Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

(almost) rise of the machines

Next week in Boston is the North American premiere of "Death and the Powers," a post-apocalyptic opera about a man, his family, and their 9 robots trying to puzzle out what it means to be human. The patriarch of the Powers family has decided to abandon his meatbag existence and upload himself to "The System," and his family must decide whether or not to join him in the digital aether. whoa

The show really does feature 9 semi-autonomous robots that interact with the human actors, and there's a robotic chandelier that creates music as it responds to human touch.

I was reminded of a Maker Faire that I went to in 2009 that featured a handful of Roombas, with webcam-enabled netbooks fastened along the top, acting out the classic socialist sci-fi play "R.U.R." , in which robots constructed to do all of humanity's work decide that they're stronger & smarter than their masters and stage a bloody overthrow of mankind.

The fact that actual "proletarian" robots were playing parts written as sci-fi metaphors for the proletariat gave the whole affair a strange and vaguely unsettling air.

And it's not just blue-collar work--they're starting to replace lawyers too. In January Blackstone Discovery used its computers to analyze more than a million documents, a process that would have taken dozens of lawyers months. They can do it faster because they're getting smarter:

The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.

Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

For example, it finds “call me” moments — those incidents when an employee decides to hide a particular action by having a private conversation. This usually involves switching media, perhaps from an e-mail conversation to instant messaging, telephone or even a face-to-face encounter.

And yet as the purportedly impressive Shakespeare-quoting RoboThespian shows us, maybe we don't need to worry about them quite yet.

The robot isn't quite faultless. Attempting to demonstrate its maths skills, Jackson asked: "RoboThespian, what is 2+2?"

"496," replied the beaming machine.

A Thoroughly Modern Opera, With Robots

Expensive Lawyers Replaced By Cheap Software

RoboThespian wows CeBit