Monday, May 24, 2010

The State of Science Reporting (Satire) by Jon Wesick

The State of Science Reporting
by Jon Wesick

Author's note:

Here's to fairness, debators from both sides slugging it out in front of a TV audience. It used to be how the news media presented political stories where there was little in the way of objective truth. But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Political coverage became more biased. To maintain the illusion of objectivity the media began presenting science stories something like this.

The announcer turned to the camera as the theme song ended.

“Welcome to tonight’s broadcast.” He set down his papers. “Earlier this week scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich made a major advance in the quest for artificial intelligence. With the announcement that the computer Program EULER successfully passed the so-called Turing test, it seems the age of intelligent robots will soon be here. We are joined by two guests who will explain this thrilling milestone.

“To my left is Professor Leon Sumner who holds the Marvin Minsky Chair of Computer Science at MIT.”

The professor nodded and unconsciously stroked his graying beard. He wore a rumpled sports coat, the kind someone more comfortable in a lab than in a sales meeting would snatch out of his closet the night before a job interview.

“Professor Sumner is a former president of the American Computing Society. He won the 2007 David E. Rummelhurt prize for his work in computer language recognition.” The announcer turned to his right. “Our viewers in LA are no doubt familiar with our other guest, Jo Jo the Clown. He can be seen Thursday through Sunday at the Worm Street Circus. Jo Jo, welcome.”

“Thanks for having me, Dave.” Jo Jo tipped his shabby derby and squirted the announcer in the face with the fake flower in his lapel. The clown wore a curled bib and polka dot suspenders over his plaid shirt. The garish smile painted on his face made it hard to tell whether he found his own prank amusing.

“Professor,” the announcer wiped his face. “Let’s get to the question everyone’s wondering about. Having passed the Turing test, is this computer in fact self-aware?”

“That’s a very good question, Dave, one I’m sure the experts will be arguing about for some time.” The professor took off his glasses and leaned forward with his elbow on the table. “The Turing test requires an observer to ask the computer a series of questions. If the observer can’t tell whether a human or machine is answering, we conclude that the machine is displaying intelligence. I’ve examined the Zurich test protocol. Several of the questions require the computer to refer to itself. Knowing this, I have to conclude that the computer is, in fact, self-aware.” The professor sat back and folded his arms over his chest.

“You know, Steve, my mother once told me,’ If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck,’” Jo Jo said. “But that’s neither here nor there. As Einstein once said, ‘If you need an appendectomy, don’t go to the auto parts store.’”

“An old Yiddish proverb?” the announcer asked.

“Sometimes the old ones are the best.”

“Fascinating!” The announcer turned to his other guest. “Professor, if a computer is self aware, does it feel? Does it have a soul?”

“Feelings? At a primitive level I’d suppose so. Any self-aware being will have a survival instinct and hence have the ability to feel fear. As for a soul…” Professor Sumner stroked his beard. “That’s a religious question I’m not prepared to comment on. I do feel that society has a moral duty to protect intelligent beings including sentient machines. That’s why I’ve organized a panel of ethicists and legal scholars to discuss what kind of legal rights these minds should have.”

“Whoa!” Jo Jo honked his horn. “I have to jump in here, Jack. I could never agree with sending someone to the electric chair for unplugging his toaster.”

“Good point, Jo Jo but let me ask you this.” The announcer leaned forward. “Can you imagine some kind of nightmare scenario where intelligent machines take over like in The Terminator?”

“It’ll never happen.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” The professor waved to get the announcer’s attention. “Computers have already replaced the nation’s air traffic controllers and there’s a project at the Pentagon to put them in charge of our nuclear missiles.”

“Perhaps we can follow up on that at a later date but right now we’re out of time.” The announcer turned to the clown. “Jo Jo, last question. Will we see household robots soon, say an electric maid?”

“Make mine with big breasts!” Jo Jo pumped his hips and elbows. “Hubba! Hubba!”

Author bio:

Jon Wesick has a Ph.D. in physics and has published over two hundred poems in small press journals such as the The New Orphic Review, Pearl, Pudding, and Slipstream. Two of his chapbooks have been honorable mentions in the San Diego Book Awards. His poem, “Bread and Circuses,” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest.

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