Thinking about robots

“Beida doesn’t even have a single robot”, Marie complained to me yesterday over a bowl of noodles. “Does Oxford have a robot?” I had to hang my head and confess – I didn’t know if Oxford had a robot or not. We had gotten onto the topic by way of discussing Avatar: “my subject is Artificial Intelligence”, she told me, “so when I watched Avatar I was thinking a lot about robots”. There then followed a 101 in what constituted a robot. I didn’t take notes and would flunk the exam, but I believe the gist is: a robot doesn’t neccesarily have to think for itself or have the ability to learn independent of human guidance, but it does need to be based on the model of man.

So were the ‘avatars’ in Avatar robots? (If you haven’t seen the film, these ‘avatars’ are human-created bodies of an alien species which can then be controlled by a human’s thoughts from afar, as if that human is the alien.) Don’t be silly, Marie chides me – they’re organic, even if human-made. The end product of a living breathing avatar which can perform complex functions under a human’s guidance isn’t ‘artificial intelligence’ … but the process by which the human’s thoughts are transmitted into the avatar does fall under the definition of A.I.

Confused? I certainly was when Marie added to the fray this gem of a sentence, this time in English: “monsters always beat robots”. Monsters vs. robots? Is this James Cameron’s next film, of which Marie has inside knowledge? Can I place an early bet? As it turns out, what she was going for was that beasts and the natural world can’t be conquered by machines – nature will always win. This, she felt, was the central message of Avatar. (And, without giving away the ending of the film, I agree – even if I consider that hope wildly over-optimistic.)

Marie and I are having noodles every evening this week to prepare for her spoken IELTS exam (International English Language Testing System) in early March, before the long Spring Festival holiday. Besides clarifying such essential vocab as “monster”, we practised grammar over her favourite choice of topic: the troubles of being a Chinese student. I have nothing but sympathy for her pronunciation issues, going as I am through the same ordeal the other way round. (“Do students not have free time over their holidays?” I ask slowly. Marie takes a confident breath and nearly shouts in indignation: “Absolutely lot!”) But she’s found a way to practise her listening and take a break at the same time: a new found love for Gossip Girl.


  1. But…can we call an organic system a robot? From what a standard definition of any AI textbook tells us a robot (or any machine) is mostly “a binary system” (or at least was till not so long ago) that is a very sophisticated bit of equipment that ‘thinks’ in “0111001…..”. What if that is how we think? Of cause, you would argue that binary systems can’t learn and their “thinking abilities” are the result of the original input. The studies of cognitive phonology, however, have proven to me that the rules of human speech and pronunciation can be (and are already) reduced into computer language with a hierarchic structure (e.g. with the help of original input a device can generate rules..!). The point is – we might be robots after all ^_^.
    P.S Is it true that a mountain in Hunan was renamed after Avatar’s Hallelujah Mountain? Official ceremony and all that??

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