I saw the German film "Plug & Pray" (Trailer) by Jens Schanze on opening night, November 11, in Berlin. It is about Joseph Weizenbaum and his very critical discussion of the attempts of many computing researchers to create robots that are in some way human, often called humanoids.
The interview scenes of Weizenbaum were done just before he died in March 2008. Weizenbaum was a German-born computer scientist who left Germany as a teenager with his family during the Third Reich. He was a professor for computer science at MIT in the US from 1970. He returned to Berlin in retirement in 1996 - but still remained very active as the rational voice for the ethical use of computing.
He was an important person for me with respect to my own views of computing. He came to the University of Kiel, where I studied computing, sometime at the end of the 70s or beginning of the 80s. He spoke about his Eliza system, a simple system that tries to respond like a psychoanalyst. People would assume that this system - nothing more than code - was somehow human-like and be very open with the system about their problems.
He published a book in 1976, Computer Power and Human Reason. From Judgement to Calculation (German: Die Macht der Computer und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft) that really made me think about these questions - what is a computer? What does it mean to society when computers act in certain ways? What are ethical - and unethical - uses of computing? Can we even use computers if we are against the military uses?
He wrote occasional articles in the "Zeit" (his legendary Albtraum Computer is available online), and came back to Germany occasionally for speaking tours. I had the supreme pleasure of speaking longer with him in person on one occasion after a speech he gave at the Humboldt University. This elderly gentleman with very sharp, at times dancing eyes, and a razor-sharp argumentative presence was inspiring. The idea for my own small book about ethics and computing germinated in that room.
The producers of Plug & Pray wanted to investigate current research on the bleeding edge of technology that are questionable in their ethical consequences. They chose robotics, as this offers much in the way of visuals. This is a major problem for computing - it is difficult to explain to the general public what we do and what the problems associated with our work is, because most of what we do is abstract and not visible, most certainly not interesting to watch on film.
Schanze interviews a number of researchers as contrapoints to the words of Weizenbaum. Hiroshi Ishiguro, of Osaka University in Japan, has created a Doppelgänger he calls Geminoid that can play 20 questions with a partner, and in general is dressed like him, and moves like him. As he points out, when he comes home to his children he just plops in front of the TV and says "yes, yes" when his kids ask him something, so there might just as well be a robot there. I think that he ought to send this dead-eyed thing on conferences to give his papers and instead spend more time being sincerely interested in his children.
Introducing this sequence is a collection of manga comics depicting this brave new world coming up soon - and I find it so sad to see a child alone in a room with a robotic stuffed animal and a big screen, or being taught by such a lifeless robot. Life is not just about factoids, but it is about relationships and feeling, about empathy and anger and love, even about choosing to do something that is not rational on one level but makes perfect sense on another.
During the film I often got the feeling that many of these researchers, working as they do in an almost exclusively male environment, have problems with women. On the one hand, they are deeply envious of women's capability for creating life. They are not content to contribute that first spark, but they want to make something in their own image that completely follows their bidding. Some even seem afraid of women, for example in the lab of Minoru Asada, also in Osaka, where we see researchers watching via camera what their robot in a shopping center is doing. It is flirting with a group of girls, and the researchers like this very much, safely distanced from the girls, watching them without the girls being aware that they are being watched.
Giorgio Metta, from Genua, is working on the humanoid robot iCub, that plays heavily on the cuteness of small children (the Kindchenschema described by Konrad Lorenz) in order to be appealing. I find this quite appalling. Even if they manage to make this -oid learn, it will never grow, will never mature. It doesn't have a life experience to relate to. Metta notes that the Catholic Church would probably excommunicate him if they knew what he is doing, but the Vatican wisely refrains from having an opinion, noting that humans enjoy a free will and can use their God-given gifts as they choose, even to build robots.
The strangest interview is with Raymond Kurzweil, a veritable Energizer bunny who has invented many diverse things from a very useful reader for blind people and an amazing keyboard that makes authentic sounding music to a bizarre pill and tea regimen that he flogs on a web site. He wants to live forever. Imagine working forever, the world getting more and more crowded, constantly changing. Better to accept that our time on earth is finite, to enjoy each age as it comes, and to live each day to the fullest. Weizenbaum knows that his time is coming to an end. Even though there are so many things he still needs to write, he is, in a way, longing for the time when pain is a thing of the past. He listens to Bach's "Komm süßer Tod":
Another research group that is presented is the unmanned vehicle group of Hans-Joachim Wünsche from the University of the Army in Munich, Germany. Presentations of their unmanned follower vehicle at a military conference were filmed. I suppose the idea is to have an unmanned vehicle that can explore "enemy" territory without killing soldiers when they drive over landmines.
- Come, sweet death, come blessed rest!
- Come lead me to peace
- for I am weary of the world,
- oh come! I wait for you,
- come soon and lead me,
- close my eyes.
- Come, blessed rest!
But for me this shows the true goal of the robotic investigations - for military use. Robots won't feel bad about killing enemies. Their puppeteers can rationalize that they didn't do any killing directly. And anyway, can we be sure which robot did the killing? They don't leave DNA and fingerprints, as WiseKid points out when we discuss the film.
It was amusing that one of the cars got irritated by tall grass and left the trail and the convoy, getting mired in the mud. A press conference given by Prof. Wünsche and some unnamed, uniformed men I find it almost comical as they pass an enormous, phallic microphone around and speak about how great their vehicles will be - someday.
A brief interview with the researchers shows them rationalizing what they do - they are just investigating, they are not doing anything bad, anything to be ashamed of. "It's just my research." This is a decision that everyone must make for themselves - is there enough good to come out of what I do that it is worth the nasty uses the military will come up with? Sure, many offer up "helping the elderly" as one of the reasons for their work. But this is flimsy and not thought through well - there don't seem to be clear-cut non-military use cases for these robots, the production of which is taking an enormous amount of taxpayer's money.
I would prefer to have this money used in schools, and for health care - real care, of humans helping and teaching humans, not machines to teach and to heal. And that we train all scientists, not just computer scientists, to think about the consequences of their research.