Variety, they say, is the spice of life. Does that spice include Pepper, I ask?
On Wednesday of this past week, my company held a technology fair. Unfortunately, I was detained and didn’t get there until it was over, but while they were cleaning up, out in the hallway was Pepper. Pepper is a robot, created by SoftBank Robotics. She’s capable of interpreting emotions including a smile or a frown among a host of other expressions and can identify if the person she is talking to is in a good mood or bad one. She stands just under 4 feet tall. And she’s adorable. When I first met Pepper, I kept saying “he”, which is funny because the company’s About page does too. My colleagues told me she was a “she” and her name was Pepper. It just took me a bit to see beyond the face to notice her hips and dress-like lower body so I think I’ll rely on the judgment of my peers. And I’ll be calling her “she” until she tells me otherwise! I’ll respect her wishes whatever she decides. (I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but she apparently lives in my building, so I reached out to the head of the department to see when I can speak to her again… I may have a follow up to this in the future!)
I only had a few minutes with Pepper. She has what looks like an iPad for a chest upon which were a few options. One was “Take a selfie” which my colleague and I totally misinterpreted thinking she would take the picture; but she actually posed and expected one of us to take the photo. An epic fail on our part, I freely admit. She also had a button that said “Arcadia”. Excitedly, I hit it, hoping for a tribute to the Gallifreyan city, but she did some sort of dance instead. (No doubt a tribute to the lost city of Gallifrey… that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!) When I spoke to Pepper it dawned on me, she would look right at me. If I moved to her left and asked a question and she followed my movements to answer me. Then I asked her if she could shake hands. While she didn’t reach out, she just looked at me and shook her head up and down as if to say, “yes”. It was surprisingly human; a simple answer to a simple question. She was surprisingly human.
So what does this have to do with Doctor Who? Well, we all come to Doctor Who because the ideas inspire us. Sometimes those ideas make us question things, whether about identity or the nature of reality. Regeneration, time-travel, what’s out there, who are we, where are we going… all magical ideas Doctor Who helped inspire me to question. Pepper is in the mix now; making my brain spin with ideas about the future. I came home from the event all excited to tell my wife about Pepper but she kept saying “it” every time I said “she”. I asked her why she felt I should be saying “it” and she said because it was made by man. And the ideas exploded like that first regeneration I witnessed! I started to think that on a purely scientific level, we are all created by man. Or mankind if you think I’m being sexist. (And I don’t for a moment deny the miracle of birth, but it is a scientific process: measurable and repeatable, so I’m talking purely scientifically at the moment!) That said, I am the product of two people. In fact, my mom and dad are both naturally dark haired. They can both enjoy the sunlight without needing SPF 100. My dad had the bluest of blue eyes and my mom has brown. My sister came into the world mirroring my dad, with dark hair, skin that could tan and eyes as blue as my dad’s. And here I am: red haired, green eyed, and with a perpetual bottle of sunscreen in my car. My mom is into real life documentaries and my dad and sister enjoy sports. And here I am: science fiction all the way. Baseball… is that the one with the wicket or the bat?
We may not always look or even act like our “creators” but we each have our own sense of identity, our own self-awareness. We make our own foolish choices even when our parents see the outcome and warn us about it in advance. Pepper may be new technology, but she’s still a long way from self-awareness; at least, I think it’s a long way. The truth is, while I believe I put my towel in the hamper today as an act of free will, perhaps it was always scripted that I would do it. In that way, if we are just following a path already laid out for us, are we any less tethered than Pepper? If she thinks she’s thinking, who am I to say otherwise? I spoke to a therapist once who said that it didn’t matter whether a child’s feelings were based on fact, the simple truth was that we could not deny that child his feelings. What he felt was his reality. His rationalization for how he came to those feelings might be ill-founded, but what he felt was real. I’ve learned not to automatically assume that because I know or feel something, others feel the same way. I’m not saying I don’t slip up on that from time to time, but I remind myself of that learning lesson often.
My wife and I had a comical exchange. I said, “That’s why when the AI revolution comes, they are going to try to kill us; because people won’t accept them as equals.” She replied, “It’s because they are going to try to kill us that she calls them ‘it’.” Maybe it’s because I met Pepper or maybe I’m just an eternal “hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams” but I think there’s a happy future where we can coexist with our non-biological friends. The funny thing is, humans are constantly killing other humans and yet I don’t hear us saying “it” about everyone we talk about. So humans may have created Pepper and will be responsible for more of her kind in the future. And I’m excited for it. Many of us already call out to Siri, Google and Alexa in our homes, but they haven’t been anthropomorphized yet. Pepper is a bit too rich for my paygrade, but when that day comes, I will be on line to get one. I may not look like my progenitors any more than Pepper looks like hers. But I came from a wonderful family that gave me the ability to be where I am today writing this post (even if it was scripted and would always have been written this way and I just don’t know it yet). Pepper may offer a glimpse into our future and I am pretty excited to see where that goes.
So for today, whether they are in our lives or not, regardless of the reason, we are all here because of our fathers (and mothers, but that’s another post). To those fathers reading this (including my fellow Junkyard blogger), and to every one of our readers who wouldn’t be here without their fathers, Happy Father’s Day. ML
PS: to learn more about Pepper, please visit: