Issue #65: Intelligence: It's Not All In Your Head


The RoboPsych Newsletter

Exploring The Psychology of 
Human-Robot Interaction
Issue 65: March 20, 2017

Intelligence: It's Not All In Your Head
Quote of the Week:

AI theorists stopped treating the human body as an overwhelming problem to be set aside and started treating it as an irrelevant matter to be ignored. Today the mainstream argues that there is no meaningful difference between the human brain, with its networks of neurons and axons--electrical and chemical on-off switches--and computers powered by 1s and 0s. And by the same analogy, computer scientists understand the human mind to be the equivalent of software running on the brain-computer.

Whatever differences exist between humans and machines, today's gurus of artificial intelligence argue it will vanish in the not-too-distant future. Human minds, their memories and personalities, will be downloadable to computers. Human brains, meanwhile, will become almost infinitely upgradable, by installing faster hardware and the equivalent of better apps. The blending of human and machine, which Google's Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity, may be less than 30 years off, they theorize.

David Gelernter isn't buying it. The question of the body must be faced, and understood, he maintains. "As it now exists, the field of AI doesn't have anything that speaks to emotions and the physical body, so they just refuse to talk about it," he says. "But the question is so obvious, a child can understand it. I can run an app on any device, but can I run someone else's mind on your brain? Obviously not."

In Gelernter's opinion, we already have a most singular form of intelligence available for study--the one that produced Bach and Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Gandhi--and we scarcely understand its workings. We're blundering ahead in ignorance when we talk about replacing it.

Time Magazine,
Encounters with the Arch-Genius
David Gelernter

Is Intelligence All In Your Head? 

As we become increasingly technologically savvy we seem to be more and more fascinated by what happens in people from the neck up. 

Artificial intelligence is, after all, engaged in a headlong chase (sorry!) to replicate human cognitive operations in computer hardware-software systems. Computer scientists and neuroscientists eye one another's work for clues about ways to create machines that mimic the brain's operations. They create machine learning, reinforcement learning, and every other flavor of learning algorithms to defeat humans in chess, Go, poker, box stacking, welding, and burger flipping

Just don't ask them to open a door they've never seen before. Or make a hot dog instead of a burger. Or to play Parcheesi for a change. Oh, they might be able to do so after tweaking the algorithm and creating a practice data set. But not nearly as quickly as your 10 year-old.

That's because the level of “intelligence” that came with your 10 year-old's body at birth far outstrips anything that we've seen in even the most sophisticated robots. No tabula rasa there. To understand the intelligence-enabling equipment that comes standard with each human infant means examining one of the most vexing philosophical puzzles that humans have grappled with for thousands of years: the mind-body problem.

If you ask the average Jane or Joe where her/his mind is, chances are you'll get an answer that looks something like the image posted above: “it's in my head, of course.” We know our bodies are necessary for us to have a mind (at least until the great Singularity). But, Descartes' cogito ergo sum demoted it to the role of bit player in determining what it means to be human. The body is a machine for Descartes and his like-minded descendants, not unlike those of the mechanical automata he saw in exhibitions all over Paris in the early 17th century.

Yes, that's right: robots inspired Descartes' thinking about the mind-body relationship.

And like some bizarre version of Frankenstein, we've been trying to bring the body back to life ever since. 

Of course, not everyone agreed with Descartes. A school of philosophy, and later psychology, argued that the conscious mind emerges from the complex human body-brain system. The lived-body defines humanity for these theorists, not a disembodied cogito, a  consciousness performing complex brain computations.  

We know that the whole body is involved in our most fundamental behaviors: emotions. Darwin demonstrated the links between our emotions and those of our evolutionary ancestors in some of his later work. We now define an emotion as a reaction comprised of integrated cognitive, affective, and physiological elements. Anyone who's ever experienced fear knows the conscious experience is enveloped in the heart pumping, palm-sweating
, eyes-wide-open alert system that the body instantly becomes.

Fear isn't just an idea, it's a bodily experience. And, what happens to your mind at that moment? Increased environmental awareness, fight or flight planning, contingency assessment...all these “intelligent” contents...flood your consciousness, unbidden, triggered by the intertwined operations and secretions of a dozen glands and other perceiving, processing, and actuating organs responding to a holistic threat.

That's the lived experience of fear: a system-wide mind-body reaction to perceived danger.  

To be clear: artificial intelligence systems are nowhere near having the capability to recreate such experiences in robots. Until they do, a self-driving vehicle, for example, will never truly appreciate the experience of danger we feel when skidding on a wet highway. And, while that experience may not be necessary to pull the car out of the skid, it would be very valuable in understanding the reactions of passengers in a vehicle that's just experienced a “close call.” Indeed, the very experience of a close call would be difficult to get across to a robot. 

When you think about the complex array of harmoniously tuned systems that keep human consciousness running, the idea that we will be able to extract a “mind” from a body and upload it into a mechanical robot any time soon seems very far-fetched. 

But, if we are ever to do so, we'll first have to learn to at least simulate the most complex environment we've yet encountered: the integrated whole that is the lived human body-mind unity. 

Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. 

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