The week of November 15, 2015

Man and machine, human and bot

By Jesse Hicks

The sci-fi imaginarium is chock-full of robots, from the lethal humanoids of The Terminator to the lethal virtual humanoids of The Matrix, to the soothingly voiced (but lethal!) HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those are just the easiest-to-name examples of killer robots, but without thinking too hard we can offer robots with greater moral nuance to their character: think of Neuromancer’s Wintermute, or the conflicted artificial intelligences of Her and Ex Machina. These robots have the cunning and caring of their human creators—indeed, perhaps, theirs is a more sublime, idealistic way of being. Which then leads us into the Phildickian worlds where the question often looms: What if our robots truly can be more human than human?

Often, the figure of the robot helps us define the limits of humanity. Robots do these things; humans do those things. Of course, the most interesting action happens where those boundaries start to bleed and blur. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at our friends, the bots, as they actually exist today, and asking what they might reveal about our all-too-human relationship with technology.

Chase Hoffberger looks at a familiar use of bots: boosting YouTube views without all the hard work of building a human audience. You might be surprised at how easy it is; with just a Benjamin, you too can recruit a shadowy Russian botnet to steroidally inflate your view count. It’s a typically gray-market cat-and-mouse game: YouTube periodically scrubs nonhuman views from its counts, and the viewmongers improve their techniques. There’s money to be made, after all, with both sides having an incentive to play their roles. For people buying views, the ultimate goal is not simply to inflate view counts, but to make those counts increase high enough and fast enough so that the human meaning-making machine kicks in. “Oh, this video is extremely popular,” the human says, “and as a social animal, I too should be aware of it and its popularity.” Or does that sound too robotic?

We’re looking at our friends, the ’bots, as they actually exist today, and asking what they might reveal about our all-too-human relationship with technology.

That’s an indirect interaction with the bots that surround us, but as Mary Emily O’Hara outlines in her story about the uncanny surveillance machine that is Hello Barbie, sometimes the bots are right in front of us—and they’re talking to our children! She examines the consequences of a children’s doll that “listens” via speech recognition, “remembers” via the cloud, and “responds” via thousands of preprogrammed lines of dialogue. (There’s a Twilight Zone-level eeriness to Hello Barbie making jokes: “Did you know I have a superpower? I can make myself invisible… only when no one’s looking.” I can only hear this in a Talky Tina voice.) This doll’s remarkably lifelike “personality” is enabled by big data and the cloud, and it could easily become a surveillance tool for parents and, potentially, law enforcement. Is Hello Barbie really a child’s best friend?

Finally, Jenny Davis takes Sherry Turkle to task over the claim that our technology is making us less empathetic, less able to hold meaningful conversations, and more alienated from both ourselves and others. In other words: less human. It’s a comforting bit of technological determinism, especially during those moments when a fellow human unapologetically drops from your gaze to look instead at the glowing rectangle with its promise of constant, unchallenging stimulation. But as Davis argues, this is a folktale. Our relationship with our devices—those little robots in our pockets, you might say—is much more complex. And it’s far from clear that, as Turkle’s work seems to darkly prophesize, without a dramatic intervention, we might one day look in the mirror and realize that we were the robots all along.

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via Mike Raybourne/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)