Sunday, October 14, 2007

I now pronounce you Wife and Life Enhancement Device...

Just saw this news story that made my stomach turn:

Sex and marriage with robots? It could happen

This "news" story is about a Ph.D. candidate (who else) in the Netherlands who does "work on the subject of human-robot relationships, covering many of the privileges and practices that generally come with marriage as well as outside of it". His thesis is called
"Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners".

The story goes on as the researcher tries to convincingly argue that there is nothing wrong with these "intimate relationships". But how does a programmable machine give "consent" to sex or marriage? Robots do whatever they are programmed to. Artificial intelligence aside, in this generation we haven't created human-like machines that have independent will and volition. So, if you are going to consider a robot a "person" (and so far marriage and the majority of sex is between two adult people), unless a machine can say "no", isn't that rape?

This kind of thinking depersonalizes sex and intimate relationships and what is additionally appalling is that the researcher suggests that robot sex/marriage will decrease prostitution. Well, what is the creation of a robot that exists just for the purpose of easing one person's sexual urges? If you are going to consider a robot a "person" who can engage in a relationship, isn't this just an even more warped form of prostitution? I mean, this guy suggests that it is preferable to have sex with a thing, an object one can control, than an actual person with genuine and spontaneous feelings as well as their own needs. Sex and marriage are just about fulfilling one person's desires and treating the other party as a means to an end...if that is not prostitution, I'm not sure what is.

This isn't even just submission this is slavery. And what is most disturbing is that the Charles Choi, the reporter who wrote this piece, just gives the scholar free rein to make his argument without even bringing up the possibility that there is something wrong with this picture. He only questions whether society will "accept" a robot as a sexual/marriage partner not the effect this could have upon what we consider healthy human relationships. Society will accept a wide variety of things but that doesn't make them good. It is pretty spineless reporting to not even counter this controversial suggestion with the possibility that this proposal might not be the best thing for humanity and just encourages a self-centered narcissism.

Something is seriously wrong with a person when they can only intimately relate to objects and not other people. Along with that comes a lack of empathy and when people lack empathy (seeing life from another person's view), the downfall of humanity is not far behind. A lack of empathy is a common psychological diagnosis when doctors look at persistent antisocial behavior.

I'm not being speciescentric. It's just that in sex and marriage, robots are like children and animals in that they can not legally or morally consent to an act here. And if a robot could say, "No, thanks, I don't feel like sex right now", I think the entire motivation to have a sex robot slave would disappear.

By the way, I can rag on Ph.D. candidates because I am one myself and have been surrounded by other Ph.D. candidates for more years than I'm willing to admit. I'm not surprised a doctoral candidate came up with this theory (many lack basic social skills) but I'm astonished that a thesis committee would grant him a degree. I mean, this student gets his degree on October 11th and on October 12th there is a news story about his thesis? C'mon, he must have sent out his press release when he scheduled his defense and they held the story until he passed his defense. Not surprisingly low quality standards for Internet journalism but I hope if this story gets circulated in the respected media, I hope they will raise some questions and not just be a public forum for this man's warped views on healthy relationships.

The best thing about my friends is that they can tell me when I'm full of myself. They call me when I'm being self-centered, judgmental, insensitive. And I listen to them because they ARE my friends and they don't want me to look like or be an ass. I can't imagine some computer programmer is going to program a robot that will give it's "owner" a second look and say, "I think you're full of shit. And by the way, I'm going home with Ramon." When that day comes, maybe I'll rethink my stance on human-robot relationships.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Funk, and not the good kind

It’s been quite a while since I wrote in this blog. It’s been a rough couple of weeks, during which I’ve been mentally lost in a fuzzy world of crime dramas. I’ve seen so many of these shows by now that I swear I could do an autopsy myself, use Luminol to test for blood at the scene of the crime, analyze splatter patterns, look at surveillance tapes, check ballistics on the murder weapon, and run fingerprints through CODIS, and compare DNA markers on blood and sweat samples.

Do these shows have a basis in reality? I doubt the average police department has the resources to spend this amount of time and money on crime-solving. Some of these tests alone cost hundreds of dollars and on TV they do them without even a thought to an actual budget.

I mean, there must be dozens of murders on TV any hour of the day. People bludgeoned, knifed, shot, garroted, pushed from buildings, skinned and gutted, drowned, drugged, strangled, decapitated, hit by a train, hung from the rafters, poisoned, throat cut, drill through the skull, dowsed with lye, set on fire…there was even one show where the killer stuck his gun in this obese man’s rectum and fired the gun so there wouldn’t be an obvious entry wound. Enough to make even a jaded TV viewer ill.

Even though the killers are caught and convicted in 90% of these shows on TV--they have to let a few villains fall through the cracks so they can run on about alleged judicial “technicalities” everyone rails about--, these shows, if you watch them in reruns (which means once or twice a night) paint a very dismal, depressing view of the world.

