14.3. Invisible Authors

Brooks could have risen above this na vet had he been willing to reckon with the distinction between artifact and artificer. Yes, his robots harbor intelligence, and yes, people respond to this intelligence just as they respond to the intelligence in a printed text or in the voice output of a radio loudspeaker. In each of these cases we would be crazy to ignore the meaning we are confronted with. After all, just as a vast amount of cultural and individual expression lies behind the development of the alphabet and the printing of the text on the page, so also a great deal of analysis and calculation lies behind the formulation of the computational rules governing Kismet's actions. To ignore Kismet would be to ignore all this coherently formulated human intention. We could not dismiss what humans have invested in Kismet without dehumanizing ourselves.

The problem we face with robots is that the text and voice have now been placed in intimate relation with moving machinery that roughly mimicks the human body. And whereas the authors behind the words of book and radio can easily be imagined as historically existent persons despite being less concrete and more remote than face-to-face conversants, this is not the case with the robot. Here the authors have contrived a manner of generating their speech involving numerous layers of mediating logic behind which it is difficult to identify any particular speaker.

What, then, can we respond to, if not the active, gesticulating thing in front of us even if the response is only one of annoyance? The speakers have vanished completely from sight, and yet here we are back in an apparently face-to-face relationship! a relationship with something that clearly is a bearer of intelligence. Far easier to assign the intelligence solely to the machine than to seek out the tortured pathway from the true speakers to the speech-results we are witnessing.

This, incidentally, captures on a small scale the problem we face in relating to the dictates of society as a whole. Who is the speaker behind this or that bureaucratic imperative? It is often almost impossible to say, so we are content to grumble about a personalized "System" that begins to take on a machine-like face. And the System is personal, inasmuch as intentional human activity lies behind all its manifestations, even if this activity has been reduced to a mostly subhuman level. In other words, society itself is unsurprisingly assuming the character of our technology.

None of this, however, excuses our failure to make required distinctions in principle. Yes, every human creation is invested with intelligence in one form or another, and it would be pathological for us to ignore this fact in our reactions. But it is also pathological to fail to recognize the asymetrical relation between artifact and artificer.

For all our difficulty in identifying the authors behind a computer's output, we can hardly say that no authoring has gone on, or that the distinction between the authors and the product of their authoring has somehow been nullified. Difficulty in tracing authorship does not by a single degree elevate a printed page (or a radio that happens to be transmitting a human voice) to the status of author in its own right. If Brooks wants to argue that Kismet, once spoken by its creators, was somehow transformed from speech into speaker, he needs to make the argument. Instead he simply ignores the distinction.

Let me put it this way: if Brooks acknowledges a difference in kind between the intelligence of an author and that of a printed page, or between the intelligence of an engineer and that of a doorbell circuit, then he owes us an elucidation of how this distinction plays out in his robots. If there is something intrinsic to the idea of complexity or the idea of moving parts that negates or overcomes the distinction something that transforms text into author, designed mechanism into designer then we need to know what this something is. What is the principle of the transformation?

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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