Sunday, July 26, 2009

Computers & The Mind

Yesterday, The New York Times published an illuminating article by John Markoff on the promises and fears inherent in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Experts in the field discussed the issues at a meeting recently convened near Monterey, California. Computers are our tools. They may store greater amounts of data and process more information faster than a person. However, there is more to intelligence than that. I have written about some fundamental requirements in my post dated Dec. 10, 2007.

In his article, Markoff poses the question whether computers may take over our lives one day. In my mind, they already have in fundamental ways. Think of contemporary warfare! Christopher Drew reports in his article for The New York Times published Mar. 16, 2009, that the U.S. Department of Defense seeks to  expand the use of Predator drones for missions in Afghanistan. The unmanned drones are piloted out of military bases in Nevada and Arizona. After fighting the enemy, the pilot returns to a peaceful family life at home. The war is left halfway around the globe for another day. The enemy's chances of reaching Las Vegas or Phoenix are minuscule. The pilot's life is never in danger. No doubt, this type of progress is greatly desirable. However, the situation produces a profound disconnect between our actions and their consequences.

When I was a student, we had a professional photographer as next-door neighbor. Erich Plöger was quite a character. He was of a much older generation. As as a little boy, he had seen Hitler in the flesh. According to his recollection, Hitler was "a small man wearing a big hat, eyeing people nervously from under a wide brim, while making his way through the crowd in great haste. April must have been close.

Despite the age difference, Erich's profoundly independent lifestyle endeared him to us students. He freelanced out of his apartment. A gigantic Hasselblad bellows camera was towering in his living room. Its large cassette film plates were developed in the bathroom. Prints were also made there on a wooden board placed on the tub in the light of a dim light bulb hand-painted red by Erich himself. Erich and I spent quite a few hours in this room, printing the pictures for my Master's thesis. I had to supply the paper. Everything else, plus expert advice, was on the house.

On one visit, Erich showed me a remarkable book he had co-authored on the peoples of Afghanistan. Erich had won awards with his photography. The pictures were of stunning beauty. I still recall vividly the wild expressions of horse and rider in the pictures he took during a Buzkashi game. Only Erich could have taken such photographs. He had the same wild streak. The book entitled "Buskaschi in Afghanistan" is out of print, but can still be found used and new.

His journey through Afghanistan had taken several months. He traveled in small company. I pelted him with questions. Wasn't it expensive, I wondered. “Not at all,” replied Erich. “Wasn't it dangerous, being pretty much all by yourself?”  “No, not really,” was his answer. “Do you speak the language?” “Very little,” he said, “but the locals were very helpful and hospitable.” They felt honored to have an "effendi" from a far-way land as a guest who wanted to learn about their way of life.

Erich must have undertaken his journey in the 1970s. Since, decades of war have ravaged Afghanistan. Westerners had a heavy hand in the events, changing local attitudes substantially. At present, American drones rule the skies. It is a good assumption that Erich, attempting to repeat his adventure today, would have been kidnapped or worse on the second day. Insights that open our eyes to the peoples of Afghanistan are ever more difficult to come by. Robots play a crucial role in this alienation.  They permit a physical and mental distance that removes us from an immediate understanding of the consequences of our actions.

Albert Schweitzer would have been more alarmed than ever at the computer-facilitated disconnect, numbing our sense of empathy.


  • Elizabeth Bumiller's article entitled "Remembering Afghanistan's Golden Age" in yesterday's New York Times provides a good impression of the country during Erich's visit. I remember that just about every visitor to Afghanistan at that time returned with a sheepskin jacket like the ones shown in the slide show (10/18/09).
  • Today, Terry Gross interviewed Jane Mayer on National Public Radio's Fresh Air. Ms. Mayer published an insightful article on the use of drones in this week's issue of The New Yorker with the title "The Predator War". The interview (hear podcast) lays out the pros and cons of the current clandestine U.S. drone program, operating on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan (10/21/09).
  • No one more aptly foresaw the future problems in the region than Richard Reeves. The insights in his book "Passage to Peshawar: Pakistan, between the Hindu Kush and the Arabian Sea"published in 1984 are still pertinent today (10/23/09).
  • The events of recent months have demonstrated in great clarity the strengths and the weaknesses of the drone program. The drones have become sufficiently sophisticated to eliminate leaders among the Taliban with unprecedented precision. However, every warlord has a brother, son or cousin ready to step into their shoes when the time comes and carry on their mission without substantial interruption. The Mehsud are a case in point. A drone attack killed the clan's leader Baitullah five months ago. The organization was able to mount a lethal retaliatory counterattack with equal precision last week. The person on the left in the video below is the clan's new leader. His weapon is seated on the right. The drones may instill great fear among the Pashtuns. But will they help bring peace to the peoples of Afghanistan (01/10/10)?
  • According to Greg Miller's report with the title "Increased U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan killing few high-value militants" published online in The Washington Post today, 118 CIA drone strikes eliminated at least 581 Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan last year, among whom between one and three dozen were considered 'high value' commanders, depending on definition, and only two were on the list of most-wanted terrorists that the U.S. maintains.
  • The Afghanistan campaign appears to be turning into yet another March of Folly. We seem unable to disengage without a loss of face (08/09/2011).
  • The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia and Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Second Edition, wrote an insightful opinion piece with the title "Hate Begat Hate" published online in The New York Times' SundayReview Sep. 10, 2011, on the development of Pakistani relations and perceptions towards the USA over the past decade. The comments are worthwhile reading as well (09/11/2011).
  • An insightful insider's perspective on the changes in Afghan life over the past fifty years (12/06/2012).
  • If you cannot find Erich Plöger's book, on May 4, 2014, National Public Radio published an impressive multi-media documentary under the headline "Buzkashi" about Afghanistan's most favorite past time (05/07/2014).

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