Weatherford Democrat

October 6, 2013

NOW HEAR THIS: Being messed with by a machine


Weatherford Democrat

— By LARRY M. JONES

Just when you think you’ve seen or heard it all, new lessons in life still await.

This past week, I was verbally chewed out by a “robot.” Despite having had what seemed to me more than my fair share of comeuppances delivered by an acerbic tongue, until now, none has ever been delivered by a machine.

This newest “personal achievement” occurred as I was trying to contact a live and breathing service representative by phone. Typically, after a dozen or so questions asked by an electronic human, followed by a dozen or so redirects, you are finally put on hold to listen to some absolutely dreadful music while you wait your turn. This time I drew a rather short tempered electronic assistant. I was told in no uncertain terms, “Sir, I am just a robot, and if you do not speak clearly and answer my questions, I cannot help you.” She sounded just like a receptionist at the IRS, one minute after quitting time.

Since earliest time, mankind has been fascinated with the building of intricate automata machines that can operate on their own. Such machines were developed even earlier than the Greek and Roman empires. Leonardo de Vinci had designs of a humanoid robot in the 15th Century, and with the advancements in clock-making by 17th and 18th centuries, mechanical creations became almost magical.  Recently a video was circulating via email about a little boy automaton that could write with a quill. It was built 250 years ago by a Swiss clock maker and was amazing.

By incorporating electrical and electronic components to the mechanical automatons, “robots” were created.  In the 1920s, the term robot was introduced. Quickly, they became favorites for science fiction movies and TV shows. In the 1960s, the popular television show “Lost in Space” had a robot (B-9) that served as a bodyguard and companion to young Will Robinson. Its most famous line was, “Danger, Will Robinson.” A decade later, R2-D2 and C-3PO were great favorites in the six “Star Wars” movies. The ultimate “state of the art” robot would have to be Data, the android that played in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which premiered in 1987.

In addition to answering, monitoring and directing our phone calls, real world robots are taking over our factories and manufacturing facilities. Able to work more economically, under more extreme conditions, work almost unlimited hours and with greater precision and quality, robots are dominating a large sector of the job market.

Despite all the great advances in electronic and computer technology, these magical and seemingly unlimited “automatons” still lack significant human traits – emotion and creativity. Everything our computers and robots do is based on programs, or operating instructions, given to them by humans.  Amazing decisions and calculations can be made based on seemingly unlimited parameters, yet they still can’t think, although artificial intelligence is becoming a bit unsettling.

I noted earlier that I’d never been verbally chastised by a robot, yet I have been taunted by such. The P-3C aircraft I operated in the Navy had a tactical and navigational display that was computer controlled.  I have seen some quite colorful rebukes in response to hitting an incorrect switch. You don’t want to mess with bored Navy computer technicians with vocabularies largely consisting of four-letter words.

Larry M. Jones is a retired Navy commander and aviator who raises cattle and hay in the Brock/Lazy Bend part of Parker County. Comments may be directed to nowhearthis@pwhome.com.