Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Why I should be more like a robot

The book that has caused me most thought recently is "Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds" by David McFarland, an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.

The early chapters especially have been fascinating and fun to read (the later chapters are well-explained accounts of various complex and contradictory theories of mind).  But the first thing that came out of this book for me is the thought of how useful it would be occasionally to look at ourselves as alien minds.

For animals and robots, and also presumably for people, there is an optimal balance between energy expanded and the gain accrued.  McFarland describes a cycle: Work -- Find fuel--Refuel.  To be efficient this cycle must maintain a balance between E (energy) and M (merit, money, marketability, or other gain).  What struck me most forcibly about this is that two parts of the cycle are to do with fuel.

Hmm!  I love eating and I loathe shopping.  Neither of these do I accomplish in a balanced way.  Sometimes I will eat too much of a particularly tasty food and at other times when I am engrossed in my work I forget to eat.  Because of my dislike of shopping my fridge is either overfull or almost empty.

Such a woefully inefficient robot I would be.  In this scenario, what McFarland calls the "decision variables" are too haphazard.  A robot would have been programmed to make the "decision" to refuel at the optimal time.  If it did not do so it would break down and be recalled for a service, or up-dated, or re-programmed or scrapped.  I wonder if I could re-programme myself to make decisions regarding fuel at the optimal times.  Some strategies I try already such as shopping on the way home from work, but I am often too tired or hungry to make sensible choices; or making a list of items which need replacing before they run out, but I am often interrupted by more immediate demands; or shopping via the internet, but I become irritated by prompts about special offers.  

Either I need a robot to shop and cook and remind me to eat so that I can get on with my work, or I need to be more like a robot myself.  Robots do the tasks they are designed to do and only those tasks, so in this way robots are superior to most humans. I write that quite tongue in cheek, but I do think we could use knowledge of robotics to inform and improve human behaviour.

Let's start with the idea of servicing the mechanism.  A well-serviced robot will move and work to optimum efficiency.  On this basis a human being might need certain medical checks, a regular inventory of mental capacity and a check on the pressure gauge of the emotions.  My guess is that while many people are careful about medical checkups few of us ask ourselves whether our minds are working to full capacity and whether our emotions are being released or contained appropriately.

I do not just mean memory when I refer to mental capacity.  I include the capacity to reason logically, the capacity to take account of different points of view, the capacity to evaluate risks, the capacity to formulate plans of action and to decide on the one most likely to bring the desired outcome, the capacity to accept that there might be a better idea, the capacity to abandon a false theory, the capacity to learn a new skill or a new way of thinking, and the capacity to wonder and be amazed.  Until now I have not asked myself how well I do these mental tasks.  I have not so far attempted to service my brain in order to reach optimum efficiency.

As to servicing my emotions.  Well, apart from being pretty good at knowing what I am feeling and being eager to tell my nearest and dearest all about that, I have only paid real attention to my emotions when they cause me pain and distress or when I suddenly realise that I am happy.  A full service would require me to make decisions about which emotions like irritation, frustration and disgruntlement are wearing away my capacity for emotional balance, like a stone in a wheel.  It would require me to refill my capacity for contentment, pleasure and enjoyment.  Most of all it would require me to check the brakes on emotions like disappointment, self-pity and dissatisfaction.

Our emotions are at the centre of our attitudes.  We are prejudiced against what we fear or dislike.  We are in favour of that which pleases us, and fits with or enhances our self-image.  We often refuse to accept information which does not fit with our established perception or attitude.  Our attitudes cause us to make ridiculous statements like 'all Xs are selfish ', or 'Ys never understand ', or 'Zs always cheat'.  It is our attitude that misleads us into claiming a truth when we are expressing a belief or an assumption.

I believe that we can service our mental capacities through regular checks and challenges and by opening our minds.  And we can service our emotions through balancing our expectations and controlling our impulses.  It is our attitudes and assumptions that are most often in need of up-dating or reprogramming, and some of them need scrapping.

Our attitude formation begins before our mental capacities are fully developed and before we understand our emotions.  Our attitudes are our most long-held beliefs about the world and its people.  If I set out to reprogramme my attitudes I must examine myself in relation to the world and change whatever assumptions and beliefs need to be changed.

At last I have found something that I can do and a robot cannot.  However sophisticated robot technology is now no robot to date has self-awareness, self-consciousness or subjectivity.  It can plug itself into a reprogramming system but that system has been designed by a human mind.  Everything a robot has is part of the design, so it might seem to have the capacity to make decisions and to "change its mind" but that is built in by the designer.

Because you and I are human we have our own measure of self-awareness and our own measure of willingness to change and develop.  I do want to learn from robots and I shall carry on trying to change and develop, but into a better person not a robot.  

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  I would appreciate your thoughts in response.   And if this has stirred up thoughts about free-will and determinism feel free to start off a discussion here.