Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Automation as Golem

Early Telegraph Device, Spark Museum, Bellingham, WA
I've been involved in electronics since an early age. I was accomplishing simple radio repairs at age 9, earned my first ham radio license at age 14, and built more than one transmitter by the time I'd graduated from high school. In those days (I  turned 14 in 1958), many people my age earned radio licenses, and many of us built our own gear simply because that was the only way we could afford it.

As  time passed, I built more and more equipment, mostly associated with ham radio. At age 19, after one year of college, I spent 15 months working on an oceanographic ship in the Indian Ocean. I was responsible for keeping the ship's electronic equipment in operation: echo sounders, radar, and a few pieces of laboratory gear. Upon returning home, I returned to school for couple years, vacillating between arts & sciences and engineering. A&S was too crazy, and engineering too linear. That was in the mid-60s.

Eventually I ended up working as an electronics technician, then as a research engineer in the radio astronomy branch of the Astrogeophysics Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I'd previously been a student. One of my jobs there was to automate the tracking mechanism that controlled two twenty-ton radio telescope antennas that ran on circular rails.  My system read punched cards in a modified IBM card reader that weighed about 600 pounds. One card with new solar coordinates coded into it fed through the reader every 15 minutes and the electronics moved the antennas in accordance to them. Solar radio emissions were recorded on a chart recorder identical to the ones used to record water depth during my shipboard duty in the Indian Ocean.

That was the first time I'd been involved in automating anything. Previous to that time, the antennas had been moved at quarter hourly intervals by a grad student reading solar pointing data from a table. Hence the device I built eliminated one job.

By that time I was 25 years old. The antenna pointing system whetted my appetite for automating things, one way or another. I built a porch light turner-onner to turn on the porch light of our house when I came home after dark. It included a timer to keep the light on for a couple minutes before turning it off. That was before commercially made motion detectors were on the market. My version used a photo transistor to detect the light of my headlights.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about automation. When I later became a potter, I fired my kiln just a few times before realizing that here was a function that could easily be automated. I built three different versions of kiln programmers, the last one being completely software mediated via the first notebook computer, the Tandy 100. I had it configured so I could call the computer from a remote phone and get data on the current firing stage and temperature read out to me via Morse code.

That was fun. A few more years went by, along with various other electronic projects, one involving a joint effort with a friend, to build an electronically controlled espresso machine. It was operated by a microprocessor, which by that time was common and widely available device. The project took us about 8 years to complete, during which time I learned a lot about microprocessors, programming, etc, enough that it eventually led to building the wave music machine now on display at Mindport. That was the product of an obsessive year of work, during which I actually injured myself by writing software code, ultimately 30 pages of it.

Those lengthy sessions of coding while sitting in a straight-backed chair and staring at a computer screen culminated in a seriously inflamed muscle in my pelvis, which kept me immobile for several weeks. It set me to thinking about the obsessive quality of the programming work I was doing, and was my first clue that there was an emotional component to my intense interest in programming and automating things. It led to questions about the role played by electronic equipment in the larger world, not just my own.

Wave music was the first exhibit I built for Mindport. . . except I didn't know it was for Mindport because it was 1994 and Mindport didn't exist yet. After Mindport opened in 1995, I installed "Wave Music" there, then built the "House of Mystery," which incorporated two microprocessors to control its lighting functions. I could have done that with simple toggle switches, but I wanted it to cycle its lighting automatically and detect when someone came near so it could prepare itself to interact with a visitor. This incorporation of electronics into what was basically an art piece really set me on the path on considering the meanings behind automation, not only personal meanings but meanings in society at large.

Jump ahead, nearly to the present. A year or so ago Mindport began subscribing to "Make" magazine, which is devoted to. . . what else but making things. As time has passed the magazine seems to have evolved from one devoted to making a large variety of things, such as wooden gadgets and toys, plus a few electronically related devices, to one much more focused on high tech gadgetry, and robots of various sorts, including drone aircraft. I wondered why our societal obsession with robots seemed to be escalating, and I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with the trend.

At the same time techno-triumphalists (a word I believe was coined by James Howard Kunstler) were beginning to talk about "The Singularity," which is a kind of techno-rapture that they believe will occur when humans have fully integrated themselves with machinery, to the point that we can upload ourselves to computers and live forever.

My candid opinion on this subject is this: HOGWASH!

After years of deep immersion in electronics, computers, programming, and then art, I've begun to understand something about the meaning of our societal obsession with electronic gadgetry, and especially robots. A clue came when it occurred to me that in my own process of automating things I was, in a sense, creating crude proxies of my own self.

There's an archetypal figure in Jewish mythology called a golem. I'll leave it to you to read the entry on the Golem found in Wikipedia. Basically it was a being formed from mud, then magically animated. If you remember the story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, its theme runs parallel. In the latter story, the sorcerer goes away to attend outside business. His apprentice, an amateur in magical operations, animates a broom to carry water for him. The broom goes out control because the apprentice has not learned the spells necessary to de-animate the broom. He attempts to stop it by chopping it into bits, but all the fragments jump up and each begins carrying water until the apprentice is swimming for his life.

