Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vegetarian Robuts

A warm, drizzly night in Tokyo, specifically Roppongi, I was getting some fresh air outside the club where my friends and I were dancing to the same forty American pop songs through smoke from smoke machines and smoking cigarettes. Under the covering of an orange metal stairwell I met Raghevndra- wearing a heavy leather cowboy hat, more like something Crocodile Dundee would wear, spotted with dark stains from the rain, it was too big for his little face I thought, but it fit perfectly in Roppongi.
Our conversation ensued the way conversations and momentary friendships seem usually to begin in Roppongi- with a question of where you're from. He was from somewhere between North India and South India so it was like he was from nowhere, he said. Maybe many foreigners in Roppongi feel from nowhere, I thought. We talked for a while about his country, he told me to go there to get some appreciation and get some spiritual thing. I told him I thought I already had those things, but I could always use more.
He explained to me more about his country, but his crispy sober words started to blur together into the thumping din of the night, I said I was going to find my friends and shuffled back toward the club, but Kevin stopped me and, I don't know how, maybe because Kevin had to tell Raghevndra how much he enjoyed his cowboy hat, Raghevndra's friends and my friends became friends and since we were all friends we decided to skip the club and go find sushi.
Over plates of fish-less sushi and cups of separated green tea we discovered Raghevndra and his friends were living in Tokyo, working and studying as robotics engineers. Raghevndra told me about his baby (a robot named NAO that can dance to Michael Jackson), he told me he was making it learn. I laughed because I thought he was kidding. Why would you want a robot to learn? That could only mean destruction, right?
"Oh no," he said in his sing-song voice. "For example, we want to teach the robot to cut fruit, okay, and learn to cut differently shaped fruit without the needing to be programmed for different fruits."
He said "different" in three syllables, the way you're supposed to I guess, lilting the middle "er" that sounded more like "ehr", it's nice, people usually say "diff-rent" instead of "diff-er-ent" like how Raghvendra would say it. Even so, my eyes widened in fear at the thought of a robot that could learn. What's to stop it from learning until it learns how to be discontent and it learns its source of discontentment and learns how to annihilate the ones who brought it into this hurtful world...
"You're freaking me out man."
He looked me in the eye like I was a child, I looked back into the light brown eyes of a person who would help destroy the human race.
He spouted off a million soft "no's" and told me his robot was his baby, the smile never leaving his face, he might have grabbed for his wallet to show me a picture and I might have told him he was making it worse referring to robots like that.
He pleaded with me that robots were made in order to help people, he didn't understand my fear. I didn't understand my fear either. What has a robot ever done to hurt me? What have robots ever done except help achieve the objectives of mankind and not their own metal, cold-hearted desires? But still, a robot that is learning on its own- scary. We went back and forth about this for a while until the whole table was involved.
"They can help with an elderly family member," said Shubh.
"But that's so cold, those poor old people with no one to love them!" I said.
"But the robots will love them!"
We weren't getting anywhere.
Josh put our conflict into words better than anyone else as we glowered in our separate robot-loving and robot-fearing camps. He laughed and said, yeah it's weird, but people in Japan love robots and think of them as like friends who are there to help and Americans just think they're out to get us.
This blanket statement quenched the flames of our heated battle momentarily, but not for long, at least not for me.
From my limited perspective, Japan seems more advanced, or at least more efficient, than America in many ways. Things just seem more thought out, amazingly well-thought, and more put-together.
I once bought a to-go coffee at a coffee shop, the barista poured me a cup and instead of just putting a lid on it and handing it to me, she plugged the sip hole with this stirring spoon that created a perfect seal, and placed it in a paper bag with a solitary creamer the size of a peanut m&m, a pack of sugar, and a moist towel to clean my hands. She neatly folded the top of the bag, taped it shut, put this bag in a plastic bag to which she gave the handles a dexterous twist as one last measure of security for my coffee.
This made a deep impression on me. It was so wasteful, I was just going to drink the coffee in the food court outside. She asked if I wanted "take-out-o" and sometimes when asked if I want something I just nod because I'm afraid I won't know the best way to say "no". I would have been fine without a lid at all, but the thought and care put into making sure my coffee wouldn't spill and that I'd have everything I needed was zen-like in a way, or in the very least it was more thoughtful than anything I've seen in a middle-class American coffee shop. Since this day, my view of Japan as a highly thoughtful society has yet to be challenged.
But I wonder if the Japanese view of robots is another instance of progressive thought or if it is the exact opposite? Is this possibly a case of unimaginative thinking? Has the thought of a robot revolt crossed their mind, and have their engineers ever considered Frankenstein? Or have they already measured these things and come to the conclusion that the benefits far outweigh any possible paranoid costs? Maybe my fear of robots is indicative of superstitious out-dated thought like how people once feared falling off the edge of earth.
Perhaps I should try to love robots, even though they can't love me back, yet. But every sinew of my body screams against this notion, it's like I'm programed to fear intelligence in anything inhuman. But really, humans can be pretty inhuman too sometimes. A robot that will care for the elderly seems a lot nicer than some people, including myself.
We cooled off on the robot talk, I guess the robot-loving camp gave up on convincing the robot-fearing camp of anything for the time being. We finished our sushi and went outside. Shubh was amazed, "look," he said pointing to the sky, smiling hugely like a child, "it's morning."


  1. I don't really think we have to worry about a robot learning something. Yes you may be able to get it to "learn" how to cut different shapes of fruit so you don't have to reprogram it but you can never teach anything how to love or hate. You can program them to be kind or destructive but you cannot teach a mechanical thing an emotion. As far as taking care of an elderly person, i can't see that it would be too much different than any other technology we depend on for company e.g. internet, tv etc. Except a robot may actually be able to serve you. But anyone who could afford a robot could probably afford a real person so probably only the wealthy will be able to benefit from it. I've heard many men or women call their pet projects "their babies" Anything you put alot of time into becomes part of you. Maybe because the robot resembles a person it seems a little odd and scarey:)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi ,

    And I got this blog from somewhere.

    Well ,I think in todays world its no more Man Vs Machine ,
    its Man and Machine and I don't mean in terms of just Man using machines and Machines built and " operated " by the mighty man but I believe in a symbiotic relationship among the Man and Machine both befitting from each other , learning from each other , cooperating with each other and respecting each other's existence and ensuring its betterment .

    Since any kind of technology may be used for destructive purposes as much as for constructive ones , and everyone knows it , but it still remains fine in our minds , it doesn't motivate us to argue the development of a technology , till the extent where you begin to realize that , this "new product " may take over . When u begin to realize an anthropomorphic computer as a human analog , a stupid box as a decision making or decision influencing authority and still the fear is not of its future presence and potential destruction caused by them becoz u are fine with the technological prowess bringing potential destruction , which will be caused by "intelligent " man.

    The fear is actually of getting your pride hurt , the fear is of someone made without bones and flesh challenging your innate and gathered intelligence , the fear is the presence of more emotionally intelligent creatures , who will obtain the right to think and make decisions for those who are inferior to them , and the fear is then about being judged as inferior ;) ;)

    And that fear of future brings hatred in the hearts of "good people " and then neither they reply the emails of other good people ( whom they unjustly held responsible for mankind's future demise ) , nor do they miss them ;)

    Yours Sincerely,

    Raghvendra :)