Although there are two other interesting pieces I’d like to talk about, there’s one or two more pieces of Sherry Turkle’s work that I’d like to talk about.

Turkle describes a bizarre interaction she had with a Scientific American writer. Apparently they had a quarrel in which the reporter likened her discrimination of human and robot to discrimination between homosexuals and heterosexuals. I find that shocking because, first, it’s a completely irrational comparison, and second, Scientific American has always been to me an excellent representative of clear thinking. She also describes a book by prize-winning computer scientist David Levy who seriously argues that by the middle of this century, it will be commonplace for humans to have earnest romantic relationships with robots. That’s stupid and I agree with Turkle’s criticisms.

But there’s something I disagree with. She implies that it’s impossible for an artificial intelligence to ever be sentient. I used to hold the same view, but I’ve come to change my mind about that. I think that although we’ll probably never see a sentient artificial intelligence in our lifetimes, such a thing is not theoretically impossible. The question opens up a host of problems in philosophy and theology.

This is how I’ve changed my mind.

I used to think that machine sentience was impossible because no matter how we programmed an AI, it would only be executing a set of human commands. Even the most convincing set of responses would be only a set of what Turkle calls “as-if” actions: For example, responding to an insult “as if” the machine really is insulted, when in fact there’s “nobody home.”

But consider this line of thought: If a non-sentient animal can eventually gain sentience, why can’t a non-sentient machine do the same?

It seems clear that species change over time, just as languages do. Nothing is static, and given a sufficiently long stretch of time, amazing changes will occur. American Sign Language originated from French Sign Language in the 1800s and “speciated” into its own language over the generations. A similar thing happened with all the languages emerging from older languages, like the Romantic languages stemming from Latin. All the world’s ~6,000 languages share a “family tree” analogous to the family tree of biological species. Dogs originated from older species of wolves. The new species of bacteria evolved in a laboratory at Michigan State University originated from the original E. Coli species that biologist Richard Lenski started with in 1988. Homo Sapiens originated from older primate species. A series of innumerable small steps over the amazingly huge history of life (3,500,000,000 years) has produced amazingly huge changes.

Given that, it seems clear that we evolved. We’re part of the tree of life. This means that our great-great-great-etc. grandparents were substantially different. Take it back far enough, and one ancestor was a cave-man. Take it back further, and their ancestors were proto-humans. Further back still, their ancestors didn’t even resemble humans. We are sentient beings whose great-great-great-etc. grandparents were not sentient.

This has profound implications for the way we think about ourselves. I had a friend in high school who repeatedly insisted, “I didn’t come from no monkey” when evolution came up. We’d hate to think of ourselves as a monkey’s relative, but the conclusion is inescapable.

And so, if our lineage gained sentience from a state of non-sentience, why couldn’t another?

A new sentient intelligence could be created by Man in the following ways:

  1. A breeding program selecting for intelligence.  In Siberia, a team of biologists has for decades been conducting a breeding experiment with silver foxes.  One group is selected for aggression.  Another group is selected for docility.  In just a few generations, substantial changes have resulted in both groups.  It would be possible to do a similar experiment selecting for intelligence with chimpanzees.  Chimps are already on the cusp of sentience, recognizing themselves in a mirror and communicating with a limited sign language.
  2. Direct cellular or genetic manipulation of an existing organism.  Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York recently announced their findings that implanting human glial brain cells into mouse brains resulted in significantly increased intelligence.  Maybe we’re facing a Planet Of The Mice scenario.
  3. The “classic” approach to artificial intelligence, using a digital format to program and develop an intelligence.  This approach has so far not yielded human-like intelligence, but it may be only a matter of time.  It took the Earth 3.5 billion years to produce sentience by accident.  It would take us a significantly shorter time.

Fortunately, none of these are likely to happen any time soon.


Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk and book “Alone Together” makes some cogent points about the way that technology affects human psychology and society. She says that “we’re so busy communicating that we often don’t have time to think.” The fact that we now have the Internet and communication technology in our pockets at all times serves to dilute our attention and mediate our connections with other people. The resulting thirst for real connections results in the development of technological substitutes. Turkle writes, “we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.”

I heard an NPR story about a year ago where a guy decided to see if it was possible to travel across the entire United States without having to interact with another human being. He was pretty successful.

I always feel like connecting these ideas to other things I’ve seen and read. The same issue Turkle addresses was predicted in E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story The Machine Stops and lampooned in The Onion’s 2009 story “90% Of Waking Hours Spent Staring At Glowing Rectangles”.  The Onion story is just a joke, but also in 2009 the New York Times ran an actual article entitled “8 Hours A Day Spent On Screens, Study Finds“.

