Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On The Road With A Robot

            Traveling by thumbing for a ride or hitchhiking, as it is commonly known, has just taken on a whole new dimension with the invention of a hitchhiking robot.  This hitchhiking robot or hitchBOT, which is cute and adorable at least in robot terms, in order to obtain rides, is discussed in an article in the online magazine Live Science by an associate editor, Elizabeth Palermo.  Just look at the title of the article:  “Pull Over, America!  This Adorable Hitchhiking Robot Needs a Lift” (7/21/15).  This robot has already crossed Canada hitchhiking, and is now in the process of crossing the U.S., where it will visit places like Times Square, Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon.  It is the foundation for an experiment exploring “the culture (and limits) of human kindness, as well as the current state of artificial intelligence.”

            The notion that how humans treat robots is an index of human kindness is an interesting one.  Are humans supposed to be good to a robot the way that they would be good to a human?  HitchBOT has been programmed to be able to engage in small talk with humans.  This sounds like a fairly complex programmed capacity.  But the fact that the hitchBOT can process basic social statements and come up with appropriate somewhat formulaic responses doesn’t mean that it has a core sense of self.  A hitchBOT turns a statement from a human into a defined discrete stimulus, a denotation without any secondary blurry connotations and flowing blendable continual stimuli.  Then its complex software comes up with a statement that is a direct response to the denotative literal meaning within the human’s statement.  It is like the hitchBOT is mentally solving a puzzle to come up with an answer that falls within a narrow gamut of denotative correctness.  No multiple meanings, no layered meanings, no blurry meanings.  None of the kind of statements that give human communication its richness, subtlety and depth.

            Being kind to another human implies having communication on multiple levels, layered levels, levels that blur into one another.  This is how flowing blendable continual bonds are formed between humans.  Kindness implies a flowing blendable continual expression of goodness to another person, an expression of goodness that is at least partly based on an understanding and appreciation that is built on communication and that consists of connotations as well as denotations.  Without this broad gamut of meaning within a communication, it would be hard to create the foundation for kindness the way one would display it towards another human being.

            One might ask how this squares with the kindness that humans show towards animals, particularly pets.  Dogs and cats don’t have complex verbal communication, but they have a broad spectrum of emotional communication that they display, based on their vocal sounds and their body gestures.  They create flowing blendable continual stimuli with their behavior and as animals, they use this behavior as the basis through which they draw humans to bond with them.  Also, dogs and cats do have primitive senses of self.

            As previously stated, the experiment with the hitchhiking hitchBOT was also meant to explore the current state of artificial intelligence.  Artificial intelligence is another way of saying the ability for a robot to solve the problems that a complex behavioral entity might have to encounter during the course of its daily activities.  For the hitchBOT, there are primarily social and linguistic problems with which to deal.  A human hitchhiker has a lot more mental activity going on than simply the social and linguistic skills involved in engaging in conversation with drivers.  The hitchBOT has a camera that takes a few pictures every twenty minutes to record where it has been, but a human hitch hiker is constantly observing a flow of imagery from the windows of the vehicles in which he rides.  This flow of imagery can stimulate associations in his mind – memories of places he has been in the past, experiences that he has had.  For that matter, different drivers can stimulate comparisons with other people he has known.  This mental capacity to juxtapose images, present and past, represents an ability to make symbolic connections.  The past place and the present place, the past experience and the present experience, the past person and the present driver or other passenger – in each of these parings, there is a tendency for these images to blur together into the present image.  The present image somehow starts to represent the past image in the hitchhiker’s mind.  This ability to make sophisticated symbolic connections is a fundamental part of human consciousness and something that is not a part of the digital functioning of a robot.  In addition, a human hitchhiker is constantly strategizing about where he wants to travel, what he wants to see when he arrives different places, and what he plans to buy and to eat.  In other words, he is planning for the future in a detailed way.  This is also something that is not a part of the digital functioning of a robot.

            The article mentions a second set of purposes apart from the focus on human kindness and artificial intelligence.  The second set of purposes is designated as the mission of the Canadian researchers who created the experiment with hitchBOT.  The mission consisted of the exploration of the effectiveness of robots as companions for people and what the researchers perceive as a “growing aversion to adventure and risk” in modern society.  Whatever the researchers may derive from their interpretation of the data provided by the hitchBOT on its travels, the question will always remain as to how a robot can be a useful companion, when it lacks a coherent organic sense of self and a flowing continual consciousness.

            As to the second part of the mission, I am not sure how the travels of the hitchhiking hitchBOT connects to the perceived aversion to adventure and risk among humans in modern society.  Without a coherent organic sense of self, how can a hitchBOT find meaning in the flow of experience it has, including a real awareness that it is having an adventure and taking risks.  The recording of experience as a hitchhiker by photos every twenty minutes symbolizes how the digitally activated hitchBOT deals with the world through isolated disconnected events rather than through a flow of experience.  This series of isolated events do not get bundled together as a completed adventure by the hitchBOT.  This series of isolated events do not form a meaningful narrative for the hitchBOT.  A meaningful narrative, of course, does have events interspersed within it.  These events stand out as defined discrete situations and they are connected together by a background flow of more continual experience.  An adventure is a life narrative in which some of the events are a significant risk of some kind to the person who is participating in them.  When a person takes a significant risk with his actions, he has the opportunity to make and preserve a significant imprint on the field of experience that surrounds him, including the people who are in that field of experience.  This imprint helps him to validate his life and to prepare for death.  A very fundamental example of such an adventure is when preliterate tribesmen go after a dangerous wild animal to obtain meat.  The tribesmen can spend hours or even days hunting a big dangerous animal.  They can try killing the animal with a spear or bow and arrow.  The spear or arrow wounds the animal and the animal can turn on the hunters.  The hunters have to then send more projectiles at the wounded animal in order to kill it, before it wounds or kills one of the hunters.

            Modern adventures include such activities as climbing mountains, rafting on fast-moving rivers, exploring exotic cities and rural areas and yes even long distance hitchhiking.  A lot of long distance hitchhiking is just a boring flow of travel in different vehicles.  But there is always the thrill of thumbing for a ride and never being sure when the next ride will come.  Although one can meet nice drivers hitchhiking, there is always the risk of encountering a driver who is not nice or who even is dangerous.  Completion of a long distance hitchhiking trip is an important event.  If one has somehow recorded his trip, it becomes a potential imprint that can be communicated and left on other people.  But the important thing for a completed adventure, for a meaningful narrative, is the reactions of the adventurers with their flowing continual consciousnesses and their coherent senses of self.  Many famous explorers have written detailed journals of their trips of exploration.  A robot that reacts only to defined discrete stimuli is incapable of such flowing awareness and incapable of registering that he has made what seems to be a meaningful organic imprint.  

            This is why it doesn’t make sense to think of robots in terms of such human categories as kindness, companionship and adventure.  The latter three terms are human terms that relate to human behavior.  Robots are just too different from humans, unless and until humans start behaving more and more like robots.

© 2015 Laurence Mesirow

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