Monday, July 5, 2004

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

The Humanoid Race -- Robert Capps -- Wired 12.07, July 2004

With Will Smith's new movie out, Wired is running some AI features. This article is a very interesting, albeit brief, summary of some of the leading innovations in the development of so-called artificial intelligence (AI). The robo-anatomy includes muscles, hands, facial expressions, lips, skin, eyes, ears, stomachs (!), and legs.

My favorite invention is the EWA-1, a synthetic arm. It's slated to be in a Paul-Bunyan style pro arm wrestling match next year. However, I dislike the fact that EWA-1's "musculature" relies on plain old (DC?) electricity. I recall seeing an ion-powered form of synthetic muscle. It was black and slimy like wet molasses, and would contract in very natural ways when sprayed with an ionized fluid. Since this kind if technology will probably eventually be used for muscle therapy/replacement in humans, I think the latter muscle type is a better bet. Pumping, or at least housing, straight electricity inside humans is, how to say, a bit volatile. I think an ion fluid system, somehow running in parallel with the natural neurovascular system, would be a lot more feasible.

The most interesting feature of one of the inventions is the piezoelectric sheets in the silicone “skin” of the ROBOVBIE IIS. Piezotechnology is based on the piezoelectric effect, which is the production of an electrical charge in various kinds of crystals when they are compressed, twisted or distorted. The piezoelectric current generated by differing levels of tactile pressure stimulate different, programmed responses from the ROBOVIE II.

This technology is simply awesome. It suggests to me a kinetically-powered source of energy that we could implant in our muscles. I know it’s probably innumerable years away, but I think piezo crystals, or fibers, placed over, or in, paralyzed muscle could be stimulated externally and generate internal conductivity, thus moving paralyzed muscles. Time will tell whether my ignorance is blindly accurate or fittingly just wrong.

Now, call me naive, but this sort of stuff doesn't really give me the willies. Certainly I'm a bit of a Luddite, but I also try to take a philosophical view of things. And on the philosophical view, I don't see a difference in kind between clothes, prosthetic limbs, clocks and these gizmos. We as a species have grown to accommodate mechanical bedfellows in all walks of our lives. The scene full of dancing, singing furniture in the cartoon The Beauty and the Beast is the most realistic part of the film. The moodiness, mischieviousness and mulish recalcitrance we see in all our favorite appliances comprise much of what it means to be a human born after AD 1400. These high-falootin new AI bots are really just a continuation of the same trend.

Yet, more than that, I see a glimmer of a powerful Christian truth at work in these madcap AI ventures. In a nutshell, the Gospel is about the redemptive Lordship of Christ, and our collaboration with Him, by the Holy Spirit, in the establishment of His Kingdom. One of the primary features of His Kingdom is life -- life bursting from His wounds and from His resurrected glory, pouring into us and through us to the ends of the earth. In Christ, all shall be made alive; all shall be made new; all that is shabby and dead shall somehow be transposed and glorified. The tress will burst forth with song and the hills will clap with joy. The earth, so long muffled in the heavy, stained cloak of sinful mortality, shall be made fully alive.

That's the Gospel -- and that's the magic of fantasy literature. In fantasy, the trees talk (or lop your head off); the mountains ponder and shake; the rivers sing and weep. Fantasy stammers to find words for an unshakable sense of life as it was before the Fall. Fantasy is, to borrow a phrase frmo a recent discussion of fantasy literature, "superversive" because it keeps alive the transcendent suspicion we all secretly harbor. All of us have woken up with a lipstick stain on our collar and, throughout our whole lives, we want to know who this mysterious lover is, or was. The first step is to realize that we left the Lover of our souls, even as He embraced us. All of us, at some level, sense we belong to a richer, older, newer, fuller, less cluttered world. We are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, like fish out of water. We know, even if only dimly, that as things stand, we are outside of our natural element -- we were made for water. Fantasy smells of the smoke from an unseen fire, the holy fire of the beatific vision that burns in all our souls. And that fire warms the pages of fantasy literature so much that tress whisper and rivers weep.

The same goes for science fiction. Sci-fi is, more or less, just the hyperspeed teleportation of that same holy fire of fantasy into the future, into outer space, where cars drive you and computers speak (or lop your head off). As such, both fantasy literature and science fiction are deeply Christian genres of literature because both genres are suffused with more life than we typically acknowledge in our own fallen world. The myriad worlds of fantasy and science fiction are where our spirits are free to frolic unfettered by the weight of sin. The immortal, crucified and resurrected fecundity of God pours into and out of every honest work of fantasy and science fiction.

Our pursuit of AI is but a pursuit of the fire fantasy and sci-fi won’t let us forget. The flow of history since Christ’s Passion and Resurrection has been a steady battle by the Church against the forces of death, against Mordor. Pessimists may say death is still just as sovereign as it was before Christ ascended, or perhaps even more powerful, and they may be right. But for the moment I prefer to focus on the victories of the evangelium vitae. Since the day of Pentecost, life has gradually, broadly, on the whole, gained the upper hand over death in many areas of our world: marital assumptions, penal policy, medical charity, economic practice, etc.

Of course, in all honesty, we -- Christians and non-Christians -- have retreated countless times into sin and hypocrisy in all these domains. We've surrendered plenty of ground to death, and we need to be contritely honest about that fact. For example, Western culture has become so enamored with the dignity of life, at all levels, to which the biblical revelation calls us that we have swung into the error of prizing animal life more highly than fetal life. We have compromised on the work of life which Christ continues, but the saving difference between our world and the world prior to Christ is that we have usually known we are sinning against the God of life. Prior to Christ's Incarnation – both as Jesus of Nazareth and, subsequently, progressively, in the Church – humanity could take so much sin for granted. But we, the blessed of the AD world, don't have that ambiguous luxury. To whom much has been given, much shall be required.

The development of AI is, if I may be so bold, one of the most innovative – and unsuspecting – manifestations of Christ revivifying the world. His life-giving hands were pinned to the Cross at Calvary, blessed His Apostles in Palestine and have since been working their way into every nook and cranny of life. AI is simply the unseen, uncredited work of His hands in our time, now on quartz crystals, silicone fibers, pneumatic tubes, copper wires, and all the rest. Where the river flows there will be life, even artificial life (cf. Ezekiel 47).

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