When Machines Think

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

It wasn’t really the president, it was a machine.  When I was young, my family took a summer vacation trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  One of the memorable exhibits was the Hall of Presidents, where Animatronic likenesses of the presidents speak to the audience.  This was no static, stale wax museum where a few stiff movements might be jury-rigged into an arm or leg in a few of the displays.  This was all the US presidents, displaying life-like movement that looked quite real, at least to a young boy from the distance of a seat mid-way back in the amphitheater.  Of course even young children knew these were not truly real men but merely robotic impersonators.  Nevertheless it was fascinating to watch the show unfold and enjoy the android replicas. 

About that same time I started reading science fiction, a pastime that would become a lifelong appreciation for the genre.  I read every single science fiction book the Grandville, Michigan library had to offer (Dune, by Frank Herbert, was one of my early favorites). I bought more books at garage sales.  I borrowed more from friends.  I signed up for a mail-order book club that offered a special deal on a bonanza of books when you joined, adding dozens more books to my collection like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  My enjoyment of science fiction was not limited to the written word, but spilled over to television and the cinema, where Star Trek and Star Wars quickly became favorites.

The thing about science fiction is that it doesn’t always stay fiction.  The fantastical babies grown in jars and the abhorrent eugenically-produced societal castes of Huxleys’ Brave New World were imaginative stories of technology.  However, only a few generations after his 1931 novel, those technologies became reality.  The first test tube baby was born in 1978, the first genetically modified crop appeared in 1982, and Dolly, the first cloned mammal, was born in 1996.  I found another imaginative story around futuristic technology in the story of Steve Austin, the eponymous main character of the 1970’s television show “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Just a couple decades later, the technology of bionic limbs has become reality in the incredible robotic prosthetics that provide delicate control and feedback to amputees. 

Perhaps the most interesting science fiction technologies are machines that think.  Human-looking robots that also act human are no strangers to the silver screen of science fiction.  The replicants of Blade Runner and the android Lt. Cmdr. Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation are just two examples.  Have those imaginative stories become reality?  Not yet.  There are certainly fast computational devices with large databases of information, such as IBM’s Watson, which beat two human Jeopardy! champions recently.  Can Watson really think?  I think not.  Could a machine ever think?  Possibly. 

Machines that could think could also be machines that are dangerous.  Asimov considered that possibility in many of his science fiction stories and thus formed his famous three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human nor through inaction allow a human to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders from humans, except if they conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect itself as long it does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws seem to be reasonable protections for humans, but I see an interesting contradiction.  If even sophisticated robots are simply deterministic automatons, then it seems odd to bother with the last law.  Why grant self-preservation to a machine?  I suppose such a law might be simply reflect the interests of the robot’s owner in protecting valuable property.  But that third law could also imply that the robot might really be thinking and not simply following a computational recipe.  If we believe that we ourselves are really thinking, and not simply following a deterministic genetic and biological recipe, then we might grant some measure of self-protection to a thinking robot as well.  But if we think the robot thinks, then the second law seems rather like slavery.  I don’t think we can have it both ways:  a convenient mechanistic slave to obey my every command but also smart enough to interpret the world around it and creatively respond to the nuances and complexities of real world situations.  If I own a human-looking robot that is smart enough to also act human, may I hurt it?  May I torture it?  What does that say about the status of the robot?  More importantly, what does that say about my own humanity?

Perhaps as a way to avoid any uncomfortable questions, we might simply define humans carefully so that such human-like machines are obviously not in the club, so that we might treat them how I wish.  However, I am hesitant to draw lines around human-like androids, thus naming them simply machines with no obligations attached and no attendant responsibilities to worry me.  Why does it worry me?  As machines become more human-like, I wouldn’t want to be so stingy in defining what it means to be human that my rubric not only disenfranchises the machine but also boxes out the most vulnerable of humans, allowing us to treat them carelessly too, such as the unborn child, the accident victim lying in a coma, the student with a learning disability, the poor, or the terminally ill.  God calls his people to protect the weak, as a matter of justice.  God calls his people to be generous to the vulnerable, as a matter of mercy.  God calls his people to guard against pride that causes us to treat others shabbily, as a matter of humility. 

Mediated Communication

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


At a recent conference, I heard a number of educators speak on their concerns about the detrimental effects of distance learning and online education.  Their mantra was that there is something special about the natural teacher-student relationship that requires intimate, in-person, face-to-face communication.  There is some kind of indefinable electricity that permeates the classroom of the master teacher.  Each of these teachers extended their diatribe against technology by resurrecting the critiques of philosophers Jacque Ellul and Neil Postman.  Ellul’s 1964 seminal book, The Technological Society, makes the argument that modern society has an inescapable focus on efficiency, to which all other aspects of society must eventually yield.  Ellul offers little hope for the people that must become cogs in the machine in the face of the irresistible force of technology.  Postman echos Ellul in his 1992 Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, documenting the unseen hand of technology that drives society to meet its needs.  Postman is not quite so dark as Ellul, offering at least some suggestions for resistance to and subversion of technology’s designs on us. 

