Bringing pleasure to computerized machines

Automated Postal CenterIf you ever visit a large and/or busy post office, you may have seen one of the US Postal Service’s latest advances in self-service technology, the Automated Postal Center.

The post office near my downtown office building has one of these, and I love it. I use it every chance I get. Not to slight the job performance of postal workers (never cross a postal worker), but I find these machines to be faster and more efficient than going to the window, plus there’s almost never any line. Granted, maybe someday when everyone learns to love technology as much as I do (fax machines and photocopiers excluded), things will change, but for now I can usually just walk right up, take care of my business, and move on.

But there’s something about these machines I don’t like: the illogically friendly, human tone of the on-screen text, especially at the conclusion of the transaction:

Thanks. It’s been a pleasure serving you.

Really? Has it? Can a machine derive pleasure from anything? And if so, from serving me? Well, I suppose we do want our sentient utilitarian devices to be as servile as possible. But we’re not there yet. Some human wrote the computer program that operates this equipment, and they put that string of text into it. Who are they fooling? And why are those people being allowed out in public?

Wouldn’t “Thank you for your business” have sufficed? I’d feel a lot more comfortable with that.

That darn (Schrödinger’s) cat!

As intriguingly unnerving as the title of Ars Technica’s article, “Human observation of dark energy may shorten the life span of the universe” is, I read the entire article waiting for the counterargument that appeared at the end of the penultimate paragraph:

For an opposing viewpoint, the New Scientist writer contacted Prof. Max Tegmark of MIT who states that the quantum Zeno effects is not predicated on humans doing the observations of dark energy or light. “Galaxies have ‘observed’ the dark energy long before we evolved. When we humans in turn observe the light from these galaxies, it changes nothing except our own knowledge,” says Tegmark.

Thank you, Dr. Tegmark. Perhaps I am the one who’s just not “getting it” when it comes to quantum uncertainty (indeed, I never studied any of the hard sciences beyond high school, although I’ve read a fair number of non-technical books on physics and cosmology in my adult years). But I find it incomprehensible that serious scientists would actually consider that human observations of dark energy would have a significant impact like this. As Dr. Tegmark suggests, it’s not that our observations don’t affect quantum systems, but interactions with anything count as “observation,” and surely dark energy was interacting with something else (anything… take your pick) before our humble little species on our insignificant little planet became clever enough to detect it.

Big Questions and Stupid People

“Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

–Albert Einstein

“Remember Kyle, there are no stupid questions, only stupid people.”

–Mr. Garrison, South Park

Ever since I was a kid, I have pondered the “big questions”: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why are there so many stupid people around? OK, maybe I didn’t ask that last question until I got a little older. But it certainly muddies the waters in which I contemplate the first two.

Another way to look at this is, are there really stupid people, or just people who do stupid things? Well, I know for sure the latter is true. I have even witnessed people I would not consider to be stupid doing stupid things, so definitely there are people who do stupid things. Perhaps whether or not anyone actually is “stupid” is irrelevant. But I digress.

It seems to me that any comprehensive worldview, any theory that attempts to “explain it all,” needs to take into account the infinite human capacity for stupidity. Though many of us like to raise our heads and lift our hearts with visions of the noblest acts of humanity, this is really just the equivalent of spraying air freshener in a befouled bathroom… no matter how advanced we become as a society, some of what we do still stinks.

So we are left with somewhat more complicated questions: Why are we here — in an overcrowded world with a bunch of people who hate each other for no good reason? What is the meaning — of all of the stupid, mindless actions that clutter our striving for a complete and satisfying life? What kind of God would create such a beautiful world and then fill it with creatures who seem hell-bent on ruining it?

The televangelists are starting to make sense to me now.