Monthly Archives: December 2013

There once was a grouchy old Grinch,
Who stockings and presents would pinch.
Till one Christmas Eve,
He began to believe,
And put everything back in a cinch.

*  *  *

Merry Christmas to all my readers, whether you’re just dropping by or a loyal follower of mine! Between work, life, and the holidays, I’ve been far too busy to write my usual weekly post, so I chose to compose this wee limerick instead, and spend a couple days humming carols and sipping hot cocoa with my feet up in front of a blazing hearth.

In the meantime, if you’re hankering for a bit of sci-fi yuletide fun, you might enjoy my short story Mail from Mars, in which a very special Christmas gift appears …

I will be back next week with more interesting things. Until I return, have a very happy holiday!

– Andron

Christmas candle with holly

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Screenshot of Siri's response to "Are you a robot?"

When Robots Lie

Last week, a particularly weird piece of artificial intelligence news made a splash in the internet ocean. TIME magazine’s Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got a phone call from a telemarketer named Samantha West, who was selling health insurance. She was friendly and cheerful, but something about her bugged Scherer.

“Are you a robot?” he asked her.

With a little laugh, she insisted that she was a real person. Still, something was off. Scherer pressed her on several points that would have been simple to an ordinary human being, but Samantha — or Samantha-bot — was unable to answer. Later, other TIME reporters called her back. Here are the conversations they had:

Now, as it turns out, Samantha West is not precisely a robot. The company “employing” her revealed a couple days ago to TIME that Samantha West is simply a soundboard of pre-recorded statements and questions, which is operated by a live human. The technology does not yet exist to build a stand-alone bot capable of what Samantha West does over the phone. Though automated, she is not autonomous, and therein lies a small difference.

But Samantha West grabbed my curiosity nonetheless. After hearing her story, my mother and I played around with Apple’s virtual assistant Siri on the iPad, who is most definitely a robot. However, Siri refused to admit this when we asked, making evasive statements like, “I’m an assistant. Isn’t that all that matters?” and “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories.”

I set out to discover if this was just a fluke, or if there are other chatbots around that also do not acknowledge they are robots. Continue reading When Robots Lie

Coconuts

Think you that our technology is so impressive?

Ponder this: The mightiest ship that mankind has ever sailed across the seven seas is put to shame by the humble coconut.

A coconut palm
Image via El Bibliomata on Flickr. Reused under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.

Continue reading Coconuts

Why I won’t be seeing the “Hobbit” movie.

Let me (proudly) confess: I am a J.R.R. Tolkien über-nerd. I’ve read The Hobbit half a dozen times, The Lord of the Rings at least ten times. I’ve conquered dozens of his other, lesser-known books. I have friends who declare themselves to be Tolkien fans, and I sit quietly and nod, smirking only slightly, as they discuss the appendices to Lord of the Rings. “I should read the Silmarillion,” they sigh. I nod. Yes. Yes, they should.

But, though Tolkien’s words are in my blood, I won’t be seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. No way. Part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s original Middle-Earth novel opened last night in American theaters, but you won’t find me lining up for a ticket this holiday season, or purchasing the DVD, or streaming it on Netflix.

Why not? Continue reading Why I won’t be seeing the “Hobbit” movie.

A green tree superimposed over stars in space.

Green Earth, Black Sky: Seeking the Future of Thought

Every once in a while, out of the murky chaos of human life and society, glimpses appear of what real human beings in the future may think, feel, and desire. Lately, I have been watching a particularly interesting pair of trends, which may foreshadow a revolution in human thought over the next few decades. I’ve noticed signs that the numerous technological, environmental, and ethical interests of our modern era are coalescing into two different waves of paradigms and values.

One wave is being called Black Sky Thinking; the other could well be named Green Earth Thinking.  Both focus on how human beings connect with our human nature, our place within the universe, and our technological capability, but they take opposite positions. Continue reading Green Earth, Black Sky: Seeking the Future of Thought