Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When Making Toys Becomes Child’s Play

            More and more of the technological processes we produce today seem like magic.  We produce machines that have more and more defined discrete parts: both mechanical pieces as well as digital components that fit together in complicated ways and help to run the machine.  Most of us are not mechanical engineers or computer programmers, so for us, all of the defined discrete component processes that allow a machine to operate, actually seem to blur together  into one flowing blendable continual process that just blurs into and out of the external world.  It is simply too difficult for us to focus on and to understand all of these defined discrete component processes separately.  They simply blend together in our perception into one mysterious magical process.

            This experience is very different from when we use traditional tools to make, repair and operate different things.  In those traditional work processes, we can see what is happening, and to the extent that we are agents using the tools, we can feel a sense of control and dominance over processes in which we are participating.  The processes can be broken down into defined discrete work steps that we can understand.  And we are actively exercising our free will in performing all of the different steps of the processes.

            This contrasts with using a modern machine where we press a button or pull a lever and a complicated process, in which we are not directly participating at each step, starts to occur.  This is where people start to experience a blurry sense of magic.  And there is no machine where this blurry sense of magic is more likely to be experienced than with a 3-D printer.  It seems that different kinds of 3-D printers can be programmed to produce practically anything today from scratch: machine parts, human body parts, a gun.  The list is endless.

            But what I want to focus on for this article is a 3-D printer that children will be able to use to make and design their toys.  This 3-D printer is called a Thingmaker and it is being produced by the Mattel toy company.  This Thingmaker is a modern version of a product sold by Mattel in the 1960’s in which a child could produce toys using molds and liquid plastic.  The modern Thingmaker has much more ambitious objectives.  The Thingmaker does come with fixed designs that can be used to produce standard toys.  But it also has the capability to produce toys designed by the children who are using it.  Furthermore, the Thingmaker is accompanied by an app which allows children to make toys on standard 3-D printers.  To make Thingmaker safe for children, the door to its printer closes when in use, and the printing head retracts when not being used, so that children can’t burn their fingers.  However there is a transparent window through which children can watch the process of creation going on, when the Thingmaker is making a toy.

            And here is where we come to the notion of a Thingmaker as a source of magic.  So many different little things have to occur with so many different parts.  The child is not going to really be able to see fully how a toy is being made in the way that he can see a cabinetmaker making a piece of furniture or a potter making a pot.  The child sets in motion the process of creation by choosing a pre-existing design or else by creating a design of his own.  Once that happens, the Thingmaker is activated and the toy is automatically built by adding layer after layer of plastic.  When a child watches an artisan creating an object, he sees the easily understandable defined discrete steps in the creation of an object and, in seeing the steps, he gets an intuitive grasp of the steps and a sense of mental control over the steps such that he can feel that someday he will make the object himself should he so desire.  And in a larger sense, seeing processes of creation done by tools, gives a child a sense that the world can be controlled and mastered through his own efforts, that he can use his hands to engage the world and make what he needs. 

            But where is the sense of control and mastery using a Thingmaker?  Certainly if a child selects a pre-existing design, there is not only no participation in building a toy, but there is no creativity as well.  Now if a child builds a toy using his own design, there is certainly some creative input in the conception of the product.  But coming up with an idea for a toy and then watching a complicated machine using a process one really doesn’t understand in order to create it, is almost as magical as asking a genie to give him a toy based on a dream idea and then watching it appear suddenly by magic.  There is no meaningful organic friction on the part of the child to allow him to have a rich vibrant experience in building his toy.  Instead, the creation of the child’s dream toy occurs behind a transparent window in what is, for all intensive purposes, an experiential vacuum for the child.  In other words, just providing the conception of something that would traditionally require some manual participation should the child build it, some engagement of the hands, means that the child is leaving a very flimsy, one might say vacuumized organic imprint. At least, when a child builds a toy on the printer using a pre-existing design or buys a ready-made toy, there is no pretense that he is making and preserving a meaningful imprint in the construction of the toy.  The process of conceiving toys that are then made automatically will teach a very important implicit message to children.  That life can truly be a dream, because without some meaningful organic friction, it is hard to know that one is living in the external world.  Dreams are very comfortable, but too much life in dreams means one is unable to have the rich vibrant experiences that come with organic friction.  One becomes too comfortable to make, receive and preserve meaningful organic imprints and one becomes incapable of preparing for death with a meaningful personal surrogate immortality through achievements and relationships.  