Take CSI. I can’t believe as many people die in a year in Las Vegas as die on this show in one season. They’ve had so many serial killers on that show, any one of which would have made the national news. But, no, we don't hear about serial killers running rampant through the countryside. Or the bio-hazards, terrorist plots, natural disasters, or city-wide epidemics they feature on these shows. Don’t remember hearing about these every night on the news.

Yes, it’s only TV, it’s a fictional construct but watching these shows can’t help affect one’s view of the world as a dangerous, deadly place where, any minute, you could be sitting in a restaurant when a car comes barreling through a plate glass window, mowing down diners. Or your child goes to the grocery store and gets shot in a drive-by. Or someone knocks on your door to deliver pizza and ends up throwing you off the balcony.

The assault of images and twisted motivations (don’t get me started on the “Ponyboy” episode of Bones the other night) of seemingly ordinary people just leaves me feeling depressed at the state of the world. I use to think this attitude was just being a “realist” about human nature but the writers of these shows are challenged to come up with even more bizarre and creative plotlines to distinguish themselves from their almost identical rivals (teams of cops, DAs, and scientists solving crimes). They don’t want to seem like they are recycling other show’s plotlines so everything gets ramped up to “10”. More sexual deviation, more unexplained bloodthirstyness, more complete disregard for the consequences of random violence. Dead bodies litter the streets, alleys, and playground in this fictional world.

I let myself get pulled into these shows because they have a comforting, absolutely predictable pattern:

1) Initial crime (usually before the credits). We know little or nothing about the victim, sometimes see the crime from the criminal’s POV and sometimes the scene jumps right past the actual crime itself, from before the crime to police surrounding a corpse on the ground.

2) Analysis of crime scene by cops and/or scientists. Hawkeye vision distinguishes a multitude of irrelevant items at the crime scene and they obsess about something that seems insignificant to the audience (a bit of glass smaller than a fingernail, a bottle cap, a piece of lint) to the exclusion of everything else that seems like it might be equally if not more important. How do they know? They just do, they're omniscient.

3) First theory of the crime proposed. First possible suspects interrogated. The cops/scientists are wrong about the first suspect 99% of the time because it’s an hour-long show so they have to stretch out the mystery and there is only so much that the audience can take of watching people make phone calls in a squad room or analyzing tool marks in a lab. If the first suspect was actually guilty, the show would be over in 15 minutes. Through the discussion with suspect #1 and other red herring suspects, we learn more about the victim(s) and possible motives for the crime.

4) Almost at the very end of the show (last 5-8 minutes) the final theory (always the correct one) is proposed and the killer is usually apprehended. This coming together of evidence could happen in the middle of a trial or in the lab or the field. Frequently, in the newer shows, there is a faux reenactment of the crime which just reinforces the infallibleness of the investigative team. They might miss something but they never, ever makes mistakes in the final interpretation.

5) Despite their unbelievable success rate in solving crimes (which can not be repeated in the real world), the investigators are in general unhappy people, either single or divorced workaholics. It’s rare to find a happily married man or woman on one of these shows. It’s like they are martyrs, sentenced by God to redeem their sins (whatever these might be) by righting the wrongs of the world but not experiencing any satisfaction or happiness themselves. They get their only satisfaction in life from figuring out the puzzles in other people's lives instead of their own.

These shows are very addictive. Everyone loves a good story and here they are with clear beginnings, middles, and endings complete with commercial breaks. We have troubled souls as heroes (whom we can identify with) and kinky, perverted, amoral villains whom we can also live vicariously through. The shows both celebrate violence—by making it the theme of every episode—and also condemn it in moralistic terms which can make the viewer feel superior because there is the thrill of sex and violence (frequently entangled) but we watch violence perpetrated by others instead of indulging in it ourselves.

I was procrastinating the other day when I should have been working (like right now) and watched part of a “marathon” of episodes of one of these shows and before I knew it hours had passed. I had terrible thoughts and images filling my head when I tried to fall asleep that night and I’ve noticed it happening more and more after an evening of watching these shows. I’m not personally afraid of being a victim, it’s just that they've twisted my view of the world to one of an unpredictable, dangerous place full of sexual predators and random acts of violence.

I think that this worldview is enhanced by the heroes’ nonchalance about the dark side of human nature, like they expect the worst from people and can no longer be surprised by even the most deviant acts. One could call it “noir-ish” but I find it just makes me feel dismal about the human race. And that, along with recent setbacks, has me in a complete funk.

Hopefully, writing will help me exorcise some of these demons. I’m not looking for a Disneyfied view of humanity, just to hold the possibility in my heart once again that people are basically good and not opportunists waiting to take advantage of the weak and disadvantaged in our society. After I get a little of that point of view back, maybe I can work on my total mistrust of corporate America next.