Where’s Waldo?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841

Shake it up is all that we know,
Using bodies up as we go
I’m waking up to fantasy
The shades all around aren’t the colors we used to see
Broken ice still melts in the sun
And ties that are broken can often be one again,
We’re soul alone and soul really matters to me…Take a look around

You’re out of touch, I’m out of time (time)
But I’m out of my head when you’re not around

— Hall and Oates, “Out of Touch”

Recently I spoke to a group of freshmen who were being inducted into several different honors societies on campus. My theme was the quest for excellence. As I have few opportunities now to actually interact with the rising generation, I was eager to say something that would have some resonance with students over twenty-five years younger than I am. For some reason, it seemed to me that the best way to do this would be to draw upon the idea of “the quest” as represented in history, mythology, and popular culture. Intoxicated by this IDEA and fortified by the power of Google, I put together a brief series of images that I believed were iconic representations of “the quest”: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jason and the Argonauts, the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, Indiana Jones, the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, and Mulder and Scully. I gave my talk; I got a few laughs from the audience, and left the stage thinking that it went better than I had hoped.

During the reception after the induction ceremony, a student approached me and admitted that she has never been able to understand a thing that I say, including the presentation of which I had been so proud just minutes before. I was stunned. She was an honors student and reasonably bright – the type of student I work hard every day to attract to my institution and inspire—and I could not reach her. Suddenly I was awash again in the disappointment and frustration that I so well remember from my days as an assistant professor of history. And like any good denizen of the Age of Social Media, I jumped onto Facebook and asked my digital friends to tell me what I had missed. Surely, I thought, they would see the brilliance of my approach and depth of my commitment to being relevant to my students.

My bruised ego was soothed by several of my friends; and I thank them for it. However, a well-respected colleague who is also an award-winning teacher chided me for failing to use cultural reference points that actually come from the world experienced by my students, not the one I remember from the last millennium. I was indignant, firm in my belief that a truly intelligent person would know and understand the examples I had used – examples which surely rose above the flotsam and jetsam of what passes for popular culture today. Why, in my day…

My colleague was absolutely correct. I had dismissed the era inhabited by my students – i.e., NOW – as irrelevant and inferior to the Golden Epoch of my youth. I had closed my eyes, willingly, to a world that was continually and stubbornly remaking itself. I was not the teacher or mentor that my students deserve. Somehow, at the ripe old age of 43, I had transformed into an embittered old codger.

I used to joke that I became an historian because I understood the dead better than the living. I cannot laugh any longer. I see now that I must embark upon my own quest out of the realm of shades and back into the world of the living. I am not sure that I am up for the challenge, but I have to try. Jim Kirk and Indiana Jones would not have it any other way.

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Let’s Do It!

“Birds do it.  Bees do it….Probably we’ll live to see machines do it.”  Cole Porter wrote his classic toe-tapper “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” in 1928, decades before the first computer and the birth of what we now call AI (Artificial Intelligence, not the basketball star Allen Iverson).  Yet he somehow foresaw a time when machines would not only think like human beings; they would also fall in love and—presumably—have sex like humans as well.  That makes me wonder if Porter, another proud Yale Man like yours truly, was a visionary like the British mathematician and computer science founder Alan Turing—or just a pervert ahead of his time.  Or maybe he was just after a clever song lyric—of which he was an absolute master.

Anyway, suppose that we do someday create machines that can fall in love with each other and quite “naturally” desire some type of “physical intimacy.”  What would that look like?  Would computers overload their servers with streams of erotic (to them, at least) code?  Would there be such a thing as computer porn?  Would humans pay to see it?  (Of course we would.)  Would global networks crash as the supercomputers that control every aspect of our modern, continually-connected lives spend all of their time generating real cyber-porn instead of working?  Would computers want to marry and reproduce?  Would computers be a single gender or some new binary conception of heterosexuality?  Or would they cast off the concept of gender entirely?  Would some computers be homosexual?  Would same-sex relationships between computers be allowed?

Cole Porter and his wonderful little tune really open up a can of worms for us.  How are we going to deal with the coming onslaught of super-intelligent, love-struck, and horny machines who want equal rights—and can freeze our bank accounts and shut down the Internet?

Literature and popular culture are awash with works that examine the uneasy relationship between people and machines that see themselves as something more than their human creators had intended.  Two favorite examples come immediately to mind.  In his classic 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick explores the meaning of humanity and the moral consequences of ridding society of synthetic beings (androids) who appear human in every meaningful respect.  At the other extreme, The Terminator franchise imagines a world in which sentient machines decide to exterminate humanity.  Between these two poles of annihilation fraught with moral ambiguity, Cole Porter’s quaint notion of machines falling in love sounds, well, de-lovely.