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Category: Humans

I do like robots. Really I do. They have been getting some bad press in recent years, but as I have said, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m only human, however, and now some doubts have crept in about granting that benefit of the doubt.

Robots are only tools, of course, like hammers and pencils. If properly designed and made they do exactly what they are supposed to do. That certitude is their destiny. For machines, including robots, it is their strength…and their weakness. Unlike me, they simply do what they do and never have a second thought about it. That may be okay with pencils and hammers, but when it comes to robots, I’m starting to worry.

You may have heard the warnings from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about the possibly lethal dangers in the rise of artificial intelligence. And perhaps you noticed that IBM’s Deep Blue has opened several cans of digital whupass on mere human chess grandmasters. Steve and Elon are now wondering whether that kind of wicked smarts might someday turn into a genuinely wicked smarts and eventually push aside all of us poor, self-doubting humans. Their alarm had already got me looking sideways at robots, but now I see that the ‘bots have taken that superiority one step further.

This week, a couple of other smart dudes unveiled a robot that solves a Rubik’s Cube — complete with all the appropriate twists and spins required — in just over a second. A second! This little device somehow combines the braininess required to decide how to manipulate the puzzle with the lightning-fast dexterity to carry it out. It is an amazing thing to see. Simply place your cube carefully in the robot’s clutches and press the button. The machine executes its task in one graceless spasm. It is utterly sure in its movements and way too fast for the naked eye.

I think it is that sureness that spooks me most, especially when it is matched with all that speed and smarts. The robot functioned completely without hesitation. And why shouldn’t it? A machine has no reason to have second thoughts, no cause to worry about consequences. If it fails, the reason will always be human error because humans designed and built it…even if it is smarter and stronger and faster than its makers.

Humans, obviously, are less perfect than their machines. We make mistakes all the time. That is our nature, perhaps even our destiny. With that kind of track record, is it any wonder that I am hobbled now by doubts?

The doubt here is whether we might make a very big mistake by creating a machine that is better than us in every way and absolutely certain that it is doing the right thing. I sincerely doubt that I would like that robot.
Fear Not
Fear is the mind-killer, they say, and these days the brain-dead are everywhere. You see them at Trump rallies, you hear about them getting armed to the teeth, you read the polls. People are not only kinked up with fear and anger and cynicism, but it seems to have gone viral.

The fact that so many people are so scared is now starting to frighten me. I really prefer to have fellow citizens who are not brain-dead. The more of them there are, I figure, the more uncertain my own future is and the more likely that I’ll be infected. So, in the spirit of community, the common good, and of protecting my own butt, let me share a few personal pointers about keeping the terrors at bay.

Get a grip. Okay, I admit that this is probably not very useful advice when you’re crazy with fear. It’s like telling a bald man to just grow some damn hair, ferchrissake! It doesn’t help, but it does make me feel powerful and in command to say it.

There’s always Hope, of course. And faith, and courage, and prudence, and patience, and blah blah blah. These are certainly all fine personal qualities that could, in theory, overcome whatever fear is plaguing me, but let’s be honest here. If I really possessed any of those noble traits in sufficient quantities, I’d already be fine. Infortunately, I’m afraid (see?) that I don’t.

Que sera, sera, or, whatever will be, will be. This attitudinal mind trick, which was popularized in the West by Doris Day (and won an Academy Award!), is a longtime philosophical staple in the Middle East. It’s really nothing more than good, old-fashioned fatalism. There’s nothing you can do about it, say the fatalists, so don’t sweat it. Similar, related mottos include: whatever, so be it, so it goes, and whatcha gonna do?

It is what it is. This is not so much fatalism as an absurd tautological loop that paralyzes the mind and keeps it from focusing on the object of fear. The idea here is that paralysis is a lot better than death. It should be noted, however, that this mantra protects us from all kinds of fear, even the ones we ought to pay attention to. For instance, we really should watch for falling rocks.

Laugh in the face of fear. Here, it is important that the laughter not sound phony or forced. It’s like whistling past the graveyard. If you’re off-key or don’t know the tune, the dead will surely drag you down into the pits of Hell to burn forever. So, to make this approach work, you need to find something genuinely amusing about being scared to death. Fear is certainly ugly, so you could start there (although making fun of appearances is a very shallow form of humor). Fear also has especially foul breath, however, and its fashion choices are notoriously ludicrous. As of this writing, it’s still okay to make fun of those things.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. While not exactly true, FDR’s buck-up at the beginning of WWII still stands as one of the great pep-talk aphorisms. That was before the H-bomb came along, though.

Face up to your fear and vanquish it. I’m sorry, but I can’t sincerely recommend this method, even though I hear others confidently promoting it all the time. All that bravery and strength of character certainly sounds good, and who doesn’t like to do a little vanquishing once in awhile? Just remember, though, that Fear will be merciless if you are the vanquishee. Even so, don't let me stop you.

I can only hope that some of this has helped. If you’re already brain-dead, I’m sorry for your loss. Go ahead and vote for Trump if it makes you feel better.
Just Imagine
When I hear about kids who have imaginary playmates, I used to get a little jealous. I am told that more than a third of us have had one at some point, and I can’t help wondering why I got shut out of this wonderful alternative reality.

