The Paula Gordon Show Logo The Paula Gordon Show
Chellie Pingree's photo
Sidney Perkowitz

      . . . physicist, author and playwright. Dr. Perkowitz is Emory University Professor of Physics, author of books that bring science to the general reading public including Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids, Empire of Light and Universal Foam. He has presented and written about science, technology, and culture for CNN, NPR, “The Sciences,”  “Technology Review,” Encyclopedia Britannica, “American Prospect,” “The Washington Post” and others. Dr. Perkowitz has staged several original plays and has first-hand experience with the life-giving possibilities of sophisticated medical technology.

Excerpts3:24 secs

What would you think of an International World Cup of Robot Soccer -- teams of robot dogs competing, communicating with each other, scoring and winning with absolutely no intervention from their engineer-creators beyond initial programming? It’s just one of a dazzling array of mechanical creation -- from robots to bionic humans to potential androids -- much of which is currently going on behind closed doors, reports physicist and author, Sidney Perkowitz. What’s at stake? Our future, he says. And we just do not know if today’s technologies -- mechanical robots, implants, genetic alterations, chemical interventions -- will be good or bad for the human species.

What we do know is that it’s very easy for scientists and those who fund them -- the military in the U.S., industry in Japan -- to keep profoundly important decisions quiet, Dr. Perkowitz reports.  Secret, in fact. So he’s writing and talking about these cutting-edge, life-altering technologies so that the rest of us are ready to demand that the entire human community’s best interests be served and that fundamental decisions be made in the open, democratically.  

Philosophers, it turns out, as are important to questions about technology as the engineers and scientists are. Why? Because of the vast, unexplored implications of all that we are changing and about to change, says Dr. Perkowitz.

Remember Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am”?  Turns out, it’s probably a lot more accurate to say, “I am, therefore I think,” he says. Today’s science is increasingly demonstrating how profoundly our bodies, experiences and environments shape what we traditionally have thought of as our “minds” and our “selves.” So what happens when the body is no long flesh-and-blood but now mechanical -- a robot -- and the “programming” is no longer genetic, but something a computer scientists does? Call in the philosophers and ethicists, because the same biological process that shaped humans over the eons of evolution are now being actively mimicked, analogs created in computer programs as well as in physical and chemical and biological processes.

Whether or not you believe computers can ever really “think” -- or, like many engineers, don’t really care what’s going on inside the machines as long as the behavior appears to be intelligent -- citizens still very much matter, Dr. Perkowitz insists.  Pick up any newspaper, you’ll find something he calls us to examine, whether it’s stem cell research, genetic manipulation, robots, prosthetic arms or inserts in your brain.  

We need to understand the implications of these things because, as he says, technology just happens. We have evolved with technology and because of technology and technology just won’t go away. Technologists and scientists are very curious, driven people, so there’s no stopping them, Dr. Perkowitz is convinced.  So we all would do well to know what they are doing; be in a knowledgeable position to maximize the good technology is doing right now; and minimize technology’s equally plausible down side.

[This Program was recorded February 9, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Sidney Perkowitz offers Paula Gordon and Bill Russell opportunities and also anxieties associated with robotics and with humankind’s push into uncharted technological and philosophical domains.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:48 secs

Conversation 2

Science fiction plays an important role in helping people think about where technology might lead, Dr. Perkowitz says. He demonstrates with a series of examples of the pressing need to be thinking about the implications of our science and technology. We can now fundamentally change people, he reports, and expands. Technology is just as natural as any other human activity in our evolutionary path, he says, with samples of the power of the stories that we tell and of dramatic present day brain-implant technology.  The idea of the “embodied mind” is explored.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:05 secs

Conversation 3

Research in robotics helps us understand ourselves, Dr. Perkowitz says, and shows how it enlarges our sense of the importance of our physical bodies to our intelligences. GOFAI (Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence) is compared to today’s advances.  Dr. Perkowitz outlines how philosophers and engineers differ in responding to the question, “Can a computer think?” Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” is compared to Dr. Perkowitz’s proposed, “I am, therefore I think.” He shows how our technology evolves as part of and apart from humanity’s biological evolution.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:06 secs

Conversation 4

Dr. Perkowitz demonstrates how naturally many of humanity’s highest accomplishments come from the biological necessities that make it possible for humans to live together and survive. Many of these same biological processes are now being put to work with robotics, he reports, and gives a series of examples, including “robot soccer.” One big untold stories about bionic and robotic technology is happening in medicine, he says, with examples from living brains controlling artificial limbs to organic windshield wipers in space. He then addresses the potential dark side of these technologies, whose bad outcomes he says we are barely beginning to scratch.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:36 secs

Conversation 5

Technology just happens, no matter what, Dr. Perkowitz maintains. He explains why he is not a cheerleader for it. Chemical as well as mechanical analogs to human attributes are explored.  The enormity of what has changed for humans in the past 30 years includes many parts of the sciences, Dr. Perkowitz shows, then continues with why it is vital that ordinary people understand what is happening. We simply do not know if the changes will be bad or good, he says.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:59 secs

Conversation 6

We should spend about five centuries figuring ourselves out before we make one more step with our technology, Dr. Perkowitz acknowledges.  But since that’s not going to happen, he strongly suggests what we all should do to contribute to decisions currently being made in the United States by its Defense Department and medical establishments and by industry in Japan, the world’s leader in robotics.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:19 secs


We applaud Dr. Perkowitz’s eagerness to bring what is happening in the sciences and technology to us all. We thank him for writing the books and for joining us to explore further.

Our future really is being shaped by decisions being made by scientists and technologists, both in the military and civilian sectors, every day, right now. So we join Dr. Perkowitz in urging ordinary citizens to be informed and to get involved in shaping what those outcomes will be.  We all will live with the consequences.

This program was recorded at the 191 Club in Atlanta, GA.

Related Links:
Digital People:  From Bionic Humans to Androids is a Joseph Henry Press Book, an imprint of the National Academies Press.

Quick buttons

© 2002 The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are
copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may
not be used in any way without the express,
written consent of Paula Gordon.