Bureaucracy: The Olympic Torch Bearer

petro-canada-torch1

Last year I attended a gathering where a gentleman, let’s call him Chuck, delivered a speech to us about an accomplishment he had made.

In 1988 Canada hosted the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.  As part of the celebration Canada’s state owned oil company Petro-Canada decided to sponsor the Olympic Torch Relay across the country.  How would the relay team be assembled?  By lottery.  All you had to do to participate in the Olympic Torch Relay was go to your nearest Petro-Canada Gas Station and fill out an entry form.  Relay participants would be drawn from among the entrants.  You could enter as many times as you wished.

Chuck lived in a small rural community, but it turns out our he was ambitious.  He was determined as a grade school student that he would participate in the Olympic Torch Relay.  He went down to the Petro-Canada Gas Station and picked up as many entry forms as the gas station attendant would allow, went home and began filling out entry forms by hand, one at a time.  Then he would go back to the Petro-Canada Gas Station and stuff all his completed entry forms into the entry box.

Chuck was determined.  Every day he would go to the Petro-Canada Gas Station and collect a ream of entry forms.  Everyday he would spend all his spare time filling out the entry forms one at a time by hand.  When other kids his age were spending their time with their families and friends, enjoying leisure time or participating in extra-curricular activities or sports, our speaker was filling out forms.

The entry form completion and submission routine went on for months.  Chuck’s family thought he was crazy, his friends thought he was crazy, his teachers thought he was crazy, the attendants at the Petro-Canada Gas Station thought he was crazy.  Then the day of the draw for the Petro-Canada Olympic Torch Relay participants finally arrived.  The draw was made and about a week later a letter arrived at Chuck’s home.  He had been drawn to carry the Olympic Torch as a relay participant.  Everyone was overjoyed.

The Olympic Torch Relay began during a Canadian Winter and it finally arrived at the point where Chuck would take the Olympic Torch from the previous Torch Relay participant, bear the Olympic Torch for a kilometer or two and pass it to the next Torch Relay member.  Chuck was dressed in the red and white Olympic Torch Relay uniform with the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics logo,  the Canadian Flag logo, the Olympic Torch Relay logo and the Olympic Torch Relay logo emblazoned on it.  However, it was bitterly cold, the relay schedule was very tight and physically Chuck was not only unfit, but considerably overweight.  However, no matter, Chuck received the Olympic Torch and jumped on the back of a snowmobile driven by a Torch Relay volunteer.  They crossed the snowy Canadian winter wilderness with God speed with Chuck holding the Olympic Torch high.  Finally, they arrived at the next relay point and Chuck jumped off the back of the snowmobile and passed the Olympic Torch to the next Torch Relay participant, who in turn jumped on the back of the snowmobile and continued onward.  Victory had indeed been sweet.

Now, let’s return to 2007 on the day this speech was being delivered.  Chuck completed his story and proudly displayed the Olympic Torch Relay uniform he had worn during his leg of the relay.  We all looked admiringly at it and thought about our own desire to carry the Olympic Torch that we had not attempted to realize.  And looked at a man who had had the courage to realize a dream.

Chuck stood before us proud, reserved and two hundred pounds overweight.  He now worked for one of Canada’s provincial governments as a senior bureaucrat.  He was a senior elected member of the organization of which his audience belonged.  He was also a member of the subdivision of the organization to which the audience belonged.  He does not believe in new members or in fact any members of the organization receiving a copy of the organization’s constitution, but knows it intimately.  He studies Robert’s Rules of Order intensely during organization meetings, but does not share this knowledge with the members, instead waiting to be called upon in an advisory role as Parliamentarian deciding for everyone what due process is.  Instead of rationally debating motions, he bellows out bombast like profanity.  When asked about ethics, he says his is winning.

So, what did Chuck learn from the example of Olympic Torch Relay?  First, he learned that sport and sportsmanship had nothing to do with the Olympic Torch Relay.  Second, he learned that the Olympic Torch Relay was a lottery, not based on merit.  Third, he learned that he could manipulate the outcome of the Olympic Torch Relay selection process by stuffing the ballot box.  Fourth, he learned to be a good bureaucrat legalistically filling out the same Olympic Torch Rleay entry forms day in and day out, neglecting family, friends, liesure, extra-curricular activities, sport and physical health.  Fifth, he learned that the Olympic Torch Relay had no physical fitness requirements at all.  He simply sat on the back of a gas poewered, internal combustion engine, polluting snowmobile so the organizers of the event could meet their schedule.  It’s a wonder that Chuck had the strength to hold the torch up for the length of his leg of the relay.

Chuck had learned a lot of lessons from the Olympic Torch Relay.  I believe that the Olympic Committee, Canada, the Petro-Canada Corporation and the Canadian Olympians should all be proud of what they accomplished.  They have produced an immoral, misleading, scheming, complex, inefficient, ineffective, inadequate, over-indulgent, imprecise and inaccurate bureaucrat who could die of any number of self-inflicted chronic health problems the next moment.  Although I’m sure he has a redeeming trait or two. They all deserve a medal.

Live the Dream.

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Ethics: Robots and the Vulnerable

This is an article that merits consideration by everyone:

robots-and-children

WASHINGTON – A BRITISH scientist is calling for immediate introduction of robot ethics guidelines amid surging use of the machines and concern about their lack of human responsibility while caring for children or the elderly.

In an article published on Thursday in the US journal Science, Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, argues that the steady increase in the use of robots in day-to-day life poses unanticipated risks and ethical problems.

Outside of military applications, Professor Sharkey worries how robots – and particularly the people who control them – will be held accountable when the machines work with ‘the vulnerable’, namely children and the elderly, stressing that there are already robotic machines in wide use such as the Japanese meal assistance robot ‘My Spoon’.

Robots could also soon be entrusted by parents to guard and monitor their children, replacing a flesh-and-blood nanny but posing potential problems in long-term exposure to the machines.

‘There are already at least 14 companies in Japan and South Korea that have developed child care robots,’ according to Prof Sharkey.

‘The question here is, will this lead to neglect and social exclusion?’ He said short-term exposure ‘can provide an enjoyable and entertaining experience that creates interest and curiosity’. But ‘we do not know what the psychological impact will be for children to be left for long hours in the care of robots’, he told AFP.

Experiments conducted on monkeys suggest there is reason for concern, Prof Sharkey said. Young monkeys left in the care of robots ‘became unable to deal with other monkeys and to breed’, he said.

With prices plunging by 80 per cent since 1990, consumer sales of robots have surged in the 21st century, reaching nearly 5.5 million in 2008, and are expected to double to 11.5 million in the next two years.

‘They are set to enter our lives in unprecedented numbers,’ said Prof Sharkey, expressing fear that an absence of ethical rules fixed by international bodies could mean the machines’ control will be left to militaries, the robot industry and busy parents.

The scientist also points to the remarks of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who he said predicted that ‘over the next few years robots may be a pervasive as the PC’, or personal computer.

‘We were caught off guard by the sudden increase in Internet use and it would not be a good idea to let that happen with robots,’ Prof Sharkey said.

‘It is best if we set up some ethical guidelines now before the mass deployment of robots rather than wait until they are in common use.’ He said it was vital that action be taken on an international level as soon as possible, ‘rather than let the guidelines set themselves’.

For Prof Sharkey, who has studied robotics for 30 years, such standards are compatible with the rise of robots, of which he is an enthusiastic defender. He stressed the benefits that robots can bring ‘to dangerous work and medicine’.

Prof Sharkey shrugs off doomsday scenarios in books such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot about the threatening interaction between robots and humans, or in movies such as the The Terminator in which robots take over the world.

Such story lines will remain firmly in the realm of fantasy, even as societies hurtle towards greater automation, he said.

‘I have no concern whatsoever about robots taking control. They are dumb machines with computers and sensors and do not think for themselves despite what science fiction tells us,’ he said.

‘It is the application of robots by people that concerns me and not the robots themselves.’ — AFP