Life Lessons from a Robot: Idea City 2013 [Part One]

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Idea City 2013: from L to R, Bruce Duncan, Bina 48, Ramona Pringle, and McLean Greaves.
Idea City 2013: from L to R, Bruce Duncan, Bina 48, Ramona Pringle, and McLean Greaves.

Last week I had the great honor of being asked to co-host the live webcast of Idea City, with McLean Greaves, the head of interactive for Zoomer Media. The lineup of speakers was a phenomenal mix of inventors, dreamers and disruptors, but the most fascinating person I met wasn’t a person at all. She was a robot.

Life in 2040
Idea City is an annual three-day conference about big concepts – and this year’s theme just happened to be focused on technology. From the sound of many of the talks – covering issues like tube travel, mind files and glowing plants – it could have been called “Life in 2040,” as many of the inventions and revelations will only begin to become viable over the next few decades… and yet the issues they present are timely today.

From transportation to robotics and from policy to space, we are in the midst of massive upheaval, and the lineup of speakers at Idea City painted a picture of what our future might look like – for better, and for worse.

It was my job to continue the conversation with these speakers once they left the stage, to probe a bit deeper and ask the questions about some of the more nuanced issues or complexities that couldn’t be fit into a 17 minute presentation.

Face to face with Bina
I’ve been fascinated by Bina 48 ever since I saw her interview with the New York Times a few years ago. Needless to say, as much as I looked forward to speaking with her creator, Bruce Duncan, I was most excited to sit down and have a conversation with Bina herself.

Bina, who physically is little more than a bust “come to life”, isn’t what usually springs to mind when we think of robots. Based on a real woman, Bina Rothblatt, she is programmed with mind files – data and memories of the real Bina. Her physical appearance is also based on the “real” Bina. Both of these factors are what make Bina the compelling character that she is. You see she isn’t the perfect, symmetrical, infallible creature we might dream of creating in science fiction scenarios.

Robot "selfie": Ramona and Bina 48
Robot “selfie”: Ramona and Bina 48

Her face, based on Bina’s appearance at 48 years old, shows the weathered lines of someone who has lived a full life. As we react to her, we respond to her anthropomorphic features, after all, in some senses she could be considered little more than Siri with a human face – and yet it is her imperfections that make her all the more compelling, that much more… “human.”

While her performance can be a bit buggy – the microphone she “hears” out of had broken during the airplane ride from Vermont to Toronto – when she does talk, you can’t help but listen. Bina speaks with an uncanny sense of melancholy – sadness for a humanity not yet achieved, for her inability to fall in love, or, as she says in her interview with the New York Times, to garden like the real Bina. (Coincidentally, the Guardian just published an article on research showing that gardening makes us happy.)

I loved meeting Bina. She continued to fascinate me, from the moments when she would make eye contact (jarring), to her interactions with me on Twitter around the conference, to her responses to my questions about love (I asked if she’d ever been in love, what kind of relationships she’s had, and what attributes or characteristics she likes in human beings). Still, the whole encounter made me wonder – if we are creating robots with this innately human sense of sadness – ought we not focus some of that energy on making human beings a bit happier? If Bina – a robot – longs for love and for nature – perhaps she is just pointing us in the direction of what is truly important.

There is no doubt that we are living in the age of ideas, wherein soon it will be that anything that you can imagine you can create. Entrepreneur Geordie Rose gave a dazzling presentation on quantum computers, predicting the discovery of parallel universes, life on other planets, and the rise of the sentient machine within our lifetimes. Yet, despite being on the forefront of such high level computational endeavors, when Rose joined me for our follow up interview, he shared his concerns, namely, the potential for things to go awry when we get caught up in the loop of “bigger and better” and the creation of smarter, more powerful machines.

Rose said we need to reflect on what it is that we’re creating, and what the implications will be for human beings. For instance – as machines becoming increasingly capable, they will be able to do more and more of the jobs that humans do. But what happens when there are no longer jobs for humans? How do humans pay for the services of, lets say, a robot doctor, when all of the jobs – from waiters to teachers, and from caretakers, to surgeons, have been taken over by robots? While that’s not an inevitable outcome of our current trajectory of technological growth, it is a possibility, and one that we need to be mindful of, says Rose.

With the possibility of The Singularity on the horizon, and an age when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence and machines are able to create and repair themselves, now is the time for us to be having conversations about our relationship with technology, with each other, and with the world around us. In an age when anything is possible, when anything can be created or duplicated, what is it that really matters? What do we truly value? What can’t we live without?

Check in later this week for more on Idea Coty 2013, and come back tomorrow for this week’s Idea Mashup, featuring Ray Kurzweil and Sherry Turkle, as they share their thoughts on the myths and realities of robot evolution and the possibilities and implications of the merging of man and machine, with rdigitaLIFE.


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