Thursday, February 19, 2009

Space - The Final Frontier (midterm project option 2)

"These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." These are the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. There isn't a Trekkie out there who can't say these words verbatim from the heart. I am of course talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation, the best of all the Star Treks (I have watched my fair share of all of them, including Star Trek: The Original Series). It is in the opening credits that Picard says these words, and I can't think of a better way to describe the relationship between mankind and technology.

Back in the day when this show was on tv, late eighties/early nineties, watching Star Trek was my family's ritual. Every Saturday evening we sat in front of the television, ate homemade pizza, and watched Star Trek. It was definitely my favorite part of the week. It has been a great many years though since I have seen an episode of it - until just a few days ago. I was channel surfing at the top of the hour and happened upon the opening credits of Next Generation. I was hooked, reliving my glory days for the following hour. Now, a friend of mine, who was watching it with me and had never actually watched the show before, asked me - to my great horror - "What's so great about this show?" The answer lies in the show's spectacular portrayal of the relationship between humans and technology.

One of the chief goals of creating/manipulating/advancing technology is to create benefits for mankind. These benefits include everything under the sun - paint for pleasing aesthetics, cars for faster transportation, light bulbs for light, shoes for walking, computers for processing massive amounts of information, even robots for doing our work, to name just a few. In general, we look to technology for two reasons: for enjoyment and for help. We look to our televisions for entertainment, we look to our hammers to aid in construction, and we look to our computers for both enjoyment and help.

However, there is a major difference between creating technology for enjoyment and creating it for help. In regards to the former, technology is simply a perk in life, big or small. When taken away there might be some set back, but we quickly look to something else and we soon forget that we even had that previous technology. Technology is something we put on or take off of ourselves. On the other hand, technology as used for help is a crutch. We become so dependent on it that should it disappear we become crippled, not being able to do anything. A few years ago I remember the BlackBerry network stopped working for less than 24 hours. Watching the news that night I saw many BlackBerry users being interviewed and every single one of them felt like they were trapped on an island, like their world had blown up for a day. They had become so dependent on it that when it ceased to function, their own lives ceased to function - after one day no less! And this is a trend that can be seen in technology everywhere. With our technology we are able to see more and more so many things that can be done, and because of that we feel as though we need them. So we strive to do it, and when we do we find more things that we can do and therefore more things we need. It's a cyclical process, and the more and more the wheel turns, the greater our dependence upon technology becomes. If our nation was stripped of all of its technology and thrown into cave-man times we would go insane not knowing what to do because all of our weight was on technology's crutch.

But there is more to technology than its benefits for life. I believe the greatest reason for the advancement of technology, greater even than its life benefits, is simply for the advancement of technology itself, for the advancement of knowledge. Humans have an innate desire to know. We want to know things, and we want to know if we can know things which we currently do not know, you know? Star Trek shows what I hope technology will achieve someday, as imaginative as that sounds. But, in all reality, we continue to push technology for the very hope that it can go beyond our imagination. Star Trek is the representation of mastery over everything physical, such as material science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, optics, 3D imaging, lasers, robotics, computers, even quantum physics and mechanics! Data is even a fully functional android, programmed with certain laws so as to not harm humans and the like. Technology, though quite possibly more advanced than the humans themselves, is under complete control of the humans. And the whole premise of the show is the goal of modern technology, "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." NASA is a massive industry whose primary purpose is to explore the galaxy and look for signs of life. And through NASA has much of our most ground-breaking technologies developed. Even greater than NASA, though, is the over-arching realm of science, whose goal in essence is to go where no man has gone before, to know what no man has known before.

4 comments:

Nathaniel Bacon said...

This is what I have so far. I basically stopped mid-thought. This is in no way the whole of my argument. In my final I'm definitely gonna go on and talk about the Borgs and their relation to technology and also integrate our readings into the paper, and probably some other stuff.

Adam Johns said...

This is an interesting start, and I like several of your choices, but it's also very unfocused - at this point, I feel that it's basically an exploration more than an essay, and that it could go in several different directions.

It's partially about your personal relationship with Star Trek - you are drawn by its essentially (although, since you mention the Borg, obviously not invariably) positive, even utopian, portrayal of technology. It's partially about your mixed feelings about living in a world with our range of technological dependencies - I wasn't too crazy about the Blackberry example (after all, no real harm was done, and nothing changed), but it is applicable.

