MARTY RUSSELL: Let’s all hope there’s never a union between Watson, R2

By Marty Russell

With all this talk of union-busting lately, maybe there are some groups of people who should actually be thinking of forming one, like astronauts and game show contestants.
We’ve all by now heard of Watson, the room-sized IBM supercomputer that defeated the two winningest contestants in “Jeopardy” history. Watson wasn’t prefect by any means but it did prove that computers are now capable of understanding, processing and responding to human speech – as well as punch a buzzer – in such a way as to make artificial intelligence seem more and more probable and not just a metaphor for someone like, say, Charlie Sheen.
Watson proved that machines can “think” and use reason and logic, even if the logic is just an electronic and/or gate that compares inputs and allows the most “logical” to pass through. In that sense, it appears to be one up on Mr. Sheen.
While Watson received almost as much publicity as a Hollywood star having a meltdown, perhaps we should be more concerned about another intelligent machine that is currently orbiting about 250 miles overhead. Part of the cargo ferried to the International Space Station on space shuttle Discovery’s current and last voyage was a humanoid robot named Robonaut 2 or, in NASA’s penchant for parlance, R2.
R2’s job is to fill in when humans aboard the space station are sleeping or otherwise occupied and, eventually, to take on the more dangerous tasks such as spacewalks and cleaning the toilet. Right now it’s just a torso with arms and hands and a head that looks like a fancy motorcycle helmet. But it’s proven to be quite dexterous and strong, capable of holding a 20-pound barbell at arm’s length indefinitely. When it finally gets some legs and gets mobile, we may all be in jeopardy, or at least our jobs.
Science fiction and the Governator have long told us that one day we will become slaves to the machines, just small parts of the larger matrix feeding and maintaining it while it goes about its own business of either creating a perfect world or closing and locking the pod bay doors behind us. We’ve already proven how easily enslaved we can become to political machines, just blindly standing by while one group or another uses tactics such as redistricting and union-busting to ensure they remain in power, so why not actual machines?
Maybe “The Matrix” got it right. Maybe the reality is that we’re already slaves to the machines, glued to a network that consumes our every waking moment while sucking the life out of us and providing us with little in return except a “perception” of reality.
No, wait. That’s Facebook.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e–mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu.