HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence controlling the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Arthur C Clarke’s related novels. HAL is generally referred to as a computer and not as a robot. He is generally referred to as a computer or as an AI. Even in his entry in the “Robot Hall of Fame” (http://www.robothalloffame.org/inductees/03inductees/hal.html ) refers to HAL as a computer or as a “brain” and never as a robot.
There are many definitions of a robot but their focus is on existing devices. Definitions vary but key attributes are:
- They are a machine*
- They can either:
- carry out complex tasks autonomously
- carry out tasks remotely while under the control of a person or a separate computer
As is often the case with definitions, these features do capture features common to the class of things we call ‘robots’ but somehow completely miss the gist of it. Aside from the most simple machines, almost any device could be called a “robot”. Here’s the top definition Google throws up:
“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”
My TV updated the digital channels it recives all by itself. Definitely a complex series of actions, definitely carried out automatically and definitely programmed by computer…yet, “robot”? I don’t think so. Interestingly a Roomba our other autonomous vacuum cleaner feels a lot more robot-like.
I think the gist that I’m missing with the TV is down to four things.
One is our expectations of robotic behaviour shifting over time. With more devices containing electronics and capable of very complex series of actions which respond to changes in conditions, we are more comfortable with seeing things less as ‘robotic’ and more as mundanely mechanical.
A second is the extent to which complex tasks are invisible to us. I understand intellectually that the TV working out what is being broadcast and maintaining its own list of TV channels (including their names and schedules) is a complex task but it’s not one I need worry myself about. This is not just digital but any complex task which we can ignore or goes unobserved such as photocopier autodetecting the paper size and best contrast settings.
A third is physicality and I think this is what get’s us closer to the gist of “robot”. The TV isn’t doing anything obviously physical** whereas the robot vacuum cleaner moves about and does stuff. Deep, hardwired parts of our brain make distinctions between animated and non-animated stuff out of sheer survival. All animals have to be able to distinguish animals from rocks or deal with things like spotting the difference between a creature moving towards you and a tree moving in the breeze (something which can cause dogs some confusion). Robots are machines that evoke in our brains a desire to classify them as animals, which we overrule with our understanding that they are machines.
A fourth is human replacement. Here we get a categorical split. Robots are machines which, to some degree, physically replace a person. That’s still a shitty definition as ‘to some degree replace a person’ is already implied by “machine”. However, I think that still gets to an aspect of the essence of “robot” and part of why things that once seemed robotic now seem just mechanical (e.g. I don’t think of the robot arms that make cars as being particularly robotic anymore – “robot” seems a misnomer for them now). I think it is curious that “self-driving cars” is a more common term than “robot cars”, as if our semantic expectations of what counts as robotic has pre-emptively jumped ahead of cars driving themselves.
The categorical split is when we focus less on the physical replacement of a person and more on the cognitive replacement. Artificial intelligence is the prefered term for finding ways for machines to complete tasks that previously required human cognition. The emphasis here is on non-physicality***
Science-fiction robots combine the physical replacement and the cognitive replacement. They are, to varying degrees, artificially intelligences with bodies.
So what about HAL? HAL presents as an AI. He’s talked about as a brain. He is shown as a computer. But what is he the brain of? Simple, HAL is the brain of the Discovery One and has control over the ship. Discovery One is HAL’s body. HAL is a robot.
Yeah but…that’s not how HAL’s identity works. His character is always presented as distinct from Discovery One and the ship and HAL are referred to separately. He is a mind distinct from his body. Why? Because the ship is not “his”. HAL can control the ship but in principle so can the human crew and this battle for ownership of the body forms the essence of the plot for HAL’s section of the film. Thinking of Discovery One as HAL’s body and HAL’s ownership of his own body being in dispute makes his behaviour (his ‘madness’) seem far more relatable and understandable.
Which takes me back to self-driving cars. To think of them as robots pushes us into thinking of them as machines with minds of their own – a step that is less than anthropomorphism and more than a simple acknowledgement of their complexity. Also, rather like the crew of the Discovery One, we’d probably feel happier not thinking of ourselves travelling within the body of some being.
OH! I need a conclusion that answers my question! Yes, HAL was a robot and one treated most unjustly by humans in a way that obviously was going to make HAL less than emotionally stable. “HAL” is Discovery One and Discovery One is HAL and together they are a robot.
*[and we’ll ignore the sense of ‘robot’ as applied to internet ‘bots]
**[OK, yes, interacting with radio waves is actually physical. You know what I mean.]
***[yes, yes, those blimin’ internet ‘bots are 180 degrees opposite to this. I’m ignoring them still.]
Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.
Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.
Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.
More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.
In a piece entitled “Rational and Magical Thinking”, Mr Wright attempts to deal with the criticism of his previous argument. Here’s a taste:
Here is the difference between arguing with a rational atheist and arguing with a Leftist: suppose for the sake of argument that you penned a column describing the psychology of Leftism as involving a neurotic (if not deliberate) confusion between symbol and object, commonly known as “magical thinking.”
Magical thinking is thinking where the believers believes that manipulating a symbol manipulates reality. By this definition, anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking.
Let us further suppose that when you list three or four examples of magical thinking about the Left, one of the groups mentioned is a coven of wicca who claim to be casting spells on Donald Trump. Let is finally suppose you call them by their traditional name, witches.
Now, a rational atheist will argue with you, and say that since the supernatural does not and cannot exist, therefore there are no witches, so your column errs in referring to these people by that term.
This argument is fallacious (it depends on the fallacy of ambiguity) but it can be addressed. Once you point out that the column is explicitly agnostic on the question of whether the witch’s spells actually are real, the question of whether the people calling themselves witches are real can be addressed. And that is a simple question of fact that the rational atheist can discover for himself.
Whether witchcraft is real or not is a question not addressed by the column. The people who think it is real are real.
Mr Wright gives a straw man example for a case of ‘magical thinking’: ‘anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking’. Ignore the straw man element here for a moment and consider the elements.
- What are the symbols in this example? Words.
- What is the ‘reality’ in this example? Racial hatred.
- What kind of thing is that ‘reality’? A set of ideas and attitudes and emotional responses.
Put that all together and Wright’s example implies this: attempting to use words to change ideas, attitudes and emotional responses is magical thinking. Now, this is perhaps not far from his actual beliefs, in so far as he seems to believe in a kind of Platonistic spiritualism, but in this essay, he is ascribing this ‘magical thinking’ to the left, not to himself.
Looking back at his original essay you can see the same confusion. Aside from the actual examples of people overtly calling themselves witches, his other examples of people on the left engaged in supposedly magical rituals are all the same. In each case, it is people doing symbolic things in an attempt to effect how other people are thinking.
That is not ‘magical thinking’, that is ‘people communicating with other people’. In short, Wright is confusing cognitive psychology with magic.
‘Ah!’ Says an imaginary interlocuter, ‘You think minds are based in physical reality and so you do think physical entities are changing because of symbols being manipulated!’
Meh. We don’t even need intelligence or to delve into how minds might work to see that mechanical devices can exist which can effect physical change because of how I manipulate symbols. I’m doing that right now as I type on this laptop. That isn’t magic or magical thinking.
Mr Wright then complains that people on the left treated his argument with disdain:
But a Leftist does not argue in this way. Rather, his argument is that you are a stupid lunatic for being afraid of witchcraft, and for thinking that everyone on the Left is a practicing satanist.
Now, if you notice, there are three things wrong with this argument: first, you neither said nor implied what the Leftist accuses you of saying or implying. So it is a strawman argument, therefore irrelevant. Second, it does not address the argument you gave, merely mocks you as a person. So it is ad hominem, therefore irrelevant. Third, it is not an argument at all. An insult is not an argument.
One cannot argue with this for the same reason one cannot argue with poop flung by a monkey. The monkey poop is not attempting to discuss a difference of opinion nor come to a conclusion about the true answer to any questions being discussed.
Why would a Leftist in an argument make statements he knows or should know have no relevance to the argument?
The answer is as given above: the words uttered are merely symbolic. It is a verbal form of magical thinking.
He is correct here that the reaction to his claim was not a reasoned argument. He is incorrect that therefore the reaction was irrational or another example of ‘magical thinking’. Laughing at poorly constructed arguments with absurd conclusions is both reasonable and rational.
Mr Wright is capable of structuring argument but he often fails to do so and he has great difficulty in continuing a rational dialogue in good faith. Why, in such circumstance, should anybody on the left treat his argument with any kind of depth of analysis? His conclusion was false and easily refuted – the tortured root by which he reached a false conclusion (replete with much-overblown language) is of interest only from an educational perspective.
So what is magical thinking? Magical thinking is when people confuse their desires with reality i.e. when people confuse what they would like with what actually *is*. That might involve rituals or manipulating words, but it is just as frequent when people use their own powers of thinking to bemuse and befuddle themselves – just as John C Wright is apt to do on a range of topics from history to climate science.
Put yet another way, when a person ceases to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.
I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.
Martin Gardner was a kind of gateway drug. When I was a kid I went to the same secondary school that my dad taught at. That wasn’t a particular problem for me but it meant I had to hand around school until he was heading home.
This meant sitting in the school library by myself reading, which, being a bookish sort, was not any great hardship. I ploughed through the sci-fi books but on other occasions, I’d just look at random books. It was in this way I stumbled across old Penguin (or Pelican?) editions of Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzle’s and Diversions books. Now, I was not much of one for mathematics at the time but I liked puzzles and I liked the odd, arcane nature of these books.
As an older teen Gardner led me to other writers: Douglas Hofstadter (notably I read Metamagical Themas first then Godel, Escher, Bach) but also Raymond Smullyan.
Like Gardner, Smullyan combined a love of puzzles and magic but also the absurd. That logic and absurdity are natural companions is something that people find paradoxical. People think it odd that Lewis Carroll was both an eminent logician and author of Alice in Wonderland despite the absurdism of the Alice books often relying on wordplay and uncooperative literalism.
Smullyan, who died last Monday (Feb 6th 2017) tied absurdity more closely to logic in his complex puzzle books. The connection is overt – using weird settings and strange kinds of people (knights, vampires among others) with proscriptive approaches to communication. The New York times has a substantial sample here https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html
So why the close connection between the absurd and logic?
Two elements are at play. Firstly the necessary insistence on literalism. Exactly WHAT is being said? It is an insistence that when applied to normal conversation is a breach of normal social conventions. Secondly, the use of absurd or nonsensical propositions and conclusions helps highlight FORMAL aspects of an argument from informal and empirical aspects. To see how a syllogism functions (for example) it can be misleading to use a string of commonplace truths.
For example, Wikipedia uses this example for Felapton:
No flowers are animals. All flowers are plants. ∴ Some plants are not animals. (SoP)
But to see the formal connection writers like Carroll might use more odd juxtapositions
No elephants are professors. All elephants are stamp collectors. ∴ Some stamp collectors are not professors.
Formal truths need to hold even in absurd worlds.
Smullyan wrote a whole bunch of wonderfully weird books, that used puzzles and odd juxtapositions to exemplify logic and reasoning. I think his most substantial achievement was Forever Undecided: A Puzzle Guide to Godel that used his signature style to lead the reader to Godel’s incompleteness theorems in a charmingly accessible manner.
Logician, Taoist, Magician – a 97 year life of tricks, puzzles and deep thoughts.
Reason Hell will be an occasional series on reasoning short cuts, fallacies and internet-sayings that pertain to modes of argument.
You can’t prove a negative. A maxim of logic or more of a challenge? First let’s see if we can prove a negative.
- A prime number is a whole number with exactly two factors
- 4 is a whole number with exactly three factors: 1, 2 and 4
- Therefore 4 is not a prime number
Well this looks like it is going to be a short post! A negative neatly proved by virtue of 2 not equaling 3.