Recently, I decided that there’s no sense in dwelling on this blank spot in my life, and I prepared to move on. But once I let go of my longing, as so often happens, I was open to an epiphany. My imagination is as good as anybody else’s, right? Why couldn’t I have an imaginary friend whenever I wanted to? Even at this late date?

When I seriously thought about that possibility, however, I realized that my life is too complicated already. I don’t really want another friend. I just don’t have the time or energy for that kind of commitment. Instead, I have focused my imaginative powers on something a little more practical: an imaginary acquaintance.

His name is Joel, and he’s the only person I know with that name, so that makes him kind of special. But not so special that we to hang out together or anything. Instead, Joel and I run into each other by chance. We exchange pleasantries, talk about the weather, the news of the day, and ask after each other’s families (he got a kid in college, though I can’t remember her name). Then, one of us will look at his watch, say he’d better get back to his busy day, we say so long, and return to our lives. We have no expectations for our relationship, and we don’t think about each other between our chance meetings. It’s a friendly connection, but we’re not friends. We’re acquaintances. Imaginary acquaintances.

I can’t say that I get much out of my meetings with Joel. After all, we don’t really have that much in common. For one thing, I’m real, and he’s…well, you know. Still, it’s nice to catch up every once in a while, and that always makes me feel a little bit more connected to my own humanity. To my imaginary humanity, that is.
Proof of Life
It won’t be long now. If you have been waiting for proof that life — perhaps even intelligent life — exists elsewhere in the universe, your patience may soon be rewarded.

You probably heard all the hubbub about finding running water on Mars. That’s still not the proof we’re waiting for, but the discovery of water puts us very close to the last step in our quest: direct physical evidence. There is even a possibility that we’ll find confirmation of the theory that life here on Earth originated on Mars. Some believe that an ancient asteroid hit Mars eons ago and spattered some of its native protoplasm as far away as Earth. Those seeds eventually took root here, and voila! We’re all Martians.

There is some other news from space as well, from far beyond our solar system. The possibilities around this story are even more exciting than finding a few single-cell Martian relatives. KIC 8462852, a distant star not even visible to the naked eye, has recently been confounding astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope. Since 2009, they’ve been scanning that small patch of the heavens that includes this star, looking for any unusual occultations. Occultations are what happen when objects pass between the viewer and another object, causing dips and peaks in the light coming from the second object. A solar eclipse is a classic example of occultation, with the moon getting in the way of (occulting) our view of the sun.

KIC 8462852, it seems, is a kaleidoscope of whacky occultation. The variations in dimming are wildly irregular. The jumps in light intensity are random, indicating complex subtleties in the sizes and orbital inclinations of whatever objects are blocking the star’s light. There’s a lot going on around KIC 8462852, in other words, but no one can figure out exactly what it is.

A number of explanations for these anomalies have been suggested, and most are rooted in the normal activities of heavenly bodies: asteroid debris, a young star still in the throes of birth, a cosmic collision. Scientists, however, have dismissed all of these possibilities as “implausible” (not to mention boring).

Also included on that list of implausible causes is one non-boring candidate: little green men. Under this theory, some highly developed alien race is moving big objects around in the space adjacent to KIC 8462852 — really big objects, that is, structures that could produce those wild occultations. One such structure, for instance, might be a Dyson Sphere. A Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical, titanic globe built around a star and lined with solar panels. Any super alien race worth its salt would need something like it as a source of renewable energy. Perhaps, it is suggested, the odd light variations we see are evidence of the ongoing construction of such a globe.

I do like the idea of alien races out there. It’s exciting to imagine what forms such life might take and what their civilizations might look like. I do want to be clear, however, that as much as I hope that these little green men exist, I do not hope to meet one. Ever. Like Stephen Hawking, I am not convinced that extraterrestrials would be as adorable and non-threatening as the star of E.T. Stephen Spielberg would have us believe that creatures who are that intelligent (smart enough to get here) must be filled with love and an overwhelming reverence for life. Maybe, but let me just say that I have known some really smart people who turned out to be complete assholes.

Fortunately, neither of these stories poses a threat of alien contact. At this point, we’re probably not going to find anything still living on Mars, and even if we did, it’s not likely to be a threat to human civilization. Furthermore, let me point out that KIC 8462852 is 1480 light years from Earth. In other words, if high-tech aliens built a Dyson Sphere or some other huge thingamajig in their immediate space, they did it 1480 years ago, and we are just now seeing it happen. That’s how long it has taken for those the puzzling light gyrations to travel to Earth. Those aliens have, no doubt, long since blown themselves to oblivion.

We can feel free, then, to let our excitement run wild about these discoveries. If we find little green men on Mars, they will be long dead. If we learn that there were aliens around KIC 8462852 1480 years ago, they’d have to do the impossible (travel faster than the speed of light) to get here any time soon. So we’re probably safe. Unless…

Unless, like E.T., they figured out how to do the impossible. And how to avoid blowing themselves up. And cared enough to pay us a visit. Come to think of it, maybe we should be on the safe side and not talk to any strangers.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon