[Humanist] 24.613 our dreams fulfilled?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 23 07:48:08 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 613.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 22 Dec 2010 15:20:37 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: perfect virtue achieved?

[There are some technological visions that one could amost say in 
total confidence will *never* be realised in anything like the form in which 
they are imagined. But there are others, at one time depicted in 
fiction or which might have been, the realisation of which now one can 
say are only a matter of time. "Beaming" as in Star Trek is I'd suppose 
an example of the former. The following seems to be an example of 
the latter in the process of becoming fact. I quote the newspaper 
article in question, then attach a commentary. --WM] 

Robot waiters in China never lose patience

The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 7:49 AM
Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com

JINAN, China -- Service with a smile also comes with an electronic voice 
at the Dalu Robot restaurant, where the hotpot meals are not as famous 
yet as the staff who never lose their patience and never take tips.

The restaurant, which opened this month in Jinan in northern Shandong 
province, is touted as China's first robot hotpot eatery where robots 
resembling Star Wars droids circle the room carrying trays of food in a 
conveyor belt-like system.

More than a dozen robots operate in the restaurant as entertainers, 
servers, greeters and receptionists. Each robot has a motion sensor that 
tells it to stop when someone is in its path so customers can reach for 
dishes they want.

The service industry in China has not always kept up with the country's 
rapid economic growth, and can be quite basic in some restaurants, 
leading customers in the Dalu restaurant to praise the robots.

"They have a better service attitude than humans," said Li Xiaomei, 35, 
who was visiting the restaurant for the first time.

"Humans can be temperamental or impatient, but they don't feel tired, 
they just keep working and moving round and round the restaurant all 
night," Li said.

Inspired by space exploration, robot technology and global innovation, 
the restaurant's owner, Zhang Yongpei, said he hopes his restaurant will 
show the world China is a serious competitor in developing technology.

"I hope this new concept shows that China is forward-thinking and 
innovative," Zhang said.

As customers enter the dimly lit restaurant lined with blinking neon 
lights to simulate a futuristic environment, a female robot decorated 
with batting eyelashes greets people with an electronic "welcome."

During the meal, crowds of up to 100 customers, are entertained by a 
dancing and talking robot that looks more like a mannequin with a dress, 
flapping its arms around in a stiff motion.

Zhang said he hopes to roll out 30 robots - which cost $6,000 each - in 
the coming months and eventually develop robots with human-like 
qualities that serve customers at their table and can walk up and down 
the stairs.

[There is much meat here for prognosticians and cultural theorists 
to dine on for quite a long time. 

I forward this because from the beginning of computing, across all 
occupations, and especially in the early years, dreams of what we 
humans would no longer have to do were rife. If you're interested,
"drudgery" is a keyword that will summon most of these dreams, and 
which could be defined as "that which computers are capable of doing". 
But there is much to unpick here, much that I'll hazard to say is worth 
our best efforts to examine. Also from the beginning the wise among us 
(I am thinking of Fr Busa in particular) were saying that computing 
was not about saving labour but about doing better with the limited 
labour we have to deploy. And multiple examples of the scholarship we 
most admire point us to a return to the individual manuscripts, 
historical editions, occurrences in context, sites or whatever, to do 
the homework that gives genuine authority to our interpretations. 
Labour is not saved. Rather the right kind is the whole point.

Clearly we can do what is now being done in that restaurant in Jinan, 
northern Shandong. Clearly being a waiter or waitress isn't a job one 
hopes for, and being faultlessly waited on is a pleasant experience. 
This is in a manner of speaking exactly what so many early promoters 
of what we do said was possible and presented as desirable. Changing 
what needs to be changed, is it what we desire?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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