Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Animals, Humans and Robots

As scientists and engineers continue working on the human-controlled evolution of robots, it becomes important to try and discover, if they exist, those aspects of people that are unique to them and that robots can never imitate.  This is particularly important today, because for some of the creators of robots, one gets the feeling that they are playing God in the evolution of a new race of robots that will be everything humans are already and, in some ways, even superior to humans.  This is shown by the scientists and engineers who create robots to do things that imitate human behavior but that aren’t intrinsically in the service of humans like playing chess or having basic conversations.  In truth, even with regard to those robots that are created just to serve humans, the robots may be inadvertently moving into experiential territories that diminish the uniqueness of humans.  For instance, robots who take care of older people.  This is why an attempt has to be made to develop a conceptual firewall that will keep robots out.

To do this, I would like to work with two conceptual frameworks that have appeared previously in my writings.  First, there is the theme of configurations of stimuli and phenomena.  At this point, I would like to review two models I’ve used in the past.  Grounded phenomena are phenomena that tend to blend with other phenomena: water, clay, earth, lava, grasslands.  Figures tend to have defined boundaries and tend not to blend with other phenomena.  Any distinct object, plant, animal or person fits this category.  Vacuum is the spaces between different figure and ground phenomena.

Continual stimuli are stimuli with indeterminate borders and with blurry beginnings and endings: a wave, a legato sound from an organ, the taste of chocolate, the smell of perfume on a woman.  Discrete stimuli are stimuli with determinate borders and with crisp beginnings and endings: a line, a dot, a staccato sound from a drum, a puff of air.  Continuous stimuli are stimuli with no beginning and no end.  The total darkness in an unlit basement and the soft hum in total silence are examples of continuous stimuli.

Animals are figures that are still highly connected to their grounded environment.  Their minds operate on the basis of a relatively few instinctual determinate discrete stimuli and a lot of intermingled indeterminate continual stimuli that produce gross responses.  Domesticated animals operate on the basis of more discrete stimuli than their wild relatives as a result of human training.

Now some people at this point might wonder where I have the evidence for these statements.  Basically I am postulating the existence of a kind of stimuli that are not subject to the precise study, measuement, classification and control that determinate crisp stimuli are.  Scientific studies have difficulty working with indeterminate stimuli.   Science tends to look at anything blurry as somehow not real and substantive.  Blurry is perceived as a deficient focus on the world.  When it can, science will convert blurry stimuli and ground phenomena into crisp stimuli and figures, and in doing so, it distorts them.  But as long as we experience blurry stimuli, frequently in the process of trying to make a precise focus, then they have real and substantive value.

Returning to animal minds, my map is based on soft empiricism and inference.  Animals do have structured behavior, but not of the complexity of humans.  Humans, with their cerebral cortex, balance the continual stimuli they experience as animals with many more discrete stimuli.  Humans use the discrete stimuli they experience in the world and in their minds to build an environment filled with a lot of figures and defined surfaces.  As human history unfolded, humans developed the increasingly complex figures of industrial machines, computers and robots as well as the hard laminated surfaces of modern technological living environments.  They became increasingly surrounded by sources of discrete stimuli rather than the natural grounded sources of continual stimuli necessary to activate and keep alive their more primitive fundamental animal nature.  For humans, unlike animals, are not so immersed in the grounded phenomena of nature and the continual stimuli it produces. They rise above nature and become more distinct from it than animals.  And yet unlike robots, they do have a grounded base, they are still partly activated by blurry continual stimuli.  Robots are activated by mechanical discrete stimuli.  Granted that there are attempts today to combine robot parts with biological parts, it is still important to note that the robot parts are still operated by complex mechanical signals that at their base are still discrete signals.

