Published November 17, 2009
The Sun Spot
On October 27, 2009 I interviewed my former creative nonfiction writing teacher, Lee Gutkind, Founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, on his research with robots.
Lee, who is now at ASU, has a very long title behind his name: the Distinguished Writer in Residence, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes Professor, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University.
Gutkind’s book “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”, has just been released in paperback. Enamored with all things robot, I asked him to comment on a recent New York Times visual article on the robot recession currently underway in Japan. His initial response was ” It goes to show the way in which interest in robots goes far beyond technology and into public understanding, consumption and acceptance that the ‘idea’ of AI (artificial intelligence) is no longer the stuff of science fiction.” I agreed.
LG: The robot recession in Japan is a reflection of the economic recession in Japan and isn’t impacting us in a big way since robots are more a part of life in Japan. In the U.S., robots are seen as of part of pop culture and they’re involved in industry and medicine but we’re not used to interacting with them daily like the Japanese.
MLS: Why do you think that’s the case since we’re so technology dependent it seems in the West?
LG: The Japanese look at robots as answers to problems in life- like who will take care of the elderly. In the U.S. we don’t want to think about a robot taking care of us. Although if you look at it, there is a decrease in funding in certain areas of research that robot technology is getting, like with aerospace.
MLS: Do you mean with space travel and lunar landings, etc?
LG: Yes, if you look at what has been going on with NASA in the past four or five years, the idea that was taking hold was that we didn’t need manned space travel because robots could do the job because the focus was on places where man couldn’t travel like Mars. Mars was more important with the Clinton and Bush administration but now we’re focusing on going to the moon again and not Mars so robots are becoming less significant because men have been and can be on the moon and walk around. Do you remember the two robots are on Mars?
MLS: You mean Spirit and Opportunity?
LG: Yes..they were supposed to be there for 3 months and now they’ve been there for three years. We couldn’t do that with humans. In that sense, we don’t know where space exploration will go let alone robots…Although the only place robots are still finding job security is in military applications.
MLS: That seems clear with predator drones and computer guided technology. It reminds me of the movie Transformers.
LG: Robots can go around the corner and look for the enemy…and it’s really not far from Sci Fi when robots control the weapons. In 25 years or less, robots will be fighting the wars…until robots turn against their controllers. That’s something that is difficult to balance in whole world of science.
MLS: If they take over?
LG: Well, sometimes research gallops ahead of scientists ability to understand and control it. We don’t want to stop research however and turn into a police state although I don’t know of any conferences that have taken place where these issues are being discussed.
MLS: What do you make of smart homes, smart cars and phones that do just about everything for you. I keep thinking of the old cartoon show, the Jetsons. Would you consider those things robots, except for Rosie who was a robot?
LG: People in the robotics world say smart cars and phones are robots. What about robo calls? Artificial voices sometimes, not all the time, allow for no human connection. Could they become dangerous? I don’t know. What about the robot nurses that skulk around a patients room giving them medicine or a surgeon doing a procedure from one city on a patient in another by means of robotics? What if there is a glitch in the system?
ML: Doesn’t that speak to the difference between a robot and a machine?
LG: Robotics people make a distinction between robots and machines. Machines don’t think. Robotics people also have trouble establishing a distance between the robots they create and themselves because they get attached. They give their robot creations a name and sexual orientation and they treat them like they treat a pet.
MLS: It reminds me of a Star Trek Next Generation episode with Data called The Measure of A Man. They actually have to take the issue to council to determine if Data can think and feel independently and beyond being a programmed machine or creation.
LG: Scientists do become so involved in what they do that the moral and ethical issues aren’t considered until afterward. There aren’t science policy scholars who devote time to thinking about these issues.
MLS: Any last words?
LG: I still have an interest in following robots although I’m currently working on a book on personalized medicine. That should be of great interest to Arizona.
Lee Gutkind conducted most of his research on robots at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, the NASA research center in California and in the Atacama desert in Chile- the place on planet earth said to be most like Mars.
For more information on Lee Gutkind’s work go to www.leegutkind.com or www.therobotbook.com