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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #146                                                   June 24, 2003
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
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    Flesh and Machines: The Mere Assertions of Rodney Brooks (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Appeals to ignorance do not convince
    About this newsletter
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    In Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us (Random House, 2002),
    Rodney Brooks informs us that "we are nothing more than a highly ordered
    collection of biomolecules":
       Molecular biology has made fantastic strides over the last fifty years,
       and its goal is to explain all the peculiarities and details of life in
       terms of molecular interactions.  A central tenet of molecular biology
       is that that is all there is.
    Apparently fearing that we will be insufficiently gripped by his message,
    Brooks (who is director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT)
    goes on to say in the space of three pages:
       The body, this mass of biomolecules, is a machine that acts according
       to a set of specifiable rules....
       The body is a machine....
       We are machines, as are our spouses, our children, and our dogs....
       We are nothing more than the sort of machine we saw in chapter 3, where
       I set out simple sets of rules that can be combined to provide the
       complex behavior of a walking robot .... we are much like the robot
       Genghis, although somewhat more complex in quantity, but not in
       I believe myself and my children all to be mere machines....
       We, all of us, overanthropomorphize humans, who are after all mere
       machines (pp. 173-5).
    Noting that some people may bristle at the word "machine" (not to mention
    the tedious repetition), Brooks acknowledges that he uses the word "to
    perhaps brutalize the reader a little".  He feels the need to shake us
    free of any conviction that "we are special" -- meaning, in case you
    missed it, that we should accept our status as "mere machines".
    Searching for the Bottom
    As a reviewer facing an attempt at brutalization, perhaps I will be
    forgiven a touch of bluntness.  When, using the characteristic language of
    the insecure reductionist ("we are nothing more than"), Brooks refers to
    molecular interactions and says emphatically, "that is all there is", he
    is engaged in a startlingly transpa