Monday, March 9, 2009

Spectrum of Desire, and a pinch of memes

I came across the title phrase in We Think, Therefore We Are, a fun little collection of AI-related sci fi. In the story in which it was mentioned, we have a tale of a future in which huge trucks haul their loads across continent-spanning highways, driven, of course, by AI. An interesting feature of said AI is that they're supposed to have free will, which is held in check by their spectrum of desire.

The AIs love the open road. Nothing makes them happier than to haul cargo from one place to another. They feel duty-bound to protect human life to the best of their abilities. They follow a Highway Code, which is much like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, adapted for use by robots whose sole purpose is to haul cargo on huge roads. These AIs are so advanced, they need to have other robots designed to handle their neuroses. Here's a few words from the robopsychologist:

"You have free will, just as humans do. In matters of moral decision, you have the option of not doing the right thing. That's a fundamental corollary of self-awareness. If the programmers could make it absolutely compulsory for you to obey the Highway Code, they would, but they'd have to make you into an automaton - and we know from long and bitter experience that the open road is no place from automata incapable of caring whether they crash or not. In order for free will to operate at all, it has to be contextualized by a spectrum of of desire; in that respect, robots, like humans, don't have very much option at all. What makes us so much better than humans, in a moral sense, is not that we can't disobey the fundamental structures of our programming - the Highway Code, in your case - but that we never want to."

This struck me as odd. Does this state of affairs not simply make the truck AIs automata anyway? Slaves to their desires? Those desires were put in their programming as surely as any other line of code, were they not? And what about us? Are we not automata, too, programmed by our own spectrum of desire?

In our physical forms, we find the raw materials of our dreams - pain, pleasure, lust, hunger... These desires were put there - selected for - by the needs of savannah-dwelling primates. These raw materials, forged by genetic evolution, are given their present, more refined shapes by our cultural evolution - art and avarice, I suppose, but do bear with me, I'm largely writing off the top of my head here.

I'm sure I've mentioned this before somewhere on this blog, but it's worth reiterating that the key to wrapping one's head round evolution, especially in humans, is timescale. The worthiness of traits determined by genes is decided over the lifetimes of organisms, but the worthiness of ideas is decided, by comparison, in the blink of an eye. Fads come and go, knowledge builds upon knowledge, histories are written and rewritten, thinkers think, doers do - and our bodies, our scruffy, hairy, frail bodies, not really very good for anything, other than walking on two legs and some manual dexterity, have barely changed at all. With our bodies alone, we are next to nothing. An insignificant blob of biomass, prone to engaging in much inter and intra-species violence. But paired with the Leviathan that is our culture and science, the fate of this 3rd (rather wet) rock from the sun is in our hands.

130,000 years. That's what it took for us to get from poking stuff with sticks to quantum physics. To a floor trader, it's simply an inconcievable span of time. To an accountant, it's enough working papers to smother a continent. To a historian, that's all of recorded history and a fair bit more. To an evolutionary biologist, a chapter in a lenghty book. To a geologist, a comma in the story of Earth. To a cosmologist, it is nothing, nothing at all.

I once met someone who called himself an atheist, yet didn't believe in evolution. Perhaps he thought he was being prudent by occupying a middle ground between the Creation Vs Evolution "debate". I will state here, flatly and honestly, that no, that is NOT a middle ground. That's not even in the same ball park. That is somewhere way out in the parking lot of Ignorance. But don't worry, ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you don't try to delude yourself into thinking it's a good thing.

Anyway, the reason for his doubt lay in a common Creotard question: "How come intelligence only evolved in humans?" Fair enough, but this was followed shortly by another popular Creotard statement: "When I see chimpanzees evolve human intelligence, then I'll believe in evolution." I try very hard to keep a clear head at all times, but, faced with a statement of such mind-numbing stupidity, pronounced in the flesh with such an air of smugness that I've only ever seen summoned forth by the most wilfully ignorant of televangelists*, I could not maintain sufficient composure to answer his question, but stood agog at this epic failure of reason.

So, I'll answer it here, and I'll try to keep it simple. It takes a truly staggering coincidence for 2 completely separate, genetically incompatible (i.e. can't make half-breed kids together) species to stumble on the same trait at more or less the same time. In this case, the key trait is a neurological one - the ability to copy behaviour. This is the cornerstone of what, genetically, gives us our supremacy. With the arrival of this little tweak, along with the right confluence of hardware to use it, our ancestors now had access to the world of memetic evolution, i.e. culture, which would accelerate our evolution to a ludicrous pace, not unlike giving someone running in a footrace a Harley halfway through. Neanderthals came close, but alas, they simply weren't as advanced, and were wiped out. Similarly, if you gave someone else a Harley in said footrace, even 10 seconds later after the first, the 2nd guy is simply not going to catch up. Humans being humans, we can barely tolerate living with each other, let alone another species exhibiting similar intelligence, and thus posing a possible threat. Tracing the fossil record we observe a sudden acceleration in brain size increasing in our ancestors, a clear indication that something was exerting some sort of evolutionary pressure to select for greater brain power. This pressure, from memetic evolution**, pushed our genetic evolution in our current direction to where we are today, a physically unimpressive primate with a mental capacity completely disproportionate to our bodies, as compared with other animals.

Now, it took just over 3 million years to get from Lucy to us. And our self-professed doubting atheist is waiting for a chimp to spontaneously develop intelligence in his lifetime. So now you know the sheer magnitude of how stupid such expectations are.

Anyway, I'm done here for now. If there's anyone out there who's managed to read up to this point, do tell if I'm missing something in my brief explanation of meme-augmented evolution in early humans. I've got to chase my nephew away from the cat food...

* Or, if you frequent Youtube, VenomfangX, who is clearly living proof that modern man is obviously descended from some sort of primitive ancestor.

** Covered in detail in Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.

1 comment:

daemun said...

just wanted to point out that in addition to our ability to mimic behavior, a key trait that makes humans what we are is our almost complete lack of inborn/hardwired behaviors. unlike other animals, which can preform extremely complex behaviors shortly after birth, in some cases without any sort of parental modeling, human infants are completely helpless. its the whole tabula rasa thing, and its what causes social evolution to be infinitely quicker than biological evolution.

some psychologists might even argue that the simple desire to mimic behvaior stems from an inherent understanding of "the other", which is also a key trait in defining human-ness. in this case the self is an infant around a year old, and the other would be the parent(s). has to do with the whole concept of shame, which of course is a very strong motivating drive in learning pretty much any behavior, and particularly ritualistic social ones. the idea is that to feel shame, one has to have at least some understanding of another person's state of being, something lower animals are incapable of.

you've probably already read ernest becker's birth and death of meaning. if you havent you should check it out. its a bit dated but still worth reading.