From Mirko Petricevic and therecord.com.
“Several years ago, in a room full of inquiring minds, a Japanese scientist hauled off and struck a robot.
Everyone in the room knew it was a robot. Yet the sight of it being hit was deeply disturbing, Rosalind Picard was told by colleagues who were present.
The robot, a copy of the Japanese scientist’s wife, had dark hair, smooth skin and eyes that blinked uncannily. But it was clearly not human.
Nevertheless, those watching, most of them scientists, felt as though a real woman had been hit.
A similar show of empathy happened at the University of Waterloo last week while Picard was showing video of a robot called Kismet. When a researcher was seen scolding Kismet — a cute thing outfitted with big eyes, lips and dog-like ears — it reacted like a hurt puppy.
And in unison, the audience went, “Awwwww . . .”
“Technology has gotten very far with fooling us in this way,” says Picard, director of affective computing research in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
She was the keynote speaker last week for the Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University, held at the University of Waterloo.
At a time when the on-again, off-again battle between champions of science and defenders of faith seems to be raging — think of recent broadsides on religion by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens — the annual UW lecture series regularly features top scientists who embrace both worlds.
“To says that you can’t be a thinking, intellectually fulfilled scientist and embrace faith is bunk,” Picard said in a brief interview after her lecture.
In her lecture, Picard observed that many of her fellow scientists believe people are just machines.
“There’s very much this attitude of ‘Machines can not only be like people, they’ll be far superior to us,'” she said. “A lot of my colleagues believe that very strongly.”
Essentially, the argument goes, humans are just machines made out of meat.
For some, having emotions is what separates humans from machines. Yet Picard is working to implant emotion, or more specifically to implant mechanisms of emotion, into machines.
She is not making machines with feelings, she emphasizes.
Human faces can make 10,000 different expressions, she says. In the course of a 10-minute conversation, a person’s face makes between 300 to 400 different faces.
Most of the people we talk to can tell, by our facial expressions, when we’re frustrated.
In general, machines can’t.
Machines also can’t recognize when we are getting frustrated with their actions.
Think of our personal computers. If they can’t tell they’re working in a way that’s frustrating us, they’re likely to continue operating in the same manner, making us even more frustrated.
Imagine a day, Picard says, when a full-sized robot interrupts you. But it can’t tell if you’re frustrated, so it keeps on interrupting.
With this in mind, she and her colleagues have developed software that, through a camera, can examine parts of your face to determine if you are agreeing, disagreeing, concentrating, interested, thinking or unsure.
“None of this technology actually knows your feelings,” Picard notes.
That doesn’t mean that scientists won’t ever develop a machine that can read our feelings, she adds.
“But we’re nowhere near there yet.”
One school of thought in the scientific community is that science can develop anything.
But that’s changing, Picard says.
“All that euphoria about how we can compute anything, even consciousness, is . . . fading.”
But even if science were able to bioengineer or build a living humanoid robot, Picard argues, that would not disprove the existence of a soul or spirit.
Picard draws on the idea of aliens to illustrate her point.
If aliens came to Earth and built a functioning radio from an instruction manual, it would be incorrect for them to assume they understood music.
Picard points to 1 Corinthians 13:12, a Bible verse in which the Apostle Paul writes that Christians’ knowledge is like looking through a glass darkly or, in some translations, like seeing a dim reflection in a mirror.
The passage suggests that only in the afterlife will Christians have complete knowledge of themselves the way God does, Picard says.
Those who argue that humans are composed only from molecular biology and nothing more aren’t basing their argument in science, Picard says.
“Science is not capable of making such claims,” she asserts.
Scientists cannot assume that nothing exists beyond what they can measure, she says.
“. . . It’s quite possible that there’s still something more.”
Picard says she personally has faith in scientific progress, but also faith in God.
She was raised an atheist, she says, but someone challenged her to read the Bible as a young adult.
“I thought, ‘OK, if I’m going to be a well-educated atheist, I should at least read the book that I think is bogus.”
She started reading a proverb a day and worked her way through the entire Bible several times.
“I started to have a very big change of heart,” she says. “It was really a long, slow process.”
Although she embraced the notion of God and eventually committed to Christianity, Picard says she doesn’t believe in a simple dualistic notion of the existence of the material body and immaterial spirit.
“I think there’s something else that we haven’t discovered yet,” she says.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the truth out there is something that is still pretty unfathomable to most of us, which is why so many attempts to describe it come up so short.”
When she speaks about DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which is the basic ingredient that forms organisms, Picard raises the notion of there being “a much greater mind, a much greater scientist, a much greater engineer behind who we are.”
DNA, is enormously complex, she says.
“It takes a lot of faith to believe it arose from purely random processes. There’s definitely the mark of intervention in that.”
It sounds similar to the intelligent design debate that has been raging in the United States.
Proponents of intelligent design argue that it’s highly unlikely that some organisms evolved according to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, so they’re probably the work of an intelligent designer.
But Picard has some reservations about intelligent design, saying it isn’t being sufficiently challenged by Christians and other people of faith.
“I think we should be much more skeptical,” she said.
As for the trinity of skeptics whose books are at the forefront in the current round in the science vs. religion debate — Dawkins, Dennett and Harris — Picard says Dennett lauds the importance of science, but then doesn’t use much science to support his arguments against religion.
Picard describes Dawkins’ knowledge of religion as “ridiculous” and says that Harris doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge those wars caused by movements that were not religious.
“How can (they) publish their books and get so much attention with so little data, or facts or scholarship behind their arguments,” she asks.
Picard also laments that the news media put people who are of different minds on the intelligent- design debate into just two distinct camps — intelligent design or evolution.
“To simply put most of us in one camp or the other does the whole state of knowledge a huge disservice,” she said.”
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