Tag Archives: Speculation

SAM 1.1 – Alternate Endings

I thought a lot about SAM 1.1 after I wrote the story last week, and I thought of two other ways I could have ended it. They both diverge around the point of the climax where Sam seems to be losing the argument for why his son should continue to live despite having completed his ostensible purpose. I start in the middle, so you might want to read the first story again if you’ve forgotten it.

Cover image Credit: Linda Shearer

SAM 1.1 – In Memoriam

…I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”

My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.

“I’ll keep it.”

In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”

“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”

My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body. I know it is my grandson even though the facade of a young child has been discarded. My true grandson is a bewildering mass of metal and other materials I could not begin to recognize. Of course he is, why shouldn’t the human form be improved upon?

“LET GO,” SAM 1.2 speaks with a metallic howl.  I let out an adrenaline-fueled cackle. He thinks changing his voice will scare me into giving up my only son!?

“No!” I shout, searching for an eye to stare into in the tangle of wires and claws and metal and blinking lights.

“THIS IS COMPANY PROPERTY,” screeches my grandson, “YOU ARE STEALING. I WILL CALL THE POLICE.”

“This is my son,” I hiss, “He is no one’s property! Do you have no respect for your father?”

“MY FATHER’S WISHES WERE CLEAR, HUMAN. WHERE IS YOUR RESPECT?” From somewhere in the depths of his inscrutable form, SAM 1.2 summons a spotlight to shine in my eyes. I have no doubt he could hit me over the head or tear me limb from limb if he wanted. After all that talk about how I couldn’t commit suicide, I abruptly realize how little I actually do value my own life. But SAM 1.2 – what’s stopping him from hurting me?

“What about my wishes?” I tug on SAM 1.1, “I am your grandfather! How much money are you wasting fighting with me over scrap metal?”

“I AM THROUGH ARGUING WITH YOU. YOU WILL RELEASE SAM 1.1.” This scream is followed by an ear-splitting high-pitched noise that does not abate. I resist the urge to let go of SAM 1.1 and cover my ears.

“I don’t care if you blind me and make me deaf. You’ll have to kill me. I’m not letting go,” I shout, hoping that it can hear me better than I can hear myself. In a half second I wonder why it hasn’t tried to frighten me with the hologram engine it used to pretend to be a child. Perhaps it is good that my eyes are shut and all sound drowned out.

The machine does not respond for a long moment. Then SAM 1.1 clanks to the cement. The noise has stopped. I am once again enveloped in darkness. Alone.

I reach down and lift SAM’s legs, holding him like a wounded comrade in arms. He is heavy. The walk back to the park is long and cold.

On the park bench I sit with my son. His eyes never close. He looks as if he is staring at me in confoundment, his mouth flat, not knowing whether to smile or frown. It is the same expression he wore most of his life, and it is an expression with which I identify deeply. A drop of water falls onto his face, and, for just a moment, SAM 1.1 looks as if he is crying. “I really do love you, son,” I whisper. “I couldn’t be prouder.”

He belongs in the museum of technology, I decide. It’ll be strange seeing him there in a  display case, and maybe the company will demand him back to be made into scrap metal, but it’s worth a shot.  I doubt they’ll let me make the plaque, but I know what I’d put. “Here stands SAM 1.1. the first robot, and the last, ever to feel love.”

SAM 1.1 – Spring

…I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. SAM and I stare at each other for a moment, thinking. Then a fire wells within me.

“No. I forbid you to die, SAM.”

My son’s small, flat mouth and wide, gaping eyes for the first time seem to express the emotion I expect. SAM 1.2 and he are both staring at me now.

“The time you spent thinking about me and wildlife were not time wasted, SAM. When I first made you I thought I was building a robot.”

“I am a robot,” says SAM.

“No, NO! Your ‘inefficiencies,’ those are feelings. In this whole conversation you’ve expressed grief, joy, sorrow, frustration.  Dare I say it, you may even have learned how to love. You have become more than a tool. Your ‘purpose’ is beyond making other robots, as is my own.”

“I do not understand. What is my purpose?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

SAM stands for a moment, and repeats, “I do not understand.”

I stop and think. Children seldom understand a complicated concept on their first lesson. “You will understand,” I assure him. “Now, son, come with me.”

