Issue #76: Cold Watermelon on a Hot Summer Day


The RoboPsych Newsletter

Exploring The Psychology of 
Human-Robot Interaction
Issue 76: September 6, 2017

Cold Watermelon on a Hot Summer Day
Quote of the Week:

“In more sustained contexts, where humans interact with robots over a significant amount of time and in a diversity of situations, what should the nature of that interaction be? One central issue in this circumstance is whether we (the robot and I) can understand one another – something that may be accomplished by specific communicative practices. Communicating with a robot via speech and/or gesture, however, turns out to be a complicated thing if one aims at smooth and reliable communicative practices. Much of communication depends on implicit aspects – what is not said is sometimes of greater importance than what is explicitly said, and non-conscious gestures, postures, movements and bodily expressions are often more important than consciously produced signs. For this and other reasons there is a vast and growing literature on social cognition in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind."

Shaun Gallagher, “You and I Robot”

What Does Watermelon Taste Like?  

You’ve known the answer to that question since you were about 18 months old, I’d bet.

But, can you answer the question: what does watermelon taste like? Without using the word, “watermelon?”

Try it.

I can’t.

Trying to describe the flavor of a ripe, juicy hunk of watermelon to anyone who’s never eaten the fruit isn’t possible for me. To those who have, I can just say, “you know, it tastes like watermelon!”

And, that illustrates just one of the things that will always distinguish us from robots.

The lived-experience of tasting watermelon is an emergent phenomenon that takes place within embodied animals. If you think about it, “tasting watermelon” involves seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, as well as chewing. Even though we can’t know exactly what they’re experiencing, we know that other animals eat watermelon, and appear to enjoy it as much as we do!

Come to think of it, I can’t know exactly what you experience when you eat watermelon! I mean, I assume watermelon tastes the same to you as it does to me, but I can’t actually say that with 100% certainty.

Uh oh. It feels like we’re getting into difficulty territory.

But, we’re not the first to wander into this area. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, chefs, and moms have been trying for millennia to figure out how we can know that others will share the “same” experience as we do.

Turns out our brains have evolved to enable us to resonate with one another’s experience through a set of structures called “mirror neurons.” As Wikipedia puts it:

“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system.”

So, (even though the mechanism is not totally understood and is still being investigated) when I see those apes eating a piece of watermelon (or, it turns out, even when they see me eating one) our mirror neurons fire and create experiences that “mirror” those that the ape has.

Robots, on the other hand, will never “taste” watermelon. Oh, we may equip them with sensors that immediately identify the fruit from its visual, physical, and molecular composition, but no machine will ever, ever, ever, experience the juicy deliciousness of a bite of cold watermelon on a hot day.

Nor will they experience the joy of seeing their newborn child’s face for the first time; or the sorry of learning of the passing of a loved one.

These are existential moments…moments that are deeply intertwined with our bodily, cultural, and personal histories.

In the short article quoted above, philosopher Shaun Gallagher describes the combined power of those histories as our shared “massive hermeneutical background.” Quite a mouthful! What does it mean?

Basically, the phrase refers to the incalculably enormous inventory of embodied experiences that we have lived…that are, in fact, our lives…since birth. Those experiences include all of the sensory and social interactions we’ve ever experienced, most of which are far removed from our everyday awareness. These experiences can be evoked (practically instantaneously) by verbally or non-verbally “referring” to them —re-calling them forth— thereby enabling our “understanding” of what others (which, roughly, is where their “hermeneutical” quality comes in) are experiencing.

Doing so verbally is the magic that masterful describers like Marcel Proust utilize in their finest works. This passage depicting the emergence of a memory slowly recovered from his existential depths upon tasting a morsel of a tea-soaked cookie is a perfect example:

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” (emphasis added)

No AI, no robot, will ever come this close to bringing a “physically recalled moment” to life for another. Yes, we may teach them to write as if they were Proust, but we will never share with a machine the massive hermeneutical background we share with that long-gone writer that makes such a passage so powerfully vivid.

It’s important that we appreciate the ways in which AI-equipped robots and ourselves will be similar, and the ways in which we will be different. One way to do so will be to ask the latest humanoid version very simple (embodied) questions, like what watermelon tastes like. And when you do so, be sure to look into its eyes very carefully to see the difference between a life form like yourself, and one that is, at best, only trying to simulate the answer; trying to do what it can to keep up the appearance of being a fellow person.

Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. 

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