Using the Right Words

I wish a happy 2014 to you all and as a step toward that happiness, let’s look at one of my favorite scenes from II robot 1, Robot.[1]  The guiding genius behind U.S. Robotics’ (USB) success was Alfred Landingham, who appears to have thrown himself out of the window very near the top of a tall office building.  Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) has been called to investigate and Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynihan) is escorting him around the building, as you see.

Spooner:  So, Dr…Calvin.  What exactly do you do around here?

Calvin:      My general fields are advanced robotics and psychiatry[2] although I specialize in hardware to wetware interfaces in an effort to advance USR’s robotic anthropomorphization program.

Spooner:  So…what do you do?

Calvin:    I…make the robots seem more human.

Spooner: Wasn’t that easier to say?

Calvin:    (reflects briefly on the question)  Not really.  No.

It’s not hard to make fun of Dr. Calvin’s answer and that is really why this exchange is in the movie at all.  I think it is a really good answer in many ways, but it is not a good response to Detective Spooner.  Dr. Calvin’s answer is formal.  This is the answer she would give to a new colleague she would meet at an academic convention or a trade show.  It gives the fields of her training first—advanced robotics and psychiatry.  It gives the field of application second—hardware to wetware interfaces.  It gives the goal third—robotic anthropomorphization.  Every one of those terms leads in an appropriate and helpful academic direction.  They are very nearly citations of the relevant academic work.

Detective Spooner is not someone Dr. Calvin would meet at the conferences.  He is a very good cop, he hates robots, and his method is highly intuitive.  This is a very bad answer for him.  The good answer comes next.  You can see Dr. Calvin stumble in the ellipse between “I” and “make.”  She’s working on how to phrase her work in a very general way.  It has been a long time since she has had to do that.  When she comes up with it, however, it is a really good answer: “I make the robots seem more human.”

Spooner now knows what she does and that really ought to end the conversation, but Spooner wants to reprove Calvin for giving herself a needlessly difficult task.  He has no idea that it is easier for her to give the first answer than the second.  She does stop, though, and give his question some consideration.  The answer she gives is not a response in any way to his discomfort with “the long answer.”  It is a simple and honest answer: No, the long answer I gave was easier than the short answer you wanted.

I have enjoyed that little patch of dialogue for years.  Also, robotization in general and the interactive performance of affect will be a major topic in 2014 and I wanted to get an early start.[3]


[1] For those of you who are fans of the book, I, Robot, the movie has very nearly no relationship to the book.  On the other hand, the book does not have this exchange between Will Smith and Bridget Moynihan.

[2] It really isn’t that funny.  Dr. Calvin’s work has produced a very difficult reality in the current movie, Her, in which, according to the blurb: “A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.”  It is Dr. Calvin and her colleagues who have done the designing.

[3] “Interactive performance of affect?”  Are you kidding me?  Well…yes.  On the other hand, it is exactly what I want to talk about.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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