Who remembers Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.
The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.
So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Current Events, Higher Education, Just for Fun, Posts, Robotics, Science
Tagged Boston University, instinct, reductionism, Rich Barlow, Robotics, Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, Walle
Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.
I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.
Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.
Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see
A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.
An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.
I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Evolution, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged common sense, death, Evolution, Gilligan's Island, Jeffry Kluger, reductionism, The Mystery of Animal Grief, Time