Postmodern deconstructionists argue that we really can never understand each other because our words are so individualized and contextualized that we each construct our own meaning which has little or nothing to do with the speaker’s intent.  So I have often wondered why they bother to tell us this, since their central argument is that we won’t understand them.  The anti-technology crowd claims we must avoid technology if we hope to save our cultural souls.  So I have often wondered why they use technology to write and disseminate their arguments.  When I heard Postman speak at Calvin just a few years before he published Technopoly, I noticed that he traveled to this speaking engagement in a commercial jet aircraft, traveled from the airport to the college in an automobile, amplified his voice with a microphone so that the large audience could hear him,, and wore clothing made from heavily engineered textiles.  Similarly, the educators at my conference were against technology, yet they admitted to using all kinds of technology, such as chalk and chalkboard to write words for their students, electric lights so the students could see them, heat and cooling technology to produce a temperate indoor environment, Google searching for their papers, and more.  The anti-technologist argument is seriously undermined if the preacher does not practice what he preaches, but instead continues to enjoy the benefits. 

The educator’s fear of technology is not new.  Educators of the previous century worried that with the advent of film and television, student learning would suffer and, more personally, worried that they would be replaced by the new technology.  Even the ancient philosopher Plato worried that the new technology of books would ruin our memory.  Yet our society has not succumbed to a heedless obedience to technology.  Philosophers such as Ellul as well as Martin Heidegger claim that technology is autonomous, with its own goals and with the power and agency to induce changes in society.  Yet our society has not become the mindless marionette that dances to the gestures of technology. 

When we see evil in the world, it is easy to blame technology. But technology has no agency, it is not an actor.  It is our instrument to do our bidding.  Christians can point to a simpler explanation for the evil in the world:  sin.  The effects of sin are far-reaching:  not only does sin warp the intent of the technology user so that the instrument is directed to corrupt ends, but it also warps the technology itself, so that the instrument is biased towards the will of its maker in ways that encourage corrupt uses.  Blaming technology itself is to blame the symptom rather than the disease.  Recommending treatments based on this misdiagnosis will thus not cure the root cause of our ills.  I am not thereby exonerating technology.  We must still be wary of injustice, wrong, and harm that arrive via technology.  However, any corrective action must look beyond the technology itself to the human systems and processes that produced that technology. 

Thus I call for educators worried about online classes to name those fears and then do the hard work of analyzing the system, rather than settling for the easy critique of the technology by itself.  If we claim that online learning is evil (or less drastically, less effective), then let us carefully examine what is lost when the teacher and student are separated geographically and sometimes temporally, yet connected via a digital medium.  One problem that we see when our communication is mediated is that we lose some information important for interpreting meaning.  For example,  you can tell someone is joking in person by the twinkle in their eye or the slight smile on their face.  It is much more difficult to recognize humor in an email that is devoid of all body language.  One could think of non-technical solutions to this problem (use a smiley face to denote a joke in text, or avoid humor) and technical solutions (use a high definition video feed so that we can see that twinkle).  A second problem that we see when our communication is mediated is that separation permits less engagement by the participants.  If I am speaking face-to-face with someone, it is much more difficult for them to ignore me.  My physical presence demands their engagement and holds them accountable.  Again, one can think of non-technical solutions (such as frequent prompting that requires response to ensure engagement) and technical solutions (such as attention-tracking video recognition technology to flag when a participant’s engagement is dropping). 

We can learn something more from this analysis, beyond appropriate use of technology.  We can also see that rich communication requires rich personal relationship.  A teacher that mentors a student one-on-one will be in a better position to encourage learning, challenge assumptions, and hold the student accountable.  Compare that to a teacher who stands before a class of 100 students and thus faces significant communication hurdles that approach those of online communication, since one cannot easily see the students in the back row to determine if they are engaged.  A long-running conversation with a good friend (whether in person or over facebook) will contain keen insights and allow for more personal exchanges that deepen the friendship.  Compare that to a tweet to thousands of twitter followers, which can only contain generic insights and impersonal information.  Compare that to this blog itself, which is primarily one-way communication (with a few much appreciated exceptions when some readers email me back with their thoughts). 

We can learn something further here.  All our communication is mediated.  Our own preconceptions and moods will color our interpretation of any message from others.  The deconstructionist thus have it partly right—we do make our own meaning, though I don’t take this to the extreme that there is no shared understanding.  So in all our communication, even when meant in love, we must take care.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together), discusses the importance of Christ as our ultimate mediator, not only between ourselves and God, but also between ourselves and our fellow humans:  “Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them.  As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself.  This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love.  The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tr. John W. Doberstein, Life Together, Harper Collins, 1954, p. 36).

