Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Watch Out—The Robots Are Coming!

Paro, an interactive robot that calms people with dementia--Beck- Agence France Press

I have seen the future, and it is robots.

Because I am old and did not grow up gazing at electronic screens or playing with high-tech toys like I-pods and I-pads, I may be among the last to come to this realization-- that the human race is seriously threatened by the creation of ever more sophisticated robots.  But I want to warn my fellow senior citizens, those who still don’t know how to text or to hook an attachment onto an e-mail.

Last May I wrote a blog post called “Do You Want to End your Days Talking to a Robot?”    This was inspired by an article in The New York Times  detailing new kinds of robots being created to care for weak and confused old folks.  The robots included “Cody” who was “gentle enough to bathe elderly patients”, HERB who can fetch household objects, Hector, who reminds patients to take their medicines, Paro, who looks like a baby seal and calms patients with dementia, and PR2 who can blink, giggle and interact.  The article quoted a professor at MIT who said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman telling her life story to the baby seal robot.  I was troubled too.

My post elicited a number of e-mails from around the world describing devices which truly do improve elder care—the “Betty” tablet that caregivers use to inform each other and family members of a patient’s daily activities and condition, video games that increase cognitive ability, and devices—a wristwatch and something called Trax, which both use GPS, Wi-Fi and smart phones to track pets, children and demented elders who wander out of a pre-set digital area.

I began to think I was being paranoid about robots.  But I wasn’t.

As 2013 continued, Amazon announced that they were working on a delivery system that would fill the air with drones able to drop a package on your doorstep a half hour after you ordered something on line. This inspired a newspaper cartoon showing a discouraged Santa trying to sell his sled and reindeer while the sky overhead buzzed with package-carrying Amazon drones.

And we’ve all heard that in the near future we will have automobiles that drive themselves and are too smart to collide with each other.  That left me wondering—what if the self-driving car encounters an old-fashioned car, driven by an imperfect human, who is texting or adjusting the radio?

Delivery drones and self-driving cars don’t sound so bad, but then on Dec. 26, The New York Times told me that you can now have sex with your computer. 

The article, “’Interactive’ Gets a New Meaning” by Alex Hawgood,  began by describing the sex scene from the movie “Her” which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, an insecure, rather nerdy man who falls in love with Samantha—who is a voice in his computer—an app, I guess you’d call it.  She clearly resembles Siri, the female voice in my husband’s I-phone who can answer questions like “What is the population of Seattle” but gets evasive when you ask her things like “What is the meaning of life?”

But Samantha—the voice in “Her” is smarter than Siri because she is interactive--she can change and evolve to please Theodore.  According to the NYTimes, there is a sex scene in which  “after returning home from a failed blind date …it shows Theodore gently edging Samantha into arousal by telling her what he wishes to do to her body.  As things become increasingly explicit, the screen turns black, leaving the audience lingering in darkness as the characters reach their aural climax.”

That strikes me as very sad—falling in love with a computer app that has no body. 

The Times article goes on to list many computer sex toys already available—one, called “Real Touch” allows two people to have sex over the internet, no matter how physically far apart they are.  Designed by a former NASA engineer, “It comes in two parts, one modeled after a woman’s lower anatomy and one modeled after a man’s.”

There is a list of interactive computer sex toys already on the market, some meant for two people to use, some to use on your own.  A report by a trend-forecasting firm in New York, according to The Times, “makes the case that forward leaps in augmented intelligence and video-game interactivity will let people ‘get attached to and develop real relationships with their hardware and software.’”

But can they take them to the office Christmas party?

LovePlus, a dating simulation game for the portable Nintendo DS console, “allows a player to caress another’s hair using a touch pad…these virtual sweethearts modify their personas in real time based on the player’s likes and dislikes.”

So you don’t have to spend time and money searching for Mr. or Ms. Right—you can create and train one all by yourself.

And on December  29, on the front page of The New York Times, there was the scariest article yet, titled “Brainlike Computers, Learning from Experience” by John Markoff.   Here’s the first sentence:  “Computers have entered the age when they are able to learn from their own mistakes, a development that is about to turn the digital world on its head.”

In 2014, according to the article, a new kind of computer chip is scheduled to be released that can learn from its errors to evolve and increase its skill at a task.  This computer is based on the biological nervous system.  This will create a new generation of artificial intelligences that can “see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. That can hold enormous consequences for tasks like facial and speech recognition, navigation and planning.”

The article went on to elaborate on how this works, using words like “algorithm” , “neural network” and “biological synapses” which cause my aging eyes to glaze over, but while the explanation is over my head, I’ve seen enough science fiction movies to know what happens after computers and robots  can imitate and even improve on the functions of the human brain and body.  Which is why I’ve concluded that in 2014, in addition to worrying about global warming, our environmental footstep and terrorism, we should also watch out for the new generation of  robots that is being born.

No comments: