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Turning Point

Turning Point

    The other day I was practicing my two-handed backhand against a tennis ball machine. I’ve played tennis since I was a kid, but I started out with a one-handed backhand and it takes some work to switch. I set the ball machine to a narrow-random mode for some variety and started hitting.

    Just so you can imagine the scene as I saw it, the ball machine has a black plastic exterior and it’s about four-feet tall. It swivels left-right at its midsection. On the random setting it seems as if it’s just messing with you. There is some variability in timing between balls because of the nature of the mechanical feeder on the top. When you add that to the programmed left-right randomness it gives the impression of being playful, just yanking you around for fun.

    So there I am, hitting ball after ball, just me and the machine. No other human was anywhere near. I was having a great time, working up a sweat, improving my skills…

    And then it occurred to me.

    I … have a … robot friend.

    The ball machine isn’t intelligent in a classic sense. It was merely random. But humans are fairly random too, or so they seem, because we can’t predict exactly what one might do next in any given situation. I don’t even know what sentence I will type next. It’s not random, but it seems that way because it is so unpredictable.

    You all know my view that humans are simply moist robots, so for me, the difference between this tennis robot and a human was freakishly small. I was even responding to the robot in an emotional way. I felt a bit of a connection. Humans bond through shared activities and I was feeling it.

    I imagine you’re all dismissing this as a stretch. We’re surrounded by machines that aren’t entirely predictable and they don’t feel alive. I’m typing this at my computer that surprised me half-a-dozen times already this morning. But my computer doesn’t feel alive to me. Nor does my toaster, no matter how surprised I am its results. Those machines don’t feel like the future. They are mere tools. The ball machine on the other hand registers in my lizard brain as a primitive form of life, in part because of its physical dimensions, and partly because of its relentless randomness. It makes humans seem a bit less special.

    I saw a clip from TED (can’t find it now) in which a guy tosses tennis balls at a toy helicopter that has a tennis racket strapped to it. The toy adjusts its position autonomously and returns the ball to the human, over and over. At this point in history the only thing that prevents me from having a full three-set tennis match with an anthropomorphic robot is the expense. The technology has arrived.

    My prediction is that within the next five years each of you will have your own Holy $#!t moment with a robot that registers as freakishly intelligent. It’s a cool feeling. It feels like the future.

    Or have you already had the experience? Let me know in the comments.

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