In one of Hugo’s earliest posts, he focused on a video where Dan Harmon talks about “why not to take the Internet too seriously.” He says that the Internet is another in a long line of “people-connectors”, or methods that people use for interaction apart from simple in-person communication. Harmon’s chief point is that ultimately, people are what matters in life. Just like Sherry Turkle, he argues that we’ve come to love the things we’re connecting to other people with rather than loving the people we’re connecting with: “The more powerful the connector, the more power that connector has to divide us.”

I think that there’s an accidental social experiment going on. The saturation of communications technology that Turkle talks about is prevalent in most of the US, but there are still parts of the US and big parts of the rest of the world that have not yet been reached by the telecommunications glut seen here. There’s a control group and an experimental group. It would be interesting to see if there’s a way to quantify the problems Turkle talks about and see if there’s a way to measure them in different societies that have different levels of media saturation. I haven’t seen anyone doing that. So far the comparisons have been of the US now to the US then. I think it would be useful to compare other societies at different stages of media saturation.

Cell phones, the Internet, and other modern media allow us to have virtual friends in social media without requiring users to leave their bedrooms, thus fostering the social disconnectedness that Sherry Turkle explores in her book Alone Together. Unmanned space exploration allows Mankind to walk amongst the stars, explore the final frontier, and reach our loftiest aspirations—without ever leaving the comfort of our own home planet. Unmanned aerial vehicles allow us innumerable new possibilities that come without the concurrent costs and consequences of the human factor that used to be necessary in the uses that unmanned aerial vehicles are finding.

One of the costs and consequences of the human factor that’s now being circumvented by technological substitutes is that the hardships of real-life warfare can now be like a video game. Dropping bombs on our enemies from the air is already a remarkably impersonal method of warfare: Bomber pilots sit in a chair in the sky while incinerating targets on the ground that they never see except as tiny ants below. Weaponized drones take this a step further: It’s much cheaper and safer to never put anyone in the sky in the first place.


“We live in a world where there are actual fleets of robot assassins patrolling the skies. At some point there, we left the present and entered the future.” The changes of modern technology are brought out here in this parody of the movie “Terminator”.

Flying robots have become an essential part of America’s way of war. The New York Times recently reported:

An overwhelming reliance on killing terrorism suspects, which began in the administration of George W. Bush, has defined the Obama years. Since Mr. Obama took office, the C.I.A. and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones. Only a handful have been caught and brought to this country; an unknown number have been imprisoned by other countries with intelligence and other support from the United States.

Unmanned aerial vehicles allow modern states to exercise the use of force more discreetly and in ways that were previously impossible. US air operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere would be more restricted if operations were done using manned aircraft. The frequent accidental killing of civilians that results from drone strikes—close to a thousand civilians killed since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia altogether—gets much less media attention than such killings by ground troops or manned bombings would.

The US government’s 2011 killing of three American citizens in Yemen (one of whom was suspected of being a terrorist threat; the other two were accidental) without warrant, trial or charge has largely escaped public outcry and serious discussion in part because these killings were done using unmanned drones. Killing, too, has come to lack the human element.

As long as drone strikes happen overseas, they seem less immediate than such killings within US borders. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently filibustered the Senate over the question of whether the executive branch considers drone killings permissible within US borders, rather than questioning why extrajudicial killing of US citizens is thought to be permissible at all. It’s unlikely that the discussion would be the same if we were asking whether it was permissible for agents to break into a citizen’s house in Texas and shoot them without any judicial process.  Drones change the story.

There are probably other factors explaining why the Constitutional issues raised by this targeted trial-free execution have gotten relatively little discussion, but drones are an essential element.

Using human substitutes for space exploration makes it easier to forget how awesome space exploration is, while using human substitutes for killing makes it easier to forget how awful it is.

On the front page of today’s Wichita Eagle is a story about something that in my last post was intended as a joke. In my last post I fostered the notion of a flying fast-food feature, but found it wasn’t feasible. Pie In The Sky was just a dream. I also mentioned Silicon Valley’s 2011 TacoCopter.

Today’s Eagle story “Could An Unmanned Drone Deliver You A Quick Dinner?” says basically what I said a few weeks ago, although it provides examples I didn’t think of. The authors write, “Researchers at the Darwin Aerospace laboratory in San Francisco have designed the Burrito Bomber, the world’s first airborne Mexican food delivery system…” Technically it’s the second.

Hobbyists’ remote-controlled aircraft have been around for decades, but today’s drones are part of a new generation. They’re the juncture of robotics, flight technology, and information technology. They still require humans at the controls, but they increasingly use onboard computers for steering and execution of commands. Advances in computing allow ever-“smarter” and more autonomous drones, and advances in drones allow the ever-increasing expansion of the purview of the information revolution. They are a place where “meat-space” and “cyber-space” meet, connecting the abstract digital world with physical capabilities for real-world applications.  Drones are computerized tools, cameras and sometimes weapons.  As Sherry Turkle writes in her book Alone Together, “we are shaped by our tools.  And now the computer, a machine on the border of becoming a mind, [is] changing and shaping us.”  She’s concerned with the way we’re increasingly communicating with screens instead of faces and using machines instead of interacting with people.  I think computerized, unmanned aerospace is beginning to have society-wide impacts.

Next door to Kansas, over at the University of Missouri, the journalism program is finding new uses for drones. It’s part of a growing trend. According to the Kansas City Star:

They’re not computer engineers or information technology experts. They’re future story-tellers learning how a cheap technology can enhance their reporting with a bird’s-eye view of a story.

The national media has zoomed in on the University of Missouri journalism drone class in recent weeks. Is this yet another dimension of the coming of the drones, the future tool of the celebrity-chasing paparazzi?


In five years, experts predict, more than 10,000 drones will be working overhead for American businesses. Some say the number might soar as high as 30,000. That’s a lot of cameras staring down, some with infrared imaging, swiveling to see ever more.

Every day advancements are made in the technology. As the machines become more weather-proof, with longer battery life, lighter, smaller, even bug-sized, the list of possible uses — and concerns — grows.

The MPAA is lobbying Congress to allow use of drones in the US because, the Eagle says, “flight crews can eat up huge portions of movie budgets.” Most other nations don’t restrict domestic non-governmental drone use as the US does, though restrictions here are likely to loosen.

The opening scenes of the recent movie Skyfall were shot using a drone.  Drones have also found uses in agriculture, journalism, law enforcement, and warfare.

I think the increasing use of machines instead of humans for our business in the sky is an inevitability. Drones’ cheapness and safety are often cited. This goes for our business beyond the sky, too: NASA has for decades found immense savings in sending robotic probes into space instead of human missions. Our robots can explore Mars and outer space far more easily, safely, and cheaply than any human could. They can go where no man has gone before, or ever will go.

One drawback to this approach is that space probes don’t inspire us the way human space exploration does. It was stunning, awe-inspiring, and revolutionary when Man first walked on the Moon. For the general public, it was yawn-inducing when two years ago NASA landed its Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.

Unmanned space exploration is much less inspiring because it lacks the human element. It’s another facet of the disconnections enabled by modern technology that Sherry Turkle describes.

For next year’s Shocker Business Plan Competition, I’ll be entering a new, unheard-of business idea.  As CJ Lett said at the beginning of the semester, “I’ve never seen an idea that wouldn’t work if you didn’t give up on it.”

There’s been pizza delivery services for decades.  Chinese food delivery.  Even barbecue delivery and steak delivery.

But what about pie delivery?

What I propose is an airborne drone-enabled pie-delivery system.  It will be called Pie In The Sky.

We will deploy drones throughout the Wichita area equipped with a storage cell containing delicious pies.  They will fly to your address and deliver a pie after you’ve ordered and paid online.

Airborne drones have been becoming cheaper and cheaper, and already you can buy one that actually could deliver a pie (two-pound payload) for $600.

One of the biggest expenses for a delivery service is paying the driver of the delivery vehicle.  You have to reimburse them for both their gasoline and their time, and gasoline keeps getting more and more expensive.

Modern technology has enabled the steady advance of machine-aided replacement of traditionally human functions, such as self-checkout replacing clerks in grocery stores; airborne drones replacing human-piloted vehicles in military air-strikes in warzones and non-warzones; and computer algorithms capable of thousands or even millions of transactions per second replacing stock traders in what is called “high-frequency trading”.  The machine-enabled digitization of currency has fundamentally changed the nature of money itself.  Pilotless or driverless delivery vehicles could save an incalculable amount of money and make countless jobs obsolete.

For a more down-to-Earth approach, it might also be possible to deliver things using unmanned cars.  Google has been working on developing a self-driving car:

I was originally going to post this yesterday as an April Fool’s Day joke, but the more I think about it and read about it the more it seems like use of drones for delivery of commercial goods is not as completely ridiculous as it at first seems.  (Though I’m still not really going to be entering a drone-based idea next year.)  Google had at least one popular April Fool’s Day joke, but the unmanned automobile is a real project.  The US military is already using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver things (other than bombs) with the RQ-17 Shadow drone and other systems.  Next door to Kansas, Mesa County, Colorado recently cut the cost of an annual landfill survey from $10,000 to $200 by using a drone instead of a piloted craft.