The other conceptual framework within which I want to work for distinguishing humans from robots is the framework of imprint theory and purposes for existence.  Just as the cerebral cortex of humans allows them to focus on and create more figures and discrete stimuli, so it allows humans to be conscious of their own mortality and to prepare for death by preserving a lot of the imprints they make.  Animals can leave imprints in very basic ways like having offspring and marking their territory.  But this pales beside the complex imprints made and preserved by humans.  Humans create complex cultures, societies and civilizations.  They create art, artifacts, monuments, ideas and the means for preserving these ideas in tangible form.  Humans create preserved imprints and they create vessels for containing and protecting these preserved imprints like museums, galleries, libraries and archives.  But the important thing to remember is that all these preserved imprints start from vulnerable human imprints that are made by the human mind sometimes initially to feel richly alive and sometimes directly to prepare for death.  There is an organic beginning to these imprints and a human mental beginning to these imprints.

And part of the content of these imprints is the continual stimuli emanating from the structural coherence in the mind that allows the imprints to have meaning.  The very notion of an imprint as opposed to simply a mark implies a mind that coheres together because of internal continual stimuli.  Because robots are activated by discrete stimuli, the foundation of engineering, they really leave marks rather than imprints.  In previous essays, I have talked about robots leaving imprints, but I was only talking within such perameters to emphasize that a particular mark was made by robots rather than humans.  But, in truth, robots make marks on their external world, while humans make imprints.  As complex as robots get,  their mechanical robot parts will never have the human base of continual stimuli to give them consciousness and an unconscious, and the blurry dreams that lead to concrete plans that lead to the development of complex imprints in society, culture and civilization.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Purpose of Work in Modern Technological Society

What is the purpose of work?  The answer may seem obvious, but maybe work is more than what it seems to be in modern industrial society.

The answer for most people in modern industrial society would be to make a living so that they can survive economically.  By surviving economically, I mean to produce goods or services, so that one can survive materially.  There are people who enjoy their career, but for most people today, their life is where their work is not.  Sometimes, they have to work constantly simply in order to survive, and therefore have little or no “life“.  Whether it is some of the time or all the time, work for modern industrial people is mostly to make a living.

Nevertheless, I would say that there are other equally important purposes that are not being satisfied for most people in today’s industrial world.  First, there is work as a vehicle for rich vibrant experiences.  In the old days, work provided the opportunity for a person to engage the world in stimulating ways.  This was possible because there were a lot of experiential surfaces available for organic imprints.  In saying this, I am aware that life could be nasty and brutish for many as, for example, peasants confronted a multitude of hazards from the socio-political environment as well as natural environment.  In terms of the natural environment, the grounding of nature contained a lot of partly differentiated figures like wild animals, poisonous plants, diseases and dangerous weather and geological phenomena as well as difficult rocky terrain that could make life difficult.

But even with these problems, work closer to nature had rich vibrant experiences intermixed with the dangerous ones which allowed a person to feel intensely alive.  Engaging with the external natural world generates wonderful feelings that are not reducible to anything else.

Work has also provided the opportunity to prepare for death.  In preliterate societies, many sacred artifacts are passed on from generation to generation.  My home town, Chicago, was known for having a totem pole from the Northwest Coast Indians on the Pacific coast of the U.S. and Canada.  It was in a park, and it was a landmark where many young people used to gather.  However, it was a sacred totem pole, and the tribe wanted it back.  Chicago very graciously gave the totem pole back to the tribe, and the tribe gave Chicago a new less valuable totem pole to replace it.  The older totem pole was a sacred artifact, a preserved imprint, that the tribe wanted to keep.  Many civilizations have produced all kinds of preserved imprints:  monuments, castles, churches, buildings, works of art, written music, books, written law, constitutions, and roads.  These involved work that went beyond present economic survival.

For Americans, like other modern pioneer peoples with a Protestant work ethic, work became a mixture of economic survival, rich vibrant experiences  and a strong desire to prepare for death.  Americans enjoyed the experience of engaging with their physical surroundings.  But while they experienced the rich vibrant experiences engaging with their surroundings, Americans wanted to conquer the surroundings and be transcendent over them.  In the process, many of the organic imprints that were made in the rich vibrant experiences, were also fixed in a photographic sense or preserved.  As America evolved, it became very successful at developing technology to help it preserve the imprints it made.

