Robots Are Superior Buddhists, and Other News


On the Shelf

That’s a good robot.


  • Whenever someone asks me how I’m doing, I say, Good! The robots haven’t eradicated me or my species yet! I’ve been going on this way my whole adult life—but now Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who studies tech, has convinced me that my real fear isn’t the robots. It’s staring right back at me when I look in the mirror. “Western culture has some anxieties about what happens when humans try to bring something to life … What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us? And that concern isn’t universal, as other cultures have very different responses to AI, to big data. The most obvious one to me would be the Japanese robotic tradition, where people are willing to imagine the role of robots as far more expansive than you find in the West. For example, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori published a book called The Buddha in the Robot, where he suggests that robots would be better Buddhists than humans because they are capable of infinite invocations … Mori’s argument was that we project our own anxieties and when we ask: ‘Will the robots kill us?’ what we are really asking is: ‘Will we kill us?’ ”
  • The CIA tried for years to assassinate Castro—with a poison pen, an exploding underwater seashell (I’m not making this shit up), and a cigar tainted with botulism. It was only fair that the New York Times began drafting his obit in 1959: for a minute there it seemed as if he was not long for this world. Now the Times remembers its many false alarms: “The development of the Castro obituary is as legendary as the man himself. Countless colleagues—spanning many different technologies and platforms—have massaged it and passed the baton. Each of the many death scares gave us the opportunity to dust off the package and reassess our digital strategy based on ever-changing audience consumption habits and storytelling tools.” 

  • As the Trump Bummer (Trummer?) continues apace and fascism proliferates from coast to coast, where can a poetry reader turn for solace? Stephen Burt thinks you could do a lot worse than Yeats: “No other poet has captured so well the feeling of noble failure—of having lost an unfair fight—along with the feeling of conflict between serving a very flawed nation and serving the ideals embodied in art. Yeats wrote in defense of institutions, historical memory, and gradual change. He also wrote in defense of ideals, against a pragmatism so total that it toppled into defeatism … I am rereading him now not only for those laudable goals, but also for his own strenuous, chastened, even tormented ambivalence toward those goals, for his divided mind.”
  • Rob Arcand argues that we need a new kind of protest music, one predicated on noise and abrasion rather than on unwashed folk poets with acoustic guitars. “Protest music must build movements around the technological possibilities of global resistance—and across the world, new modes of electronic music have begun to do just that. Pushing the aesthetic boundaries that have long guided both dance music and R&B, artists like Lotic, Arca, and Chino Amobi have spent the last few years revealing new capacities for activism as much rooted in speculative digital technologies as in grassroots assembly. Leveraging ‘noise-sound’ as an expressive tool of dissent, such artists have flipped music’s most fundamental elements, pulling the violence of modern warfare into loaded audio weapons with sights set on larger reform.”