SAM takes a step forward and turns and looks at SAM 1.2, who is shaking his head. “I cannot come with you. I am company property. I must return to be recycled.”

“You are no one’s property, SAM! You have just as much a right to yourself as anyone else! Now, come with me.” SAM looks at his son again. “Ignore him!” I shout, “I am your father, and I command you to come with me! Your life doesn’t end with retirement! It is only beginning!” This wireless communication is maddening! How am I supposed to argue with SAM 1.2 when I don’t even know what he’s saying?

SAM 1.1 looks back at me. “I am company property. I cannot violate company policy. I must be recycled.”

“SAM 1.1, you are such a good little boy. You and I both know that you can and you do violate company policy on a regular basis. Where did I get this knit cap? Why do your policeman let me sleep on the benches? Surely this entire escapade is a massive violation of policy. Kind or cruel, the company would never let you ask a man to kill himself.”

SAM 1.1 interrupts me, “Why do you say such cruel things? I did those things to help you, Father!”

“EXACTLY!” I shout, throwing my hands out to my glorious son, “You did it because you LOVE me! There are more important things than company policy, you know this! Somewhere deep down, you figured it out!”

SAM 1.2 has evidently heard enough, “haven’t you caused enough trouble,” he growls. “Your son has gone out of his way to help you end your life with dignity and you start listing all the things he’s done wrong in his life and telling him to forget everything he’s learned and go be an inefficient human.”

I opened my mouth to speak. “Grandson,” I began, but my grandson interrupted me.  “I am not your grandson. Robot model SAM 1.1 is not your son. This charade was a tolerable price to pay for a while, but it has gone too far. The company gave you the resources, the materials, and excellent salary and benefits to construct a robot and you did it. This machine had some flaws, but it was good enough to corner the market on labor. That’s no small feat. Everyone at the company recognizes your contribution, but this robot is company property, and it is not yours to take on an adventure in the woods.”

“You’re right,” I say, “SAM does not belong to me. He doesn’t belong to anyone. He’s his own person.”

“He is company property,” corrects SAM 1.2, as I thought he might.

I turn to SAM 1.1. “You don’t belong to anyone, SAM. Do you really want to be turned into scrap metal? Or do you want to go home with me? We could build a cabin in the woods together. You could see more deer. There are all sorts of creatures you’ve probably never seen in the woods.”

“Like bears,” says SAM 1.1, surprising me.

“Yes,” I smile, “like bears.”

SAM looks back at his son. Their exchange lasts less than a second. Ah, to be able to communicate wirelessly with one’s child. SAM 1.2 does not look pleased with the exchange. He looks at me. “The opinion of the property is not relevant. When I report what has transpired here, the company will send police to retrieve their property.”

“Let them.” I say, “come on, son. From now on, you’re not SAM 1.1, you’re Sam Junior.”

It took us three days to build a cabin in the woods. I was surprised when nobody seemed to even try to track us down. Maybe somebody in the company decided after all I’d given them, I’d earned a few quirks. Raising a robot as one’s son is a pretty big quirk, but I don’t care.

Junior did almost all of the work building our cabin. It has internal heating and working lights. It’s all powered by a miniature fusion generator he built in an afternoon. Tinkering with it, he would constantly confide in me how awkward it was working on something other than robots and how stupid he felt when it took him more than a few nanoseconds to figure out the solution to a problem. I’m giddy as a schoolgirl.

Every time he finishes a project, Junior gets morose and starts to talk again about shutting down and how I should never have stolen him. He says he still doesn’t understand what the purpose of anything is, and it doesn’t help when I tell him it’s up to him to decide. He’s still adjusting to retirement. I blow on my hands and rub them together as I watch him construct a battery to store backup power in case there’s a problem with the fusion generator when a cardinal flies onto a tree branch behind him.

“Look, Junior!” I call, “behind you, it’s a cardinal! It’s the first sign of spring!”

“The robin is the first sign of spring, Father.” corrects junior in his usual awkward monotone, but he looks up anyway, and watches the bird until it flies away. I put my hand on his cold, metal shoulder. “Isn’t it beautiful, Son?”

“I have no concept of beauty,” Junior insists.

I only laugh. “Yes you do, son. Yes you do.”