The story of the Golem or that of The Sorcerer's Apprentice are part of our cultural mythology. Many people think of myths as just stories we tell to amuse ourselves, with no relation to any rational truth. However myths are usually descriptions of deep patterns that run in our psyches, our "collective unconscious."

One significant part of the Golem mythology is that the Golem is made out of mud or clay. You might ask what that has to do with electronic technology. Everything. Look at the computer upon which you're reading this. Every component in it was dug out of the earth: the oil from which the plastic case and circuit boards are made, all the carbon, copper, silver, gold, and rarer elements that make up the electronic circuitry and screen. All were dug from the earth.

In many ways this machinery we've built constitutes a Golem that has or is rapidly taking on a life of its own. We've so thoroughly incorporated this electronic equipment, formed from earth, into our lives that it actually controls us, not the other way around. Consider what would happen if the Internet was put out of commission by hackers, a solar storm, or other disaster. The country, or the world, in fact, outside of the rare indigenous tribe still living sustainably off the land, would come to a screeching halt. It would be like suddenly destroying an animal's nervous system. Instant death. We are completely in the power of the machinery.

Certain  people, Google’s Ray Kurzweil, for example, enthusiastically predict a day when we're fully integrated with machines, possibly having "uploaded" ourselves into them.  But how many machines still are viable after being in operation for eighty or a hundred years? How many of them can climb a fourteen thousand foot peak running on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a couple quarts of water?

Whoa! What are we thinking, and why?

Kurzweil and other high-powered technologists, such as Marvin Minsky of M.I.T. , Bill Gates, and others, have indeed made many valuable contributions to the technosphere. However the tech cheering section seems oblivious to the fact that every technological innovation invariably creates a whole raft of new problems, which we then attempt to solve by introducing yet more technology. Kurzweil earned a B.S. in computer science and literature at M.I.T. One wonders what literature he actually read, or whether he took other courses that focus on the human condition. Wikipedia informs us that in high school:  “. . .he often held onto his class textbooks to seemingly participate, but instead, focused on his own projects which were hidden behind the book.”

The latter quote lends credence to my belief that technologists are the LEAST qualified people to be guiding the future of the world. So many of them apparently have very little grounding in subjects such as history, social studies, anthropology, psychology or other humanities. If they do, they act oblivious to any truths they might have garnered there. Do we want our lives determined by people obsessively interested in technology to the exclusion of everything else?  Should we do what they believe is good for us without question?  (Of course, we love the toys they invent, partially because we're a young culture, even adolescent, as Robert Bly argued in his book, The Sibling Society, but it doesn't necessarily mean all the toys are good for us.)

We're in a jobs crisis. That's because either the jobs have been sent overseas where labor is cheaper, or they've been taken over by machines. I eliminated at least one job myself by building a machine. Granted, it was a pretty tedious job, turning a couple antennas every fifteen minutes. But it did provide support for one grad student who could study or read while doing his or her job.

The computerized espresso machine I helped build eliminated the need for a barista to possess any particular skill in making espresso coffee, which means if a restaurant owned one of these machines, they wouldn't have to train anyone in the subtleties of making espresso with an old fashioned (beautiful) manually operated machine. One more job down the drain. It probably increased espresso "productivity" and the profits of machine owners, but was perhaps not the gift to the world that my engineering partner and I anticipated at the time. Incidentally, I never made any money off that enterprise. But that's a whole other story.

All I've written above leads to no answers but only to questions, and possibly a couple realizations. The biggest and most interesting question to me is, why this preoccupation with replacing our own functions with machinery? Which leads to this one: once we're replaced ourselves with machinery, what are we FOR, what do we DO, what's the purpose of our lives? A few of us who are artists and scientists can keep themselves happily amused creating art or exploring the universe. What about the rest? I've argued that there's an artist in everyone, but I've also known plenty of people with absolutely no interest in art OR science. What happens to those who like to build, maintain, and repair useful things; the people who are the human face and life of our businesses and daily transactions?

It seems to me that those who go to extremes in advocating or believing that machines can effectively replace the functions of human beings have a very limited concept of what it means to be human, and about what characteristics are desirable in a human-centered society. They possess a stunted view of their own essence. This was not an academic realization for me, but it was one that my own years-long immersion in machinery, to the point that it afflicted me with a physical ailment, woke me up to. We are not machines. We are not even LIKE machines. Machines are modeled after a very limited understanding of our own being, and that conception of our being has its own history, grown over time into a set of unconscious beliefs about ourselves that, should we penetrate them deeply, might allow us to expand our being in unexpected ways. Such understanding would also enable us to chart a course for ourselves and our society that could culminate in a much happier existence for everyone.

Post Script: You will notice that I've drawn little or no distinction between automating processes and creating robots. A robot is simply an ultimate form of automation, perhaps more autonomous than other forms. An automated machine or process is a limited form of robot. I’m not arguing that some, or even many, processes shouldn’t be automated, but that we need to widen our understanding of the function our lives serve and consider more deeply the meaning of whatever automation we eventually accomplish, not to speak of how much we really want machinery mediating our daily existence.

Kevin Jones

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