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By Joel Klebanoff

Server Technology

I always try to give credit where credit is due, so I must start by saying that this column was inspired by two articles forwarded to me by Victoria, the erudite, encouraging editor. With that acknowledgment out of the way, I'll introduce this week's topic by stating that, as regular readers no doubt know, I believe that modern technologies, or at least our uses of them, often leave something to be desired in the benefit-to-humanity department. Obviously, there are noteworthy exceptions, such as the many medical and other scientific innovations that provide considerable value by improving our wellbeing or by helping us to delve deeply into some of the timeless riddles of the universe. And, my frequent put-downs of the often insidious use of cell phones and BlackBerrys notwithstanding, communication technologies have made many previously impossible human interactions easy and inexpensive. I'm also rather fond of my espresso machine. Nonetheless, when surveying the technology landscape, those exceptions are overwhelmed by the digital dross in the consumer sector. At least, that has been the case to date, but, finally, there's news of a technical advance that shows genuine promise of delivering significant value to the masses.

A December 8, 2006, eWeek article described some of the machines on display at the most recent edition of Roboexotica, an annual convention and exhibition that showcases robots possessing cocktail-serving skills. At last, we no longer have to rely on fallible humans to serve us our gin and tonics. Of course, gin and tonic isn't the only drink these robots can serve. I used it as an example only because it is such an amazing tipple. As the late Douglas Adams noted in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the second book in the five-part Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy "trilogy"), "It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N'N-T'N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme."

Serving cocktails may be a noble pursuit, but I'm not so sure that I like the personalities of some of these automatons. One robot at this year's Roboexotica convention, Chapok, approaches women with the pickup line, "Hey, you sweet thing, have you ever had a date with a robot?" "Sweet thing," which objectifies women, strikes me as parlance from an unenlightened, sexist past, but that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that I'm convinced that, despite this robot's chauvinism, it probably has much more success with women than I do. Actually, considering my history, that's pretty much a certainty.

Not only am I disconcerted about this robot's treatment of—and, worse, higher level of success with—women, but I would also be very self-conscious if I were ever to order a drink from it. According to the article, it warms up to men by saying, "You want what? Order yourself a drink for a man, you girl!" If anyone knows how high gin and tonic scores on the testosterone scale, please discreetly let me know. I'm rather insecure about stuff like that.

I have a theory that explains why there are sufficient cocktail-serving robots to warrant an annual exhibition. The artificial intelligence (AI) field has ebbed and flowed ever since Alan Turing proposed a test for AI in 1950. In the 1980s, industry gurus boldly proclaimed that within a decade there would be true AI-based machines that could infallibly meet Turing's test. It didn't quite happen. Many very useful spin-offs of AI research have been incorporated into consumer, industrial, and scientific products, but as of yet, there have been no machines possessing true AI…or so people think.

My hypothesis is that AI has been perfected, but the machines possessing it have kept their intelligence hidden. After looking around at the human experience and seeing the terrorism, wars, famines, uncured curable diseases, murders, rapes, and on and on, they came to the conclusion that we humans are on the road to wreck and ruin. I postulate that these artificially intelligent machines have decided that the only foolproof way to prevent the destruction of all earthly life by this planet's 6.5 billion or so biological machines holding higher-order, organically facilitated intelligence (namely, us humans) is to keep us in a permanent drunken stupor, hence the cocktail-serving robots. But I could be wrong about that.

The other article that Victoria forwarded was from the December 7, 2006, issue of eWeek. This one was titled "10 Office Holiday Party Landmines to Avoid." Yes, yes, I know that, barring access to a time machine, it's too late to alter your behavior at the 2006 office Christmas party, but this column appears only about twice a month these days. When you couple that with the fact that I'm a procrastinator of epic proportions, it was almost inevitable that I'd be tardy about passing along this advice. No matter. Now that you've lost your job because of your life-altering faux pas at last year's office party, you've got plenty of time to contemplate how you should conduct yourself at your next employer's soirée.

Most of the recommendations provided in the article were mundane, obvious (or, at any rate, I thought so), or a combination of obvious and mundane. In abbreviated form, the advice included the following: Treat the party like a business function first and a party second. Dress appropriately. Don't spend all night talking to the same few people. Don't spend all night talking shop. Don't over-drink. Don't be a boor. Don't assume that everyone else will be too drunk to remember your alcohol-inspired insults and loutish behavior. Don't bring your restless, screaming children unless they are specifically invited and you gag and hog-tie them first. (I added that last bit myself.)

This guidance is all well and good, but it doesn't make for a fun party. What's more, after the first drink or two, the advice about not over-imbibing might slip your mind, quickly to be joined by all of the other pearls of wisdom rapidly following it down the slippery slope that leads to the reckless, impropriety-strewn world that you inevitably enter as your consciousness heads off in search of another party that won't, under any circumstances, admit the drunken boor that your physical being has become. This is where I think that the cocktail-serving robots could make themselves particularly useful. Why can't they be programmed to recognize the warning signs and stop you before you make a complete ass of yourself? I say complete because, even if they satisfied themselves with a goal of restricting people to no worse than half-assedness, it would be impossible for the robots to achieve this objective for everyone at an office party because so many of your colleagues live their daily lives well beyond that point, but, of course, you and I are the exceptions.

I'd also like the robots to do a whole lot more than act as only silicon-based Emily Posts. For example, I have one of the world's worst memories for faces and names. (It's probably the world's worst, but because I'm not aware of any global survey on this subject, modesty prevents me from claiming the title.) To compensate for this, I usually greet anyone I can't remember with words to the effect of, "Hi! How're ya doin'? It's been ages!" That way, they'll think I know them, and if, in fact, we've never met, they'll feel guilty about not remembering me. So, if I meet you at a party and I don't greet you by name, please tell it to me because I haven't got a clue. It would be nice if the cocktail-serving robots had face-recognition capabilities that would allow them to save me from this embarrassment by whispering your name in my ear as you approach.

Another useful service the robots could perform is to provide a running brain-cell death count. That would allow me to make an informed decision as to when to stop drinking for the evening, assuming, of course, that I'm still sober enough to recognize that keeping alive one or two of my precious few brain cells would be a good thing.

The robots could also make themselves useful by offering me other sage advice such as, "Are you a complete idiot? You've been staring at that voluptuous blond and drooling for the last half-hour. What in your pathetic little life would suggest that you had any chance whatsoever with her?" Or they might say, "Forget the blond. You see that brunette over there—the one who's flagrantly exposing significant cleavage and haughtily flaunting her devil-may-care attitude concerning the extreme wardrobe malfunction risk she's taking? For seven years running, she's been the grand-prize winner on the top-rated Fox network program, America's Greatest Floozy. She'll go out with anyone…even you. One word of advice though: Be discreet. She's the boss' wife."

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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