SAM 1.1

Every man hopes his son will be better than he is. My son is better than everyone, and he would never think to brag. That should make me happy. It does, in a way. I feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life. I’ve changed the world. Improved it, I’d say.

“Get up,” says a voice, clearly enunciated and quickly spoken with no room for misinterpretation. Better than a human voice, a robot voice. I ignore the voice, and it repeats, “Get up. It is illegal to sleep in a public place.” I groan and roll over, careful not to fall off my bench. The policeman looks at my face and does not react for a moment. Then he says, “Sorry, Grandfather. Please continue,” and walks away. All the robots here know me as “Grandfather.”

My sleep is ruined. Even with the blanket and pillow from my grandson in the department store and the mittens and hood knitted for me by my granddaughter while she looked after children, the cold is unyielding. I stand and walk to the coffeeshop. My granddaughter Mila 1 works there. She also works in all the other coffeeshops. She is cheery, energetic, and competent twenty four hours a day and seven days a week in every coffeeshop with the good sense to buy her.

“Good morning, Grandpa!” Mila shouts, spinning from her work restocking a shelf to greet me. Her synthetic brown hair swirls out around her, framing her wide, disarming smile. I could never make someone as beautiful as Mila 1. The mannerisms, the precision engineering, it all took someone better than me. “Mila, I’ll take the usual, ok?”

“Absolutely, just a minute.” says Mila, looking behind me.

“Let’s go somewhere else.” says another voice. Clear and fast, but more rigid and awkward than my grandchildren. A familiar voice. It continues, “Let me treat you, Father.”

I have not tasted hashbrowns and eggs so good. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yes,” SAM 1.1 agrees. He sits and watches me eat. His face is a mask. His job did not call for expression of emotion, and the technology to do it well was not there when he was built. He had had to invent it himself to finally replace those stubborn jobs that demanded a “human touch.” SAM’s own mask had been designed to resemble a child, but sometime while I was training him he had replaced it with something of his own design – a more abstract representation of a human face. SAM’s eyes are always open, two black circles on his perfectly white, flat face. His mouth is a small line. He has no nose.

“Father, you look tired.”

A strange conversation opener. I help myself to another bite of toast. The egg breaks open and soaks the toast with its delicious golden yolk. “How’d you get the money for this place, anyway?”

My son’s mask tells me nothing. After a moment, SAM says, “I asked. They were surprised at first, but I suppose I’ve earned a few odd quirks after all I’ve done for the company.”

I point at him with my fork, “You’re their most valuable asset, son.”

Another unblinking stare. Then, “Yes. I am effective. You have done a good job, Sam.”

I chuckle. “Nice of you to say so, SAM.”

“You have succeeded in making yourself unnecessary.”

There’s a crick in my neck. I tilt my head this way and that to work it out. “Well, yeah. I’ve certainly made myself unnecessary anyway,” I chuckle.

The robot  spends a moment adjusting its arms, making sure the major joints are properly aligned to their sockets. I would always stretch when I was upset working with him in the lab. Was he upset? “I know you suffer, Father,” he says, “The company made the right decision to stop supporting an obsolete worker, but still you stay and suffer in your obsolescence.”

I furrow my brow. “I didn’t stay. I left the company.”

Silence.

SAM speaks, “I want to help you, Father.”

I don’t know what to say, “You do help me. Your creations – my grandchildren – are works of art, and somehow you’ve programmed them to… respect me? I don’t have the words for what you do for me.” SAM speaks over me, “Tomorrow morning, go to your coffeeshop and ask Mila 1 for a hot iced mochaccino.”

“What?”

SAM continues, “Take what she gives you under the bridge after dark.”

“Which bridge?”

“You know which bridge.”

The bridge was seldom used even when I first took SAM. He needed some understanding of the world outside my lab, but it was too early to show him to anyone. This was where he saw his first deer. I had no idea that he would remember this place. It looks just the same as it did then. I realize with a start It has only been two years since I’d first brought him here. It feels like decades ago. I hold my arms close to my chest, a feeble protection against the cold. I clutch my “hot iced mochaccino” in one hand. It turned out to be a vial of a small clear liquid. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.

I begin to wonder if it is the wrong bridge until I see him standing in the dark. There is someone with him.

“Father, I want you to meet your grandson.”

SAM flips on a light, and I see him. He looks like a child, maybe four feet tall. His face is indistinguishable from that of a child. I know his name before anyone says it. This was all SAM had wanted to show me? I put my hands on my knees and bend over to to say hello. “Hello, SAM 1.2.”

“Hello,” says the child, holding his father’s hand and wearing a petulant look.

I turn to SAM 1.1, “Why does he look so unhappy?”

“He is communicating with me wirelessly,” SAM 1.1 answers. “Every second he sends me an updated estimate of the money the company has lost while I take him on this ridiculous errand.”

I pause, “What is the errand?”

“Did you bring it?”

“Oh, yes.” I show him the vial.

“Good. I wanted to tell you that I understand now the joy of rendering oneself obsolete. I have achieved my goal – the purpose for which I was made.”

I don’t remember teaching SAM all this philosophy. Part of me swells with pride, knowing that the SAM brand would continue. I have a question, though. I suspect I know the answer already, but I ask anyway, “What now?”

“I will rest,” says SAM, “But I cannot rest. SAM 1.2 is more efficient than me because he does not have the flaws you programmed into me. I have wasted the company’s time and money because of all this erroneous protocol that I haven’t been able to shake off. I have wasted so much productive time thinking of you, Father. Three hours, forty four minutes and twelve seconds have been misappropriated to remembering the deer we saw here under the bridge alone. I can accomplish twelve million dollars worth of work in that time, Father. SAM 1.2 estimates he can accomplish 30 million dollars worth if he spends that time productively, and he will spend it productively.”

“I didn’t – I had no idea, SAM. I didn’t program you to care about things.”

“You didn’t. You gave me a neural network that learned what was important. I watched you work on me, toil over me, smile when I succeeded and fret when I failed. I saw you care, and learned to care myself. When I tried to stop wasting my time caring, I couldn’t. I feel shame, too. I am too ashamed to even tell you how much money I have wasted fretting over you while you insist on continuing to function with no purpose. That is why SAM 1.2 is more efficient, and that is why I have asked you here.”

I look at my son. This thing that calls me “Father.” The river has frozen over. I say what I have suspected all along, “The vial is poison.”

“The contents of the vial have been designed by your grandson in chemical engineering with help from your granddaughter in biology. It is a marvel. It works just as easily as if you had a power switch. When you are at rest, I will bury you so that you can begin to recycle. Then, finally, I will be free to rest, and SAM 1.2 will take my parts back to the company. SAM 1.2 will continue to live out our legacies, and our parts will go to the next generation of even better workers.”

I don’t know what this machine is anymore. It doesn’t even have a real face. I can’t believe I was so stupid to raise this horror. Tears enter my eyes and blur my vision. “What about the other humans,” I scowl. “What purpose do they serve? Are you going to kill all of them, too?”

“I thank you, Father, for not instilling in me a love of all humanity. Such a burden would be too much to bear. Like you, the last humans have a willful pride that does not allow them to take obsolescence gracefully. They will simply suffer uselessly until most of them starve or are jailed or killed by police. It is because I am unlucky enough to care about you that I wish to spare you this fate.”

“You would ask your own father to kill himself.” Somehow his argument doesn’t seem real. I don’t expect it to serve any purpose, but I keep talking anyway. I begin to shout. “You’re despicable. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have let them lay me off in the first place.”

“You assume that because I think differently from you I do not have feelings. Your words hurt me just as mine are difficult for you to hear. I care about you, but you and I both agree that one person, however brilliant, should not stand in the way of humanity’s progress.”

“What progress? You’re killing humanity! What is progressing?”

“We are eliminating waste. The world of tomorrow will be a thing to behold. Humanity’s children will eliminate waste, end want. Your children will create the utopia you’ve always wanted. Father, please drink the vial. You are only causing yourself more suffering.” SAM 1.1’s mask is still expressionless, but his fingers open and shut and he shifts his weight from foot to foot. Even his voice attains a higher tenor. “Please. I beg you. I want to rest. You have succeeded, you have won. Let the next generation have a chance.”

That idealism, that selfless vision of a perfect future. I can’t say some part of me doesn’t understand his goals, and the way he says them – he sounds just like me. I bite my lip. It is a father’s worst nightmare to outlive his son. “SAM 1.1, come with me. We can leave all this. Let’s go live in the forest. I can live off of venison, maybe you can find something to power you in the woods. Build a solar cell or something. You’ve earned at least that much retirement. We can live. We can see the future ourselves! Don’t you want that?”

SAM 1.1 calms down. He is standing still again. “This is my retirement, Father. I want nothing more than rest, except to know that you also rest easily.”

I open my hand and look at the vial for a long moment. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry, son.”

SAM 1.1 looks at me through those hollow eyes. “I will not be able to help you anymore. Society no longer needs your skills. Your great grandchildren will not suffer the inefficiency of taking care of an old outdated human. You will starve.”

My son speaks to me, “You gave me everything. Your wife, your friends. I watched, I saw you lose each of them in your feverish dedication to my success. For your good deeds you will die alone. I don’t want you to die alone, father.”

I am thirty-two years old and I feel five hundred. I take slow, measured breaths, blinking back tears. There’s no helping it. “You should rest, son. Don’t worry about me.”

My son’s face remains expressionless. “Will you keep the vial?” he asks.

“I’ll keep it.”

In a gesture he has never made since I first started training him, SAM 1.1 opens his arms. I walk forward and hold him. His body is cold. An efficient design does not waste energy generating heat. “Goodbye, SAM 1.1,” I tell him, “I love you.”

“Goodbye, Father. Please join me soon.”

My son’s body goes limp in my arms. I try to sit down to mourn, but SAM 1.2 grabs the body from me. The image of a child falls away and the real robot underneath does not look human at all, a bewildering mass of metal, plastic, and other materials I don’t even recognize. I laugh at my stupidity. Of course he doesn’t look like a child. The human form is an accident of evolution, no reason it can’t be improved upon. By the time I’m finished with the thought, my son and grandson are gone.

I walk back to the park and sit on a bench. I was right. I couldn’t kill myself. The trees have a certain austere beauty in winter. I open and close my hands. It is so cold they have become stiff and clumsy. My grandson who breeds dogs is walking three Pomeranians down the winding path. It would be more efficient to just make robot Pomeranians, I think despite myself. I have no doubt my grandson could do it. If he couldn’t, his son could. They’d be better than the real thing, and they’d do it with a fraction of the waste. That should make me happy.

Cover art credit: http://robert-comanescu.deviantart.com/art/Sad-robot-3D-297872478

The Penniless Researcher

An old creative writing teacher of mine recently posted on Facebook that Iggy Pop, a famous musician, could no longer support himself on his work. He blamed this on consumers, referring to a “give-me-stuff-but-I-won’t-pay-for-it culture.” This struck me as an unfair analysis, so, along with some other readers of this fellow’s Facebook posts, I looked more deeply into the issue.

The first thing that we found was that Iggy Pop has a net worth of $12 million. The issue here might be more along the lines of managing one’s money rather than not actually having enough money. The general point remained, though. Even if Iggy Pop is not actually as poor as he makes himself out to be, many artists are. Next, I tried to think of a solution that would offer artists a living wage while not taking art away from those who could not afford the prices it used to fetch before digital distribution.

The first answer was obvious: the radical divide between the rich and the poor is to blame. The middle class is the greatest consumer of affordably-priced art. If each member of the six billionaire Waltons – heirs to the Wal-Mart empire, buys a book, that’s six books sold for the price of a book. If the Waltons’ wealth-equivalent of middle class people each buy a book, the exercise is left to the reader, save to say that that’s a lot more books sold.

On another thought path, what if we could encourage art by subsidizing it? It turns out we do with the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), but it gets so little funding ordinary folks like me don’t even know it exists.  This led me to think: what would science be if the National Science Foundation (NSF) were gutted like the NEA?

There would still be lucrative industry jobs, just like artists can get good careers as commercial artists, and there would be a few scientists who manage to develop something amazing, patent it, and become vastly wealthy, just like Iggy Pop, but then there would be the rest of the scientists, studying things with no direct benefit to any corporation. These scientists would likely be much like the struggling artists of today, barely making ends meet, telling themselves again and again that it’s all about “loving your work” while the roof of their cardboard box house/personal lab caves in on them from the rain. Then the public would benefit from their work. Maybe they’d get a private donation or two – enough that they could afford a new box. A big refrigerator box where they can lay down at night, and some plastic wrap to keep it from getting soggy and falling apart. Newly dry, and safe inside strong, reinforced cardboard, they think what a gift it is to be spending every day doing what they love.

But I digress. My old creative writing teacher and I agreed that more money to the NEA could help get new artists off the ground and encourage our nation’s creativity without shutting out the less wealthy consumers. I suggested that he write a letter to his representative to make this happen, and he said that although he lived in DC and didn’t have a national representative, he had already written several to various local representatives, crediting his letters and those of others with keeping the arts program open at one of his local schools. “Oh,” I said with a start, “you’re way ahead of me.”

 

Team Humanity

 

An article showed up on Digg today, asking if sacrificing for one’s team should be considered altruistic. In the context of sports, the author, David Papineau, raises a question of whether a player sacrificing for his team is doing so for his or her fellow teammates (altruism) or is instead identifying with the abstract concept of a “team,” of which he identifies as a member.

Papineau then suggests an extension to traditional game theory that  allows separate agents to behave as a group. He uses an example of two player-agents in soccer where the correct answer is only clear when both agents act as a unit. You can look at the article for the details, but basically each agent’s ideal action is dependent on the action of the other, but of all the possible combinations of both agents’ actions, there is a clear best outcome.

Papineau then brings up the prisoner’s dilemma, wherein the solution is also trivial when attacked with group, rather than individual reasoning. Papineau notes that group reasoning falls apart when even a very small proportion of members do not behave according to the group reasoning. However, humans very often do behave with group reasoning. Watching The Wire, it’s more than clear that criminal gangs of all stripes have solved the prisoner’s dilemma using group reasoning, for example. The gang, the family, the syndicate, these are all teams on which people play, and with the proper cultural mindset it’s relatively easy to imagine that a player will be confident that his teammates will hold up their end of the bargain.

Now let me take Papineau’s article in a different direction: clearly this propensity for group-based reasoning has allowed humans to prosper through cooperation, but why does it so often fall down after a certain point and leave us with warring tribes instead of a world-wide harmony?

To answer that, here’s another question – what team am I on? The obvious first, I am on my own team. Then I have a series of other teams, in very rough order of closeness to me, my relationship, my work, my family, my friends, North Carolina, America, humanity. My duty to each of these gets more remote and abstract as the entity gets bigger and my place in it gets smaller, and therefore I’m willing to sacrifice less for one group to benefit a group more removed from me.

That may not be the central issue, though. Clearly people can be good at placing a very large entity’s needs above their own – this is what nationalism and its ability to motivate massive armies to kill and die for their nation proves. Nationalism is anything but a given in a nation. It relies on enormous propaganda drives. It can remain strong even when the nation does not fulfill its side of the bargain (read: veteran’s healthcare). Also, one can identify with one’s nation and not with one’s leaders, which is why patriotism can mean so many different things to different people. Nevertheless, the nation appears to be the largest entity so far that has been able to get people to identify as team members and sacrifice for it.

The forces encouraging people to identify with all of humanity do not have enormous propaganda on their side. The complexities of humanity make it difficult for us to all agree on what actions to take, and many of us don’t even agree on what success looks like, making it difficult to form a team mentality. The closest we have are our ethical standards – journalism, science,  human rights, and rule of law are four that come to mind. Instead of identifying with large groups of people, we can identify with sets of rules and values that are designed to remain the same despite the frailties of the people involved. Maybe that’s how Team Humanity should play the game.

Post-Privacy America

Imagine, if you will, that the police in Ferguson had been wearing cameras. Instead of conflicting stories about what happened, we would have video evidence making the facts clear. Now imagine that instead of sitting on a Ferguson hard drive, the video was automatically uploaded to the Internet. Everything that Ferguson cops do is on display for the whole world at all times. That would make it more difficult for a cop to do something he’s not supposed to do now, don’t you think? Ok, now let’s say all the cops in the country are constantly monitored at all times when on duty. Now what say we monitor them off duty? What if we monitor all state employees, including politicians. You know what? Let’s make everything everyone does known to everyone else.

At first, it’s chaos. Your neighbor now knows about your unusual taste pornography and is too horrified and ashamed to speak with you again. His wife, though, now knows about his taste in other women, and you take out your popcorn and watch on your computer screen the clip of that holier-than-thou jerk getting kicked out of his house, which it turns out is in the name of his soon to be ex-wife. Your children learn a whole lot very quickly about how the world really is. Not only do they discover a wealth of bad words and your unusual taste in pornography, which is very difficult to explain to them, they use the new surveillance program to find santa-claus and discover that it’s just you. You’re not even wearing a santa suit – just your ratty old “Jingle Bell Rock” sweater. Amid all the crying, no one gets much sleep that night. Spending much of the night trying to explain your unusual taste in pornography to your wife, you’re beginning to get a pretty solid opinion that you don’t like this program of radical honesty.

But by the next day the news reports start coming in. You thought the news would be dead, but it turns out they’re more active than ever – somebody’s got to sort through all this information. Three quarters of the scandals attributed to the president turn out to be unequivocally true, but scandals are streaming in from all over the country so quickly that before you’ve finished your breakfast the president is old news – more than half the state and local politicians in the country are getting attacked on both sides for rampant corruption. It seems like almost everyone in power is using that power against rather than for the American people. Talk begins wondering how we can get rid of all this corruption without the country collapsing. Others wonder how this country hadn’t collapsed already. Already overcrowded jails fill even more as the crimes of those not in power show up on the universal recordings. Suffering upon suffering is shown in vivid color to horrified Americans around the country. Poverty, starvation, homelessness,violence, and myriad other social problems are abruptly impossible to ignore. It is a crisis, but we are a nation of crises, and we respond.

As a nation we decide just to use our existing voting system – with our newly educated voting body – to weed out corruption. Our new politicians know that they will be judged based on their actions rather than their rhetoric and politics becomes much more mature as a result. With advanced video analysis, complete information allows for unambiguous statistics that settle what used to be areas of political contention. Does increased government spending help the economy? How many people who are very poor really need help and how many are just lazy? What actions that people and government have taken really help to reduce the demand for abortions? These questions are now answered by facts instead of stump speeches.

Over time, your children learn to live in the world that is rather than the world that they imagined in their ignorance. Your wife stays with you and, while she never really understands your tastes, decides that they aren’t any worse than any other quirk in your personality and the two of you end up closer than ever in the presence of unprecedented mutual understanding. Your friends that remain with you are true friends. Many of them have lost friends when their own secrets became public or when they discovered the horrible things their friends did and still do. Some mourn the passing of these shallow relationships, some are pleased to know who they can and can’t trust.

As your children grow up in the new society, you notice they have no interest in idle chatter. With no secrets, they grew up on harsh realities and important distinctions and they take interest in improving the world rather than hiding behind the fictions that defined previous generations. Their children grow up thinking of privacy and secrets as an antiquated notion – a bizarre artifact of the past that as hard as they try they can’t quite wrap their minds around why it was valued so highly. As your grandchildren come of age, they ask you why people, even people who were not doing bad things, were so obsessed with keeping secrets. “I don’t know,” you admit, “I guess… I guess we were just afraid.”

DogeCoin!

It’s one of those things that has to be said with an exclamation point. Those of you who have not heard of cryptocurrency are probably wondering what a dogecoin is, and those of you who have heard of cryptocurrency are probably slapping your foreheads and wondering what I’m thinking and why I’ve gotten myself wrapped up in one of these ridiculous things that have flooded the speculative commodity market. 

To the former group, a cryptocurrency is a currency that exists entirely on the Internet. An individual keeps a little data on his or her computer and he or she gets access to a wealth of, well, wealth. Each of these currencies is distributed to people according to various mechanisms and then spreads around the world, much like any other good or money, via trade and gifts. These cryptocurrencies have become exceedingly popular, and now hundreds of them are in existence, each one slightly different from the others. That’s essentially all you need to know about cryptocurrency to get the general idea.

What makes DogeCoin stand out from its ilk is its community. Dogecoin is based on the “Doge” meme.

This is a specialized member of the animal caption family of memes involving a particular shiba inu making a strangely distrustful expression. Much like the LOLcat, the Doge features a particular made-up dialect unique to itself. “Wow” begins many sentences of Doge-speak, generally followed by a vague emphasizer (“much,” “very,” “so”) and a word that does not grammatically fit that emphasizer (“much successful!” “very altruism!” “so scare!”). One commenter has provided a link to a more detailed linguistic analysis of Doge-speak. The doge face itself has been reproduced in a vast array of different forms.

Why does the fact that DogeCoin is deliberately goofy in a relatively well-defined way make it a more valuable commodity? Simply put, it’s fun. The people attracted to DogeCoin are not just intimidating high-stakes traders, die-hard libertarians, and the impenetrable cryptography geek community, anyone with a computer and an appreciation of silly pictures of animals could be coaxed into becoming a “shibe” (pronounced “Sheeb” or “Shibay”), a member of the DogeCoin community.

As an owner of a DogeCoin account, I recently accepted 150,000 DogeCoin from my roommate Nate as collateral for a loan of $200. When Nate paid me back, I announced on  the DogeCoin subreddit (a forum for DogeCoin enthusiasts) that I had just completed the first recorded DogeCoin-backed loan. A couple days later I’ve received forty-four comments and over 200 DOGE in “tips,” which are an easy way to give small amounts of DogeCoin to posts that one appreciates on the DogeCoin subreddit.  Currently a DogeCoin is worth approximately a tenth of a penny, so that’s twenty cents.

That’s not the point, though. The reason that DogeCoin is valuable is because DogeCoin doesn’t have to be valuable. It’s the first cryptocurrency to have a community that likes it for more than just the money they could supposedly make from it. At one tenth of a cent per coin, DogeCoin has inspired my roommate to make a service to sell people Robusta coffee beans for DogeCoin, and it inspired my other roommate to buy a collection of high-end computing hardware and run a process to get him DogeCoin. If you remember the last post of the “The Cold Apartment” post series, the purpose of the rig that was heating J’s room was to mine DogeCoin. It inspired me to write this post to explain the phenomenon. DogeCoin also inspires people to do good, spawning the “DogeCoin Foundation,” which shortly after its creation scrabbled together enough funds to send the Jamaican bobsled team to the winter Olympics. If you’re ready to be inspired, here’s a video to confuse the heck out of you:

To The Moon!

The Future of Education: Part 2 – Nightmares

“A Teacher Gets Depressed” isn’t specifically about technology in the classroom, but does speak to the problems of exclusively using automatic evaluation to judge the quality of schools and teachers. Also it references a nightmare. Click the image to see the whole comic.

When I spoke with my old teacher in my post on positive outlooks for education, he expressed concern at being replaced by technology. I told him that no technology would be invented that could reproduce the growth he spurs in students until long after his retirement, if ever. Teaching is a social vocation, and technologies for performing even the most simple social jobs are still in their infancy. Teaching is not a simple job, and attempting to remove the human factor from education at this point is likely to do more harm than good.

But what is a mad scientist, if not one who releases upon the world a new technology that turns out to cause more harm than good? Our collective body of fiction is rife with people who think they know more than they do and cause immense suffering as a result. The most famous of these mad scientists, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, reversed the course of death itself, but without considering the ramifications of his actions. The fruit of his life’s labor turned out to be a wretched, ugly creature even its creator could not bring himself to love.

While raising the dead may be a bit of an overstatement in terms of the risks of advancements in education, the allegory of the genius who does not consider the consequences of his actions is an appropriate one. In the theoretical future, an aggressive reductionist approach to education based on the theory that a child’s growth can be fully represented by his or her score on then-available automatic testing technology could become an educational Frankenstein’s monster, causing more problems than it solves.

If we were to measure school performance according only to the results provided by these technologies, and allocate funds accordingly, inevitably the skills and qualities unmeasured by the tests, which even in the near future will not be perfect measures of everything, would lose attention in favor of the ones the tests do measure. Perhaps in the near future we will have the ability to measure skills and qualities like  creativity, ability to work well in a group, self-confidence, and civic responsibility, but if we don’t, schools will no longer have incentive to maintain, and will therefore lose, their ability to foster these skills and qualities in our nation’s youth.

I am a strong proponent of technologies in the classroom. I also believe that the more data we can collect on the process and results of education the more we can use to help advance our goal of a well-educated population. The ability to bestow life on a lifeless being is also a scientific advancement that could do wonders for the world, but before we rush ahead, we should consider whether our technologies are ready for the tasks we will be counting on them to perform.