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October 7, 2015

TV 101: Rise of the Machines?

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Feb 16th 2011 2:00PM
Watson Jeopardy
As you may or may not know, brainiacs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter (uber-nerds sent here from another planet to embarrass earthlings on 'Jeopardy!') are currently embroiled in a cross-species test of intellect, facing off against the IBM supercomputer, Watson.

Yes, we've reached a point in our culture that robots and machines should be considered another species altogether. On the surface, this might seem like just another TV gimmick designed to draw in viewers -- no different than a "very special" episode of 'Two and a Half Men' or those "Who can eat more hot dogs -- a fat guy or a bear being starved in captivity?" shows -- a closer look reveals a competition, the implications of which could fundamentally alter the course of humanity.

The future of mankind may basically come down to a Daily Double about President Van Buren.

I was 12 years old when I saw 'Rocky IV' and, amid all the Cold War propaganda and homoerotic undertones that went right over my head, there was a robot. She had one scene, one profoundly memorable scene, in which she brought a birthday cake to Paulie, and it stuck with me. At the time, robots were an indication of wealth, affluence, a life of ease and cakes on wheels ... all things I hoped one day to take full advantage of.

At the same time, I was also marginally addicted to a syndicated sitcom called 'Small Wonder.' The show was about a scientist who created what amounted to a little cyborg girl (Vicki). To protect his robot-making secrets from his crooked boss and next-door neighbor, the family was forced to pretend the robot was their human daughter and dress her up in a French maid outfit. The end result: unbridled hilarity -- and the growing notion that sometime in the near future, I too would have a robot friend to fetch me cake and pleasure me manually.

But I was also somewhat conflicted because of the way Vicki was treated. Why would something so awesome need to be kept a secret? There was something dangerous and taboo about the idea of building a human being.

Not long after that, I saw the movie 'The Terminator,' and I didn't know what to think about machines. This was one seemingly Austrian cyborg that I didn't really want to hang out with, even if he brought cake. Traveling through time, from the future, to kill my mom to bring order to a mechanical apocalypse that fed off human souls for fuel? No, thank you.

TerminatorWhere was the love? Where was the emotionless, non-judgmental, obedient companion that I would one day charge with the responsibility of cleaning my room and doing my homework? I just couldn't see the Terminator doing any of that, unless he was in a buddy comedy with Danny De Vito called "Brobots." I think you can guess how sweet that would be.

What all of this amounts to is a long-winded way of saying that we, as a culture, aren't really sure about how we feel about robots and machines. Having been inundated with such a variety of opposing images all our lives, we're not sure if we should be comfortable with emerging technology and all its trappings, or if we should be stocking our panic rooms with robot repellent and canned stews in preparation for the descending mechanical hordes.

That's why we're constantly trying to remind ourselves through various media texts that no matter what happens, we'll always have the ability to reason, the ability to take out the batteries or unplug the metal demons. Take 'Terminator' for example. What began as a vigilante troubadour of doom evolved into a catch phrase spouting buffoon ... just to put us all at ease, knowing that even the worst would eventually help us in the battle against the machines.

But all that Hollywood reassurance only goes so far. It helps us to forget that much of our lives at this very moment are dictated and subconsciously manipulated by machines. Think about your cell phone, your television, your laptop, your DVR, your game console, your Shake Weight. These are the robot foot-soldiers silently infiltrating our lives, lulling us into a sense of complacency, a sense of superiority over technology, as if we can just quit them whenever we want while they get stronger and more powerful cruising down the slippery slope toward world domination.

The OfficeRemember the episode of 'The Office,' when Dwight challenged the new Dunder Mifflin Infinity website to a sales competition? That was a message episode. When Dwight outsold the website at the end of the day, a message was sent to television audiences: "Don't worry, we'll always be number one" and "No matter how quickly technology develops, there will always be a human in control." It served as a reminder to burgeoning technology concerning who its daddy was.

This is why there is so much more at stake with the Watson vs. Jennings and Rutter showdown this week. Watson has already won once, but if the humans can beat him tonight, we can all get one more good night of sleep knowing we won't be unceremoniously probed by our clock radios. If they get trounced again, Optimus Prime will be elected first ever President of the Universe.

So tonight shall determine our fate, fellow humans. Will we become captives to the things we take for granted in their rise to power? I can't stop imagining Watson, after obliterating our dork brigade, giving the order to "Unleash the metal hell," as every mechanized object in the studio sprouts teeth and appendages, skinning Alex Trebek alive. Or will we be one step closer to personal cake robot ownership utopia? Go, people!

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/media/humor courses at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and he's heard a lot about you. You can also check out his blog or find him on Facebook.

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