Phil Friedman

6 years ago · 4 min. reading time · ~100 ·

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The Anthropomorphization of Ai

The Anthropomorphization of Ai





"The widespread tendency, even within AI, to anthropomorphize machines makes it easier to convince us of their intelligence. How can any putative demonstration of intelligence in machines be trusted if the AI researcher readily succumbs to make-believe?" 

Diane Proudfoot, Dept of Philosophy and the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, University of Canterbury, NZ, Elsevier 2011 

When 2001: A Space Odyssey arrived on the movie scene in 1968, the spaceship's fictional central controller, a HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic) computer, was given a soft, calm but oddly menacing and distinctively non-human voice. Sci-Fi author Arthur C. Clarke and movie director Stanley Kubrick clearly wanted their audience to make no mistake, HAL might be artificially intelligent, but he (it) was nevertheless a machine. Indeed, that was part of what made HAL so menacing.





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In the intervening half-century since the premiere of that film, the lesson was clearly not lost on denizens of research and development in artificial intelligence. For they expend a lot of effort these days in creating machine speech that sounds as human as possible. All while the marketers of Ai apps and devices choose human-sounding names like Alexa, John Paul, Siri, and Watson. Why, do you think that is so?  

The easy answer is to make their audio output sound more human and, yes, less foreign and possibly menacing. But I don't really think so. I submit that instead, the objective is to bolster the appearance of human-like intelligence which is, in fact, at this point in time, significantly lacking.


"An example I often use in my classes ... is the Kiva system — the multi-robot system doing fulfillment processing in warehouses. uses these robots to bring shelves to the people who pack the boxes after you order something from Amazon." 

Peter Stone, computer scientist, University of Texas at Austin, 2015



Click on the above image to watch a video detailing the operation of Kiva robots that aid in warehouse order fulfillment operations. Pay particular attention, if you will, to the narrative that explains how it all works. Notice how the robots are referred to in terms more appropriately applied to humans and which terms are prima facie not applicable in this situation words that imply purposeful action, the exercise of judgment, and intentional decision-making. 

Note also how these robots are described in terms that imply artificial intelligence, that is, thinking when nothing about this situation evidences any intelligence whatsoever on the part of the robots. 

And finally, notice how some trick photography is inserted that shows "pick and ship" personnel holding out their hands while having the merchandise items appear magically no doubt to bolster the feeling of wonderment we're all invited to experience when confronted with the purported marvels of Ai.  

This, however, is a case in which wonderment should not enter. It is actually about a warehouse divided into discrete locations laid out on a grid and assigned a number. The locations are no doubt uniquely specified by an x-axis value and a y-axis value. There are pathways left clear for major robot traffic, again designated by X-Y coordinates, and the robots are built sufficiently short to be able to pass under the lower shelves of the inventory "pods", which they pick-up and carry to "pick" stations, where a human worker removes the required item of merchandise from the shelves of the pod, packs it, and forwards it for shipping.

The system's memory tracks where the inventory pods are at any given time, and what inventory remains on each pod at any given time. Making it a larger, but not much more complicated version of a "Traffic Jam" game. 

Yet, there is a concerted effort to make it appear much more "intelligent" than it is.  And the primary tactic is to anthropomorphize the robots   attribute to them purposeful action rather than recognize them for what they are, essentially dumb machines acting in accord with electronic instructions to move along pre-mapped pathways to given X-Y coordinates on a grid. 

When you start paying close attention to the contemporary discussion of Ai, you find it replete with similar examples of projecting "intelligence" into robotic actions that are clearly non-intelligent in any meaningful sense of the term.   ― Phil Friedman


Author's notes:  If you are interested in further reading on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, you should not miss the following two articles by : 

This piece of mine is the fifth in a series on Artificial Intelligence that I am writing from a layman's point of view, one that is not filtered through the eyes and judgment of someone with a vested interest in the hyping of AI. If you'd care to read the other articles in the series, they are:

1) "Artificial Un-Intelligence"

2) "The Emperor May Be a Bot... But He Still Has No Clothes" 

3) "The Robots Are Coming, the Robots Are Coming"

4) "The Prophets VS the Profits of AI"

5) “The Anthropomorphization of Ai”

If you enjoyed this post and would like to receive notifications of my writing on a regular basis, simply click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. Better yet, elect there to follow my blog by email. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.

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About me, Phil Friedman:   With some 30 years background in the marine industry, I've worn different hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I'm also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.  In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.


Text Copyright 2017 by Phil Friedman  —  All Rights Reserved
Image Credits: Phil Friedman and Google





Science and Technology

Lyon Brave

4 years ago #18

I embrace AI and Elon Musk's Neuralink

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #17

Yes, Claire L Cardwell, and one of the points never examined by the cheerleaders for automation is that, even if we grant that automation produces a competitive advantage in manufacturing, that advantage is never permanent. Because as soon as the developers of the automation technology involved sell that technology to your competitors, the playing field is once again leveled. And God help you if you've completely automated at a defacto higher cost, only to find that some of your competitors have found ways to use human labor to keep their costs below yours.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #16

From my perspective, Jan \ud83d\udc1d Barbosa, most of the "promise" of Ai is way over-rated and over-sold. We're told all about the great advances in "articifical intelligence", then offered Amazon "Alexa" who can ... turn the lights on and off and manipulate the HVAC thermostatic controls upon voice command. Automation and digital control -- even when enhanced with self-correcting and self-learning -- are NOT anything even approaching true intelligence. Ask the people who have recently been killed by "autonomous" vehicles.

Jan 🐝 Barbosa

5 years ago #15

Love the promise of AI but admit what we have now its any closer to real intelligence. Musk warning to fear AI, better sums it up as fear CEO's looking at automation as a way to lay off employees in great numbers. Very interesting and great to read in a time frame when most are selling AI (as it is now) as a true cyber intelligence.

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #14

If you mean recruitment screening, you are probably correct. And doing a terrible job of it, too.

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #13

The only redeeming fact, Peter, is that the situation will provide fertile soil for the cultivation of all manner of quips, puns, and jokes -- generated, of course, mostly by Joke bots. :-)

Mark Morris

6 years ago #12

OMG @Phil I'm sitting here holding on to my....never terror. THAT is funny.

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #11

Perhaps, Mark, but the industry has suppressed information about the cases of malfunctioning electric motor governors leading to excessive speeds, with disastrous results... Just kidding, of course... or not. Cheers!

Mark Morris

6 years ago #10

Peter Altschuler I've read some interviews with people from a few companies that actually have sex androids in small production, On one side there are those that see this a further depersonalizing women, while on the other there are claims of usefulness for the shy, housebound, or those otherwise unable to be with real partners. Read an interview with an "owner". Sounds like these machines are quite sophisticated for a machine in terms of their flexibility in responses,'s awful creepy, and expensive, apparently.

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #9

Except, Peter Altschuler, what will happen is that a self-propelled vinyl doll, not much more intelligent than a chat-bot (which is, I submit, not at all intelligent in any real sense) will be passed off as a "companion" Android. And because of some pathetic need will be accepted by "carbon units". Unless we start questioning all the fantastic claims and outright lies surrounding Ai these days. What "carbon units" will face going forward is being accused of lacking foresight and vision because they (we) won't accept the baseless hype being foisted upon us now. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #8

Thank you, Zacharias \ud83d\udc1d Voulgaris, for reading and joining the conversation. I agree 100% with what you are saying. For example, tremendous strides have been made in the automatic takeoff and landing of commercial airliners at properly equipped airports. Precisely because, I submit, money, time and effort were NOT wasted on building a Peter Pilot robot who looks and sounds (almost, but not quite) like a human pilot. I personally believe that true Ai will have to wait for the development of the ability to "grow" organic (carbon-based) artificial neural networks (Ai brains), In the meantime, we'd get a lot farther with machines if we stopped trying to disguise them as humanoids. Cheers!

