Friday, January 29, 2010

Dining with machines that feel

By Carol Clark

The Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry's annual Faculty Response Forum recently brought together dozens of high-powered intellects for food, wine and deep discourse. The menu of ideas included topics like “Queer Practices of the Self,” “Art and the Neurosciences” and “Torture, Knowledge and the State.”

At the table devoted to “Machines that Feel,” Michael Moon flourished a copy of “Tomorrow’s Eve.” The 1886 science fiction novel was the first text to use the word “android,” explained Moon, a professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts.

“The word ‘computer’ first referred to humans,” pointed out Elizabeth Wilson, a psychologist and professor of women’s studies.

“I think it goes back to the 1600s,” said Benjamin Kahan, a Fox Center fellow researching the history of celibacy. He pulled out his iPhone and within seconds had an exact date. “From 1613, a person who carried out calculations and computations. This is Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt.”

By the way, could you pass that shaker?

During World War II, Wilson continued, “computers” came to mean the people creating ballistic firing tables for big guns. “They were all very well-trained mathematically and they were mainly women, because the men were out firing the guns,” she said.

Moon mentioned a co-worker who dreamed that the cursor escaped from her computer. It ran amok in the office, cursing out all her colleagues. “We had to explain to her that it was her subconscious,” he said.

Talk turned to a strange psychosis that has recurred in both fact and fiction throughout the technological age: People who think that they are machines. In one story a 10-year-old boy needed to plug himself in to function. His belief was so compelling the staff in the hospital kept stepping over the imaginary cords.

“The boundary is getting blurred,” said Tim Bryson, South Asian studies librarian, referring to implants used to control artificial limbs. “What do you lose when you start replacing neurons with microchips?”

Will emotion ever become embedded into machines?

“It’s in them already,” Wilson said, picking up her iPhone. “The joy of the person who designed this is in here. Affect is the primary motivator of human behavior, and it’s everywhere.”

“I’m intrigued by the iPad,” said James Mulholland, a Fox Center fellow researching 18th-century poetry and the effect of early “virtual voices,” such as megaphones.

“The iPad is very, very tempting,” agreed Wilson, regarding the latest Apple product.

“In the future, my machine and I are going to be seamless,” said someone in an oddly dispassionate tone. It wasn’t clear whom the voice came from.

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