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Season 15 | Episode 2

Man vs Machine

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Are new ideas and new inventions inevitable? Are they driven by us or by a larger force of nature? In this episode, we look at the things we make—from spoons to microwaves to computers—as an extension of the same evolutionary processes that made us. And we may need to adapt to the idea that our technology could someday truly have a mind of its own.

Comments [27]

The Canary from Seattle

The difference is that we have always been totally in control of the tools created. Now, however, we are creating tools that control US. Why would we want that? Or even allow it? Science, and society, must remember how to recognize germane boundaries, and WHY they are vital, while we still can.

Feb. 08 2018 02:20 PM
The Canary from Seattle

The difference is that we have always been totally in control of the tools created. Now, however, we are creating tools that control US. Why would we want that? Or even allow it? Science, and society, must remember how to recognize germane boundaries, and WHY they are vital, while we still can.

Feb. 08 2018 02:18 PM
Vincent Milot from Marshalltown, Iowa

The piece repetitive piece played at the beginning may have been reclaimed from the synthetic electronic, but I recall a couple decades back in Tegucigalpa,Honduras, a fixture of Central Park, this man who glumly stood plucking a carambola--a bow taller than he that was equipped with a single string. It produced a repetitive sound that was not a song or melody. There's a jicaro gourd cup that may affect the resonance or timber, but all I ever heard was a single note strummed over and over. I thought maybe if one dropped a coin or lempira somewhere near him (I can't remember a plate), that he might stir himself out of his revery (stupor...trance?) to play a song, but never worked up to the nerve to do so. He was there for years and then disappeared, probably along with an ancient anthropological treasure--a bit of rural culture displaced in a city too busy to notice until he was missed.

Dec. 09 2017 11:07 AM
Jan from Dundee

The last segment... Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what what people who believe in scientifically unprovable theory—nevertheless calling it a science—actually believe, rather than even considering a possibility of an intelligent creator.

Aug. 26 2017 02:19 PM
Andrew Sleeth from Raleigh, N.C.

I commend Robert Krulwich for actively challenging Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly in the final segment. All too frequently, contemporary broadcast journalists do little more than provide their subjects an uncritical public platform to espouse muddled thinking and flawed or invalid conclusions. Robert didn't let Johnson or Kelly off the hook, and it was evident from their reactions they were not only unprepared to be challenged, but discovered their own pop-theories incapable of positing compelling counter-arguments to his critique. Way to go, Robert!

Feb. 13 2017 08:43 PM
Bon from Oregon

To DAN.....Before the show started, they mentioned 3 times that some words may not be appropriate for younger listeners. You were warned or weren't listening....

Feb. 13 2017 05:05 PM
Dan from Virginia

I was riding in the car with my daughter listening to a story on radiolab about a woman who had worked as a picker for Amazon. Although the woman was talking out going around the warehouse gathering books, and other such mundane items, the interviewer kept suggesting that she was gathering dildos. I counted 8 times that he said this word. I was embarrassed not only for myself but also for the woman being interviewed. I can't believe you would allow this kind of sexual harassment by your reporter against someone being interviewed.

Feb. 12 2017 07:35 PM
Asano Sokato

"The system ... was mean at every turn and every way it possibly could be."
Jeff Bezos net worth: $71,200,000,000

Feb. 12 2017 02:46 PM
Fred in CT from CT

Last story reminds me of this Issac Asimov Sci Fi Short story, "The Last Question", from: I stopped reading scifi after that one. TLQ can be read online.

As an Amazonian, "They Know Everything".

Feb. 12 2017 02:28 PM
Cecelia from Dallas

Your story on man v. machine - the music segment reminded me of Philip Glass' Akhnaten. That opera also had a similar step progress.

Feb. 12 2017 01:15 PM
Jon from Tampa, FL

Apologies to anyone suffering through my thoughts, but the last segment is what happens when humans use their intellect in ways that are less than useful. Essentially, my point is that the gentlemen in the last segment have over-thought this construct that is our own evolution. By personifying "technology", they're attempting (unwittingly or not) to remove humans from having a sense of their own destiny. The examples discussed are nothing more than man's ability to conceive or makes tools. "Technology" is nothing more than a tool, created for an (not always) expressed purpose. What I take issue most with is that they've conflated these tools with the concept of life itself. There is the animate.. and then there is the inanimate. That's it. Thankfully Robert can't get past his spoon, and by sticking to the simple concept of a spoon itself, he accidentally (fruedian-ly?) condensed the entire topic back to the essence of man, at his/her most basic form - the creator or tool maker at his most basic moment, eating. It's only creepy when others are permitted to run wild with notions that man's creations will rule him, which is partially true. Other peoples tools, in this age, are capable of controlling your destiny. But it's not the tools consciousness that is acting, and we should already know that.

Feb. 12 2017 12:15 PM
Barbara Waldron from Virginia

Wow, the last segment of the show made me stop entirely what I was involved in.
What if our perception of "machine" evolves to something that is not physical, not material? According to this logical pathway, it is entirely possible. At that point, who/what will be the master and who the server? Very interesting...I can hear future conversations on this. Thanks for being inspiring and thought provoking.

Feb. 12 2017 12:11 PM
trphoto from Los Angeles

I would have added this link to my previous post about the "intelligence of plants", but the site's comment section doesn't seem to allow for later edits and such. Totally in keeping with this current show, here's an interesting take on the subject of plants, an article by Michael Pollan in the New Yorker regarding "The Intelligent Plant" and arguing that plants may in fact be an ideal inspiration for all aspects of human civilization and future technology. Quoting one scientist studying plants, Pollan says "plants hold the key to a future that will be organized around systems and technologies that are networked, decentralized, modular, reiterated, redundant—and green, able to nourish themselves on light".

Feb. 12 2017 07:20 AM
trphoto from Los Angeles

The guest who remarks that plants don't have consciousness obviously has a huge gap in his knowledge base, which seems important if he's going to then extrapolate to what he theorizes about technology. The remark is rather annoying in its anthropocentric view. We've been learning in recent years that many animals and plant life as well often have a "thinking process" or state of consciousness that we don't understand well yet. Then there's the mysterious notion of "quantum entanglement," which suggests a level of existential engagement at the most basic elemental level of all material life forms in the universe. So it's ignorant to dismiss the idea of consciousness in plants, even when more narrowly defining it as what we might call "self-consciousness," meaning reflective awareness of one's conscious existence. In any case, I'm not going to support a notion of consciousness that is simply based in ignorance--i.e., not within the realm of what we know at this point, and elevating the human experience to the highest level of any life forms on the planet. That is a value judgement as well as a delineation we're not qualified to make.

Feb. 12 2017 01:26 AM
Clay from United states

Phillip from Virginia: you seem to have entirely misunderstood the last segment. The two guests at no point said they believed technology to be sentient and even made a point to say that's not what they meant. The author used want to be provocative and because we really lack the language to communicate some of these ideas. The point being made was that technological evolution is subject to and directed by the same evolutionary pressures that drive biological evolution. That it is a natural, emergent process which is the continuation of a "thread" that reaches back to the beginning of the universe. That all knowledge is serial by nature and also more akin to an "organism" - one that we all feed into and are apart of, and that has evolved alongside humanity. There is no such thing as a truly novel thought or idea - all are built upon countless pieces of requisite or antecedent parts. New ideas emerge when this organism of knowledge manifests through a unique life experience.

Feb. 11 2017 09:16 PM

Imagine driving in the car with your 2 young girls listening to NPR and out of nowhere we're hearing "Dildo" How many times? I guess we missed the disclaimer at the beginning. Is this what it takes for a show to be "edgy". Oh Brother!

Feb. 11 2017 06:41 PM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara

Karl from Kihei meant to credit Steve Reich, not the diminutive liberal fireplug Robert Reich.

Have none of these jokers ever heard _Music for Eighteen Musicians_ or _Einstein on the Beach_ or _Koyaanisqatsi_? Just to name three very well-known pieces of acoustic music that made use of these techniques well over forty years ago?

So many segments of this show are jarring, in that they strike the listener in such a way as to make one believe that the hosts and all of the producers were - like Judy Holliday - born yesterday.

Feb. 11 2017 05:28 PM

Please acknowledge Steve Reich, not Robert Reich, for musical influence. At least The Dawn of Midi should credit his Music for 18 Musicians.

Feb. 11 2017 05:16 PM
Karl from Kihei Hawaii

Amazing programs, always. thanks!
Love the trance music and the creative approach. This mechanical sense in music has many predecessors not mentioned. At least the incredible work of Robert Reich might have been referenced, as he used the same cyclical technique and raised it to a symphonic height in the 70's.

Feb. 11 2017 03:47 PM
ellen from North Yorkville, UES

In this discussion about the natural path of technology, there's an obvious parallel with Darwinism, since each system responds to what exists to dictate what direction to go in next. But both of these systems leave out the question of whether any of this development makes things better or worse. Concepts like better and worse involve subjectivity and philosophy. Your guest today was talking about how life inexorably will evolve, yet I can't help but wonder, even with the totally objective universe at play here, why human development appears to have led us to the end of not just our species, but of all life on the planet and probably the life of the planet itself. It seems to me that the only way to fit that into this discussion would be to say that it would appear that once life develops on a heavenly body, it can only inevitably destroy itself and its host. Certainly technology appears to be taking us pretty much in the same direction, i.e. to the destruction of the human being as anything but subservient to its own responsive inventiveness, even to the point of its own destruction. I like hypotheses that take us far away into the universe; but it is hard to swallow, even for a healthy atheist, that life serves only the purpose of destroying itself. Would the dinosaurs, for instance, have evolved their own fatal flaws? I wonder.

Feb. 11 2017 01:48 PM
Thor Nilsen from NJ

The story of the fulfillment center's intense drive to squeeze every penny out of the workers is both unfortunate and not limited to that work environment. It's unfortunate in that there is a drive-to-the-bottom to maximize the profits with little to no thought given to having a work life balance. The minimum wage and low wage positions in factories also have these extremely difficult and punishing environments. For a brief period I worked in a packaging manufacturing facility (think BurgerKing Fries holders, Take out bags, and the like), minimum 10 hours per day with "crunch" times where people were expected to be available for 14 to 16 hours per day with little to no notice. It doesn't seem unreasonable that for the convenience of having paper towels delivered, the workers could have a a better work/life balance.

Feb. 11 2017 01:21 PM
Rural America from Maine

Not the point of the show but... I order paper towels online, and it's not out of pure laziness.

I live on an island, it is an hour boat ride to get out here, the boat runs three times a week.

With my amazon prime account I can get a case of paper towels without directly paying shipping or freight. We order enough to make the yearly subscription worth it. The case I order will last me a few months without spending 2 days paying for a hotel. Same goes for a variety of odds and ends that are more hassle than it's worth to acquire in a brick and mortar store. There is a hardware store that delivers a wide variety of supplies free of charge, but we do pay $2 a carton to the boatline (think small package of screws). If it comes ups, their contract covers that cost.

It is not a neccesity to order online, but it is definitely helps to have the option if I can't afford the time to travel a few days for a case of paper towels or otherwise "why would you ever need to order that online" supplies.

I could buy a years supply, when I do find the time, but I do not have the space in my house!

Just thought the perspective would lend itself to the conversation, i appreciate the perspective on the other end of my orders as well.

Feb. 11 2017 01:05 PM
Blaze Femur from Lawn Guylint, NY

Aubrey: The band is called Dawn of MIDI; the album is called Dysnomia.
Phillip from Virginia: You should look into emergence theory,
self-organization, and spontaneous order.

Feb. 11 2017 12:32 PM
Mike from Reno, NV

Regrettably I only heard the last segment this week. It was engrossing and fascinating and very easily one of the best things I've ever listened to on the radio. It made me think about many things differently. And while I may not completely agree with the guests yet, I have a much greater respect for spoons. Thanks for all the great work!

Feb. 11 2017 01:29 AM

The theory seems to be eerily possible.. it seems more philosphical to me, the idea that man's creations end up creating man, or helping evolve.. We do change, even if it's not on a species wide level, our habits and choices, technology we choose to spend time on, can alter our brain and selves, so naturally future creations would be affected.. wow! thanks for this episode!

On another note: how do I find the music from the beginning of the episode?? The improvisational jam sessions turned cd.

Feb. 09 2017 08:15 PM
Phillip from Virginia

I simply cannot believe in this evolutionary theory. The authors in the final segment seem to believe evolution itself is sentient and has a want or need of its own. It evolved us so that we could create higher forms of understanding for it to have, or use? It's silly.

Feb. 08 2017 10:54 PM
Leslie from California

Great story!! How come there's no share button?

Feb. 08 2017 03:40 PM

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