[Humanist] 26.61 between idea and reality

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jun 3 22:22:19 CEST 2012

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 61.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 02 Jun 2012 16:30:35 +0200
        From: Hartmut Krech <kr538 at uni-bremen.de>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.60 between the idea and the reality?
        In-Reply-To: <20120601220320.8F70A282B5E at woodward.joyent.us>


You seem to describe a cultural attitude of "awe" towards an artificial
intelligent agent "in the progress of robotics," as developed in Mori's
article. I would need to know more about your example, but it reminds me of
the "reluctant approach" customary in polite Japanese social communication.
Cultural anthropologists have developed tools to discuss cultural attitudes
among other things.

Romantic literature and science abound with wonderful and astonishing
analogies with respect to new inventions, like stolen shadows, humunculi,
Mephistopheles, etc. Of course, these also reflect cultural attitudes as
such, more than they reveal about the particular invention in question.
There was a time during the 1980s and 1990s when such literary parallels
filled the journals of the re-invented historiography of photography. I
chanced across a passage re-reading Vannevar Bush's visionary 1945 article
"As We May Think," where he writes about the inflation of information that
will never reach the stage of embodied knowledge (quoted here from the
electronic version at

"The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands
of other workers - conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less
to remember, as they appear. [...] Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics
was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach
the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of
catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant
attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential."

It is worthwhile to remind us of the innovations soon to come as Bush
envisioned them: "But there are signs of a change as new and powerful
instrumentalities come into use. Photocells capable of seeing things in a
physical sense, advanced photography which can record what is seen or even
what is not, thermionic tubes capable of controlling potent forces under the
guidance of less power than a mosquito uses to vibrate his wings, cathode
ray tubes rendering visible an occurrence so brief that by comparison a
microsecond is a long time, relay combinations which will carry out involved
sequences of movements more reliably than any human operator and thousands
of times as fast - there are plenty of mechanical aids with which to effect
a transformation in scientific records."

It is clear to see that Bush's projections result from a fully developed
knowledge of the physical theory of his days, and not from analogies. It
would be off the track to infer that his Memex machine and consequently the
Personal Computer was modelled after a file desk, although he uses the word
"desk" when he introduces his vision of the Memex. Looking back on how
little has been accomplished by the "romantic" school of the historiography
of photography, as regards the actual preservation of and public
accessibility to existing archives of historical photographs, I feel that
something more is needed here, just as Vannevar Bush seems to write: "The
inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's
record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were

Best regards, Hartmut

Am 02/06/2012 00:03, schrieb Humanist Discussion Group:
>                     Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 60.           
>   Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London                 
>        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist                  Submit to:
> humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>          Date: Sat, 02 Jun 2012 08:00:30 +1000          From: Willard
> McCarty<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk          Subject: between the idea
> and the reality?
> Some here may know that in 1970 Masahiro Mori, in "The Uncanny Valley"
> (Energy 7.4: 33-5), argued that in the progress of robotics toward
> increasingly humanoid appearance and action (where that is the goal of the
> designer), human psychological response to the robot is increasingly
> positive until a certain point of near resemblance. At that point, quite
> suddenly, this response becomes strongly negative. In other words, we
> freak out (as one used to say). Response stays negative until the
> resemblance has become considerably closer and then becomes positive
> again. Some will claim that James Cameron's movie Avatar marks the first
> popular VR creation to have made it to the other side of this uncanny
> valley.
> Clearly if your goal in the design of computational devices is for the
> artificiality of the device to pass unnoticed, then you want to get to the
> other side of the valley as soon as possible. It might be argued, however,
> that in doing so you lose big time: you lose the challenge to our
> conception of ourselves. You design for a mirror, or we could say an
> artificial companion or collaborator, for which a human could be
> substituted. Perhaps you design for a particular kind of collaborator, say
> someone who talks like a behaviourist of the Skinnerian kind, or a perfect
> Chomsky linguist, or a Bakhtin. Certainly in the near to medium-term
> future, the companion will be dogmatic, a stereotypical sort. This might
> be rather interesting. But still I cannot help but think that the goal
> needs some serious questioning.
> I think that an AI person (any here correct me if I am wrong) would argue
> that it's only a matter of time until this goal is close enough that our
> not having thought it through would become a serious error. Let's assume
> that to be the case. We are closer to the goal than many of us may
> suppose. Talk to an automobile designer, for example.
> What do you think? In the design of research environments what exactly do
> we want to have? I would argue that what we do not want, or should not
> want, is the perfect (amoral) slave. But if not that, then what?
> Comments?
> Yours, WM

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