Ninety-eight percent of the thrill comes from knowing that the thing you designed works, and works almost the way you expected it would. If that happens, part of you is in that machine."

5/07/2007 06:29:00 AM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

There's a name for that: Anthropomorphism.

While there are quite pleasing, fuzzy virtues to that, there are drawbacks also. Such as attaching too much importance to the well being of a replaceable machine who cannot feel the suffering the human projects onto it. This isn't I-Robot; these machines are supposed to take the brunt of the bad effects. Ditto other pieces of equipment.

Tom Hanks's character may have been willing to try and swim away from the safety of his raft to save Wilson, but that was fiction (and on top of that, he copped out of doing so). In reality, anthropomorphic feelings take second place where survival is concerned. No matter what a tanker crew names their mount, no matter how attached they are to it, if the damn thing's on fire, they un-ass it quick, and to hell with what happens to it. They'll worry about that later. Anthropomorphic projection only goes so far with most rational adults; most recognize it's an indulgence and don't project so far it skews their sense of well being. Said hypothetical tank crew mentioned above might mourn the loss of their vehicle, but they'll also say "better it than me", recognizing that in the end, the tank is just an "it", not a he or a she.

Such projection normally only gets applied when the inanimate object is unique in some fashion. A single minesweeping robot may attract sympathy in some viewers, but once they're commodities, a dozen to a shipping pallet or so (depending on size), you can bet they'll be seen as nothing more than another tool. Probably well respected tools, especially those that show endurance and last many missions, but by and large they probably won't get the animating "magic" forced upon them.

Anthropomorphism is one of mankind's superstitions, but admittedly, it is one of the harmless ones, sort of like good-luck charms. It's fun to play that game of projection, as it gives ownership and a sense of understanding to a discrete piece of the world surrounding us, but we have to remember to not let one's mental state get too far out of whack in assigning human characteristics to objects. Superstition is harmless as long as it doesn't rule our decisionmaking.

5/07/2007 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

My 4 y/o has always loved his mom reading the Velveteen Rabbit to him. I may have to give it a look now. Maybe I can use it to get my wife interested in the Belmont Club. How's that for serendipity...

5/07/2007 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Habu said...

Mark Steyns's offering today questions whether we got a Ronald Reaganesque Sarkozy as a follow up to Germany's election of Merkel as Thatcher.
He concludes not.
I would only say that to have within such a short time the concurrrance of two such towering political figures would be highly unlikely, but that we can hope that the sum is greater than the parts.

5/07/2007 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger 3Case said...

If the test was inhumane, it was inhumane from the very first mine...not from the point where the robot was down to its last leg.

Frankly, if those robots are still running when they get down to their last legs, they ought to be crawling back to get more legs while other robots head out to clear more mines.

5/07/2007 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

Speaking of robots, which I would expect to be much more consistent than this potential Mandate in American democracy, but I wouldn't be scared of either:

The Mandate of the 2006 Congressional elections deserves our analysis, since it is being used as the driver for our second humiliating self-defeat in a long-term, global war.

First, the purported world-changing most recent election:
2006 Voter Turnout: 36.8%

2006 House Election
Dems: 39,673,226 - 52%
Reps: 34,748,277 - 45.6%

2006 Senate Election
Dems: 33,134,651 - 53.8%
Reps: 26,127,486 - 42.4%

Compared to the most recent previous national election (about 50% voter turnout, sissies compared to the French in 2007):
2004 Federal Election
Bush: 62,040,606 - 51%
Kerry: 59,028,109 - 48%

The Democrats have declared a Mandate of the People that we Surrender immediately in the War in Iraq, which has been going on for 17 years since Iraq invaded Kuwait.

When about 40 million people voted for Democrats in the 2006 Congressional election, about 19% of registered American voters declared a mandate for self-defeat against Al Qaeda in Iraq?

When 62 million people voted to re-elect Bush just two years ago, I don't remember that being any kind of mandate at all. According to conventional wisdom, that election was a hex that Karl Rove cast upon America, something to be not only ignored, but actively resisted.

Among the 40 million who cast votes for Democrats in 2006, surely not all of them considered Surrender in Iraq as their highest priority. Among the unfailing Democratic-voting base, we have the ever-ardent defenders of Abortion at all costs, the old faithful unionists, the new faithful gay marriage demanders, and of course the FDR Dems for whom insufficient wealth transfer is the original and continuous sin of the USA. In 2004, only 1 to 1.5 trillion dollars was transmitted from the minority of those who pay taxes to the majority of those who receive tax monies, and that's not enough for the true believers, who don't even know there's a war going on. So of the 19% of registered voters who voted Democrat this last election, how many of them were declaring an immediate Mandate for Surrender against Al Qaeda in Iraq?