And I didn’t know about this when I thought up the Pie In The Sky idea, but in 2011 a group in Silicon Valley seriously tried to test out this very idea with a project called TacoCopter.  They were only stopped by the fact that unmanned aerial vehicles aren’t yet permitted by the FAA for commercial use.  There’s a long list of practical considerations that would have to be overcome, but if it’s already a reality with the RQ-17, unmanned delivery vehicles probably do have a future in the private sector.  In Alaska, supplies often have to be transported by air anyway.

Give it enough time, and the technological landscape will have transformed enough that automated vehicles will be at least feasible in the private sector.  I thought it was ridiculous, but it’s not so unworkable after all.  Maybe CJ Lett was right.

OK so my copy of Microsoft Word keeps crashing so hopefully I can get through this without another digital meltdown.  If I’m going to put any lengthy typed piece online, I’ll usually type it in Word because anything typed into a text window in a browser can easily be lost.

…No, it turns out that I’ll have to type this in Notepad instead.  Word just crashed again for no reason.  I re-opened it and saved the text, but I’m not opening it again.

I’ve been going through Steve Heiden’s business plan and layering the details of our business idea over Steve Heiden’s structure. I’m looking forward to working face-to-face again with Alex and Cristina so we can combine what we have so far.  


Getting a tan or experiencing an alien abduction?

I had an uncle who died of skin cancer when I was a kid.  I didn’t get to see him after he got sick, but I know it’s a pretty nasty way to go.

Thinking about tanning makes me think about the risks associated with it, so I’ve been reading about skin cancer and the relative benefits of suntanning and sunless tanning (that is, tanning by applying a cream or spray instead of using light to burn your skin).  I’m very glad the idea we’re working with is sunless tanning.

Apparently skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer, affecting more people than all other forms of cancer combined.  A fifth of Americans will develop some form of skin cancer during their lifetime.  That’s pretty startling.  Only a small fraction of those cases are fatal.  Skin cancer is far more common than lung cancer, but far less likely to be fatal.  The American Cancer Society says (PDF) that “an estimated 12,650 [skin cancer] deaths will occur in 2013.”  (By contrast, lung cancer killed nearly 159,000 Americans in 2008 and breast cancer kills about 40,000 annually, almost all women).

Oncologists are pretty critical of suntanning.  A couple years ago I listened to an episode of the  Diane Rehm Show where she interviewed experts on skin cancer about its relationship to sunscreen and UV exposure.  I got the impression that sun exposure was surprisingly dangerous and that the only non-cosmetic benefit of tanning with light is that ultraviolet radiation causes your skin to produce vitamin D.  Yet vitamin D is widely available in supplements and included in products like milk, so the consensus is strongly against suntanning.

I’ve always thought that getting a light “base suntan” was a good way to protect against sunburns (and therefore against skin cancer), yet I’ve just learned that the Mayo Clinic says otherwise:

Tanning under the sun or a sunlamp gives protection that is equivalent to a sun protection factor (SPF) of 4 or less, which translates into a little extra time in the sun before you start to burn. But the larger issue is that any change in skin color is a sign of damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Repeated exposure to UV radiation — whether from the sun or a tanning bed — increases your risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.

When Cristina pitched her business plan, I asked her if sunless tanning might offer some of the same protection from sunburns that I had always thought getting a natural suntan offered.  She didn’t seem to think so.

But the above quotation from the Mayo Clinic indicates that tans (natural tans, at least) do give a slight sun-protection benefit.  And having darker skin generally does offer some protection from sunburns and skin cancer.  The previously linked document from the American Cancer Society says that “melanoma is rare among African Americans; the lifetime risk of developing melanoma is 23 times higher among whites than among African Americans.”  Since some sunless tanning products use dihydroxyacetone to cause a chemical reaction with amino acids in the skin to darken the skin itself rather than just dyeing it a darker color, it still seems possible that sunless tanning could provide a small SPF benefit.  I wish there was some ongoing scientific research to answer that question, but I can’t find any real evidence to support the idea of an SPF benefit from sunless tanning.  The protection would be miniscule anyway.  Too bad; I was hoping I was on the trail of an underreported benefit of sunless tanning.

Nevertheless, the superiority of sunless tanning is obvious.  Doctors say that any darkening of the skin due to exposure to light is a sign of incipient UV damage.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer added tanning beds to its list of known carcinogens a few years ago.  If light-skinned people want darker skin, sunless tanning is clearly the safest and best option.

(There seems to have been less scientific research on testing the safety of sunless tanning, but at least one recent study (PDF) pronounced it safe.)

I’m convinced that Cristina’s sunless tanning idea is a project I can totally get behind.