Barbara J. King
In the movie Robot and Frank, made in 2012 and set in the near future, an elderly man named Frank (played by Frank Langella) is losing his memory. His adult son, concerned because his father lives alone, gifts him with a robot caretaker that is humanoid in appearance and prone to dialoguing with Frank. At first scornful of, and highly resistant to, co-habitating with a machine, Frank comes to consider this unnamed machine his friend.
Even when the robot reminds Frank that he himself is aware that he's not a person, and that his memory can be wiped without undue loss, Frank treats him as just that, anyway — as a person.
Robot and Frank's plot reminded me of something I witnessed about seven years ago when I attended a conference in Chicago at which Anne Foerst talked about the robot Kismet. When Foerst showed video clips similar to this one that showcased Kismet's ability to convey emotions, we in the audience responded audibly (oohs, aahs, laughter), as if we were watching a precocious child or some other clever person.
But why do we respond this way to robots? Like the character Frank in the movie, we grasp that robots do what their programmers want them to do. We know very well that we aren't interacting with persons — an assertion I make even as I'm keenly following a debate over the very definition of "person." As NPR reported on Tuesday, a fascinating legal case challenges us to think of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, as persons in their own right.
The answer to the "why" question about our drive to connect with robots must be an evolutionary one, I think, and thus not set apart from questions of chimpanzees' cognitive, emotional and behavioral similarities to us.
We humans, over millions of years, have been selected not only to communicate with, but also to want deeply to communicate with, other beings who share our world. Communication was and is intimately tied to cooperation and deception, to forging alliances and battling rivals, to tracking, hunting and domesticating other animals — to the reproductive success that is the name of the game in evolution. Nowadays that deeply ingrained drive spills over to include our interactions with machines. And a new study shows that chimpanzees display the same impulses.
Published online in the journal Animal Cognition, a paper by Marina Davila-Ross, Johanna Hutchinson, Jamie L. Russell, Jennifer Schaeffer, Aude Billard, William D. Hopkins and Kim A. Bard reports the outcome of testing 16 captive chimpanzees' responses to a doll-like interactive robot, 45 centimeters tall.
Robota, as the machine is called (and which to my eyes looks like a futuristic American Girl doll) is capable of moving her head and limbs in certain specified arcs.
Almost all the apes freaked out a bit when first introduced to Robota: their hair stood on end and they threw boxes around their cages. But all calmed down before the period of research testing began. Also before testing, the chimpanzees watched a human-robot interaction, enabling them to comprehend that the strange creature that had entered their world was capable of relating with others.
Here are the research results I found most intriguing. Robota, controlled by an experimenter at a distance from the chimpanzees, was made in the imitation condition of the experiment to copy the chimpanzees' head, arm and leg movements. In control periods, she instead moved randomly or in synch with the chimpanzees' movements but by activating a different body part, so that when the ape turned her head the robot would move her arm.
Chimpanzees who were imitated by Robota showed active interest in her for significantly longer periods than did their counterpart apes who were not imitated.
Also, the chimpanzees directly solicited interaction with the robot, by offering Robota toys and other objects, and reaching out to her.
Ross et al. write that their study "provides strong evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, respond with interaction-promoting behaviors to even the most rudimentary cues of an agent."
Even with a robot that hardly resembles a promising social partner, in other words, the chimpanzees became invested in setting up a kind of communicatory dialogue. And they, like humans who are imitated, responded positively when their robot partner copied their actions.
Humans and chimpanzees are animals who (along with others) have evolved to forge extensive and elaborate social connections. Now we and our closest kin, when offered the chance, extend those social circles to embrace newly created creatures that are, perhaps, at their own dawn of evolution as members of our society.
When you're making eight bucks an hour, which is pretty typical in the fast-food industry, it's tough to make ends meet.
And increasingly, the working poor are asking this question: Why am I living in poverty, even when I'm working full time?
That's the message that thousands of fast-food workers rallying Thursday in about 100 U.S. cities — from Oakland to Memphis to Washington, D.C. — want heard. A living wage in big cities is closer to $14 an hour, and it jumps to about $20 an hour for an adult supporting a child.
The protests are part of a growing campaign backed by a coalition of advocacy groups, religious organizations and union organizers aimed at raising fast-food wages to $15 an hour.
At at time when the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. economy are also the lowest paid, the issue of income inequality is on the lips of leaders worldwide.
And the image problem for the fast-food industry is exemplified by this online petition urging McDonald's chief executive officer, Donald Thompson, to cancel his order for another corporate jet until he pays all his employees a decent wage.
According to the petition, McDonald's just bought a $35 million luxury Bombardier jet for its corporate executives. Yet many of the company's employees make so little that they rely on public assistance to get by.
"It's not right to impoverish your employees while sailing above them at a rate of $2,500 an hour," reads the petition started by the Campaign For America's Future. "It's immoral to do it with a taxpayer subsidy."
In a recent study, economists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 52 percent of fast-food workers rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance programs, such as food stamps or Medicaid.
"Taxpayers are subsidizing the low-wage model of these employers, who are making record profits in some cases," says Dorian Warren, an associate professor at Columbia University who studies income inequality.
McDonald's didn't comment on the new round of protests Thursday. But back in October, a company spokeswoman told The Salt that McDonald's history is full of examples of individuals who worked their first job with the company and then went on to have successful careers — both within and outside of McDonald's.
As for the push from workers for higher hourly wages, McDonald's "does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchises," a spokeswoman for the company says.
But at the restaurants run by the company — less than 10 percent of the roughly 14,000 McDonald's outlets in the U.S. — the spokeswoman explains, "we pay salaries that begin at minimum wage, but range up from that figure, depending on the job and employee's experience level."
And according to an analysis by the financial information company Sageworks, many franchise operators are seeing significant increases in sales revenue.
Over the past four years, privately held fast-food restaurants have seen profit margins nearly double, Sageworks found, while the restaurants' labor costs have remained flat.
So what will it take to push up wages? Depends on who you ask.
Increasingly, politicians are under pressure to raise the federal minimum wage. The president made his case Thursday. And already, a patchwork of state and municipal pay hikes have been passed. For instance, New Jersey passed a ballot initiative to raise its minimum wage by $1 to $8.25 an hour. And many workers in the city of SeaTac, Wash., — home to the Seattle airport — will get a raise to $15 an hour.
"The federal minimum wage has lagged behind the rising cost of living for the past four decades," says Jack Temple of the National Employment Law Project.
According to Raise The Minimum Wage, a project of the National Employment Law Project, the minimum wage would be $10.74 if it had kept up with inflation over the past 40 years.
"Workers' backs are against the wall," Temple says.
But not everyone agrees that raising the federal minimum wage will fix the problem. "I would oppose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour," says Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute.
Such a hike in wages would lead to higher prices at the fast-food counter for all of us, Strain says, and employers would hold back on hiring. In addition, fast-food chains might replace people with new automated technology, which could be cheaper over time, he says.
Strain favors responses that wouldn't put the onus on business owners, such as an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit or other subsidies.
Otherwise, free market economists, say low-skill workers run the risk of being priced out of the job market.
It's true that the fast-food industry has given lots of young workers a start in the job market. In fact, the current CEO of McDonald's started behind the counter of a Michigan McDonald's decades ago.
But at a time when 70 percent of fast-food workers are in their 20s or older and one-quarter are raising children, the demands for higher wages are growing.
Dominique Pruitt makes her first appearance on Mountain Stage, recorded live at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, W.V. Pruitt grew up in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles, surrounded by professional musicians, including her parents. When she saw the John Waters film Cry-Baby as a child, she immediately became fascinated with all things '50s, though she grew to love the '40s and '60s, as well.
The result is a healthy respect for classic pop. Pruitt's new EP, To Win Your Love, pays homage to those vintage sounds, while remaining rooted in contemporary West Coast pop. Her stage presence exudes part Katy Perry and part Peg Bundy. She's backed here by her own band, which includes guitarist Travis Daggett, drummer Kevin Conroy, bassist Colin Dimeo and keyboard player John Muccino.
- "Won't Hold My Breath"
- "To Win Your Love"
- "He's Got It Bad"
World Cafe welcomes back Man Man for another whimsical and entertaining performance. The band brings the party, as it has throughout the nine years it's been making and performing music.
This episode was recorded live at The Porch At 30th Street Station in Man Man's hometown of Philadelphia. Ryan Kattner, who goes by the name Honus Honus, has been Man Man's frontman since the beginning; in a conversation with host David Dye, Kattner talks about the group's history. He also gives listeners insight into what inspired the dark 2011 album Life Fantastic, as well as this year's On Oni Pond.
- "Paul's Grotesque"
- "Pink Wonton"
- "Head On (Hold On To Your Heart)"
- "Born Tight"
Ronnie Smith, an American chemistry teacher who spent more than a year teaching at an international school in Libya, was killed in Benghazi on Thursday, The school's principal, Peter Hodge, tells NBC News that Smith, 33, was "very much loved" at the school.
"He was the most amazing person, more like a best friend or a family member," a student, 18, says.
The student added that for teenagers who were coping with the turmoil that has beset Libya, Smith was a motivator, telling them that they would be fine if they focused on their studies.
Smith was a native of Austin, Texas, according to that city's KXAN News. The AP reports that he was shot by unknown assailants as he jogged in the area near the U.S. Consulate, the site of an attack that killed an American ambassador and others in September 2012.
From Agence France-Presse:
"International School Benghazi director Adel al-Mansuri said Smith, who was married and the father of a two-year-old boy, had joined the faculty as a chemistry teacher late last year.
"Mansuri said Smith had been set to return home next week for the year-end holidays, but it was not immediately clear whether his wife and son were with him."
A look at Smith's Twitter feed shows his engagement with his students — his description on the account is "Libya's best friend."
The account also reveals Smith's life as a father and husband who jokes about being sent on errands by his wife.
His death provoked an outpouring of grief from the group Libyan Youth Movement, some of whose staff members were friends with the American teacher. The group tweeted today, "It is with a very heavy heart that we announce the death of Ronnie Smith." It also extended condolences and prayers to Smith's family.
According to its website, the International School in Benghazi follows a British curriculum and employs many teachers with international experience. It is affiliated with the GEMS Education company, a network of schools on several continents.
Student Lujain Beruwien, 16, whose family had moved back to Libya from Scotland, tells NBC News that Smith helped her adjust to Benghazi.
"Because I'm from the U.K. and he's from America we were always trying to outdo each other," she says. "It's really upsetting that he has died. The majority of Libyans want the country to develop, but the others are just trying to ruin things for everyone. We're not going to stand for this."
- "Paul's Grotesque"
- "Pink Wonton"
- "Head On (Hold On To Your Heart)"
- "Born Tight"