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HAL, You’ve Been Invited for Tea! – A Singaporean Odyssey

Posted by intellisg on June 23, 2007

hal.jpg“I have no hesitation in thinking that a machine can be just as intelligent and just as real as a person, in principle.”

– Professor Rodney Brooks, Director, MIT (AI)

Since the advent of the computer age, automated systems have featured increasingly in every facet of work, life and play. Millions of commercial airliners take off and land safely every year managed wholly by fail proof navigation computers. Traffic lights change colors faultlessly managed by computers to ensure optimum traffic flow. Products and services are manufactured, warehoused, shipped and tracked by computers with hardly a glitch. Computers are also friendly always adopting that smooth and confident voice even when we take the wrong turn while navigating with our GPS. They don’t bitch, complain or gripe – they just hum along – excepting for what we are, warts and all.

hal2.jpgIt’s enough for me to ask the question: Do we really need human politicians to run Singapore these days? Why don’t we just replace them with high intelligent computers like HAL? You know who HAL is – don’t you? We even have one unit here, in the Intelligent Singaporean and he manages all our communications and even takes care of security along with a thousand other task – HAL’s, the quintessential fail proof, butler, chess savant, wizard extraordinaire all rolled up into a clean, efficient and uncomplaining peak performer – summarized in his own words in the 60’s sci-fi flick by Kubrick in 2001, Space Odyssey “By every practical definition, we are incapable of error!” Just to prove my point, allow me to demonstrate, why I think, it would be a good idea for PAP to consider recruiting HAL as their next parliamentarian:

Still think humans are up to the job? What do you say?

As you can see, HAL isn’t just any computer – that’s a bit like saying the Grand Canyon is a giant sink hole or McRitchie reservoir is just a puddle. HAL belongs to a class of super duper computers, hardly your heartless, inexpressive and dumb hand phone wannabe. He even displays genuine emotions. I am reminded emotion quotient is not simply a luxurious extra, it’s a precondition for being a successful politician! Where would we be without teary eyed politicians – it will be like losing a limb! Surprisingly HAL, in the movie 2001, expresses more emotion than his human counterparts. Coming to think of it: HAL may even have a higher emotional quotient that most of our home grown politician?

I know what some of you will say: ‘computers are machines you dummy! Everyone knows that, stop pulling the wool over our eyes! They don’t have the capacity to feel anything least of all experience anything resembling an emotional plane.’ Err OK….perhaps I was a tad bullish, but judging from the metallic way in which most of our politicians respond these days to issue like crafting a long term strategy to care for the ageing population. Or how we should best prepare ourselves for the age of globalization . And how they (humans) respond to the challenge of providing real answers that don’t raise more questions. I am inclined to believe, being able to emit emotional plaintive cries is hardly a pre-requisite for a ministerial post (yes, you have managed to persuade me).

I could be wrong of course, but judging from the discourse justifying the recent ministerial pay rises. Surely one must agree emotion quotient hardly features in the equation. Instead, the imperative appears to be peak performing individuals who are incapable producing unexpected fatal errors: vis-à-vis – computers. So emotions don’t even feature –right?

Let’s look at the good side: what if super computers ran our country? Since they don’t have emotions per se, we can all complain as much as we like. If you yelled at a puppy, because it wet on the carpet, the puppy senses your anger and would probably suffer a nervous break down and wet the rug even more. Even wagging its tail to indicate how truly wrecked it is emotionally. Hardly the right stuff – humans are worst, they get depressed, take to the bottle or worst still join the opposition!

Computers, by contrast are immune to all our human quirks. They neither recognize anger nor feel good or bad. They just hum along happily. They even don’t notice whether you’re attentive, annoyed, or have fallen asleep in front of them; they don’t even wet the carpet and if they do – you could reprogram them to clean up the mess. Aren’t these desirable political traits that we should be nurturing in our politicians? A sense of servant hood?

hal3.jpgBesides emotions are over rated! When was the last time you walked into a computer or appliance store only to ask for a manic depressive washing machine? Or a catatonic psychopathic microwave oven? There’s a compelling economic reason why, that never ever happens: rationality commands a higher currency while emotional anything just spells trouble! If you don’t believe me, consider this: why do the human characters in Star Trek regularly turn to Mr. Spock and Data our dependable computer ambassadors whenever they only have two seconds before flying smack into an asteroid belt or get sucked into a black hole? No one ever bothers asking Mary Poppin’s, Ally McBeal or Auntie Sumiko when push comes to shove? You know why? Yes you guessed it. They are too emotional!

Besides humans expect you to feel or at least have the decency to pretend to be interested in what they have to say before they would even consider replying and when they finally manage to say something – all they can really do is mumble something incoherent. One never gets that sort of basket case response from computers – if they don’t know, they just say “insufficient data” or “contact your administrator.” On the face of it, if I had to plumb between spending my days with a level headed computer that I can also double for my bench presses or an erratic Auntie Sumiko – the former will do very nicely, thank you very much. Still convinced that we need human politicians? Good, we are finally getting there.

Hey, didn’t emotion cause HAL to malfunction? We should really stick to cold, metallic logic. After all that’s what most of us Singaporeans are weaned on – logic and logic and more logic. Why fiddle around with the proverbial wheel? The system works!– proposing to change is simply, irrational, you’ve been emotional! See what I mean?

I know what some of you are saying right now, “….but, it would be tremendously worthwhile to have a human minister. After all computers can’t be congenial. One can hardly interact with them. They are cold, incapable of being sensitive etc”. Really I wonder how congenial would one be? To propose the pay rise of ministers by premising the entire debate on one sound bite: if they aren’t paid more, we could find ourselves working as maids and coolies in a foreign land? That’s enough to give Miss Manners a congenital heart attack ten times over! Yes when you compare our politicians with computers. The latter certainly comes across as sensitive, diplomatic and balanced. So there it goes, out of the window: congeniality isn’t really a pre-requisite for a ministerial job either. You guessed it – human: 0 computer: 1.

hal4.jpgAnother boon of computers is they don’t have the habit of regularly philosophizing. To computers, understanding is a function of programming; a programmed notion of emotion will suffice. Note: what I am saying here is nothing short of heretical i.e the notion computers and humans can roughly do the same thing! That’s really a bit of a stretch so just to make doubly and triply sure like a fail proof computer, I checked it off with our resident AI psychological / robotic expert Dr Chandra, when I presented the question:

Q: Dr Chandra, are there any downsides that you can see with what I just said above? I will deliberately phrase the question broadly – do you see anything wrong with my proposition that computers like HAL should be running Singapore? Or let me put it another way, do you believe a highly intelligent computer like HAL will do a better job than let’s say the president of the United States in managing people and planet?

hal5.jpgA: (Chuckles and laugh) Pitfalls? As you know I have done a lot of research on both artificial intelligence i.e computers and the way they relate to physical robots. This also means, we need to constantly draw on human psychology to flesh out many of the missing links and, we have discovered a few startling truths: firstly – you can be a human and still behave like a robot. This may come as a big surprise to many of your readers! But let me assure you, it’s a fact.

You don’t need me to draw parallels, there are plenty of examples in the real world to prove this point empirically and conclusively, radicals and fanatics stand out like sore thumbs, they do the things they do roughly based on the same programming as a ten cent bullet, programmed to hit a target, call it what you want lousy or deviant programming or whatever – but the causal word is programming.

So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking just because one is powered by two slices of peanut buttered bread, cup of coffee and live dangerously by diving into cockles occasionally, one is necessarily human and not altogether displaying all the aspects of robotic RSS.

What a lot of people don’t really realize is everyone has a built in propensity to develop what I call a robotic response / stimuli loop (RSS). Let me illustrate this by highlighting a common flaw that continues to vex every research lab currently working on physical robots.

In the video clip you posted, what we see is a chess game between HAL and one of the crew in the USS Discovery, notice that the astronaut who is presumably a highly intelligent human, doesn’t even bother to cross reference HAL’s checkmate verbal cue – what does he do? He resigns the game based on the advice of a machine! He (the astronaut) doesn’t even bother to go the extra step to run through the steps mentally. If he did, he would have realized that there were at least 17 possible permutations that would have allowed him to win the game! Perhaps even avert the disaster that unraveled in the movie when HAL turned into a psychopathic killer – this was the first clue that something is seriously wrong with HAL’s program.

The robotic flaw here is: the astronaut has developed a high level of “competence trust” with HAL i.e he believes HAL is right for no other reason because HAL was right all the time previously. What you have here is symptomatic of robotic RSS. The presumption of “competence” coupled with “trust” accompanied by a complete absence of critical evaluation. That in a nutshell is how a human becomes a robot.

2 years ago darkness demonstrated this robotic flaw when as usual after being cornered and losing the argument before a panel of his peers (and I hope this will not be censored or I will simply have to write a strongly worded letter to the administrator of the IS), he resorted to what I call dastardly, unabashed and narcissistic pasar malam snake oil showmanship – when he proceeded to draw a rectangle with a knob on a wall and guess what – the robot tried to open and walk through the wall! Darkness may have lost the intellectual argument (what a surprise –chuckles and laugh) but like the man who painted his ass red, despite the smell, the sight was a success – and he did successfully demonstrate his point graphically: robots are essentially a function of their program period. The same logic holds true for humans. There is no difference. Lousy programming = lousy results and vice-versa.

Do I believe a HAL unit will run the country better than Bush? Well let me put it this way. The last time someone had a conversation with a Bush. My Bible tells me, they ended up wandering the desert confused for 40 years! I am sure we would probably be equally confused if we looked to a HAL 9000 unit for directions, but I am certain of at least one thing in this equation: we wouldn’t be wandering for 40 years that’s for sure – because some smart human will just say ask HAL, “hey, we’ve going around in circles!” To which HAL would probably reply, “How the hell should I know? I am just a machine, take it up with the humans!” That regrettably is an excuse or defense, we humans can never ever resort too if we find ourselves behaving like robots. It’s a very real and scary problem, because who will save us from ourselves by switching us off?

(By Trajan, Scholarboy & Astro Boy / Dr Chandra (Special Guest) – Politics/ Socio/ Science – EP 999272 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)

2 Responses to “HAL, You’ve Been Invited for Tea! – A Singaporean Odyssey”

  1. prima girl said

    Bravo! Witty, Intelligent and very original. Why cant the ST write like this?

  2. shoestring said

    You know the world is in a very sorry state when politicians are being compared with computers, when they should be placed on a pedestal way ahead of/above them. We should not have to be thinking of replacing politicians with computers. What we need are genuine people with a heart.

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