Brain vs. Brawn

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


If the mind is godly and good while the body is worldly and evil, then why wouldn’t God have just created us as spirits?  Rather he created us as physical beings with mass and inertia, with blood and muscle.  If the ancient Greeks were right—production of knowledge with our mind alone is good, while production of things using our hands is the least noble—then why would God place us corporeally (bodily) in a Creation full of physical things and put us in charge of this physical stuff of creation?

Christians can get caught up in a Hellenistic way of thinking, conflating a focus on the mind with a focus on the spirit. But our soul is not synonymous with our brain.  Furthermore, we are not purely spirit—we believe in the resurrection of the body, after all, acknowledging that our soul is incomplete without our body.  Thinking about embracing my spouse is not the same as the actual physical act.  Thinking about serving my neighbor is not the same as actually filling their needs through offering physical, bodily aid.  Perhaps the relationship of spirit and body is related to the that of faith and works:  one without the other is dead.  Our faith is dead unless it is lived out in tangible acts that are the fruit of our faith. 

Why is this distinction and balance important for engineers, scientists, and all of us involved in technology either as a career or hobby?  Because technology is the work of our hands as much as of our minds.  It is the physical embodiment of our volition.  It is our will incarnate.  Philosopher Nicholas P. Wolterstorff underlined the importance of equal respect for both mind and body:  “The Protestant Reformation, and, in particular, the Calvinist branch thereof, represents a radical rejection of this scale of values in which the life of the mind is elevated over that of the citizen, in which both modes of life are elevated over ordinary life, and in which the work of our hands is regarded as having no more than instrumental value.“ (Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College,” in Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education , ed. Ronald A. Wells, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996, p. 144.)  Wolterstorff allowed no sacred-secular split: “...it was these [production and reproduction aspects of ordinary life] that the Reformers, for the first time in the history of the West, bestowed with inherent and not just instrumental worth—provided they were done to the glory of God and the good of the commonwealth.”

After praising the ordinary, corporeal work of our hands, Wolterstorff also calls us to responsibility.  It is not sufficient to rest on our laurels of inherent worth.  “One serves God and humanity in one’s daily occupation….But one does not serve God and humanity by going into business and then just playing the received role of businessmen, nor by going into medicine and then just playing the received role of physician, nor by going into the academy and then just playing the received role of the academic.  For those received roles are religiously fallen—not fallen through and through, but nonetheless fallen.  To serve God faithfully and to serve humanity effectively, one has to critique the received role and do what one can to alter the script …. The Reformed Christian will want to step back… to ask what is the purpose of business.” (Wolterstorff, p. 148)

Thus both the technologist and the teacher, both the machinist and the mentalist, both the physician and the philosopher have inherent worth.  All vocations are sacred.  All are callings from God.  As such, they all deserve respect.  As such, they all deserve careful consideration so that they live up to their high calling.

iPhones and iP

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


The recent court ruling in the Apple vs. Samsung smartphone case is just one more episode in the controversy surrounding intellectual property (IP for short) and particularly the use of patents.  Patents were originally invented to encourage innovation.  (Hmm…  I wonder if the first patent was for the idea of a patent?)  Nevertheless, some have recently argued that patents do just the opposite, stifling new innovation in a morass of litigation.  Can you actually own property that is intellectual?  Since our society has chosen to grant the right to own property, then if an idea is property, we might, as a society, decide to grant certain rights to the owner of that property.  The violation of those rights would be illegal.  Further, the violation would be unethical or immoral if the law that was transgressed is right and just.  The debate today has largely focused on that last question—whether our current patent legislation is good law.

I think there is some Biblical basis for property rights, especially as they relate to our ability to earn a living.  However, those rights also seem to be limited in a number of ways.  For example, the Jubilee laws required that the purchase price of land be in inverse proportion to the number of years until Jubilee, and the land would then revert back to the original family at Jubilee.  Ultimately, God is the owner and we are merely the steward.  I suspect that Old Testament laws related to property are connected with our ability to work, as an expression of the talents and gifts God has given us and also an expression of our care and responsibility—for our family, for our community, for the Creation.  In the ancient agrarian society, land was the basic resource necessary to enable useful work for most inhabitants (though certainly there were traders, metal fabricators, and other specialists who could earn a living by means that were not so directly tied to land).  In the modern information society, rather than land, our coin of the realm is information, knowledge, and education.  Knowledge now enables useful work for many, if not most inhabitants.  Thus the idea that ideas themselves might be property is not so far-fetched.  Rights do not come without responsibilities:  just as in ancient times, it may be appropriate today to limit those rights and balance them with the needs of the community.  Thus I believe a balanced approach may be wise, granting some rights and protection (through patents and copyrights) for a limited time and in limited scope to enable individuals to work productively and earn a living.  The limits should be sufficient to also enable the good of the community, preventing hoarding of important knowledge or gouging of customers beyond what is reasonable. 