Ultimately, though, what are you trying to say? Do you embrace or reject the Star Trek, utopian vision of the future, or do you see the dystopia represented by the Borg as being implicit within it? And how should we respond to your ultimate position - are there forms of technology that we should reject? Should our future technological developments be more focused in some area?

I see this as having two stages. First, you need to sort out how you *feel* and then, presumably, you have something to say about what should be *done*.

My suggestion is to keep writing until you find your focus, and then revise the whole paper accordingly. This has promise, but it's not even really an essay yet.

Nathaniel Bacon said...

"These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." These are the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. There isn't a Trekkie out there who can't say these words verbatim from the heart. I am of course talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation, the best of all the Star Treks (I have watched my fair share of all of them, including Star Trek: The Original Series).

Back in the day when this show was on tv, late eighties/early nineties, watching Star Trek was my family's ritual. Every Saturday evening we sat in front of the television, ate homemade pizza, and watched Star Trek. It was definitely my favorite part of the week. It has been a great many years though since I have seen an episode of it- until just a few days ago. I was channel surfing at the top of the hour and happened upon the opening credits of The Next Generation. I was hooked, reliving my glory days for the following hour. Now, a friend of mine, who was watching it with me and had never actually watched the show before, asked me - to my great horror - "What's so great about this show?" I was too aghast at the question that I couldn’t actually answer her. Taking the question more seriously though I began to realize a few things: First and foremost, Star Trek is a good representation of today’s – and I believe the future’s – relationship between man and technology; second, it puts an exciting visual in our minds of what we hope/imagine to achieve with technology; and third, it shows what could go horribly awry when we begin to tear down the distinction between human and robot.



The technology aboard USS Enterprise is highly advanced, well beyond today’s technology, but it all serves the same purpose – to be used by and enjoyed by humans. Life is ultimately improved by technology. The teleporting technology allows the humans to get places faster, the ship can ‘talk’ allowing easy access to the ship's operating status, the holodeck provides endless enjoyment and even help to the crew. More importantly than its ability to improve life is the simple fact that the humans are in complete control. The technology doesn’t rebel against the creator, the artificial intelligence doesn’t take on a mind of its own. Data, though an extremely intelligent and sophisticated android, obeys the humans and does nothing to try to harm them. And with the help of its superior technology, Enterprise's mission is to “explore…, to seek out…, to go…”. Indeed, this is today’s relationship to technology as well.

In the present age, one of the chief goals of creating/manipulating/advancing technology is to create benefits for mankind. These benefits include everything under the sun - paint for pleasing aesthetics, cars for faster transportation, light bulbs for light, shoes for walking, computers for processing massive amounts of information, even robots for doing our work, to name just a few. In general, we look to technology for two reasons: for enjoyment and for help. We look to our televisions for entertainment, we look to our hammers to aid in construction, and we look to our computers for both enjoyment and help. But we control all of it. Clearly we control all ‘non-processing’ things, such as hammers, books, pencils, baseballs, and cordless drills (with our thorough knowledge of nature and electricity), to name a few. Even that which can process things on its own is under our control. Sure, a PC can crash, but it doesn’t have an innate desire to constantly crash and frustrate the user (although it sure seams that way). And artificial intelligence technology is still in the early years of design, it has not reached the widespread capability to compose a symphony entirely on its own, no less start a war with humanity.

But I believe the greatest reason for the advancement of technology today, greater even than its life benefits, is simply for the advancement of technology itself, for the advancement of knowledge. Humans have an innate desire to know. We want to know things, and we want to know if we can know things which we currently do not know, you know? There are, sadly, many university professors everywhere who go to work merely to use the research facilities and advanced technological equipment to gain more knowledge, not caring one bit about their classes or students. As wrong as this may seem to some people, it is a good example of how much we want to learn things, and with ever developing technology we are able to know more and more. NASA, a massive industry through which much of our most ground-breaking technologies have developed, actually almost parallels Star Trek. NASA’s Mission: “To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe; to advance human exploration, use, and development of space; and to research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics and space technologies” (1). In short, it wants to explore and to know through the use of technology. In the year 2009, technology serves humans for the improvement of life, for the furthering of knowledge, and it is under human control.



Now, Star Trek is obviously a futuristic show, and it can certainly be considered to be mere imagination. A teleporter? I have my doubts that that will ever be successfully created, if even attempted, but I won’t go so far as to say that I don’t want to see it happen or attempted. Star Trek shows what I hope technology will achieve someday, as imaginative as that sounds. But, in all reality, we continue to push technology for the very hope that it can go beyond our imagination. Star Trek is the representation of mastery over everything physical, such as material science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, optics, 3D imaging, lasers, robotics, computers, even quantum physics and mechanics! The android, Data, though super advanced, is even under complete human control. If teleportation was a reality, no one would say, “I don’t want to do it”. And if androids were a reality, under complete human control, most people would find a great use for them. I think we all share in Bill Joy’s imagination and hope for the future when he said, “I came to accept [Star Trek’s] notion that humans had a future in space, Western-style, with big heroes and adventures. Roddenberry’s vision of the centuries to come was one with strong moral values, embodied in codes like the Prime Directive: to not interfere in the development of less technologically advanced civilizations. This had an incredible appeal to me; ethical humans, not robots, dominated this future, and I took Roddenberry’s dream as part of my own” (2). But how realistic is it to think that we will be able to maintain control over technology such as Data? Or – the Borg??



Data is the show’s first step at blurring the distinction between human and machine, though not a particularly profound one. Data is an android, a robot made to look like a human. His abilities as a computer are incredible: his ‘brain’ can store up to 100 petabytes, or 1024 terabytes, and he can process things at speeds up to 60 teraflops, or 60 trillion operations per second (3). With hardware like that he is far and way the smartest character on the show. No human can think that fast, process hundreds of options so quickly and clearly and then make the smart decision. Data can always make the ‘best’ decision. And his character is the type of machine that so many scientists today are aspiring to create.

The idea of robots with artificial intelligence, or even androids, is something that excites some people and greatly worries others. In Bill Joy’s essay Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us he talks about the possible problems in the future of robotics. Theodore Kacynski, the Unabomber, worried that, “If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines” (2). Ultimately the worst possible scenario of robots is that they will be able to become smarter and smarter until they essentially rule over mankind. As Hans Moravec postulates, “The robots will eventually succeed us – humans clearly face extinction” (2).

However, I would disagree with such concerns. Although I am by no means any sort of expert in the area of robotics I do understand to a certain extent what drives humans to do things. When it comes to exterminating a race, or even a species, the reason for such a thing is the advancement of power. One of the best examples in history is that of Hitler trying to rid the world of ‘inferior’ races and take control. He had the unquenchable thirst for power. But what is it that drives people to try and obtain more and more power? Desire. And desire comes from the experience of pleasure. Once a person experiences something pleasurable, such as power, he naturally desires more. The important thing to notice though is that this cycle is entirely based off of emotion. Without emotion one can’t truly want or desire anything.

And so I return to the worst possible consequence of robots. I’m willing to bet that any robot program approved by the government would have some sort of be-nice-to-humans code written in it. So, for robots to rule over humans, or even wipe them out, it would have to derive from some desire for power, from some desire to subordinate humans or get rid of them. This calls for emotion. I don’t care how advanced technology becomes, but it will never be able to replicate true emotion, something immaterial. One of Data’s biggest setbacks in working with humans was his inability to physically feel and to emotionally feel. He couldn’t always comprehend human reasoning due to his lack of emotion. In the film I, Robot Will Smith’s character talks about a robot not making the ‘right’ choice due to its lack of emotion, its lack of conscience. Because a robot will never be able to truly experience emotion I don’t think that there is much credible fear in technology ruling over humans.

Star Trek goes beyond the use of androids, however, with the race of the Borg. Here, Star Trek quite profoundly blurs the distinction between human and machine. The Borg is a cybernetic race, part robot, part organic. They explore new races and turn individuals into Borg, combining the technology of artificial intelligence and computer processors with the best traits of the races they abduct. The individual – if they can even be called ‘individual’ – members of the Borg are part of a collective, or group, with a hive-mind, essentially a brain that they are all networked together with. It is a race that is continually getting smarter. But, being the ‘bad guys’ of the show the humans are able to survive them and sometimes defeat them. Regardless, the Borg is certainly the greatest threat to the Federation. The show’s view of crossing organic with robotic is invariably negative, barring the character Seven of Nine, a Borg who works with the Federation in Star Trek: Voyager.

Here I now make complete guesses as to the nature of cyborgs with full admittance that I know nothing about any present day technology concerning them. Assuming cyborgs are a feasible future, I lean strongly towards the notion that only bad can come from them. I sympathize with Joy in his reaction to reading Ray Kurzweil’s idea of humans becoming one with machines, “On reading it, my sense of unease only intensified; I felt sure he had to be understating the dangers, understating the probability of a bad outcome along this path” (2). And Moravec further fuels my unease towards cyborgs when saying how seriously dangerous a human could be “once transformed into an unbounded superintelligent robot” (2).

That being said, I don’t believe that humans can ever become cyborgs. How can we flawlessly combine thinking and processing? Conscious and non-conscious? Spiritual and material? The mere possibility that this could be possible is beyond fathom in my mind. Technology can do many things, but to integrate life and metal to ‘think’ together is something of mere imagination, no more.



Although I don’t think we will ever experience Star Trek in all its glory, teleporting through walls and the like, I do think technology has a great future for us. Living in space on a large scale is a very real possibility. Exploring deeper and deeper into the solar system and into the earth on which we live will always be at the forefront of science. We are still in the very early years of modern technology and already NASA has nearly completed an international space station. Robotics has become extremely advanced and artificial intelligence is a prominent field in science. Speech recognition software has been a consumer product for years now. But the development of technology won't always be perfect. Unexpected things will assuredly happen, things will go wrong, but nothing that humans won’t be able to deal with, either by fixing it or getting rid of what caused the problem entirely. Technology is, and always will be, under the control of mankind.

(1) NASA Mission. http://naccenter.arc.nasa.gov/NASAMission.html

(2) Joy, Bill. "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html

(3) Data (Star Trek). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_(Star_Trek)

Adam Johns said...

I have conflicted feelings about the new introductory material (2nd par). You have greatly clarified what you're doing, which is good. You've also made it seem like maybe you have three arguments instead of one - we'll see how that plays out. Incidentally - you look a lot like a guy I used to watch STTNG with when we were teenagers.

Minor point: do you think that Data is really obedient? I seem to remember a number of counterexamples, and he does, after all, take command of the ship from time to time.

In your discussion of how we control technologies, here's what bothers me: as Joy would point out, we can control an individual *instance* of a technology, and still have a technological *system* which we don't control at all. I'd argue that you're losing the forest for the trees in this section.

Re: NASA. I think the text of its mission is a legitimate topic of discussion. I also think that you need to contextualize that within the fact that NASA is wholly a creation of the Cold War - it's hard to talk about America in space without bringing up Sputnik (Star Trek, both TOS and TNG, of course, were extremely self-conscious in their discussion of all things Russian & American).

I think your transition from Star Trek as such to Star Trek seen through Bill Joy is good, well-written and timely.

Your discussion of power and desire is interesting, but under-developed - why should we agree with you? It's hardly crazy to suggest that the will to power is driven by the desire for pleasure, but it's not completely obvious either.

"I’m willing to bet that any robot program approved by the government would have some sort of be-nice-to-humans code written in it. " -- Isn't this kind of the point of Joy's essay, though? To bring GNR technologies under tight government control, which could include restricting some lines of research? Arguably you and Joy are just phrasing things differently...

"That being said, I don’t believe that humans can ever become cyborgs. How can we flawlessly combine thinking and processing? Conscious and non-conscious? Spiritual and material? The mere possibility that this could be possible is beyond fathom in my mind. Technology can do many things, but to integrate life and metal to ‘think’ together is something of mere imagination, no more." -- Here, you're not doing research, or paying attention to Joy. Most scientists, after all, don't believe there is any such thing as "spiritual"; many AI researchers clearly believe that "thinking" is simply a variety of "processing." That isn't to say that you should agree with them - but your argument is rooted in feelings, not evidence, whereas Joy, love him or hate him, does provide considerable evidence.

Overall: My first and last paragraphs sort of summarize my response to this paper. While your ideas have been clarified, they have been clarified in multiple directions; while I enjoy your writing, and am more convinced of the merit of the Trek-based apporach than I initially was, I find the whole piece to be long on feelings and short on evidence. You don't, at the end of the day, give us any coherent reasons to think that Data, rather than the Borg, model our probable future - you simply don't believe in the possibility of the very technologies which many researchers are developing.