            With magic comes a sense that one really has very little direct control over the external world.  Life is not simply a matter of getting the things that one wants to obtain.  It is also a matter of acting in such a way that one experiences organic friction in the process of transforming the external world in some way, leaving some meaningful organic imprint in order to obtain the desire thing.  Meaningful life involves transformative journeys in order to obtain one’s desired things.  When one gets things too easily, one tends to become more passive, even fatalistic.  Fatalism is frequently applied to poor people who feel that misfortunes and disaster are beyond their control.  But fatalism can also apply when a child receives an ongoing flow of good fortune that seems beyond his control.  Nonstop good fortune can, in the long run, be just as predictably routine as nonstop bad fortune.  In both cases, what is coming seems inevitable.  Hence, the fatalism.

            A human without the friction to stimulate the development of a strong will and the consequent capacity to make meaningful imprints can end up being controlled and manipulated himself.  In today’s world, this lack of friction is one of the fundamental factors leading to becoming like a will-less controllable robot.  This is a danger of having a magical machine like a Thingmaker making many different kinds of toys that one conceives of.  The inevitable of the good can paradoxically become a preparation for the inevitable of the bad.  So as machines, computers and robots start gradually to encroach more and more into human space and to take over more and more in the human world, who will have the will to stop them?

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

When A Video Game Comes To Life

            For those of you who have been hooked on the Super Mario video games, artificial intelligence has created a new twist.  In an article in – “ ‘Social Al’ lets Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and Toad learn how to save the princess on their own” (2/4/16) Dario Borghino explores some new software that allows video games to operate more independently from the video game player.  In effect, the video game characters work together to solve problems through their interactions with each other, through communicating with and learning from one another.  Each one of these characters is given a different skill and a different ultimate goal.  The characters have to learn how to cooperate with each other in order to complete a task.  In their interactions with each other, they learn from each other’s behavior and through a “probablilistic algorithm”, they develop insights into how the world works.  This knowledge then helps the four characters to work together.  The software allows these video game characters to become semi-independent complex behavioral entities.  The purpose of the transformation of these video game characters is to act as models for applications that “include intelligent social support systems and swarms of modular robots that learn to perform complex actions on little human instructions.”

            But what is important for our purposes is the impact that intelligent video game characters can have on humans.  In previous articles, we were talking about the mirroring and modeling that could occur as a result of humans interacting with computers, robots and other complex machines.  The defined, discrete, angular processes of these machines cause humans to feel there is something imperfect about their own flowing, blendable , continual animal-like movements, and this impact from the machines gradually causes the humans to subtly and unconsciously model themselves after the machines.

            Now we are going to be dealing with what are, in effect, vacuumized substance-less technological figures that people will experience not through external world reality, but through screen reality.  And I am sure that the “Social Al” software will never simply remain a research tool.  Some way will be found to commercialize it and make it available to the general public.  Somehow, these semi-independently operating video characters can potentially, in their own way, have as much effect on humans as the technological figures that are made of material substance: namely complex machines, computers and robots.

            The idea that an algorithm can give video characters the capacity for what will appear as spontaneous interaction will mean that the boundaries between these characters and humans will be considerably blurred.  Granted that these characters are cartoon-like, but the fact that they  have the capacity for human speech and will be speaking in English, and will have the capacity for what appears to be spontaneous social interaction, means that, in an important way, they are almost like an evolutionary offshoot of humans.

            Because they are apparently independently acting vaccumized anthropomorphic entities, these characters in “Social Al” have many similarities to spiritual beings in a spiritual world.  And this is different from more typical video images of humans in movies and television programs, because we know on one level that these video images are representations of complex behavioral entities – humans – that have an existence in external world reality.  “Social Al” characters are also different from traditional cartoon characters, because traditional cartoon characters have no capacity to act independently from those humans that have created them.  The whole existence of a traditional cartoon character resides in a fabricated narrative or a series of fabricated narratives that, once created, cannot be spontaneously altered by the character in any way.  To the extent that the character comes to life and acts across a flow of time, it is intrinsically embedded in its story or stories.

            The software of “Social Al” has a potentially liberating effect for video game characters, freeing them from ongoing interventions by humans into the flow of their screen lives.  At the same time, it provides another whole category of complex behavioral entities to blur the boundaries as to what is human and to potentially diminish the intrinsic humanity of humans.

            This column has already dealt extensively with the effects of connections between humans and the complex behavioral entities of modern machines, computers and robots.  But here is a complex behavioral entity that has no material substance.  This video character is an entity that can interact with other entities of its kind and create spontaneous human-like narratives inside a different kind of complex behavioral entity – the video game – that in its own way has provided the basis of mirroring and modeling for humans as a result of ongoing interaction with it.

            There are some significant differences between the immortality of a video game character in the “Social Al” software and a robot.  In a robot, parts do break down, but they can be replaced by other parts, thus keeping the entity of the robot running.  Eventually, if all the parts are replaced, the reconstructed robot no longer is physically in any way the same as the original robot before part replacement.  What can be said to provide continuity to the original robot is the robot essence, the original mental concept created by humans.  This would also be true of the human-like robots, the androids.

            An entity related to the robot would be the cyborg: the combination of human and robot parts to make a new hybrid entity.  To the extent that a cyborg relies on prosthetic parts to maintain its immortality, eventually robot parts could replace all the organic human parts, and eventually the cyborg could slide into becoming a robot.  And then the question is whether or not there would be a way of transferring human consciousness to the robot head.  Not an easy assignment.

            A video game character like Mario, once it is animated by “Social Al” software does not have to worry about ongoing material decay.  Material substance can decay, material substance can perish.  When one is dealing with vacuumized entities, one does not have to deal with decay and perishability.  Without material substance, there is no material decay or perishability.  Granted the video game can be turned off, in which case the video game character exists then only in a dormant state.  But one never has to worry about the video character falling apart physically, and one doesn’t have to worry about ongoing physical maintenance to keep the immortality going.

            So we can say that identification with a software-based complex behavioral entity can potentially lead to a greater sense of real immortality than identification with the hardware of complex machines, computers and robots.  To bring up ideas discussed previously, the lack of material substance in a seemingly spontaneously acting digital character like Mario, creates in him a similarity to a spiritual being.  And one of the quickest surest ways to achieve a real immortality is to become a god.  So if the “Social Al” software becomes popular for researchers, the average gamer will find a way to have frequent access to a god-like character, a character the identification with which can lead to an experience of godliness and immortality for him, the gamer.

            Of course, it is just an experience.  It is like a drug high that occupies time that could be spent creating a solid surrogate immortality through achievements and relationships in external world reality.  Becoming god-like through semi-independent Super-Mario characters is an illusion, one that takes up time that could be used living in rich vibrant external world experiences and making, receiving and preserving organic imprints and preparing for death in a more authentic way through a surrogate immortality.  In today’s world, modern technology is creating so many illusions of real immortality.  The question is whether or not we choose to pass our lives being sucked into these illusions.

            And while we get sucked into the screen world reality of these semi-independent video game characters, robots that function in external world reality are improving their own independence through improved artificial intelligence and could eventually displace people who will become paralyzed in the equivalent of video game opium dens.  Something to think about.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow