Monday, July 28, 2014

Trying To Replace Animals With Robots

            What happens when an animal species, that is crucial to the proper functioning of the ecosystems in which we live, starts to die off?  It creates a major threat to the food chain in which we participate for our survival.  The die-off under consideration here is of bees.  The gradual loss of bees endangers the pollination of crops.

            Humans are looking to establish what is causing this die-off.  The most popular theory lately states that a group of deadly pesticides called neonics are killing off the bees.  Another theory has proposed that the cause is the destruction of biodiversity in many living environments leading to a poor diet for the bees.  Both of these causes are based on environmental degradation created by humans. Other additional causes have been suggested such as infections from two different kinds of mites, viruses and fungus. Whatever the reason, there is still a high probability that humans are directly or indirectly involved as a result of changes they have created in the living environment.

            Humans have caused the destruction of other animal species like the dodo bird, but none of these species was crucial to human survival the way that bees are.  Obviously, the loss of organic grounding in many different ways appears to be affecting bees more than many other species.   Not only are bees dying off in large quantities, but colonies of bees are experiencing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where the worker bees from the bee colony just suddenly vanish.  It’s scary.   Humans, who are not yet experiencing an unexplained mass die-off, have to find some solution to the ecological gap created by the loss of bees. 

            And a solution is being created: robot bees.  We are now at the point in robotics where we can approximate the functions of a primitive animal and create a flying robot that can act independently enough to pollinate plants.  If we succeed in this, we will have solved the main operational problem of the loss of bees.  And if we succeed in this, we will have a model for dealing with the potential loss of other animal species that disappear as a direct or indirect result of human activities.

            But this is the point where we have to ask whether something irreplaceable is being lost, as we substitute robot bees for animal bees.  Are animal bees necessary for other things besides their defined discrete function of pollination?  If we reduce animal bees to one instrumental function, we are reducing them to being robots.  As important as pollination is, we also need our organic relationship to bees.  And with robot bees, there is no capacity to make, preserve or receive organic imprints.  This is because robot bees deal with defined discrete machine stimuli, not organic blendable flowing continual stimuli.  Their stimuli are built on digital combinations of 1 and 0.  Robot bees will not have the capacity with their presence to create flowing continual experience for other animals.  They just have the capacity to create remote isolated discrete events like the pollination of plants.

            With the loss of each new species to environmental degradation, to the loss of organic grounding, we lose one more unique source of organic imprints.  Each loss of species lessens the total vibrancy of our life experience.

            As we lose sources of organic stimuli from disappearing animals like bees, we gradually slide more into a numbing experiential vacuum.  And as we lose sources of organic imprints, we lose the stimulation we need to turn us on to make our own organic imprints.  We lose our capacity to make and preserve our own organic imprints and, thus, to prepare for death.

            Yes, lots of species have been lost to nonhuman causes in the past.  Natural catastrophes, cosmological events like meteorites hitting the earth, and periods of vast climate change (before humans) have all wiped out many species of dinosaurs.  But these are animals of the past.  Humans never had an ecological connection or an experiential connection with dinosaurs apart from their bones.  Early humans did hunt animals like the mammoth and the mastodon, and probably contributed to their extinction along with climate change.  But when these latter animals became extinct, evolution provided other sources of prey for food, other sources of organic experience for humans.  Evolution is not going to be able to work effectively enough to replace bees or other animal species that may be destroyed in today’s technology-controlled world in such a way that we can find new quick organic sources for both their ecological and their experiential functions.

            On the one hand, I certainly support attempts to find new ways to pollinate crops, if bees are dying off.  It is natural for humans to think of methods that imitate what bees do in order to carry out this process.  However, I am concerned that creating robot bees to do the work of animal bees sets a dangerous precedent.  It can lull people into not worrying quite as much as they should every time a species starts dying off.  After all, people will think they can always turn to technology to create a backup, should a particular species be important to the dynamics of an ecosystem.  This will make people less careful about the introduction of new chemicals or new technological processes to the living environment.

            It will also lead to even more blurring in people’s minds between their senses of self as humans, on the one hand, and the body of processes that make up machine activity, on the other.  Rather than missing the organic experience benefits of being around animal bees, humans will slide more and more into an identification with the wired mechanical complexity of robot bees.  The efficiency of robot bees will mirror efficiency behavior in humans and will be one more component in the network of complex modern machinery to further stimulate efficient robotic behavior in human activity.

            Yes, I know that animal bees sting and robot bees don’t.  Lions and tigers are dangerous, and we don’t want to get rid of them.  They are beautiful animals.  And there are many positive sensory aspects to animal bees as well.  The buzzing of animal bees is part of the music of warm weather in many parts of the world.  And animal bees make honey and robot bees don’t.  They are the only animal that I know of that is capable of bringing sweetness to human life that way.  Finally, animal bees are visually attractive insects that bring color to our flower gardens.  So they add to the positive organic sensory experience of the world by people in multiple ways.

            The dying-off of animal bees is only a partly replaceable loss.  If modern technological society does start using robot bees to replace them, we cannot let that in any way reduce the enormity of the experiential loss in our lives.  Animals are not only sources of function.  They are sources of sensory experience.  And our experience of animals in turn stimulates a sense of organic humanity in each of us.

            By the way, the engineers who are creating robot bees are giving them other functions besides that of pollinating crops.  The robot bees are going to be used for search and rescue missions and for military surveillance among other tasks.  With these additional uses, it is not as if the robot bees are going to be used only as a basic organic replacement for a gap in our ecosystems.  With their disconnected diverse activities, the robot bees are going to act like and be machines whose intrinsic worth is based on a bundle of non-related specific functions.  This is very distinct from animal bees whose worth is based on a cohesive organic identity within an ecosystem.  Getting back to the mind/body dichotomy that I discussed in a previous article, there is something in all organisms, some sentient activity, if not a true consciousness, that allows that organism to leave an organic imprint that is different from a mechanical physical mark.  This sentient activity is built on organic blendable continual stimuli which robot bees won’t have.  Robot bees are built exclusively on the defined discrete stimuli of digital processes.

            If we can’t save the animal bees, and robot bees are the only option for pollinating crops, so be it.  But let us not get smug that we are truly replacing animal bees.  There is a German company called Festo that makes robotic models of many different animals.  If all the sub-human animals on the earth were wiped out and replace with robots, humans would truly be very lonely organisms in a vast vacuum living environment.

The topic for this article was suggested by Chuck Freilich
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Danger From Surfing The Internet

            Surfing the Internet has become an increasingly popular activity all over the world.  And as the Internet has become increasingly portable – first through laptops and then through smartphones and tablets, it means that one can engage in this activity almost anywhere one goes.  But according to a recent article in the Washington Post by Michael Rosenwald on April 6, such accessibility has come with a hidden unforeseen cost.  As our brains become reconfigured to quickly scan endless quantities of data, we are losing our capacity to sustain our focus for reading books.  It seems that we are constantly looking for key words and key phrases and feeling a desire to skip around, just as we do with short Internet passages.

            This by itself is cause for alarm.  It means we are losing our capacity to read complex sentences and follow complex narratives and complex lines of thought.  Our minds are geared to lots of free-floating figures in the form of data and are becoming incapable of grounding themselves in a coherent body of images, thoughts, and ideas.  We are increasingly only capable of absorbing defined discrete stimuli that come from our machines and our technological environments, and we are becoming incapable of absorbing the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that are the result of more grounded natural environments.  Yet books are important repositories of the ideational content of human civilization.  Without our being connected properly to books, we lose an important component of what has made us human, since the printing press made books available to large numbers of people.

            Michael Rosenwald is optimist that humans can train themselves to be biliterate – equally capable of absorbing computer data and the coherent content of books.  I am not so sure.  When I was studying classical and flamenco guitar, my teacher explained to me that each of these styles required very distinct muscle development in the fingers of the right hand.  To be good at classical meant developing muscles that impeded agility in flamenco and vice versa.  They were not compatible with one another.  In my opinion, the same is true for Internet scanning and book reading.  They are incompatible styles for absorbing written material.  And the more we become configured for Internet scanning, the more we lose an important essential part of our human capacities.

            Actually what we lose goes beyond our style of reading.  The reconfiguring of our brain for Internet scanning actually extends its influence into other areas of life as well.  Internet scanning predisposes us to shallow-bonded connections of all sorts with the world.  We search out those phenomena in the world that are most like computer data – free-floating figures surrounded by a vacuum.  It means shallow-bonded connections in work, where employer and employee agree to relatively short-term contracts of commitment.  Reconfigured brain development leads to an enormous influence on the way we have sexual experiences today within the customary behavior of hooking up with someone.  In previous articles, I have discussed how people since the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960’s have used sexual experiences with a series of bodies as a vehicle for getting the variety of sensation that was formerly obtainable living in more traditional organic living environments.  In other words, a number of different sexual bodies acted as a substitute for living close to a forest, a mountain, a jungle, or a desert and living in a quaint village or town with quaint textured sculptural architecture.

            The computer has added another element to this equation.  By becoming configured to only be able to absorb, on one level, the discrete stimuli from the free-floating figures of data, yet still in need, on another level, of the grounded organic stimuli of nature and natural phenomena, our computerized minds translate the flowing blendable organic continual stimuli of a sexual body and a sexual experience into the defined momentary discrete stimulus of a computer datum.  You hook up with another person for a moment, satisfy yourself in the relatively fleeting moment and then separate.  The new computerized way of thinking acts as a mold for absorbing something as apparently different from a datum as a sexual experience.  The sexual experience is completed and then the person is back in an emotional vacuum again, free of commitments.  The connection is a shallow-bonded clip-on connection between two highly figurized people who are increasingly incapable of grounded deep-bonded relationships.

            In truth, Internet surfing teaches us an approach to living that involves our constantly scanning life while making few deep-bonded grounded connections to anyone and anything.  Through Internet surfing, we learn how to obtain fast shallow ingestions of stimuli from all aspects of daily life.  In other words, we start living a MacLife situation.  And just like too much fast food is harmful for your physical health, so too much fast shallow life stimuli can be harmful for your mental health.

            We could say that Internet surfing is profoundly interfering with the most fundamental way we have had traditionally to connect to the world by making, preserving and receiving organic imprints.  We make and receive fast shallow markings that don’t stimulate us to life very much in a way that we can properly absorb.  Nor are these markings easily preservable in our lives or in the lives of the people around us.  We are impeded in our needs to feel fully alive and to prepare for death through the surrogate immortality of preserved organic imprints.

            Now obviously there is some writing based on deep thinking on the Internet.  Writing for which one mentally has to slow down in order to obtain any benefit from it.  The concern is that a lot of time spent surfing the net can affect our capacity to properly absorb these deeper articles.

            The solution is simple.  Or maybe not so simple.  One has to stop playing the game of searching the Internet with no serious purpose in mind.  One has to break one’s addiction to the Internet.  It’s going to be difficult just like withdrawing from addictions to alcohol, drugs or gambling.  But life will become so much more rich and vibrant and meaningful.  This includes love and work and relationships of all kinds.  Very simply, life will be so much more full of life.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow