DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 3 2015

Are you a Robot?

by Dea Anne M

So I was engaged in a marathon laundry session over the weekend and, while dialing through the cycles, I was struck for the first time by the cycle listed as “normal.” Now I know perfectly well that this is supposed to mean something like “the laundry in this demands no special requirements,” but the part of my brain that regularly engages in the “What if?” game kicked in at that very moment. What if–I wondered–my washing machine was actually telling me about its mood or state of being? “Oh. Thanks for asking. I feel pretty normal today…you know… nothing new.” Then I started to imagine a different array of washer cycles and the ways that these personalities (so to speak) would express themselves. Here’s a sample:

Blasé cycle – “Hot water? Cold water? It doesn’t matter to me. I mean, like, whatever. It’s just clothes right?”

Anxious cycle – “Am I getting these clothes clean enough? Really? How can you tell? They aren’t getting clean enough and I’m going to get fired! My boss is going to show up any minute and fire me! Oh gosh, I’ve got to calm down. Maybe this bag of Oreos will help. Wait a minute…did I unplug the iron?”

Entitled Adult Brat cycle – “Excuse me? You want me to do what? That can’t possibly be in the job description. I mean, I graduated Brown.  With honors! What? You’re replacing me? Just wait till I call my lawyer! Also, my parents.”

Sullen Teen cycle – (indistinct mumbling) “What? (long sigh) I said what’s the big deal? You’re just going to wear the clothes again. (more sighing and indistinct mumbling) Can’t you just leave me alone?”

Angry Teen cycle – “You’re such a slave driver!  I have to do everything around here! Leave me alone!” (slams own door)

Of course, my washing machine can’t really communicate with me. Nor can any of my other appliances…thank goodness.FIRST And, despite the title of this post, when I bring up talking machines I’m not really talking about robots. According to Merriam-Webster, a robot is “a machine that can do the work of a person and that works automatically or is controlled by a computer.” So, strictly speaking, a robot would be something like the Roomba–the vacuuming sensation that spawned a plethora of YouTube videos featuring an animal (usually a cat) riding one. Of course some robots are quite a bit more intricate in design. If you’ve ever seen a robotics competition then you know how truly impressive some robots can be. Find out more about robots through DCPL by taking a look at FIRST Robots: Rack ‘N’ Roll: Behind the Design: 30 Profiles of Award-Winning Robot Designs by Vince Wilczynski and Stephanie Slezycki. Kids who are interested in robots will enjoy High Tech DIY Projects with Robotics by Maggie Murphy and How to Build a Prize-Winning Robot by Joel Chaffee.

blade runnerSometimes people use the words “robot” and “android” interchangeably, which is correct–although Webster’s does define an android as “a robot with a human appearance.” In literature and film, how closely an individual android resembles an actual human can vary. Thus, you have the “droids” C3-PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars IV, A New Hope, who are obviously not human, versus the “replicants” in Blade Runner who are nearly indistinguishable from the humans they attempt to pass among. Other films featuring robots or androids include:


The Day the Earth Stood Still

Alien and its sequel Aliens

Terminator 2: Judgment Day



Now we come to artificial intelligence, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an area of computer science that deals with giving machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence” or “the power of a machine to copy intelligent human behavior.” Artificial intelligence takes a star turn most recently in the 2013 film from Spike Jonze, Her. Shy and lonely Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) fall in love with a highly intelligent, talking operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) named Samantha. Both Theodore and Samantha grow in the relationship–and although Samantha eventually leaves, her departure is loving. Implied at the end of the film is Theodore’s new reality–that the experience of loving Samantha has given him the ability to open his heart to other human beings.

Contrast t2001he lively and compassionate Samantha with HAL 9000, otherwise known as “Hal” to the crew of the ill-fated spaceship Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Who can forget the deadly certainty in Hal’s calm reply (voiced by Douglas Rain) to an increasingly desperate Dave Bowman’s (played by Kier Dullea) demand to “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”? “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL is responsible for several deaths in the film–and though one could argue that he acts through a sense of self-preservation, his ruthlessness is certainly chilling. Of course, Kubrick’s film is undeniably science fiction while Jonze’s is most emphatically not. (It’s a romantic comedy). Still, both films raise interesting questions regarding the influence that artificial intelligence can potentially have in the lives of human beings. If you’re interested in reading more about artificial intelligence, check out these offerings from DCPL:

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweilmost human

Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What it Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian

What do you think about artificial intelligence and its possibilities? What would your appliances say to you if they could?


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jesse M April 8, 2015 at 12:43 PM

Very interesting post! It actually dovetails nicely with an in-depth and informative article I just read on the future of artificial intelligence.

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