Beyond property rights, I would also like to consider another aspect of rights and justice related to ideas.  Justice can also derive from respect and honoring of the person who developed the idea.  If one marvels at the creativity of an innovative invention, if one appreciates the beauty of a graceful sculpture, if one is mesmerized by the elegance of an evocative symphony, then it is right for us to feel gratitude toward the creator.  Isn’t it enough to appreciate the art itself?  I think not.  I can appreciate and enjoy the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. because I respect and admire Dr. King’s legacy.  The artwork can instill gratitude to Dr. King.  The artwork can remind me of the importance of King’s work.  However, I simultaneously respect and admire Lei Yixin, the artist who designed the monument.  It is just that we pay respect and express thanks to the artist.  We do the inventor an injustice if we do not acknowledge their hand in the invention.  We do the artist an injustice if we do not credit them as the source of the art.  Respect of the artist may be their right, even if acknowledgement and gratitude do not necessarily take the form of a monetary exchange.

Respect such as this is paid by acknowledging the artist wherever the art is displayed or performed.  When a creative work builds on the work of others, then at the very least, the artist doing the adapting should extend the courtesy to acknowledge her sources.  Even when there is not such a direct link to previous work, inventors and artists with integrity and modesty will credit those individuals who provided them with inspiration and encouragement. 

Engineers often are the unsung inventors and designers behind a product. Perhaps engineers are too shy or modest.  Modesty is not a bad trait—it can help us avoid undue pride.  Even so I wish more companies would follow the example of Adobe.  If you check the “About” dialog for most of their software products, you get a list of all the people that contributed to the product.  It reminds me of the credits at the end of a movie!  I’d like to appreciate the engineers that invented that latest gadget I purchased, the engineers that designed that excellent bridge I just drove across, and the engineers who designed some of the cross-checking logic to ensure the computer flying the plane is ultra reliable.  Whether they got a patent or not, the intellectual rigor and creativity in their designs is worthy of respect and admiration.  If you are one of those countless engineers, technicians, artists, designers, scientists, architects, or inventors, you can pass along that respect by giving glory to God for giving you the talents that enabled that creativity and the resources to carry out your designs.

Tools from God

Friday, September 07, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark…”
Genesis 6:11-14 (NIV)

After the original creation story, we know of only a few instances where God directly created an object for human use.  God made the garments of skin for Adam and Eve, providing a more durable covering than the fig leaves they first used to cover their embarrassment.  God made the original stone tablets and wrote the ten commandments on them himself.  We also know of a few instances where God provides blueprints for humans to build something, such as the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and Noah’s ark.  These artifacts were made from natural resources and had a primarily utilitarian purpose (i.e., they were intended to serve as a means to some further end).  Clothing, a long-lasting writing medium (though not so enduring when dashed to the ground), a pack-n-go shelter, a mobile keepsake cabinet, and a zoological cruise ship are all examples of technology.  These examples raise a couple questions in my mind.

Why so few examples?  It might be that God provided intends for us to follow his example rather than always making tools for us.  Beyond these few samples, God has delegated building and construction primarily to his stewards:  you and me.  What can we learn from our Creator mentor about our assigned task?  Let’s look at the purpose of each technology that God made himself.  The clothing for Adam and Eve addressed their sin-induced embarrassment.  The Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant provided a focal point for worship and reminders of God’s presence.  The other ark, made by Noah, provided a shelter against the ravages of a global flood.  Each technological artifact is a tool, an instrument.  Each is primarily a utilitarian means to a purposeful end.  In the same way, the technology we develop should serve:  our tools should serve God and serve our neighbor.  The design of our technology ought to recognize our human limitations and address the effects of sin. 

Why such concrete examples?  God used physical, corporeal, embodied solutions—things made of animal skin, stone, and wood.  Why not more directly and miraculously fix the problem?  My suspicion is that God wanted to provide a physical reminder of his care and keeping.  God, as a spirit, is difficult for us to grasp (in the intellectual sense).  The solutions he provided were physical tools that one could grasp in a physical sense.  The tool that provided a physical help then also became the crutch his people could use to grasp his eternal presence and benevolence.  In the same way, our best technological products provide an immediate help to those in need but also serve to point to our Creator and Savior.  The fruits of the spirit and Christian virtues thus become active and real.  Our technology is not only an instrument for immediate relief, but also a conduit for kindness, goodness, justice, mercy, and love.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest