Friday, May 14, 2010

Thoughts on Robotics + Art: Theory & Technology Smack-Down!

Panel Discussion at 516 ARTS
Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sitting in the audience on Saturday afternoon at the panel discussion for Artificial Selection, our minds were blown by the scope of the ideas presented by the mix of artists, researchers, scientists and philosophers who spoke. The panel was moderated by Andrea Polli, Artist/Director of ARTS Lab & the Interdisciplinary Film & Digital Media Program at UNM.

Simon Mehalek posed many questions in his examination of what it means to create intelligence in a machine. What happens when we start integrating machines with ourselves? What does it mean to be human? What is machine intelligence and how does it evolve? Is it possible to give a machine consciousness? What if we can/can't overcome the speed of light? He pointed out that technologies have the capacity to eliminate certain kinds of suffering in the world, but that the potential damage to people is even greater. While his thoughts were a dazzling progression of intelligence and ideas, he seldom stepped out of the realm of the theoretical. Simon said that any machine is an amplification of energy, and there is great potential for machines to amplify the human mind, but I wonder, to what end? And can they do it any better than meditative practice, shamanistic rituals or any of the thousands of methods we've created over millennia to transcend the every day and our understanding of our place in it? We struggle to understand the full potential of our minds, I wonder about the ongoing romance of creating machines to expand them. He also suggested that maybe what it means to be human is that we become our technology. A nice phrase, but where are the boundaries? The ramifications of that are boggling.

Mark Walker, Ph.D. in the Dept. of Philosophy at New Mexico State University, referred to what happens when advanced technology is " in the hands of glorified apes." He stressed that the things we call virtues – like kindness and goodness – have a partial basis in biology, and our biology is our best chance at survival. Can we program a basic moral compass into a machine? One that will adapt to circumstance? Should it adapt? Mark made another point about how the centerpieces for progress are changing (historically) from Philosophy to Science and now to Technology.

Melanie Moses, Ph.D. in the Dept. of Computer Science at UNM, examines the "laws acting all around us" by looking at the complexity of ant behavior to understand general principles that govern biological and social organization. She started her presentation by quoting Charles Darwin, and emphasized that her work largely has everything to do with artificial selection, through modeling biological networks including the immune system, ant colonies and other complex systems and computational biology. Melanie noted that our evolution is slowing as our environment is changing faster and faster, so we probably won't have enough time to adapt to the new world we are creating. Is this because we are creating machines to rid us of the type of challenges that stimulate our biological evolution? Or perhaps we're creating machines that, subject to human failings, are creating new worlds that in the end will be uninhabitable for us (i.e. the thousands of gallons of oil currently being spilled into the gulf each day). The rapidity at which our technology is potentially making our world uninhabitable is the real marvel.

Toward the end of the panel discussion, the question was raised by an audience member about the fate of all the knowledge from indigenous people that hasn't yet been recorded for posterity. Melanie said that it's a natural progression to lose knowledge, and we have to fight to keep it. But how do we choose what's valuable to us as we evolve and our society changes. What are the core values that will carry us forward? We are always talking about how machines will free us from drudgery inherent in everyday survival, it's an old trope, and how we will use the free time for inner and outer exploration, but really, for the most part, what we use it for is leisure. We are animals after all, and we love our pleasures.

From notes by Suzanne Sbarge and Barbara Geary