Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #161                                                   March 9, 2005
                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

                     On the Web:
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Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.


Quotes and Provocations
   High-Minded Machines
   Robots: Getting Down to Essences
   Maybe We Should Let Computers Have the Schools
   On Scrambling Genes Safely and Precisely


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                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

High-Minded Machines

Consistent with the general deterioration of the environment for
online exchange, NetFuture is increasingly waylaid by spam blockers.
For example, some readers did not receive the last issue because (so the
spam blocker blushingly informed me) the word "orgy" was used.  A little
surprised by the accusation of indecency on my part, I went to check,
and it turned out I had referred to an "orgy of self-congratulation
and utopian prediction" within the Human Genome Project.  As I was
reflecting upon my transgression and the spam blocker's display of
programmed pure-mindedness, it suddenly struck me:  Ray Kurzweil
was right after all!  We are entering an age of spiritual machines.
It's just that he forgot to tell us they would be dumb as hell.

Robots: Getting Down to Essences

In the last issue of NetFuture I described how artificial intelligence
researchers, after labeling segments of their program code with phrases
such as "understanding module", "problem solver", and "ego function",
mistook these labels for the corresponding human capabilities, as if their
computers could now understand, solve problems, and so on.  Their faith in
the efficacy of their labels amounted to a kind of word magic.  But you
probably thought I was referring only to a strange malady afflicting AI in
the old days.  Unhappily, this isn't true.

The latest example comes from South Korea's Kim Jong-Hwan, director of the
Intelligent Robot Research Center and a leading light in the world of
robotics.  He has made a big splash by announcing the creation of fourteen
"artificial chromosomes" that will enable robots to gain distinctive
personalities and reproduce:

   Christians may not like it, but we must consider this the origin of an
   artificial species.  Until now, most researchers in this field have
   focused only on the functionality of the machines, but we think in
   terms of the essence of the creature