Western fantasies of a mechanistic future

Developing Just Leadership

Rahhalah Haqq

Ramadan 16, 1422 2001-03-01

Book Review

by Rahhalah Haqq (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 1, Ramadan, 1422)

Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind by Hans Moravec. Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 2000. Pp: 227. Pbk: US$15.95.

Ever since the days of the medieval Christian church, dreams of mechanical labor-saving devices have been pervasive in the West. What few people realize, however, is that the quest for such devices is driven by a deep-seated fear and hatred of women. Christian monks lived in a monastic world without women, since women in the Christian belief system epitomized filth and evil, having tempted Adam and condemned humanity to a life of sin. So having women around — even only to do the cleaning, cooking, and farming — was unthinkable in the monastic culture. The best minds of that all-male world fixated upon inventing labor saving devices as eventual replacements for women, since celibacy had already removed women from their child-rearing roles. Centuries later, with Western scientists replacing monks, the same impetus drives much of technological innovation. From cloning, a sort of birth without a womb, to the new generation of robots, intended to replace women’s domesticity, the masculine millennium is upon the world.

The origins of the word “robot” can be traced to 1921, when a Czech playwright coined the term from a word meaning ‘hard and menial labor.” In his recent book of the same title, robotics pioneer and techno-guru Hans Moravec fills many pages to describe both the practical and theoretical aspects of a cleaning robot that will be able to operate on its own: clean a home, find its way around by sophisticated eye-like sensors, and even recharge itself. But all the while, despite the appearance of futuristic innovation, Moravec seems unaware that what he is celebrating is nothing original at all; it is merely the long-sought Christian male phantasm of a Western world without women.

But there is more to this book than tales of high-tech vacuum cleaners. Moravec is uniquely situated to tell robot stories, having been among the pioneers of modern robotics. His life is in many ways the history of robotics, and his books simply extrapolate the present into the future by asking questions and suggesting possible answers. The earliest robots were little more than children’s toys, mechanical novelties in a culture known for its love of gadgets. Research on guidance systems for mobile robots was hampered by the memory requirements for computers to navigate complex environments, so most early robots remained stationary, limited to routine tasks such as assembly-line work. Moravec imagines fully mobile computerized robots that will be able to walk, talk and think on their own.

He admits that such machines will initially be few and far between, sequestered in laboratories and the homes of the rich and famous, but he hopes eventually for more widespread acceptance: “As the rising flood reaches more populated heights, machines will begin to do well in areas a greater number of us can appreciate. The visceral sense of a thinking presence in machinery will become increasingly widespread. When the highest peaks are covered, there will be machines that can interact as intelligently as any human on any subject. The presence of minds in machines will then become self evident.” A focus on mindful machines drives Moravec’s work.

Moravec’s understanding of mind and intelligence is dependent upon unchallenged assumptions embedded in cognitive science and much of cybernetics, both of which privilege quantitative reasoning over other forms of intelligent awareness. His analyses and predictions require that we see humans as machines, exacerbating old Cartesian dualisms between mind and body in the guise of ‘new science’. This foundation is necessary for his thesis to make sense, before he can predict eventual robot advances over human intelligence. But if machines will eventually embody Western man’s worst pathologies and insecurities, they might also help human beings to become more human in all their organic and imperfect frailties and their unpredictable ambitions and questions.

For now, as it has been since the beginning, ‘thinking machines’ according to the Western model remain an unattainable Holy Grail, largely because of the physical limitations of computer and communication technology. According to futurists working in the American computer industries, bandwidth increases via fiber optic networking by the year 2010CE will revolutionize the internet with speeds heretofore unimagined, a condition upon which Moravec’s predications are dependent. But this still leaves open the problem of the “last mile,” the final run of cabling that actually delivers the fiber-optic signal to individual computers. Industry sages see this as the major obstacle to full fiber-optic computer communication, which means that Moravec’s fantasies will probably remain those of the rich only, if they can be realized at all. Wireless systems will face similar setbacks, although Moravec tends to focus on land-based systems and pins his hopes on smaller and faster memory chips.

Moravec sees several obstacles to total robot utopia, the most important ones being the memory limitations of computer chips and microprocessing power. But these are only temporary hindrances, he assures us, because soon enough computers with processors that operate at tens of thousands of MIPS (million instructions per second) will be commonplace. He even sets a date some time in the middle of this century for computer-processing power to surpass that of humans. But the thesis is flawed, and relies on the same old Cartesian and Newtonian assumptions that utopians like Moravec claim to have transcended. Instead of thinking like humans, computers that ‘think’ may only redefine how humans understand thinking by normalizing definitions of intelligence that depend on computerized thought.

But let us indulge this fantasy a little longer. In Moravec’s future, humans will upload their minds into robotic orbs that will roam the universe, tethered to the earth by alloy cables. These mind orbs will soon form self-perpetuating ‘seed colonies’ on planets and asteroids in the farthest reaches of the solar system, and eventually, “linked realities will routinely transcend the physical and sensory limitations of the ‘home’ body.” It’s hard to find a more alienated vision of the future, with its staggering disregard for anything except the realm of abstract thought. In the spirit of Plato, Augustine and Descartes, Moravec has not transcended the Western norms of life and existence; he has merely brought them to their logical conclusion: complete and total separation of mind from matter by means of computer technology.

Maybe this is a turn for the better. Perhaps futuristic gurus, corporate executives, grimy politicians and the wealthy ruling elite who wish to defy God and the laws of nature by living forever can either virtualize themselves or, better yet, upload themselves into robot bodies that can then colonize the outer reaches of the solar system. Good riddance. As long as they don’t destroy the earth with their competitive greed and insatiable appetites before leaving, perhaps in the end Moravec’s advances in computer power, cybernetic futures, and the transcendent mind will rid the tired planet of all the arrogant powers, leaving the rest of humanity to live pious and humble lives in their delicate bodies on earth, as was meant to be.

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