Like making imprints, preserving imprints is a distinct purpose from economic survival.  People like to know that some of their work efforts will remain in some form, even after they, the people, perish.  Work has been a major vehicle for preparing for death.

During the early years, Americans engaged with the basic materials of the world like more traditional peoples and made durable things with tools as carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, weavers and potters.  But as they have evolved, Americans have been so successful at preserving imprints, creating whole technological living environments, that it is more and more difficult to find organic surfaces to act as templates for future rich vibrant experiences.  And there are fewer opportunities for leaving meaningful preserved imprints.

We are left with the idea of work for financial survival.  Factory workers work with industrial machines; office workers work all the time with computers.  Factory workers provide mass produced, machine imprinted products.  Office workers work with preconfigured formulaic contracts and forms to provide impersonal services.  Making as much money as possible through products and services becomes a substitute for the lack of rich vibrant experiences and lack of opportunities to leave meaningful imprints.  And actually those people who do a lot of their work on computers take their office with them when they leave their office.  Or else their computers simply become their offices.  So they never have to leave work.  And there is little to life beyond this work.

But because it is work primarily for economic survival and not for making and preserving organic imprints, it is work that is depleting rather than reenergizing.  And it is work that exists outside of a meaningful life cycle that focuses on patterns of making and preserving imprints.

One other angle from which to examine modern work: because modern work is not very involved with making or preserving imprints and because it involves intimate interaction with machines and computers that mirror and model for humans, modern work tends to convert humans into robots.  We deal with the ungrounded, free-floating figures of machines and computers in the experiential vacuum of modern technological living environments.  We deal with the free-floating figures of tons of discrete defined data within the vacuum of a computer screen and with a lack of a larger cognitive context for this data.  It is these ongoing technological experiences that lead people to think of themselves as being “wired” like machines.  And the machine becomes the model for how we view our mental and physical organization as humans within the framework of science.  And we become more what we think we are.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mirroring and Modeling in Modern Technological Society

An important theme in the history of Western Civilization has been the increasing domination over natural environments through technological development.  This flow of improving forms of technology not only enables humans to rise above and separate themselves from the perishability caused by wild animals, poisonous plants, diseases and climatological and geological catastrophes, it also allows humans to pull themselves away from the inadvertent mirroring and modeling that occurs with the interaction with natural phenomena and, in particular, with wild animals.

By mirroring, I am referring to how different natural phenomena reflect back certain characteristics that a person then sees in himself.  By modeling, I am referring to how a phenomenon, through certain characteristics acts as an idealized version of what a person aspires to be consciously or unconsciously through emulation.  Both of these terms are customarily used in modern psychodynamic psychology to refer to relationships that an individual has with parental figures.  The focus is on how parental figures mirror a person and how parental figures act as models or are turned into models for a person.  But I feel that a controlling psychological influence can issue from any powerful phenomenon, even when a person thinks he is standing apart from it.  The influence leaches out, even from phenomena held at arms length.  As long as the phenomenon has a sustained presence in the person’s experiential neighborhood and has active complex processes, it can end up being a mirror and/or a model.  This is true for phenomena like animals, natural climactic and geologic phenomena, and complex machines.  It is also true of subject peoples or individuals who can have a very strong indirect influence of mirroring and modeling on the dominant peoples or individuals.  A subject person can be a very good analogy for a “subject” machine that also caters to the wishes of its master.

Anyway, people in traditional organic environments naturally became and aspired to become like the natural phenomena that surrounded them.  In most cases, these natural phenomena represented potential dangers.  By incorporating some of the traits of these natural phenomena, people could then protect themselves against the dangers.  The people would end up having their own strengths as well as the strengths of their adversaries.  The incorporation of these phenomena occurred through religious practices:  animals were anthropomorphized into totems who protected clans within tribes.  In some early civilizations still close to nature like Babylonia and Egypt, animals were combined with human beings to become gods.  Various inanimate natural phenomena were anthropomorphized into deities in Babylonia and Egypt as well as other polytheistic religions like those of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Norse.  The sun, the moon, the sea, the sky, agriculture, thunder, the earth among others were all incorporated into the gods of these polytheistic religions.  To the extent that these phenomena mirrored people, it was as if certain traits naturally leached into people’s minds and behavior.  To the extent that natural phenomena were models for people, people aspired consciously or unconsciously to become more like certain traits of certain phenomena in their living environments.

