Questing for Deus Ex Machina Jan30

Questing for Deus Ex Machina...

Deus ex machina, literally translates from Latin as God from the machine, is used to describe a magical or technological intervention of the Divine that saves the day, generally in an implausible way. In the plays of the Greeks, deus ex machina was actually a machine (often a crane) that lowered a saviour into the midst of trouble to rescue the hero. One could, for example, describe the many appearances of the giant eagles in The Lord of the Rings as deus ex machina because it is a contrivance which conveniently rescues hapless heroes from fates like lava, fire, or tall towers. In addition, the well-written, but implausibly “magical” endings to most of the Harry Potter books make J.K. Rowling a master of deus ex machina. It has been postulated that the appearance of a phoenix with healing tears carrying a magical sword hidden in a hat is the best example of a deus ex machina in the Harry Potter universe. How do I find hope despite all the chaos that comes with the machines crumbling around me? While we can scoff endlessly at these contrivances in ancient literature and as they pervade current popular culture, it is impossible to live in the real world without wanting, even questing after deus ex machina moments. If we are honest with ourselves, sometimes we are desperate for these events to happen. We come to the end of our money and we yearn for someone to rescue us from financial ruin by being lowered from the rigging above. Our son, our daughter, friend, or lover lays in the hospital, dying from accident or disease. And we weep at the end of the bed, desperate for an encounter with the “god from the machine.” Every so often, we...

The Morality of Robots and Self-Driving Cars Jul22

The Morality of Robots and Self-Driving Cars...

If Isaac Asimov is known for anything within popular culture, it is his three laws of robotics, made famous in the book I, Robot and its movie adaptation. The laws were conceived because of the invention of self-directed robots. They answered the question of how created objects were allowed to act with respect to the safety of the people who created them. Asimov envisioned a robot morality controlled by inviolable laws which began with the first law: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” That seems straight-forward: when a robot can direct its own actions, it must not be allowed to cause human beings to come to harm. Of course, there are situations where it is not simply a choice between harming a human or not. Sometimes the question concerns reducing the total harm when some injury cannot be avoided. In that case, at least according to the movie-version of the story, there is a complex heuristic by which a robot must make a decision between the value of one or more humans: the result of that calculation directs the action. If a burglar entered my house and I found myself in the position to kill him, what would I do? For example, in the movie, the protagonist Del Spooner is saved by a robot because he was deemed to be more likely to survive after being pulled out of the water. Extrapolating from the presumed algorithm, I expect that quantity of humans would also factor in, that is, saving two humans would take precedent over saving one. This question of the value of human life based on an algorithm is now coming to the fore in the realm of self-driving cars....

The Black Knight and the Subversion of Expectation Jun06

The Black Knight and the Subversion of Expectation...

I knew most of the skits from Monty Python and the Holy Grail before I had ever seen the movie. Thanks to a partial immersion in geek culture during high school (D&D, video games in—gasp—arcades, and Star Trek), I regularly rubbed shoulders with people randomly throwing their hats in the air and yelling, “Run away!” But the phrase I remember most is “It’s only a flesh wound.” It came up in many circumstances—a stubbed toe, an injury on the football field, a tumble down the stairs. As long as the victim was still conscious, you could lean in close and hear him whisper, “It’s only a flesh wound” before rendering his mock death. Now that I’ve seen the Grail movie more times than I can count, that scene with the Black Knight is still one of the most memorable: the near-invincible foe standing poker straight as he declares, “None shall pass” in his best impression of John Cleese. The honourable Arthur trying to negotiate with the knight, not because he is afraid, but because he does not want to injure this valiant warrior. And the knight resolutely forbidding Arthur from going further. And, of course, the fight, with limb after limb hacked off, blood spurting out as though from a hose, and the knight’s increasingly implausible assertion that not only was he okay, but that he was victorious, and that Arthur’s vacating the scene was only because of the King’s cowardice. We are all encouraged, at one time or another in our lives, to see the bright side, to look up, to quest for our dreams and reach for the unreachable. We know those inspirational folks who would have us seek for and grasp the Holy Grail—for what is life without dreams and goals...