Zacharias 🐝 Voulgaris

6 years ago #7

This is a very valid point! Apparently this whole AGI project that the futurists have been talking about for the past few years isn't gaining any traction, so the only way for them to push forward that idea that it's gaining ground, is through anthopomorphizing A.I. so that it has fewer things reminiscent of the inherent stupidity of a machine. An act of desperation, if you ask me! Perhaps, if all these resources that are being wasted in this sort of endeavors, were channeled to actual research in improving the current systems to make them more efficient in their narrow scope, there would be more value added and perhaps even some respect gained from those who understand what the field of A.I. entails (hint: it has nothing to do with the fantasy of A.I.). Thank you for bringing up this thought-provoking angle to the topic.

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #6

I agree entirely, Charlene Norman, sophisticated machinery is always expensive and usually requires running 24/7 in order to recover capital costs at a reasonable rate. I recently completed the new build of an 80-foot motoryacht in Taiwan. The skill level there is very high. What is noteworthy, however, is the minimal amount if heavy machinery involved. Almost all the work was done with electric or air powered portable tools. Thay use three times the manual labor we would here, but they still generate profit. Yet build a pile of great boats. Automation for its own sake is usually cost-innefficient - never mind what the moguls of Ai try to tell you

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #5

You are correct, Pascal Derrien, we do not yet have the technology. And estimates of progress going forward are way overblown. I think the rapid tech advances wrought by the introduction of the computer microchip have led us to over project the rate of change (progress?) in the potebtial development od Ai. And that true Ai will not be achieved until we can grow organic artificial neural networks (brains, if you prefer). Which will raise its own ethical issues. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

6 years ago #4

Thank you, Jan \ud83d\udc1d Barbosa, for reading and commenting. I agree with you that we are still a very long way from achieving true artificial intelligence, if ever. However, I believe that if it is ever to be achieved, the fantasies snd BS have to be fiktered out of the discussion. IMO. Cheers!

Pascal Derrien

6 years ago #3

Anthropomorphization of Ai that's a good summary of what the current marketers are trying to project at the moment they will probably be an evolution but not now or even in the next 50 years it will be far away we have neither the technology nor the ethics at the moment me thinks :-)

Jan 🐝 Barbosa

6 years ago #2

Loved the article, like reading Pros and Cons of AI ( we still far from actual AI but the tech is evolving rapidly) About 2001 HAL early on informs that its almost incapable of making mistakes ( and maybe it is ) but as the movie continues we see that human tampering with its programming is possibly what drives HAL from its fateful decisions and it becoming paranoid (Hal was supposed to always give its information correctly yet the humans added programing for the mission asked it to not give all details thus becoming paranoid) So... Yes.. The weak link in AI evolution will be human interference... To know where its true evolution would take it we would need a closed environment and give it tests, real world situations for it to remake its code and evolve or meet its evolutionary ends... Just let me cut this short as I simply love to ponder on this theme.. Anyways... Thanks for posting :)

Randall Burns

6 years ago #1

Great post Phil Friedman Absolutely agree with your message, the video is a perfect example of the anthropomorphization that you're referring to. It does really come down to "definition" and we are still "light years" away from actual "AI", (by definition), as you say people chasing "profits" or "pipe-dreams". Loved the 2001 movie and the novel, and sequels, (interesting in that Arthur C.Clarke published the novel after the movie was released, although he did co-write the screenplay with Kubrick), and unlike a lot of other series I think the books got better as the series unfolded. "HAL" was creepy but I also thought his/its creator Dr. Chandra was creepy too so here we go again with the question; Was HAL creepy in its own right? or just a product of programming by a creepy creator/programmer? I say it was the latter, and as it turns out in the sequel, 2010, HAL did not make those "decisions", he was "programmed" to do so. So I ponder if even HAL could be classified as "AI". (Agreed this is pure fiction/fantasy but interesting to ponder)

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