Common Sense from Robots?

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Hearing robot

Google has announced its first Artificial Intelligence research lab outside the US. It will be based in Zurich and, it is hoped, will finally produce a robot with common sense.

I hadn’t thought I would ever welcome such a prospect but there’s so little common sense about now that I realise that those of us who recognise it’s value know we need all the help we can get. Although it may mean, of course, that real human common sense will virtually disappear as have so many other senses we once had, and have no more.

I’ve thought for a long time that most people are losing their sense of hearing. I don’t mean by going deaf, like I am; I mean that, by walking around with things in their ears they don’t know how to listen to the world. I’m not criticising them—I do it myself with my Welsh language tapes. It’s an invaluable learning aid, but . . . .

A couple of weeks ago my gardener, who obviously keeps his ears open, began packing up early because heavy rain was on its way. How did he know?

“I heard the sound of the leaves on the trees at the top of the hill shaking in the wind.”

Similarly, navigational skills are being lost. We used to be able to find our way by the stars when travelling on a clear night. Travelling by day we used our combined senses, often walking from one church spire to the next; steeple chasing if we had horses. Then we had maps. Now we have SatNav. A robot tells us where to go and even the most macho man obediently does as he’s told.

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Seeing robot

Before I read about the Google lab I was going to blog about common sense anyway. I’ve been convinced for some time that our lack of common sense is closely connected to our lack of Christian knowledge and Christian faith. Argue about it how you like, no one can deny that above all, Christianity makes sense, time after time after time. Jesus Christ was blessed with abundant quantities of the stuff. That’s God for you. When He gives He gives abundantly and we squander it to our cost.

Which brings me to one particular bus in Leeds in 2012. If just some of the passengers on that bus had had those Christian virtues of tolerance, generosity, humour and common sense Doug Paulley wouldn’t now by fighting his case in the Supreme Court.

In case you’ve missed the story let me tell you what happened. Mr Paulley, in his wheelchair, wanted to board a bus in Wetherby to go to Leeds but the wheelchair space was already occupied by a mother with a pushchair. She was asked to move but refused, as she was legally entitled to do, because her child was asleep. The driver could only request, not compel. Mr Paulley felt this was discrimination and took the bus company to court.

I admit I was tempted to blame the woman, but I know nothing about her situation. Maybe the child had kept her awake half the night, and she had only just got him off to sleep. Perhaps her partner had just walked out on her leaving her a single mother with several other children. Who knows her reasons.

What I do wonder about is all the other people on that bus. What on earth was wrong with them? Did they sit there like dummies, gazing steadfastly out of the window in embarrassment? Did not one single person have the common sense to sort out the problem? It shouldn’t have been particularly difficult; it didn’t need any special talent; only a bit of understanding and sensitivity.

Someone should have given Mum a convenient seat so that she could sit with the child on her lap. In case the child was disturbed and cried some motherly old soul should have distracted the child. Someone else could have folded up the pushchair, while some tactful person told the mother how kind she was to give up her place to the wheelchair user. Mr Paulley would have felt positively welcomed on to the bus and they could all have continued on their way feeling good about themselves and each other.

What’s more, someone would undoubtedly have helped Mum and pushchair off the bus when she arrived at her stop instead of glowering at her and thinking how selfish she was. (Beams and motes come to mind!)

Four years on, costing goodness knows what in terms of lawyers’ fees and emotional stress, through the county court and an appeal court, the case has arrived at the Supreme Court. Depending on their decision there will, no doubt, be yet more litigation to ensure we behave like the warm, friendly, compassionate people we ought to be.

We used to learn how to behave like this in “Scripture” lessons in the dark ages when I was young. Miss Piggy, on Sesame Street, with her “Moi, moi, moi!” was a wonderfully amusing caricature—now she’s emulated as a rôle model. I have a horrible feeling we have only ourselves to blame.


Dog with pie dish


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Replacement robot dog



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