How many could there be - maybe 10% of registered voters in America are desperate that we surrender immediately?

Why is this minority, perhaps 20 million fanatics in our great country of 300 million, driving us toward national suicide?

5/07/2007 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger 3Case said...

"Why is this minority, perhaps 20 million fanatics in our great country of 300 million, driving us toward national suicide?"

Because they are stupid andignorant and have no lives, so they must try to steal/destroy ours. The rest of us...we are trying to live our lives.

5/07/2007 06:48:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

3-Case, you know, if our enemies (as if there are any such things as "enemies") could delude us into a defenseless torpid coma, what would they have us believe?

It's amazing - no self-respecting programmer would teach his robots to even consider such self-weakening options as the Democratic Party vaguely demands at the moment.

Imagine the Terminator:
1. What did I do to make them so mad at me?
2. I'll talk to them (in their dialect) and show them I understand why they feel the need to kill me, and how I will change so they don't need to kill me, hopefully.
3. Oh, I have these weapons in my hands, I will throw them down so as to be more defenseless and not make them so mad maybe.

The Programmer would Google "surrender" in war gaming history and not find any good hits, so the Terminator would be more like the robot in the movie, or like Leonidas in "The 300" for that matter - no surrender, in any case.

Where do the Dems get their Google hits that tell them surrender is a good idea?

5/07/2007 07:16:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...


If God need not be bound by pity, love, or reason; need He be bound by anything else?

A strong case can be made against suicide bombing and mine clearance by children, not on the basis of good and evil, but upon the basis that it is inherently blasphemous to presume that suicide in the name of one’s religion would be pleasing to God. If God is omnipotent, He and He alone decides who will or will not go to Heaven. It isn’t faith that leads young men to don the suicide belt but greed for the currency of the afterlife. Just as medieval popes presumed to convert money into afterlife currency and some Protestants presume that their conversion of the heathen translates into afterlife currency, the suicide bomber believes he is purchasing an indulgence with his life. Yet, this indulgence, were it real, would be no less of a limitation upon the power of God than any presupposition that God lets Himself be defined by the Word.

There is a crucial difference between those who would obey an order from God (or His Prophet) to commit parricide and those who would refuse to recognize such an act as a form of worship. Voltaire used the example of divinely ordered parricide as an illustration of false prophecy. It is the rejection of murder as a sacred rite that separates a civilization of the Enlightenment from other systems of belief.

Marxists do have a deity. His name is “The Laws of History”. As such, Marxists are merely an offshoot of a religion I would call “Naturalism”, where Nature (or rather, the Laws of Nature) is the object of worship. Carl Sagan was a prominent adherent of the reverence of Nature (which he opposed to God), whereas Spinoza would equate God with Nature. I regard the Marxists to be the legitimate heirs of Robespierre, as they also combined their anti-clericalism with a desire to enforce their own state religion. And the Communists sacrificed millions of people upon the altar of socialist utopia, most notably in the Ukraine.

If goodness cannot be recognizable by Man, how can the experience of God be recognizable either? Likewise, how can one understand the truth of a religion revealed through a book without first having faith in one’s own ability to hear or see – or read? Natural history based upon the fossil record and dating with radioactive elements is based upon empirical observation. Yet, if one rejects empirical observation because it somehow conflicts with the record of sacred literature, how can one comprehend the sacred? The same eye that reads the Bible can also see the moons of Jupiter through a telescope.

I admit to certain prejudices. I presume that robots as they exist today have no human-like sentience. I presume that Khomenei’s plastic keys were useless as means of buying Paradise (since I reject any assertion that the late Ayatollah Khomenei was actually God). I also state dogmatically that God is not some mere mascot for this or that army to use for its own purposes. If God is real, She is the basis of the world that actually exists and the ultimate reality of the universe, not merely some heavenly (or stygian) prostitute whose favors can be bought for a price, whether that price is denominated in dollars, gold, blood, souls, minutes of prayer, plastic keys hung about one’s neck, or copper coins placed upon the eyes of the dead.

All too often, people abuse those to whom they pray. To presume the venality of one’s deity is one of the most ancient conceits in the history of religion.

5/07/2007 08:46:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

Alexis, excessive love is the root of all evil.

5/08/2007 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger 3Case said...

If God is All, then God is not limited by human matter whose.

5/08/2007 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger Kent's Imperative said...

As William Tecumsah Sherman said, “It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it.” However, the recent trend towards obscuring the hard realities of the battlespace has been creeping in far too often to where it should be recognized for what it is....&sci

5/09/2007 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

small point in your good post, Kent, but i do believe that was Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg.

5/09/2007 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

Tony @ 6:25 pm: Huzzah! The question is properly posed.

5/09/2007 07:20:00 PM  

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