Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cyber-Steles and the Universal PIM

The Promulgating Robot

By John Taylor; 2010 Oct 21, Ilm 06, 167 BE


In an earlier chapter, "Man of Stele," we broached the idea of an electronic interface between people and institutions called the stele, a latter day update of an almost four thousand-year-old technique used by ancient kings, the best known of whom was Hammurabi of Babylon. Steles are finger-shaped stone monuments standing about two metres high, with a codified version of the laws inscribed around their "skin." By this means ancient kings of this era pioneered the rule of law by erecting steles in prominent places, tacitly declaring that it was not their whim that ruled the land but immutable, comprehensible laws. The "fingernail" of one surviving stele on display in the Louvre features a portrait of Hammurabi himself, in the act of handing down the "rod" of his law.

The stele fulfills a major precondition of justice: in order for a law to be fair, it must be promulgated, that is, publicized and made comprehensible to all. Steles were designed to assure that even foreigners and non-literate peasants had as much access to a codification of the laws as possible, so that all could be held to account for their actions. Ignorance was no longer an excuse in the eyes of the law.


We no longer use steles today, in spite of the fact that we are called upon to conform to far more laws and much more complex rules, norms and regulations. In place of steles, it could be said that we spend as long as twenty years in school learning what society expects of us. At the same time, multiculturalism has intensified; rapid travel and the Internet are melding all cultures into one global civilization. This makes promulgation a much more important and difficult challenge today than in Hammurabi's time.

Fortunately, it is possible to build steles based not on a legal code written in cuneiform script etched in stone, but rather computer code "etched" into silicon chips, in particular a genre of software known as a personal information manager, or PIM. PIM software is now routinely used by executives to schedule appointments, organize projects, and simplify interactions with complex databases of contacts. The PIM can be used to guide the investigation, aspirations and plans of individuals, displaying visuals as they check off achievements, mark milestones. They also issue warnings when an action falls short of self-declared goals and ideals. PIM's often have standard plug-ins to coordinate activity with similar software planners of groups and institutions. The interaction of PIM's already informs the protean structure of daily life.

For the individual, a PIM-based cybernetic stele could start where software PIM's leave off. It can act as a core interface to cyberspace, and as a sounding board for setting out one's goals in life. Such information management could become the concern of a new science called "lifestyle engineering," since they start with a unique individual's personal style and carry that forward into what Socrates called the "examined life." We will discuss the details of this future science in future sections of Cosmopolis.

For institutions, similar steles will mediate and negotiate among the many PIM's of members, clients and guests. Standard group information managers would coordinate ideas and distribute services among members, clients and guests, while maintaining due security by clarifying and proclaiming the rules, standards and purposes not only of that group or institution in particular, but of all similar ones around the world.

Like the ancient stele, cyber-steles would make written constitutions open and accessible to all. In order to do this most effectively, these steles and PIM's would need to conform to the legal conventions of open systems software, as laid out in the Creative Commons and the Open Frontiers Foundation. This would not only make the stele's PIM software free, concise, open and confidential, it would also make it safe. Every line of open systems code is freely available for scrutiny by any who care to download it. This makes it impervious to the back doors, worms and other security threats that seem inherent to proprietary software.


The most distinctive feature of the open systems PIM in the stele is the cosmopolitanism standards built into it. Every time a person swings out of balance, the stele would alert the aspiring Homo Universalis of insipient danger. Its universal standards are the product of a consensus of opinion among philosophers, senior citizens, believers, workers and teachers around the world on what is needed to become a sane, balanced person, and how that person fits into the social whole. As Plato puts it,

"A community should be at once free, sane, and at amity with itself, and ... these are the ends a legislator must keep in view in his enactments." (Plato, Collected Dialogues, The Laws, 693b, p. 1282)

Thus the cosmopolitan PIM is the product not only of computer programmers but also the collective wisdom of legislators, philosophers, elders and every other kind of expert. It is our fundamental heritage as humans in a united world. Once a stele is linked to the totality of human experience available on the Internet, it can act as a sort of DNA for cosmopolitan faith, learning and citizenship.

Implementing the Stele Ideal

Emerging robotics technology should allow electronic steles to aim at much more than passive promulgation. They can potentially become the face and focal center of the built world, including all tools and technology. As mentioned, the stone monuments of old were shaped like oversized index fingers with a stone mosaic portrait of the monarch on their "fingernail." In a similar way, a robotic stele would feature a computer monitor as its "fingernail." It can interact with us using a voice interface, as well as the usual computer input and output devices, a mouse, speakers, webcam and so forth. Most importantly, it will be mobile.


In order to work, electronic steles would be ubiquitous, placed prominently wherever humans go, and fit in with the machines around it, for which it acts as interlocutor. Offices can put mobile robotic steles to work as receptionists and public relations representatives. One can be stationed at the center of a workplace or at the entryway, making sure who everybody is and that everybody knows where they are going, and understands the rules, roles and expectations of the institution in question. A domestic stele acts as a doorman, guide and factotum at the gate of a family compound. Institutional steles would be stationed at gates and entryways to neighbourhoods, city blocks and apartment complexes. Throughout the cosmopolitan city, steles are placed at entry points, street corners and squares of a city, village or town.

The most important of all steles is the personal stele. Individuals will station their robotic stele at the doorway of their bedroom or other private space. When they are away from home, it autonomously maintains and protects the home, working as butler, maid, receptionist, secretary, answering machine and security guard. When the resident arrives home, it acts as their workstation and interface to the Internet, as well as tutor, student and companion. Because it is so influential, it may turn out that in future the work that teachers, doctors and other professionals do will involve less direct interaction with students and more tweaking and adjusting of the software running their respective steles. Such intervention would be less intrusive and may prove more effective.

To begin with, a stele need be little more than a tall, rolling computer with an LCD monitor on its "fingernail." Already many hospitals have "helpmate" robots plying the corridors, delivering medications and performing other menial tasks. Such devices can also act as stand-ins for flesh and blood human beings. At least one office has a telecommuting boss who works from home thousands of miles away from his company. He is represented there by a robotic proxy, a remotely controlled, mobile robot with a video image of his face on its monitor. This virtual boss's authority resembles that of Hammurabi's steles, except that employees can actually speak and interact with his avatar image in real time on the robot's monitor.


Even with the rudimentary robotics technology available today it would not be overly expensive or difficult to mass produce at least the outer shells of robotic steles, allowing the software PIM within it to be constantly updated over the Internet as experience increases. As more data and opinions are fed back into their software, steles would get better by the minute. Most citizens of developed countries are already heavily invested in personal computers, broadband links, and many other kinds of Internet connected devices; a stele would connect with these and integrate them through standard ports.

A world government can declare owning at least one standard cyber-stele as a basic human right. By declaring a goal of "one person, one stele" within a decade or two it would jumpstart a massive industry. This would also change how we understand law itself, and for that matter judges and lawyers. The global law promulgated by steles would not be the sort of dead letter that we have become used to. In place of sanctions that are little changed from Hammurabi's harsh, inflexible laws, the rules of steles will be entirely personalized and ever more flexible, capable even of reprogramming itself in real time, adapting as circumstances change.

Of course, the introduction of steles would have to be slow and graduated. For example, it is true that we cannot yet entirely trust the competence of robotic drivers on the open road -- although Google and some military contractors have been quietly experimenting with prototypes. Autonomous feedback technology is advancing at a furious pace, however. Soon autonomous vehicles will be much more reliable than human drivers, and will probably take over the wheel.

The real obstacle is not technical but ethical.

We fear intelligent robots, probably for good reason. Like a world government itself, we have to get it absolutely right before we implement it, since a bad product might be impossible to change or remove. If we are to put robotics to good use, we must first address legitimate fears by eliminating the root cause.


As Immanuel Kant pointed out, only a world order would be completely secure, since as long as competing centers of power exist, they will continually struggle for hegemony, even in so-called peacetime. Our nationalist order is therefore inherently warlike and competitive. As a result, we have come to expect that advances in robotics will automatically lead to a nightmare scenario where robots take over, or, as depicted in the "Terminator" movie series, where murderous robots wage eternal war with humanity. It is already possible to buy an off-the-shelf autonomous, drone fighter that can be launched from anywhere; completely stealthy, these drones can attack and destroy just about anything, anywhere, without being detected. Such killing machines only work if they are programmed to destroy without qualm. The more intelligent they become, the more inherently dangerous they are.


I see a PIM-based robotic stele, regulated by a cosmopolitan world order, as the only sure way to avert this clear and present danger built into technology. Everything depends upon the permanent peace enforced by a democratic world government. Once that is established, however, it will be possible to build the highest of human ideals and values right into all technology, from chip design to software to the hardware shell without.


Already the first "moral" robot has been built. Named "Nao," its programming is based on ethical principles that allow it to make elementary choices about which of several tasks it takes on first while serving the residents of a nursing home. (Michael Anderson and Susan Leigh Anderson, "Robot be good; Independent minded machines will soon play a big role in our lives. It's time they learned how to behave ethically." Scientific American, October, 2010, p. 72). With increasing sophistication, ethical robots placed in new situations should be able to answer the most difficult ethical quandary, if only by sending out a wireless "informational crowd sourcing" query on the Internet. For the same reasons that autonomous vehicles will be safer than flawed human drivers, as long as such robots are in touch with the Internet, their ethical savvy should rapidly become as good or better than a human.

Once steles can be relied upon to maintain core human values themselves, the next question is how they would help humans do the same -- which of course is the main goal of promulgation. The fact that they are shaped like steles, the first technology that instantiated the rule of law, would remind everybody that the law is the basis of peace on earth. Then it will not be unreasonable to expect higher probity from our machines than any human authority figure. Anybody who interacts with a stele would realize that this is no mere machine, it stands for the sum of our collective wisdom.

At the same time, users of steles will soon be made aware that unlike older legal systems, cosmopolitan laws are not a Fait Accompli. The experience of an individual with PIM's feeds back into its software and constantly changes the defaults. If there are enough exceptions to a rule, new subsections can be written into the law. In this way, steles and PIM's will change the professions, especially the teaching profession. Instead of working directly on their students, teachers can spend most of their time adjusting and tweaking a student's PIM to make it more responsive to his or her particular temperament, interests and personality.


We are used to many freedoms that the near future will probably regard as license; for example, the obesity rate over the past few decades has slowly climbed to a large majority of the population without many alarm bells going off. The stele would prevent that, although many of us today would find the subtle incentives and disincentives that it uses too intrusive for comfort. Be that as it may, a little intrusiveness in daily life is a far sunnier prospect than an epidemic of chronic illness caused by obesity, not to mention the gloomy scenario explored in the Terminator movies.

1 comment:

SMK said...

Another kind of stele would be public records in public places. Some places on the internet are designed to facilitate quick turn over but some are designed to hold on to public statements....