Pick 6: Man vs. Machine
A month ago the Watson supercomputer destroyed the human competition at Jeopardy, a gimmicky showdown that has been brewing for the last three years as I.B.M. scientists worked to produce a computer that could spit out factual answers in natural language. Or as Clive Thompson put it in the New York Times in June:
In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail, because it would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords.
Today a Lev Grossman article in Time profiles Raymond Kurzweil on his belief in the imminent fusion of man and machine:
So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.
This inspired me to pick 6 cultural examples that incorporate man and machine. The list here is ordered by release date.
6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
The inspiration for the 1982 movie Bladerunner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a post-apocalyptic, science fiction novel that meditates on what it means to be human.
5. Kraftwerk: “Autobahn” (1974)
There are later Kraftwerk examples that more explicitly match up with the subject, like 1978′s The Man-Machine, but “Autobahn” is an early example of the synthesis between human voice, electronics, and music composition. Listening to this song now, I think of the ever-increasing speed of our online connections and the increasing clarity of our many screens, as they get more thought-like and life-like.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 2, Episode 11: “Ted” (1997)
Buffy’s mom Joyce meets a man named “Ted,” played by John Ritter. Ted is a computer expert and seemingly charming man who turns out to be something more than a man. It’s not one of the best episodes of season 2 as the obliviousness of Joyce is almost too much to bear, satire or not. But as I’m in the midst of watching all the seasons, it springs to mind.
3. A.I. (2001)
This film sometimes seems to get more attention for NOT being directed by Stanley Kubrick rather than for being a good film, but it holds up well. And the combination of Kubrick’s coldness and Spielberg’s warmth both informs the subject matter and highlights the prescience of its appeal—the first robot programmed to love.
2. Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (2008) by David Levy
David Levy’s book, and subsequent appearance on The Colbert Report, attempts to destigmatize the notion of love and sex with robots. The calmly assured (robotic?) certainty of his explanations indicate a growing confidence in the field of artificial intelligence.
1. CMYK by James Blake
Blake combines the warmth of soul and R&B with the chopped up production of downtempo electronic music to create something entirely his own. As Mike Powell wrote in Pitchfork: “‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ is an old question. Blake’s trying to figure out how convincingly they sing gospel.”