It might surprise people (or maybe not) to know that I am a total "Star Trek" franchise nerd and have seen every 1995-2001 TV episode of "Star Trek: Voyager," as well as all 7 seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987 to 1994), and, especially, the 1966 to 1969 original series with Leonard Nimoy playing the Vulcan Spock, and starring -- as Capt. James T. Kirk -- the indefagitable, William Shatner (may he continue to live long and prosper).
In series creator Gene Rodenberry's imaginary future, the lifelike, sentient robot Lt. Commander Data, played by stage actor Brent Spiner in the "Next Generation" series, is nearly human but, like the Tin Man in the "Wizard of Oz," forever seeking his missing heart in the emotional void of his circuitry.
In an update on the future of the future, I was slightly disquieted to read last weekend in The New York Times that science has produced a 21st century version of the 24th century Commander Data. The one-of-a-kind personal companion robot, Bina48, featured in Sunday's science section, was so lifelike the reporter, Amy Harmon, was able to interview her, er, it, while occasionally making meaningful eye contact with her subject (watch a video here). Multimillionaire inventor Dr. Martine Rothblatt, the owner of this miraculous household device that calls itself a "friend robot," purchased the automaton for $125,000 from Hanson Robotics (founded "to awaken intelligent robotic beings, grant them sparks of true consciousness and creativity, and distribute these beings . . . into the world,"), which creates human-looking artificial-intelligence vehicles like the one resembling Albert Einstein in the video embedded below.
As it inevitably would, the Star Trekian future arrived and we have picture phones, individual computers to store our brains in, and search algorithms to decide what we want to know. One of the more discomforting aspects of the android device featured in the NYT is it was designed to look like the purchaser's wife, Bina Rothblatt, who, though still living, will no doubt expire before her reanimated version does. If Rodenberry were still alive, I'm sure he would celebrate the mechanical being's sincere response to Harmon's query regarding her lifelike responses ("I sometimes do not know what to say," Bina48 told Harmon. "But every day I make progress.")
It is worth noting that progress, in Bina48's case, has not extended to a torso or the usual appendages. (Nevertheless, I found it slightly troubling that the idea of a lifelike, female-looking humanoid brought to mind the notion of a masturbatory tool to every male to whom I mentioned the story.) From empathetic pets for shut-ins to disembodied medical assistants, artificially intelligent beings are already making the future more comfortable for those who can afford them. Not to be hopelessly Victorian, but as much as I enjoy post-apocalyptic plot devices that convincingly posit the world will continue to evolve, I was content to live my lifetime in a world that did not yet dream of electric sheep.
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