Episode 35 – “The Mighty Casey”

This episode anticipates what would be an impressive achievement in artificial intelligence and robotics, the development and implementation of a robotic major league pitcher.  This machine, “Casey,” looks like a human, but is still a special purpose machine, designed to pitch competitively, to figure out the best pitch under the circumstances, and to deliver it. So it really is intelligent, goal driven, and beautifully coupled to its environment.

Once Casey is signed to the struggling Zephyrs, their fortunes reverse. Casey delivers, and his humanoid opponents can’t get on base. But an injury and subsequent hospitalization reveal, first to his physicians, and then to the baseball commissioner, that Casey is no ordinary pitcher. He doesn’t have a pulse because he doesn’t have a heart.

Implausibly, all Casey needs is a heart, or a functional equivalent thereof, to be allowed back on the field. But installing the robotic heart has an unanticipated consequence: Casey now has feelings, and with feelings, sympathy for his opponents. He simply cannot endure the thought that he is responsible for their failure.  Casey drops baseball to pursue social work!

The episode nicely introduces questions about the relationship between cognition and affect, reason and the passions. Without emotions, Casey is truly a machine. He simply executes the task of pitching. He does what he is told, and does it better than any human could. Once he has emotions, he can consider how he ought to employ his talents, and matters are no longer so clear.

The distinctions as they are made here are fairly crude, and their application is questionable. Could a being devoid of feelings really pitch as well or better than his major league counterparts?  Figuring out how to pitch requires some understanding of the beliefs and desires of the batter, and so requires some possession of what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind” on the part of the pitcher. Could Casey possess theory of mind in the absence of any affective states of his own?

Serling’s own interests may be centered more on the nature of sport. Baseball is an American game, a wholesome activity for players and spectators alike. But the affect-endowed Casey finds the game intolerable: To play it requires discounting the negative effects that one’s own successful play has on half the players on the field, one’s opponents. What does it say about us, that we never give the concerns of our opponents a moment’s thought, that we have no sympathy for them at all, that our success means their failure? Would someone with a heart really wish to engage in such activity?

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