Archive for May, 2014

Brainstorm

Don’t despair! There is a relevant, if not altogether happy, conclusion to the previous few posts about death and robots – AKA, killer bots versus puny humans. Welcome to the day when we group hug, make up and merge into one purely digital entity. All still a long way off – at least according to the Maria Konovalenko’s recent road map – but the idea of digital immortality is a discussion point that’s emerged time and time again on Drozbot.

Back in 2011 Aleks Krotoski reported on how our online lives were already having a massive impact on attitudes towards our ultimate demise, and numerous stories continue to emerge about friends and relatives working to back-up and sustain the online presence of the dead – as iO9’s recent interview with Sarah Cashmore exemplifies. But there’s one aspect of digital existence that has been repeatedly overlooked in favour of textual and image based legacies.

Gamers have been engaged with electronic megadeaths ever since Mario first encountered one too many barrels in Donkey Kong (1981). They’ve shown a healthy disrespect to shrugging off this mortal coil, but they’ve also been embroiled in multiple issues around their attachment to online avatars – the pertinent question being, after investing hundreds of hours in these virtual characters, what happens to all that emotional energy when the games company finally decides to pull the plug? Reactions have tended to revolve around one final blast of activity for those dedicated fans still playing and, perhaps, there isn’t any real need for avatar memory gardens as gamers possess an inherent hunger for the new. There’s also the contemporary shift of play time being invested in more disparate and less hour swallowing experiences. But bereavement counselling as the result of dead avatars? Heh, well, not to worry. That’s almost as ridiculous as people paying real money for digital goods.

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I should apologies. Straight back to the robo-apocalypse, but needs must when so many news stories shove a metallic digit in that general direction. The issue – as with last month’s post – remains whether the increasing robotisation of life will be beneficial or detrimental to humanity.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as that framed by Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. “[They] are like any other machine – they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” Despite his certainty, Deckard’s position within the film is a compromised one from the start. Similar, in some ways, to the practical and moral dimensions of raining remote death from the skies via military drone. At least, in the real world, this issue has recently ended up on a UN agenda for debate. However, Philip K Dick’s story generates an addition layer. Yes, we’ve been using machines to kill each other for centuries, but what if the machines we employ reach sentience and turn upon their supposed masters.

Scientists over at MIT have considered this very question and have now come up with an argument against the use of Isaac Azimov’s four laws of robotics. They also extrapolate the topic to a point where bio-mechanical advancements lead to a merging of man and machine. Hence the key factor always being that human, rather than machine, law will ultimately prevail. Similar theoretical conclusions have been reached at the National University of Ireland where Phil Maguire writes about computers naturally losing data in their decision making processes – resulting in an inability to ever generate emotional responses. Which means my opening apologies will, potentially, only ever be for a non-machine based readership. Seems that Optimus Prime riding a dino bot into battle to defend humanity (Azimov’s zeroth law), will only ever be a fiction.

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