Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mechanizing Reason and Automating the Human

Notes on a Discussion Seminar plan

In my previous post, I mentioned Simon Schafer and the BBC's wonderful documentary: Mechanical Marvels.

As part of my teaching work, I lead discussion seminars attached to 'Reason' an interdisciplinary first year course at the University of Melbourne. Reason is a thematic subject that approaches the idea or reason, as found in Western philosophy from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

In my final seminar- I approach reason from a perspective that has not been covered in the lectures.
That's the mechanization of the human body and the mind that's been fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human, but is also at the heart of two revolutions that have transformed the world- the industrial revolution and the information revolution.

I use excerpts from the documentary in order to give my own reflections on the subject, and I also use a video produced by Wired magazine showing a functional Babbage engine. These are my notes on that, which may or may not be of interest to anyone else- but serve as my own reflection and record (for future iterations, writings, etc) in any case.

I begin with introducing the idea of the mechanization of reason with a short discussion on Descartes comparison of human beings, automata, and animals, stopping short of his discussion of an automaton that resembles a human being (saving that for later).

Basic Cartesian Dualism (mind/body). Humans are not automatons (robots in modern parlance) because they have a rational soul.

At the heart of the link between the mechanization of the world and the industrial and information revolutions is the idea, summed up on Simon Schafer's opening lines, that to understand something, we have to build it. That idea, I suggest, is at the heart of much of modern techno-science. That to understand something we have to build a model of it, not necessarily a mechanical one per se (though that started it), but a conceptual or mathematical one, and that if we have a model, or simulation of something that acts like the real thing, then we have achieved an understanding of it. 

Then we watch Mechanical Marvels up to 7 minutes 30.

I then reflect on the segment- particularly the relationship between time-keeping and power (I start by asking what they need to meet someone (a time and a place). Then discuss the many ways our time is legislated, holidays, working hours, day light savings, school times, etc. Mention GPS and military since they rely on phones and GPS to get places- again power.

Then stress that Descartes, in writing about automata, was thinking of the clockwork automata at his time.  Talk about his anticipation of the Turing Test in his discussion of an automaton that wouldn't be able to fully mimic a human.

Then fast-forward - via the docomentary- to automata of the 18th century, made possible by cam technology.

We watch the documentary from 27:00 to 33:08.

Talk about the link between the little writer and his programming and the Babbage Engine, mentioning Ada Lovelace and the Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.

Then show the sequence from the Mechanical Turk- mentioning that we dont really get machines that can beat chess players till Deep Blue and Kasparov.

Conclude with a discussion of the way the mechanization of rationality of the mind but also of the body has created huge challenges. Jobs? (Schafer mentions this but doesn't go to the next step with computers and workers).

I challenge students to ask themselves- what kind of society do we want to live in. How do we want technology to work for us.

Then take it full circle back to Plato and Aristotle who both asked what kind of society we want to live in. Focus on Aristotle's passage in Politics on slavery and machines and finish with a challenge that we now live in Aristotle's world, where machines can work for us.

But machines and both revolutions have allowed a great deal of wealth to be concentrated in the hands of very few. We need to ask ourselves what role we want technology to play, and what kind of society we want to live in.

Side notes for future-

In addition to the link between the Turkish Chess Play Automaton and the looms of the industrial revolution, there is also the link between looms, programming and computers via the punch card (is this the Jacquard loom. Ada Lovelace is in there somewhere as well.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mechanizing Reason and Automating the Passions

Automata, or robots, if you will, have fascinated philosophers since Descartes, who used them as a sort of mirror in his reflections on human reason (animals were automatons, humans were endowed with a rational soul). There is a delightful documentary with Prof. Simon Schaffer of Cambridge on the clockwork and automata of the 17th Century. The documentary begins with the words, "It is often said that to understand something, you should build it". About 29 minutes in, Prof. Schaffer presents a truly remarkable automaton- a little boy at his writing desk built by Swiss clock-maker Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Says Schaffer, "The aim was, I think, to mechanize reason, and automate the passions."

These words, and the documentary as a whole, offer a wonderful window into the origins of something that has been at the heart of the Western project ever since- to produce a mechanical understanding of the world, and of the mind. Information theory and cybernetics have blurred the line between mechanistic and organistic visions of the universe, and of the mind, but the project to understand the mind, by building one, is at the very heart of the information (r)evolution itself, while the replication of the body and its motions- and thus of the worker, lies at the heart of the industrial revolution.