Yes, that was a $75,000.00 robotic “dog” walking, or being walked, in a New York City park. It looked like a biker’s ‘teardrop’ gas tank on stilts. The four-legged contraption meandered clumsily up to a little girl in a stroller, seemingly wanting to investigate the little human in the seat. The mother behind the stroller was understandably on her guard, apprehensive…

One might have scratched it behind the ear, as most all poochies love that. But it did not have a head, so, no ear to scratch behind. You get it. It had no head, just an elongated tank walking on four jointed sticks. One might have taught it to “shake-a-paw”, but it had no paws to shake.

One could not communicate with it, unless its radar or other perceptive devices might perceive me and respond to my goofy human approaches customary for a flesh-and-blood dog . And you might have observed but had no means to evaluate its mood from its erratic back-and-forth moves, never still, almost jerking to and fro. Did it have a mood at all? Did it have a brain, or mind, at all? Was it able to think for itself at all?

The darkly shiny cur had no tail to wag, so no wag to reveal its degree of happiness at an encounter with a friendly human. No tongue hanging out, no slobber, no smell, no wag, no warmth. Any domestication was an artifice, as its actions were beyond unpredictable. It must be a safe poochie though, for having no head no nose and no teeth, how could it ever bite?? And so constructed without paws, how could it ever claw someone?

Its brain had to be some sort of a receiving device in that tank body. For its motions were being controlled by another, a controller who was not apparent, but nearby…

No one seemed to fear it, not even the toddler in the stroller. Its strangeness was evident, without eliciting much sense of caution in the observer. The object was the size of a dog, the structure of a dog (sans head and tail), its movements not entirely unlike those of a dog,

Any trepidation at its appearance and behavior did not come from its strangeness alone. That fear came from two things: its unpredictable behavior, and the fact that it was controlled from a distance. The poochie was not in control of itself, but by the one at the controls, a detached controller.

This encounter with a headless, tailless, barkless, biteless, scratchless bionic poochie very much on the loose is a parable of appearances (lifeless in itself) and controls (remote). Nothing was “Bio-” about it. Soulless but animated, distant but somehow menacing as without restraint. We do well to ponder how such entities without apparent control create uncertainty and the consequent sense of foreboding felt by many seeking answers so as to plan for whatever may come next.

Some claim that at an indeterminate point Artificial Intelligence will exceed human abilities to control it. George Dyson’s new book entitled, “Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control” is one example. As the title implies, Dyson traces developments in modern technology from the eighteenth century philosopher Leibniz through the analog era to the digital age and the emergence of Artificial Intelligence, confronting the reader with portents concerning the question of human abilities to control things to come. My question via the parable above is which humans? What group or entity will hold the reins of everything from our banking and financial systems to that which controls the collective military might of nations?

Until that intelligence progresses beyond their ability to control it?

We as a free people (for the time being) fear the growth of authoritarian governments beyond the level of the local as is clearly shown by the expansion of tyrannies at state and federal levels over the past eighteen months. The trend toward totalitarianism contained in legislation currently under consideration in the very Congress presents threats far beyond mask mandates and imposition of social gathering sizes, extending to federalized control of everything from the election process to religious liberties and more. Should the portents of unstoppable digital escalation generate increasing threats as the distance between the controlled and the controllers increases, we need imagine an apocalyptic horror of what happens when the controllers find themselves controlled by that which is not at all controllable. Dyson finds for a gradual restoration of an analog age or even a more pre-modern world, a result dubious in view of the potential for sheer confusion and even destruction upon the collapse of a comprehensive A.I. system.     

The Irish statesman John Philpot Curran, during a speech given in Dublin in 1790, said that, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” The religious virtue of vigilance is called forth, yet in the civil sense. There is no sectarianism implied in Curran’s quote, but only the source for that condition among humans of whatever culture. No matter which faith we profess, or no faith at all, vigilance in the face of expanding technological uncertainties must become the motivation toward participation in common discourse, and the liberty of every man and woman the object of our endeavors. That calls for us to take careful account of who is at the switches.    

Father David+

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