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Man vs. Machine

This week may mark the most important match yet in the battle of man vs. machine.  This past Monday was the first of three episodes of Jeopardy! to pit two all-time Jeopardy! champs against IBM's powerful question-answering computer, "Watson."  Watson may not exactly be Artificial Intelligence, but he represents the first breakthrough in overcoming a big human/machine communication barrier: so called "natural language," the way people really speak, rather than information tailored for input into a computer system.  Jim Hendler, a professor of computer and cognitive science, compares the upcoming Jeopardy! episodes to the world-famous match between IBM's Deep Blue and chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 "We have to go back and think about knowledge and data and questions and answers and society in a different way because no longer can we just say a stupid human can do this and a smart computer can't," Hendler says. "Now the question becomes, 'what are real differences?'"  We may not yet have trouble defining the boundaries between a human and a machine, but as we build robots capable of answering nuanced questions, singing, and imitating facial expressions, and design software to make robots behave ethically in military combat, sharing our future with human-like androids begins to look just a little less like science fiction. 

It strikes me as the perfect time to revisit one of the all-time science fiction classics, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  In the post-apocalyptic future of the novel, humans have developed the technology to build life-like, mechanical versions of nearly any animal, including humans.  These androids are virtually indistinguishable from human beings, and are banned from, feared, and hunted on Earth.  Against the backdrop of a bleak and dangerous future world, the story that unfolds raises questions about the relationship between humans and our technology that are perhaps more relevant now than they were when the novel was first published in 1968.  What are our moral obligations around technology?  Should we build something because we can?  Are we justified in building or using a technology because we need it? Who is responsible for how that technology is used or for "cleaning up the mess" if things go awry? Dick also recognizes that innovation and fear have gone hand in hand since at least the days of Da Vinci.  That our technology would one day "beat" us or somehow replace us is an age-old anxiety that plagued even Thomas Edison, who theorized that one day machines could do the work of human factory-workers.  No matter how much humans may fear a given technology, Dick seems to argue, they can grow to depend on it, entangling themselves in a web of dependence and apprehension that, for Dick, can have grave consequences. 

It also strikes me as the perfect time to teach Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The novel is currently being re-released, word-for-word, as a series of graphic novels, the film adaptation Blade Runner recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a new, definitive version, and teen interest in dark, dystopic novels is at an all time high. In her article exploring this trend in young adult reading, New Yorker "Critic at Large" Laura Miller suggests that "For young readers, dystopia isn’t a future to be averted; it’s a version of what’s already happening in the world they inhabit."  The world they inhabit is dominated by technology, and they seem to live in virtual symbiosis with the vast network of information, entertainment, and communication available to them through that technology.  Since the advent of the instant message, teen technology use has been accompanied by a flurry of predictions for how it spells the end for the written word, the art of conversation, genuine friendship etc. making young adult life yet another proving ground in the battle of man vs. machine.  Who better to prompt these "digital natives" to think critically about their relationship to technology than "the canonical writer of the digital age"? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is ripe with themes that will appeal to a generation accustomed to having their use of technology scrutinized and debated, and who have come of age in a national culture in which technology represents both the best hope and the greatest fears for the future. 

Tags: Classics in Context 2011, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick, Watson, Dystopia

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