Singularity, Starbucks, and a cleverbot

Last week, I watched Transcendent Man, a documentary about Ray Kurzweil and his philosophies and inventions particularly centered on the technological singularity. This is a really fascinating idea and it very compelling. The documentary links Kurzweil’s experience of death in his own family with his belief in overcoming biology and out-smarting death. The technological singularity refers to the theoretical amalgamation of human intelligence with artificial intelligence toward the emergence of an exponentially greater intelligence, aligned with the evolution of technology since the early 20th century and into the not-too-distant future (Kurzweil says he expects this singularity to begin within the next few decades). Interesting and a little terrifying.

In small ways, however, this emergent intelligence is popping up all around us, in ubiquitous ways, too. Jonathan’s Card and it’s recent hacking by Sam Odio demonstrate an interesting interaction entirely online. Jonathan’s Card, created by Jonathan Stark, is a “social experiment” in which Stark has publicly released a digital image of his reloadable Starbucks card on the internet, encouraged people to download it to their phones (I guess you could also print it, right?), and then they could bring the image of the card to any Starbucks (in the U.S. at least) and buy something with whatever balance was on it. He also encouraged people to reload the card via Starbuck’s website, with the intention of seeing how long people could keep the card alive.

It’s a fascinating idea to a lot of people. However, SamOdio, as reported on CNN today stated he didn’t think the idea was interesting enough and decided to “mix things up a bit”. Odio created a script that could easily read the balance on the card and then transfer it to another (private) Starbucks card, thus removing whatever balance people who have been participating in Jonathan Stark’s experiment have contributed to it. Meanwhile, Stark himself has created a bot that also reads the balance of the card and tweets the card’s current balance as it changes (as it’s used and as people add to it). Outside of the social implications of the original experiment and the ethical questions the Odio augmentation has raised for a lot of people (all that belongs in a different post, anyway), this situation offers a way to look at bots talking to bots online, and human people standing on the sidelines watching it happen. As Jonathan’s Card’s twitter account tweets fluxes in the card balance, somewhere out there, Odio’s script changes that balance privately. Of course, there’s real (real?) money involved, which complicates the issue, but in something as small and simple as this, are we stepping ever closer to Kurzweil’s singularity – people and technology are now playing on the same game field…

One last thought, and this brings me to one of my most favorite things in the world: RadioLab. One of their most recent episodes was all about technology, or specifically robotics, and the role of robots in human’s lives. It’s definitely worth a listen. One of the last segments on the episode is about Cleverbot, an online application with which people can communicate – have entire conversations – with a bot. A bot is not a human person, it’s a coded program created by someone out there. But the conversations you can have with Cleverbot can really seem… real. Try it.

What strikes me with cleverbot is that when you visit the site and interact with it, you’re talking to a program – no person and no brain (?) is attached to the other side of your interaction. The other side is all code… in some way it kind of seems like you’re just talking with yourself.

So here we are, we donate money for other people’s coffee, snake it away to another account to send it instead to Save the Children, and we work ever more diligently to combine our conscious existence with that of technological objects.

*** To learn more about Jonathan’s Card, you can visit his site, facebook page, and twitter page (which has updated 18 times since I started writing this post)


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