As Western cultures industrialized and modernized, people from them looked at people from certain more traditional cultures as “savages” - people who were still immersed in living environments with wild animals and other potentially dangerous phenomena, and who, to survive, had seemed to take on some traits of these potentially dangerous phenomena.  According to people in the West, “savages” were not people who had evolved into a more culturally transcendent state where they could hold themselves away from the seemingly wild uncontrollable phenomena that surrounded them.

So “civilized” Westerners became more and more separated by their increasingly technologized living environments from the leaching influences of the dangerous phenomena from traditional organic environments.  In terms of my previous models, these phenomena could be categorized as incipient figures: figures rising into differentiation from the undifferentiated and undifferentiating aspects of a natural environment that swallowed up perishable phenomena through decay and rot.  Violence was a way by which many people in traditional preindustrial organic environments could psychologically separate themselves to some extent from organic living environments that threatened to swallow them up.  Violence is sharp and direct and focuses the mind and makes it more defined.  It was a way that humans could imitate some of the totem wild animals and anthropomorphized natural phenomena and create strong psychological boundaries and fight perishability.  The irony is that “civilized” people have continued to behave with agression and violence but in more mediated ways.  As modern technological society continues to move people away from natural environments, guns and bombs allow people to express the violence of animals but in more transcendent ways.  The influences of animals and machines come together here as we transition to a more and more technologized society.

In modern technological living environments, humans have succeeded in separating themselves, to a great extent, from the ongoing perishable tendencies found in traditional organic living environments.  They live in sanitized environments with laminated surfaces free from decay and rot.  They no longer have wild animals present except in zoos, and most dangerous natural phenomena like lightning and floods are kept at a mediated psychological distance from most people.  Earthquakes and hurricanes are somewhat the exceptions, but modern technological cleanup and rebuilding responses are relatively swift and thorough.  Today, people feel fairly safe from natural danger in their technological evnironment.

But there are the dangers that we have discussed related to sensory distortion.  These are the new dangers that people have to deal with in modern technological environments.  And just as people would identify with totemic animals and anthropomorphized natural phenomena to survive in traditional organic environments and use mirroring and modeling to do this, today people are unconsciously beginning to identify with modern complex machines - computers and robots - to survive the dangers of modern technological environments.  Modern complex machines mirror and act as totemic models for humans.  Computers, smart phones, and video games.  According to Dr. Jorge Cappon, a well-known psychoanalyst in Mexico City and professor emeritus at the UNAM, we surround ourselves with different brands and different models that correspond to different totemic animals.  For example some people swear by Macs, others by P.C.’s.

And as we immerse ourselves in these different consumer machines, we begin to take on the traits we experience in them.  We think we have control over them, but through our interactions with them, they indirectly shape us.  The influence from them leaches out.

Just as before in traditional living environments, there are phenomena that reshape us into becoming not-fully human beings.  In the traditional living environments, there was the threat that we would imitate too much the animals and other natural phenomena that filled our environment.  There was the threat that we would become wild and unregulated.  Today, the problem is that we are imitating too much the computers, robots and other high technology phenomena that surround us now.  And as long as we regularly interact with such phenomena, their influence will continue to leach out.  Instead of being wild and unregulated, today the threat is of our becoming numb and remote and losing our social connection to other people.  Computers and industrial machines make it possible for people to be available for work 24/7.  We get drawn into the rhythms of the technology that surrounds us and with which we interact.  We move in pace with the discrete well-defined processes that require our involvement to complete tasks.  Today, instead of having to worry about sliding into becoming “savages”, we have to worry about becoming androids or cyborgs.  And society is not providing a concerted effort to break the slide in any way.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow