Robots!

“[H]uman behavior is complex, nonlinear and unpredictable. The Brave New World is far away. Novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.” David Broder, The New York Times, July 15, 2008

I CAN’T REMEMBER the last time I picked up a newspaper or read a magazine, outside of the doctor’s office. I could not care less about the future of media, and in fact am probably contributing to its demise. Is print dead? Is the music business dead? How about the movie business? Certainly dying, at very least, right? Advances in broadband technology, the availability of faster and better and less costly delivery systems for every kind of media, the difficulty in finding ways to make people to pay for something once they’ve gotten used to not paying for something, uh, the wisdom of crowds, etc. Whatever will we do? If you work at a newspaper or a magazine, these days, it’s hard not to adopt a bunker mentality, and to believe the sky is falling. Because the sky very well may be falling.

But look: we’ll adapt. Media will adapt. People will adapt. My main concern — and this is something that The Media Lab at MIT in Boston did not assuage at all during my recent visit — is that we are not taken over at some point in the ever-nearing future by malevolent robots.

The Media Lab mainly invents new and better kinds of robots, and I’m scared of robots. It deals with other wildly futuristic technologies, too, and I am, too, scared of technology. Its motto is “inventing the Future,” and I am of the strong opinion that the future does not need to be invented, that it will pretty much happen inexorably and that whatever preparations we make in advance of that happy event are at best futile and at worst harmful. We would do better to examine the past if we want to know how to anticipate the future.

The Lab’s somewhat prosaic exterior on the MIT campus gives the casual passerby few clues that inside, a kind of hive mind is busy designing Reality 2.0. Once inside, however, you are immediately confronted with weird science. You want robots? The Media Lab has robots. You want an electric car that stacks like a shopping cart and has wheels that rotate 360 degrees so you never have to parallel park again? The Media Lab can show you one of these. You want a computer that can read your mind? No, you do not want a computer that can read your mind, but the Media Lab has one anyway, or at least is working on one.

The Media Lab at MIT. Set phasers to stun.

Most of the Media Lab’s output, both actual and theoretical, will not help answer the question ‘What is the future of media?’, but it might help answer the question ‘What is the future of me?’ A recent symposium hosted by the Lab bore the title h2.0, by which they meant “human 2.0,” which was sub-headed “new minds, new bodies, new identities.” A lot of the work discussed and displayed at h2.0 had to do with smarter, better prosthetics, and ways of helping differently-abled people function more smoothly in the so-called “normal” world, which is an unalloyed good, I think everyone would agree, but the over-arching point of the symposium was that, in the words of John Hockenberry, a distinguished fellow of the Lab (that’s a title, that’s not me saying he’s a nice guy, which he most likely is), “we recognize that identity is in flux, technology is in flux, and biology itself is in flux.”

I did not know that we recognized that. It comes as news to me. Or put another way, I thought everybody knew that, already, as far back in human history as the records will allow us to peek, certainly since Heraclitus of Ephesus, circa 500 BCE, whose main point can be (and usually is) boiled down to “everything is in a state of flux.” It seems clear that we should be well past h2.0 and on to some higher iteration, but I am not a scientist and furthermore I was not consulted in the naming of this symposium.

Walking into the Media Lab at MIT in Cambridge, MA, is slightly disorienting. Let’s start with the building itself, a slightly dog-eared four-floor I.M. Pei confection. When the Lab started it was not housed in this building, because it really only consisted of a couple of people and a great deal of enthusiasm. Twenty years later, it has outgrown even this fairly large building, Satellite labs are popping up all over the MIT campus, and the Lab itself, which is more properly described as many different smaller labs crammed into every inch of available space, is literally overflowing. Alexandra Kahn, the Lab’s press liaison, eyes the somewhat dingy Pei-designed wall overseeing the Lab’s enormous central lobby.

“We could really use the space,” she tells me, eyeing the wall. “But since it was designed by I.M. Pei, it’s considered inviolable. Instead, we’ve had to improvise around it.”

Each of the different mini-labs, or research groups, inside the Lab has a name and a mission. There is Affective Computing, for instance, where people are trying to make computers more responsive to human beings — in other words to be able to read our emotional states, and respond accordingly. A small camera is attached to the computer, which registers facial expressions using like a billion different algorithms, and translates that data into color codes that tell the person on the other end of the conversation, at another computer, whether the person being observed is interested, confused, bored, and so on. Ms. Kahn explained that a primary use for Affective Computing would be for children with autism, who have trouble relating to other people, and find it easier to interact with a computer than a person. In that particular instance, the computer would serve simply as an intermediary, and it’s hard to find anything bad to say about a program like that, although I will try.

The majority of the Lab’s annual $30 million budget is underwritten by corporate sponsors. While Ms. Kahn was at pains to tell me that the money was not directed in any particular way, and that the faculty and students (40 faculty members, senior research staff, and visiting scholars, somewhere around 116 master’s and doctoral students) are free to pursue their research without direction or interference, it’s also true that companies can and do choose, for approximately double the going rate of corporate sponsorship, which is $200,000 per year with a commitment of three years, meaning $400,000, if my math is correct (note to people who are good at math: you’re weird) receive the added benefit of an employee-in-residence at the Lab. This means, for example, that in the case of Affective Computing, Pepsi can have a guy or girl in with the other guys and girls working on that whole thing about making computers that can basically read your mind, so that, blandly speaking, “”[w]e can leverage [the research] into a competitive advantage in the marketplace,” according to a blurb from Julius Akinyemi, Director of Emerging Technologies for Pepsi.

In other words, Pepsi wants to control your brain, and The Media Lab is making it happen for them. Not really, but you see the problem: whenever extremely smart people mess around with technology, there’s always, always, unintended side effects. Sometimes these side effects are good: over in the Personal Robots research group, sensors that were developed to make the robots more aware of their environment found an application in newer, smarter, safer airbags for cars. What worries me, because I have probably seen way too many science fiction movies, starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey, are the other kind of side effects. Why is Pepsi interested in Affective Computing? Most likely because, at some point in the future, it hopes that your computer will tell them without asking you whether a particular advertisement on a particular website is provoking interest, disgust, slack-jawed amazement, and so on. Whatever. I use ad-blocking software anyway, but I’m sure the kids over in Context-Aware Computing are working on a way around that.

There are over thirty research groups crammed into the four floors of the Lab. These groups operate “atelier-style,” I am repeatedly told, and which is further emphasized in all of the Lab’s literature and web-based information. I speak a little French. I spent some time there, too. I don’t know anyone in France who works “atelier-style,” because “atelier” simply means “workshop” or “studio,” and that’s pretty much how everyone works, everywhere. What the Lab seems to be getting at is that the research groups are not large, and are collaborative in nature. It might be easier to describe these research groups as “research groups,” which pretty much covers it, but I soon find that at the Lab, as in academia in general, you get extra points for employing jargon, and specials extra points for coining neologisms in the jargon arena to further obscure the fairly straightforward work that you are doing.

That work almost without exception feels like a form of play — there’s even a program called Kindergarten for Life (sponsored by Lego) — but it’s highly sophisticated play, and it’s purposeful and directed. Students have to justify their projects before being granted permission to pursue them, even if the justification is little more than “what if?” plus a bunch of mathematical equations (which as I have pointed out before, I find deeply weird.). I have to stop myself from referring to the students in the various groups as “kids,” as most of them are anything but, but after about the fifth slip-up, Alexandra assures me, “That’s okay. That’s what we call them, too.” The $30 million in corporate sponsorship provides not only all the materials and overhead necessary to “invent the future,” but provides a stipend to each of the students so that they can concentrate fully on building giant machines that will one day take over the Internet and launch all the nuclear missiles at once, but we will have better cell phones so it will all even out.

Where normally the Hive Mind, sorry, the Media Lab is bustling with activity, my visit coincides with both summer and Friday afternoon, a combination that will render lethargic the most obsessive-compulsive workaholic, and therefore while there are certainly a lot of people scurrying around the four floors of the Lab, it’s nothing, I’m told, like the place when in full swing. Which is good, because it’s difficult enough to navigate the cluttered labyrinth of the Lab without trying to get out of the way of intensely concentrating brainpower. Were I left on my own, plopped, say, somewhere in the middle of the Molecular Machines research group, where there may or may not be a sub-group working on six-dimensional sound, which is twice as good as 3D, I would still be stuck in the Lab, although I hope I would be able to find my way to one of the groups that’s working on something to do with enhanced GPS navigation. Or enhanced pizza. That would also work.

One is certainly struck, even overwhelmed, by the sheer volume of work being done at the Lab. In every corner, in every nook and cranny, machines or machine parts lie stacked or strewn with purposeful incoherence. Over here, the guts of a teddy bear reveal its robotic entrails, and remind me instantly of the talking teddy bear in A.I., which also featured robots and did not end well for the human race. Over there, a new kind of musical instrument has been invented, called the Chandelier, which will be enormous, and controlled by computers, and will produce a vast range of sounds. The Chandelier is the centerpiece of a new opera composed by Media Lab professor Tod Machover, called Death and the Powers, and loath as I am to render any kind of aesthetic judgment on what is clearly a mind-bogglingly complex and labor-intensive project… seriously? Death and the Powers? Weren’t they a death metal group from the 80s? I’m pretty sure that’s correct. However ineptly titled, the opera, from what I can tell after viewing scale models of the sets and the prototype for the Chandelier and having the whole concept patiently explained to me, sounds like an amazing spectacle. I should note that the opera will feature a “robotic, animatronic stage,” and music scored for “a small ensemble of specially designed Hyper-instruments,” and that there is a probably infinitesimally small chance that the production will misfire sometime during the performance and run amok.

Much of the Media Lab’s work emphasizes interactivity, especially with respect to those programs and products directed at children. The afore-mentioned Kindergarten for Life group seems to have two meanings, at least. In the first, and most obvious sense, it describes the philosophy of the unit: that teaching kids how to think creatively from their earliest years will better prepare them for the challenges they will eventually face as adults. There’s a lot of focus on “interactivity,” examples of which are on display in the Kindergarten for Life lab. For instance: Crickets, which allows kids to build their own machines by means of a collection of simple, interchangeable and interlocking sensors, lights, motors, and multi-colored lights, the functionality of which depends only on the imagination of the individual, which is cool, and in essence the project is a logical extension of the Lego concept — taking interlocking modules and building something, anything, new. I guess this kind of thing prepares children from an early age to meet the challenges posed by what I’m told we are supposed to call the digital age, but I can’t help but wonder, what’s wrong with just plain old Legos? They’re tactile, they require imagination, you can build pretty much anything you want, and the best part is: the thing you build will not take over the world and make you its slave for ever and ever.

"Lego" is Danish for "Take me to your leader."

Probably the coolest part of the Lab, from the perspective of wow, is the Smart Cities research group. Here you can find, as mentioned earlier, the prototype, still in progress, of a stackable electronic car that, if it works out, really does have the potential to change the urban landscape, in ways the Segway promised to do before everyone noticed that riding a Segway makes you look almost unbelievably ridiculous. The way it was shown and explained to me, the car system would work very much like the Velib system for bikes works in Paris, for instance (which is to say, ridden with theft and vandalism and widely-hated by its residents). You need a car, you go to one of the dispensing units where the cars are stacked on some kind of a rack, you swipe your credit card, you drive to your destination, drop off the car at the nearest stacking point (these may not be technically correct terms), and you’re done. No need to own a car, eliminating congestion, runs on electricity, eliminating pollution, and you don’t look like a fool sitting in one. The best part: the wheels rotate 360 degrees, so you don’t need to know how to parallel park, you never need to drive backwards — and assuming the car does not become disobedient and refuse to take you to the doughnut shop but instead takes you to the gym, this is the closest thing to the future we were promised back in the 50s and 60s that I have ever seen. There’s already working versions of an electric scooter that operates by the same principle, but I find it hard to get excited about a stupid scooter after seeing the car. Which I want. But which you won’t be able to buy, because that’s the whole point.

“We use the microscope like a cudgel,” complains Erland Josephson in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. “As soon as we make a scientific breakthrough, we put it to use in the service of evil.” I grant this may be overstating the case, and it’s difficult to deny that many of the applications of the Media Lab’s work are in an objective sense good. It’s good to develop better, smarter prostheses, it’s good to develop technology that will enable autistic kids to communicate better with the world , it’s good to produce a $100 laptop computer that potentially brings the world of computing to otherwise undernourished technological societies. It’s good to encourage a sense of play, and it’s good to get paid for doing so. Let’s ignore, for now, the warnings of poets and dreamers like Keats, who railed against philosphers’ and scientists’ attempts to explain away all mysteries, and the dyspeptic visions of futurists like Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H. P. Lovecraft, Georges Méliès, etc. ad infinitum. Let’s be generous, and rely on the good intentions and hard work of the kids up there in the Media Lab, working with Bank Of America on the Center For Future Banking. So, great, in the future my ATM machine will let me know that in addition to being broke I am a loser and could really use a shower. And then it will eat my hand.

James Greer

About James Greer

James Greer is the author of the novels Artificial Light(LHotB/Akashic 2006) and The Failure (Akashic 2010), and the non-fiction book Guided By Voices: A Brief History, a biography of a band for which he played bass guitar. He’s written or co-written movies for Lindsay Lohan, Jackie Chan, and Steven Soderbergh, among others. He is a Contributing Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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