Thursday, May 19, 2022

We need the eggs

     Social media likes to serve up scary robots. You know what I mean. Those Boston Dynamics Atlas robots doing parkour, like some kind of mechanical stormtroopers come from the future to show us what kind of nightmare will be kicking our asses someday soon. Or, even creepier, the company's headless robot dogs, dubbed "Spot," perfect for exploring the poisonous dead zone half our planet is sure to become. (No need to wait for the dystopian future; you can buy one now for $75,000). Then there are the realistic robots we increasingly see blinking and turning their heads, smiling and chatting, our closest companions in a world I am glad I'll never live to see.
     Me, I take comfort in how short the attempt to ape human behavior fails, as represented in the 16 photos above. Hopping on a box is one thing; discernment something else entirely. Turns out, it's harder to think than dance. The photos are from my iPhoto account. Long ago I learned to plug a location in the search bar, so if I want to use a shot snapped at the Smithsonian Institution, I plug "Washington D.C." in. It can be very precise, down to streets and even buildings.
     But I did not realize, until recently, that you could also plug in nouns—horse, house, train—and the search engine would round up candidates. Or try to.
     The blog's Saturday star, Caren Jeskey, turned in an essay keyed around robin's eggs. She usually offers a photo or two, but this time she hadn't yet. I knew I had photos of the nest that sat on our porch railing one spring. So I plugged "eggs" into the iPhoto search bar, generating the above dozen and a third photos.
     Take a look at the results. Starting at the upper left, we have: my son eating a sunny side up egg topped burger at the old Joe's Diner in San Francisco. A melon patch. A Peter Max poster of Saturn that the artist sent my son. Six glasses of non-alcoholic beer from a taste test at Harry Carry's, viewed from above. A Jeff Koons sculpture at The Broad in Los Angeles. A Murakami painting of flowers. Five images of orange juice balls served as an amuse bouche at Alinea. Three fried eggs, the last two being at one of the best meals I've ever eaten, in Santiago, Chile. And a jack-o-lantern from the Chicago Botanic Garden.  
     Let me show you what the algorithm did NOT find. This:     
     I bet you pegged them as eggs right away, didn't you? God bless Apple, wonderful company. But based entirely on their inability to tag the image at right as containing "eggs" I would say that the robot rebellion is still a work in progress.
    Being human is hard. That should not be an epiphany. Even with our sophisticated wetware, perfected over the past 100,000 years, with software de-bugged over the past 10,000, half the people can't seem to regularly pull off all the high-functioning tasks required of them. Given how consistently humans fail at being human, I don't think we have to worry about machines quite yet. They can do some tasks better some times in some places. But they also have their spectacular failures as well. I'm still clinging to hope. Let's see a computer do that.


  1. A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.
    (Credit to Woody Allen / Annie Hall)

  2. Ouestion for Mister S: What if you had entered "robin's-egg blue" instead of "eggs"...would that have worked? Would you get eggs? Or would you get a '56 T-bird two-seater painted in the same color? That's what Google Images did for me. Or maybe it was Bing. Can't recall, even though it was just five days ago, Getting old is hell.


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