Group Proprioception Goes Interspecies

Some Seattle artist and I aren’t the only ones who think your pet should be life logging: the British government does too. Reading University has been commissioned to conduct a study of how much wildlife is being destroyed by domestic cats (McKie, Robin, “Special Tags to Measure How Often Cats Kill,” The Observer, 15 February 2009):

“For the first time, cats will be fitted with data loggers that will show their movements, range and behaviour 24 hours a day. We will know when one kills an animal — typically by the way it plays with its prey.

“We will then be able to work out precisely how many animals a cat is killing every year, and from that estimate a national figure. It will be a pretty formidable number.”

Now if they could just get some sort of pattern recognition software to read the live GPS data stream coming off your cat and tweet his kills to your cell phone, then your cat would be twittering too.

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The Sadism of Joss Whedon

After the first episode of the Dollhouse I was markedly not impressed. It may not ever be explicit in the plot, but it’s certainly clear external to the plot that the Dollhouse is a whore house. That’s the whole premise of the tantalizing advertising campaign. They are not delivering hostage negotiators or assassins. The hard drives in the mezzanine laboratory are full of sex kitten fantasy lives. In the flashback scene to Echo’s induction into the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt offers her the chance to make amends, but Echo objects that she doesn’t really have a choice, does she? It’s third-world sex slavery brought to the high-tech first world.

But I think that Joss Whedon is not confused about whether or not he’s an artist. He’s fully aware that it’s his job to turn out a product that gathers eyeballs to the FOX ad stream. And a house full of stoned-eyed, will-less, child-like babes wandering aimlessly in their yoga outfits clearly has appeal for a certain demographic. Apparently dropping the false power suite professionalism in favor of after-hours yoga-clad submissiveness is the new yuppie sexuality.

Where Whedon is an artist is that in his productions, the joke is on the studio and on us. It was no accident that the premiere of a series that’s about a bunch of sex slaves leads with an episode where one of the slaves is sent out as a hostage negotiator instead of on a sexual escapade. In the final scene where Echo goes into the kitchen to retrieve the kidnapped girl from the refrigerator, I expected the refrigerator to be upright against the wall, like refrigerators usually are, but instead it was horizontal on the ground — just like the sleeping chambers to which the Actives are sent at day’s end. “He doesn’t return them. He keeps them — until he’s done with them, or until they’re worn out,” Echo says of the kidnapper. Just like the Dollhouse will use up the Actives. The Actives are a bunch of sexual kidnap victims and episode one was Whedon accusing his entire audience of fantasizing their sexual molestation. It’s the same thing that Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers.

Combined with tonight’s episode, I’d say that the series is off to a pretty Sadistic start.

And is it just a coincidence that Harry Lennix, a total Barack Obama look- and sound-alike, has been cast as Echo’s handler? Does the entire country get its mind wiped clean and returned to a child-like state of naïveté after each mission? But at least we’ve got a fatherly overseer in whom we can place our complete trust.

The Iconography of Barack Obama: The First American

26 January 2009 The New Yorker and 14 February 2009 Economist, both with Barack Obama as George Washington

See what I’m sayin’. A lot has been made of President Obama’s appropriation of Abraham Lincoln, but why stop there. Obama is the every-president. The 26 January 2009 issue of The New Yorker put Drew Friedman’s illustration, “The First” on the cover and the 14 February 2009 issue of The Economist has for its cover a parody of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, both featuring Barack Obama as George Washington.

Life Logging: Not Just for Human Life Anymore

Not only should you be thinking about life logging, but you should also be thinking about it for your pet (Chansanchai, Athima, “Cooper the Cat Shows His Stuff in Photo Exhibit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13 February 2009):

For this Seattle cat, photography is his medium, a gift from his “parents” — filmmakers Michael and Deirdre Cross, who gave him a very small and light digital camera that hung from his collar one day a week for a year. It was programmed to take a picture every two minutes.

They wanted the answer to a question many pet lovers have asked themselves: What does he do all day?

He came back with thousands of answers — 16 of which are framed and on display at the Urban Light Studios in the Greenwood Collective. The exhibit opens with a reception tonight as part of the Greenwood Art Walk. The show runs through March 10.

Cooper the cat photographer has a blog dedicated to his exploits at http://cooper-catphotographer.blogspot.com/.

And while you’re at it, you may want to survey your environment for any particularly interesting non-living things, appliances, informational or gameworld agents, et cetera whose activities you might want to see in your FaceBook feed.

Update, 15 September 2011: Cooper the cat photographer’s blog has been relocated. It can now be found at http://www.photographercat.com/.

Television Disbelief

First, I can’t believe that Man v. Food is going to Beth’s Cafe. Gawd, I spent some of the best nights of my life there. Second, I can’t believe that Travel and Discovery have scheduled No Reservations and Man vs. Wild head-to-head. I have no idea how I’m going to decide between Anthony Bourdain eating a whole roast pig and Bear Grylls eating a decomposing boar.

Machine Ethics

Two great new books on the future of robots, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong and Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century are out right now. I’m not going to have time for either, but in the meantime, the New York Times constantly runs articles on this subject, most recently “A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center” (Dean, Cornelia, 25 November 2008, p. D1). To the list of all the things that robots will be better at than humans, we can add that they will be more ethical than us:

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald C. Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army.

In a report to the Army last year, Dr. Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness, Dr. Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,’ ” which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

His report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the Army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.

Troops who were stressed, angry, anxious or mourning lost colleagues or who had handled dead bodies were more likely to say they had mistreated civilian noncombatants, the survey said [Mental Health Advisory Team IV, FINAL REPORT, Office of the Surgeon General, United States Army Medical Command, 17 November 2006].

It is incorrect to imagine machines as behaving more ethically than humans insofar as it construes humans and machines as occupying the same ethical continuum. We may program machines to have human-compatible ethics, but that shouldn’t confuse us; the same ethical prohibitions that apply to us will not apply to robots.

Right and wrong aren’t something floating out there on the other side of the sphere of the stars. Right and wrong are derived from the characteristics of the human body, human tastes and tendencies as endowed in us by our natural history, the structure of the human lifecycle, our conceptions of the good life, shared human experience, and communal mythos. Creatures for whom these factors are different will have different ideas about right and wrong. As the last three items on the list — conceptions of the good life and shared experience, public reference symbols — differ among people, we have different ideas about right and wrong. A creature with a transferable consciousness won’t have an essentialist view of the relation of body to self and hence won’t take moral exception to bodily damage. A creature with a polymorphous consciousness wouldn’t disparage even psychic damage (though the question of identity for such a creature would be even more difficult than it is with us, as already elusive as we are).

Creatures with different conceptions interacting have to develop ethical interfaces. The minimalist limitations of rights-based liberalism and the law of nations are to some extent that: interfaces between differing moral systems — the former an interface for people within a society, the latter between different societies. What an interface between different species, or an interface between different types of life, would look like, I have no idea. Whether such an interface is even possible is perhaps more pressing: they only seem to hold up so well amidst humans.

Neil Sinhababu, “the Ethical Werewolf,” and Ramesh Ponnuru had a go-round back in 2006 that touched on the ethical status of non-human creatures, but I don’t think it really goes beyond the natural extension of liberalism to different physical morphologies, with which liberalism has an extensive history in the various rights movements. And different physical morphologies is all that aliens and other mythological creatures, as conventionally conceived, are (Sinhababu, Neil, “Mind Matters,” The American Prospect, 23 August 2006; Ponnuru, Ramesh, “Fear Not, Frodo,” National Review Online, 28 August 2006; Sinhababu, Neil, “More on Minds,” TAPPED, 30 August 2006).