Posts Tagged robots

Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.


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Living in the robot economy

Robotic Jimmy Fallon as published in Wired. Photo by Peter Yang.

Robotic Jimmy Fallon as published in Wired. Photo by Peter Yang.

Apparently, the robots are coming for our jobs. On the cover of the January 2013 issue of Wired is a story about how robots already have the capability to do human work. The robot takeover is even endorsed by Jimmy Fallon.

It’s easy to speculate about whether Wired’s Kevin Kelly is right or not, because none of this has actually happened yet. What’s really interesting to consider is what human life will be like when robots start doing all of the work.

A Life of Leisure

Let’s start out with a relatively positive side effect. If humans get pushed out of jobs that require a lot of manual labor they could, in theory, be moved up to supervisory or white collar-type jobs that require less actual work. The factory of the future could have robot workers and human managers.

That means more people will have more spare time, which could be wonderful for both individuals and society. After all, who doesn’t want more time to do something that isn’t their job. More people could become less specialized, because they would have the time to pursue hobbies and budding talents. They could get a chance to read Crime & Punishment, or to think of an excuse to not read Crime & Punishment.

People often say that they are too busy to follow important news stories or political issues closely, but with machine assistance, we could have a more educated body politic. The Internet has, if nothing else, made massive amounts of information available. Sorting through it takes time, though.

Pop Culture Meltdown

In the Wired article, Kelly suggests that most displaced workers will become entrepreneurs or artists, starting small companies making custom wares and turning the global economy into Kickstarter writ large.

If that does happen, popular culture may become obsolete. It’s already happening in a way: Nearly everyone in the United States knew “Gangnam Style” before most American record executives had even heard of Psy.

If popular culture is basically a conversation between produces and consumers of media, then a robot economy could give them a hi-def connection. People won’t need to rely on media giants for entertainment, because small organizations (or even individual artists) will be readily available to produce media that are fine-tuned to each person’s specific tastes.

Never having to listen to Brittany Spears again sounds like a good deal, but it could have a negative affect. Pop culture is a bonding mechanism for a large population; its lowest-common-denominator aesthetic reminds us that there are certain basic things that we all enjoy.

Without it, we run the risk of cultural echolalia. If we don’t need to acknowledge what we don’t like, it’s hard to get a read on what other people are thinking. It would also make it hard to discover something new, because we’d have to make a determined effort to leave our comfort zones.

Every Man (and Woman) an Island

If the implosion of pop culture means having less in common with the people around us, then having a robotic workforce also means having less people around us. If robots become store clerks or waiters or repair-bots (Kelly says robot therapists and teachers are even possible), we’ll be spending a lot less time around people.

Of course, that is already sort of happening in the form of social media. Most people have even given up on phone conversations and text instead. Even dating has fallen into the digital realm.

I’m very thankful for the communication social media allows, but I don’t think it can replace a physical meeting. It’s great to be able to talk to a friend in another state or another country instantly, but I can’t imagine pulling that trick off with someone I’ve never met.

The same goes for online dating. I’ve given two sites a try and, personally, I think the Internet takes all of the romance out of romance. I spend the time combing through profiles like I’m a Human Resources director; a very unfulfilling experience. I’m not alone either: in a recent “Room for Debate” piece in the New York Times, a group of experts concluded that online dating is no replacement for the real thing.

So how else will we meet people when most of our daily interactions are with robots?

Some might say that robots will just eliminate the tedious and annoying human interactions from our lives, but that’s a bit of a slippery slope. It’s impossible to eliminate everything unpleasant, irritating, or intimidating from human interactions, because we are who we are. We are as scary, annoying, and boring as we are loving, captivating, and interesting. Maybe that’s why the robots seem like such an attractive replacement.

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“Pacific Rim’s” Gipsy Danger and Gigantor: Separated at birth?

Pacific_Rim_FilmPosterJust when we thought the giant monster versus giant robots genre was dead, Guillermo del Toro delivers a rocket-assisted punch of awesome to the nerdscape. Pacific Rim, due out in July 2013, tells the story of giant monsters called kaiju that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean to ravage humanity. To stop the kaiju, the world’s nations build giant fighting robots called jaegers.

Del Toro calls the movie a “beautiful love poem to giant monsters,” and, if that doesn’t make you want to see Pacific Rim, you should check out the trailer.

Any movie about a showdown between giant monsters and robots owes a debt to Japanese pop culture. “Kaiju” is after all, a Japanese word denoting giant creatures from Godzilla to the antagonists of various tokusatsu live-action television shows and movies. Literally translated, it means “mysterious beast.”

The plot of Pacific Rim will also sound familiar to fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but hopefully there will be a little less weirdness and existential angst than in that robots versus monsters anime.

The design of the main jaeger also seems familiar, at least to me. Pacific Rim’s two protagonists, Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kickuchi) pilot the United States’ Gipsy Danger, a supposedly obsolete model that looks a bit like the grandfather of all giant robots.Gigantor

Gigantor made his debut in manga form as Tetsujin 28 (Iron Man 28) in 1956, and came to the U.S. as a cartoon in 1964. In the American version of the story, Gigantor fought criminals and megalomaniacs with 10-year-old Jimmy Sparks, who used a remote control to operate the giant robot.

Gigantor had no neck, and a large round torso that made him look like a garbage can with limbs. Gipsy Danger is obviously more sophisticated, but when I saw its visored “eyes” peering out from behind a high collar, I immediately thought of Gigantor. Gipsy’s long limbs and dark blue color clinched it.

I’m certain this wasn’t intentional, but it is fitting that the latest and greatest giant robot resembles its literal ancestor. Along with Speed Racer, Astroboy, and 8 Man, Gigantor was one of the first Japanese pop culture exports, robot or otherwise, to make it big. If it wasn’t for that walking trash can, we wouldn’t be awash with anime and manga, and we wouldn’t have Pacific Rim.

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