I have nothing against humanoids or humans for that matter, but the world’s first Arabic-speaking interactive robot has no business to be named Ibn Sina, philosopher and scientist.
The United Arab Emirates University unveiled this marvel, developed by a team headed by a Greek expat, Nikolaos Mavridis, who said, “There is a number of things he can do on his own: answer a couple of questions, connect to the Internet to get information and show you things on the screen regarding what you want to buy. We’re very close to being able to get him to work as a receptionist or a helper in a mall.”
I understand the world is moving at a fast pace and we need non-humans to do our menial jobs, although it might help if the Emirates decided to take a good hard look at the way it treats its labour force that has been doing all this work for years.
My grouse against the Ibn Sina connection – and the robot is even made to look like him – is that it demeans the truly path-breaking work of a scholar. One can quibble and say that we have dimwits named Newton, so what’s the big deal? Those who name their children after great people do so out of respect or to bask in reflected glory or as attention-getting devices. No one expects their offspring to transform into those people. Here, the report calls Sina (Avicenna in English) a “character”.
The reasoning is immature, to say the least:
“Given all the growth that is happening right here at this moment, it’s important that apart from building the largest tower in the world and all of these beautiful buildings, to try to do something that has to do with scientific and intellectual achievements,” Mavridis said.
What is intellectual about a robot, that too one who will be used as a shop assistant or to connect you to the Net? How dare they suggest that Sina was the inspiration “in order to bring back his values to our students ... He brings together a lot of traditions, ancient and more recent traditions”.
The students are using the robot as a guinea pig; they are not learning but experimenting on it. It is a character and they can alter and tamper with it whenever they wish. They created this creature to test their scientific mettle (it is a skill, not necessarily based on any scientific understanding), and not to imbibe any values.
We have too much of this hogwash about ancient and modern traditions. The modern is not a tradition, for it can change. The least that intellectual upstarts can do is learn to respect history instead of trying to imitate it superficially by mauling it out of shape. If they need to be contemporary, it might help if they did their own shopping. This attempt at dumbing down Ibn Sina is as bad as flaunting a Barbie.
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Here is an entry on him, the man not the robot:
George Sarton, an early author of the history of science, wrote in the Introduction to the History of Science:
One of the most famous exponents of Muslim universalism and an eminent figure in Islamic learning was Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna (981-1037). For a thousand years he has retained his original renown as one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history. His most important medical works are the Qanun (Canon) and a treatise on Cardiac drugs. The 'Qanun fi-l-Tibb' is an immense encyclopedia of medicine. It contains some of the most illuminating thoughts pertaining to distinction of mediastinitis from pleurisy; contagious nature of phthisis; distribution of diseases by water and soil; careful description of skin troubles; of sexual diseases and perversions; of nervous ailments.