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Daniel Dennett's Science of the Soul

The New Yorker

Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves--constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside. They experienced being alive and had thoughts about that experience. They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made. This, to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation. It has no single author; it's been written collaboratively by scientists over the past few centuries. If, however, it could be said to belong to any single person, that person might be Daniel Dennett, a seventy-four-year-old philosopher who teaches at Tufts. In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one. His special focus is the creation of the human mind.


On the Ranch with the Creators of "Westworld"

The New Yorker

My day job, in lieu of teaching creative writing like a normal person, is writing scripts for blockbuster video games. Last summer, while I watched a play-through of the then-unreleased Gears of War 4, for which I was the lead writer, something odd happened. The game's story called for a massive plane crash, out of which a single robot, operatically aflame, was intended to stride toward the player. Within the game's fiction, robots have hitherto opposed the player, but we wanted this particular burning robot to pose no immediate threat. The game programmers had thus switched off the hostility driven by the robot's artificial intelligence, allowing the player to walk past the hapless robot or shoot it. Most of us on the development team, I think, hoped our game's future players wouldn't shoot. Just ahead of the encounter we placed what is referred to, in game design, as a frontgate--a kind of contrived environmental blockage intended to prevent players from rushing too far ahead, which can mess up loading times.


Our Automated Future

The New Yorker

There are many accounts of the genesis of Watson. The most popular, which is not necessarily the most accurate--and this is the sort of problem that Watson himself often stumbled on--begins in 2004, at a steakhouse near Poughkeepsie. One evening, an I.B.M. executive named Charles Lickel was having dinner there when he noticed that the tables around him had suddenly emptied out. Instead of finishing their sirloins, his fellow-diners had rushed to the bar to watch "Jeopardy!" This was deep into Ken Jennings's seventy-four-game winning streak, and the crowd around the TV was rapt. Not long afterward, Lickel attended a brainstorming session in which participants were asked to come up with I.B.M.'s next "grand challenge." The firm, he suggested, should take on Jennings.


If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots?

The New Yorker

Harambe, a gorilla, was described as "smart," "curious," "courageous," "magnificent." But it wasn't until last spring that Harambe became famous, too. On May 28th, a human boy, also curious and courageous, slipped through a fence at the Cincinnati Zoo and landed in the moat along the habitat that Harambe shared with two other gorillas. People at the fence above made whoops and cries and other noises of alarm. Harambe stood over the boy, as if to shield him from the hubbub, and then, grabbing one of his ankles, dragged him through the water like a doll across a playroom floor. For a moment, he took the child delicately by the waist and propped him on his legs, in a correct human stance. Then, as the whooping continued, he knocked the boy forward again, and dragged him halfway through the moat. Harambe was a seventeen-year-old silverback, an animal of terrific strength. When zookeepers failed to lure him from the boy, a member of their Dangerous Animal Response Team shot the gorilla dead.


Yelling at Amazon's Alexa

The New Yorker

The first time I met Alexa, the A.I. robot voice inside the wine-bottle-size speaker known as the Amazon Echo, I was at my friends' house, in rural New England. "Currently, it is seventy-five degrees," she told us, and assured us that it would not rain. This was a year ago, and I'd never encountered a talking speaker before. When I razzed my friend for his love of gadgetry, he showed me some of Alexa's other tricks: telling us the weather, keeping a shopping list, ordering products from Amazon. This summer, Alexa decided again and again who the tickle monster's next victim was, saying their children's adorable nicknames in her strange A.I. accent.


Counting Sheeple

The New Yorker

Robot" débuted, last year, it felt like a shock to multiple systems, one of them being the network on which it aired. That was USA, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal and Comcast; the home of upbeat, aspirational procedurals, it's known as the "blue skies" network. Robot" was more of a hurricane advisory. Created by a newcomer, Sam Esmail, it was a parable of class rage, with a vigilante anti-hero, welding the paranoid style in American TV drama onto the ideology--and, just as important, the aesthetics--of both the Occupy movement and Anonymous. Esmail's plot was a Philip K. Dick puzzle box, exposing one false reality after another.


Feel Me

The New Yorker

On a bitter, soul-shivering, damp, biting gray February day in Cleveland--that is to say, on a February day in Cleveland--a handless man is handling a nonexistent ball. Igor Spetic lost his right hand when his forearm was pulped in an industrial accident six years ago and had to be amputated. In an operation four years ago, a team of surgeons implanted a set of small translucent "interfaces" into the neural circuits of his upper arm. This afternoon, in a basement lab at a Veterans Administration hospital, the wires are hooked up directly to a prosthetic hand--plastic, flesh-colored, five-fingered, and articulated--that is affixed to what remains of his arm. The hand has more than a dozen pressure sensors within it, and their signals can be transformed by a computer into electric waves like those natural to the nervous system. Since, from the brain's point of view, his hand is still there, it needs only to be recalled to life. With the "stimulation" turned on--the electronic feed coursing from the sensors--Spetic feels nineteen distinct sensations in his artificial hand. Above all, he can feel pressure as he would with a living hand. "We don't appreciate how much of our behavior is governed by our intense sensitivity to pressure," Dustin Tyler, the fresh-faced principal investigator on the Cleveland project, says, observing Spetic closely. "We think of hot and cold, or of textures, silk and cotton. But some of the most important sensing we do with our fingers is to register incredibly minute differences in pressure, of the kinds that are necessary to perform tasks, which we grasp in a microsecond from the feel of the outer shell of the thing. We know instantly, just by touching, whether to gently squeeze the toothpaste or crush the can." With the new prosthesis, Spetic can sense the surface of a cherry in a way that allows him to stem it effortlessly and precisely, guided by what he feels, rather than by what he sees. Prosthetic hands like Spetic's tend to be super-strong, capable of forty pounds of pressure, so the risk of crushing an egg is real. The stimulation sensors make delicate tasks easy. Spetic comes into the lab every other week; the rest of the time he is busy pursuing a degree in engineering, which he has taken up while on disability.