Human robots

by Marcus Loane


Human beings are robots. To some that is obvious. To others it is an outrageous statement. Perhaps part of the problem is the image conjured up by the word robot. A better phrase would be that coined by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), we are "survival machines". Where we differ from most common conceptions of what a robot is, is that we are constantly being reprogrammed by our experiences. Robots of this type already exist although they have a long way to go before they reach human flexibility. Humans are very very complicated machines that respond to their environment in ways that are determined by their initial configuration and the sum of their experiences since then. The initial configuration could be thought of as either a single fertilised egg containing DNA, or a foetal brain at some arbitrary stage in its development. The distinction is not that important. The formula that determines how a human will respond in any situation can still be summed up as DNA + environment, or DNA + all_experiences_ so_far (+ randomness?). What else could possibly be part of the causation of any behaviour? Some people would say that this is trivially true and I would agree with them the statement does hide the amazing complexity of human development and decision making.

An optimistic view from this human robot

DNA + all_experiences_ so_far is what you are at any time in your life. What you are, all came from outside of you. You are a component of a bigger system, a node in an intricate web of causes and effects that stretches back to your birth and then back billions of years to include everything that resulted in your DNA. You should feel special because what you are will never again be repeated in our observable universe. What your conscious experience is right now, at this moment, is unique in the observable universe and a result of trillions of chains of causation which encompass the whole of evolutionary history through space and time. You should value each moment.

Life is gooey?

When we puzzle over our existence and search for meaning, I try to imagine some robot of the future becoming self aware and experiencing the same wonder and bafflement. It is hard to intuit but there is no essential difference between its surprise at being conscious and our own surprise at us being conscious. In popular imagination, biology is gooey. Slime and slither is the stuff of life and metal is not. That has been the case for a very long time but it is not written into the laws of physics. It is not surprising that we have the "life must be gooey" intuition because that is all our ancestors have ever experienced.

Those working in AI (Artificial Intelligence) have no problem thinking that complexity in silicon can lead to consciousness, not human consciousness, but consciousness nevertheless. To them it is obvious. It is not obvious but a very strong case can be made for it. If you are imagining a robot being infused with some magic consciousness spark, then you will have difficulty accepting machine consciousness. Instead visualise more and more capability produced by increasing complexity of circuitry perhaps due to exposure to an environment to interact with. That is after all what happened in you while you grew as an infant.

Living versus non-living

Even strict materialists often do not really consider the implications of materialism. It makes them uncomfortable. We are not in some profoundly separate category from the non-living (eg. rocks and stars). The living and non-living are part of the same universe, made from the same stuff and exchanging the same material. There is a continuum from what we call non-living material through simple self-replicating molecules to macromolecules, prions, viruses, bacteria, plants and animals. There is no line where we can say "that is non-living here" (self-replicating molecules) and "then it becomes living here". There is every gradation in between. Living and non-living are still useful categories like tall and short, but they are not two mutually exclusive sets.

The comfort of skin

Our bodies appear to have a boundary between them and the rest of the universe which is located at the skin. However appearances can be deceptive. The matter making up your body is lost and replaced all the time. Your body is made up of completely new stuff from that say, a decade ago. You are like the axe that has had three new handles and four new heads in its lifetime.

The ghost in the machine

So what is a self inside the human robot? I mean the self that seems to be the same person today as it was yesterday or a decade ago (I say "seems" because it is never exactly the same). The self and its memories are maintained through time by being encoded in neuronal wiring even if the materials making up the neurones are themselves replaced and recycled through time. It seems that information is preserved so information is important. The self is information (rather like a narrative) and ways of processing information. This has a very close analogue with software. Software is information that can be encoded in physical structures and it gets its meaning from how it relates to other components of the system. So what is the information that makes the self? Where did it come from? It is information from and about the environment and other selves pumped in through the senses. The explanation of self, as analagous to software, bridges the gap between the physical world and the mysticism surrounding the self. Both information and software are abstract yet they depend on matter to have any power. The ghost in the machine is not a soul, it is information.

Marcus Loane