What the Future of Robots Reveals About the Human Condition
By Maria Popova
In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”
To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”
With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:
Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.
But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:
Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”
Nowhere does this revolutionary reframing come more alive than in a chapter poetically titled “When Robots Weep, Who Will Comfort Them?” Ackerman’s exploration of the implications of artificial intelligence is at first necessarily discomfiting, then productively perplexing, then assuringly optimistic. She writes:
It’s an Anthropocene magic trick, this extension of our digital selves over the Internet, far enough to reach other people, animals, plants, interplanetary crews, extraterrestrial visitors, the planet’s Google-mapped landscapes, and our habitats and possessions. If we can revive extinct life forms, create analog worlds, and weave new webs of communication — what about new webs of life? Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?
To probe the furthest fringes of this question, Ackerman visits the pioneering Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson, whose lab is working on the development of a new self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Ackerman explains the implications, nothing short of existential:
Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and AL — artificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path he’s famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. It’s the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.
If this sounds a little sci-fi, Ackerman points out that the very notion of Robot sapiens is predicated on one of the most undeniable forces Earth has ever known, that of evolution — Lipson’s work, then, is doing little more than “asking a primordial soup of robotic bits and pieces to zing through millions of generations of fluky mutations, goaded by natural selection.” Reflecting on these new creatures, Lipson shares with Ackerman a vision at once utterly mind-bending and utterly sensical:
They will have deep emotions… But they won’t necessarily be human emotions.
The kernel of this capacity, Lipson believes, lies in “the unspoken Holy Grail of a lot of roboticists” — the aspiration to create self-aware consciousness. (A goal undoubtedly quite far away, as we still struggle to understand human consciousness.) He tells Ackerman:
When a machine learns from experience, there are few guarantees about whether or not it will learn what you want… And it might learn something that you didn’t want it to learn, and yet it can’t forget. This is just the beginning.
To demystify the proposition, Ackerman points to our age-long refusal to acknowledge animal consciousness, something on which scientists now uniformly agree, much thanks to the work of Jane Goodall. Ackerman considers the criteria we presently use for conscious beings and parlays those into the question of what makes us human:
[Animals] possess a theory of mind, and can intuit what a rival might do in a given situation and act accordingly. They exhibit deceit, compassion, the ability to see themselves through another’s eyes…
I don’t think they fret and reason endlessly about mental states, as we do. They simply dream a different dream, probably much like the one we used to dream, before we crocheted into our neural circuitry the ability to have ideas about everything. Other animals may know you know something, but they don’t know you know they know. Other mammals may think, but we think about having thoughts. Linnaeus categorized us in the subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens, adding the extra sapiens because we don’t just know, we know that we know.
This meta-knowledge is what E.F. Schumacher explored in his beautiful 1977 contemplation of the art of adequatio and how we know what we know, and it is also at the crux of what is at stake in the quest for self-aware artificial intelligence. Ackerman writes:
When people talk about robots being conscious and self-aware, they mean a range of knowing.
Lipson wants his robots to make assumptions and deductions based on past experiences, a skill underlying our much-prized autobiographical memory, and an essential component of learning. Robots will learn through experience not to burn a hand on a hot stove, and to look both ways when crossing the street.
But, like a true humanist, Ackerman wonders whether such faculties will ever penetrate the essential mystery — perhaps a “permanent mystery,” to use John Updike’s term for existence — of the human spirit:
Yet however many senses robots may come to possess—and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have many more than we, including sharper eyesight and the ability to see in the dark — they’ll never be embodied exactly like us, with a thick imperfect sediment of memories, and maybe a handful of diaphanous dreams. Who can say what unconscious obbligato prompts a composer to choose this rhythm or that — an irregular pounding heart, tinnitus in the ears, a lover who speaks a foreign language, fond memories evoked by the crackle of ice in winter, or an all too human twist of fate? There would be no Speak, Memory from Nabokov, or The Gulag Archipelago from Solzhenitsyn, without the sentimental longings of exile. I don’t know if robots will be able to do the sort of elaborate thought experiments that led Einstein to discoveries and Dostoevsky to fiction.
Yet robots may well create art, from who knows what motive, and enjoy it based on their own brand of aesthetics, satire (if they enjoy satire), or humor. We might enjoy it, too, especially if it’s evocative of work by human artists, if it appeals to our senses. Would we judge it differently?
On a visit to the 2013 Living Machines Conference, Ackerman encounters iCub — a three-foot robot that has “naturally evolved theory of mind,” that developmental milestone human children reach around age three or four when they begin to understand that others have experiences, thoughts, intentions, and desires different from their own. Ackerman considers how this childlike robot attains its knowledge of self and other in relation to the world:
Through countless interactions between body and world it codifies knowledge about both. None of that is new. Nor is being able to distinguish between self and other, and intuit the other’s mental state. Engineers like Lipson have programmed that discernment into robots before. But this was the first time a robot evolved the ability all by itself. iCub is just teething on consciousness, to be sure, but it’s intriguing that the bedrock of empathy, deception, and other traits that we regard as conscious can accidentally emerge during a robot’s self-propelled Darwinian evolution. It happened like this. iCub was created with a double sense of self. If he wanted to lift a cup, his first self told his arm what to do, while predicting the outcome and adjusting his knowledge based on whatever happened. His second—we can call it “interior” — self received exactly the same feedback, but, instead of acting on the instructions, it could only try to predict what would happen in the future. If the real outcome differed from a prediction, the interior self updated its cavernous memory. That gave iCub two versions of itself, an active one and an interior “mental” one. When the researchers exposed iCub’s mental self to another robot’s actions, iCub began intuiting what the other robot might do, based on personal experience. It saw the world through another’s eyes.
There is one implication I find particularly curious — despite all that has been written about the self illusion and how it limits our true human potential, it seems nonetheless a necessary one. Without the ability to distinguish the boundaries of one’s own self against those of others, amid the amorphous jelly of the world, there would be no theory of mind and no sense of self. Consciousness, after all — at least in the empirical sense — requires self-awareness.
Robots, Ackerman argues, can also help us make sense of the world now that our own sensemaking capacity is being drowned out by an information ecosystem of exponentially swelling amounts of data. She recounts that in 1972, when she was making her writing debut with a suite of poems for the planets, Carl Sagan, who was on her doctoral committee at Cornell, gave her access to NASA photographs and reports. It was possible then, Ackerman argues, “for an amateur to learn everything humans knew about the planets.” This is no longer the case — “the Alps of raw data would take more than one lifetime to summit, passing countless PhD dissertations at campsites along the trail.” So there is incredible allure in the notion of intelligent robots that can help us trek across those Alps and make new discoveries.
How extraordinary that we’ve created peripheral brains to discover the truths about nature that we seek. We’re teaching them how to work together calmly as a society, share data at lightning speed, and cooperate so much better than we do, rubbing brains together in the invisible drawing room we sometimes call the “cloud.” Undaunted, despite our physical and mental limitations, we design robots to continue the quest we began long ago: making sense of nature. Some call it Science, but it’s so much larger than one discipline, method, or perspective.
This, Ackerman argues, is cause for celebration rather than lamentation. Echoing Paola Antonelli’s assertion that technology humanizes objects rather than dehumanizing people, she writes:
I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human. When labor, science, manufacturing, sales, transportation, and powerful new technologies are mainly handled by savvy machines, humans really won’t be able to compete in those sectors of the economy. Instead we may dominate an economy of interpersonal or imaginative services, in which our human skills shine.
She returns to Lipson’s robots and their broader implications:
One of Lipson’s robots knows the difference between self and other, the shape of its physique, and whether it can fit into odd spaces. If it loses a limb, it revises its self-image. It senses, recollects, keeps updating its data, just as we do, so that it can predict future scenarios. That’s a simple form of self-awareness. He’s also created a machine that can picture itself in various situations — very basic thought experiments—and plan what to do next. It’s starting to think about thinking.
And with this will come emotions, because emotions, at the end of the day, have to do with the ability to project yourself into different situations — fear, various needs — and anticipate the rewards and pain in many future dramas.
And yet given how woefully flawed we humans are at making projections about our own future selves, one can’t help but wonder whether artificial intelligence, however self-correcting it may be, would succumb to the same system bugs as the very minds that created it. Even Ackerman, optimistic though she may be about the humanizing potential of robotics, remains profoundly human in her lament, rooted in our essential and rather fragile sense of the personal I:
A powerful source of existential grief comes from accepting that I won’t live long enough to find out.
But Ackerman’s wistfulness rests into a larger optimism of foresight that peers into the quintessential do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep question as she considers the unimaginable evolution of Robot sapiens:
Will they grow attached to others, play games, feel empathy, crave mental rest, evolve an aesthetics, value fairness, seek diversion, have fickle palates and restless minds? We humans are so far beyond the Greek myth of Icarus, and its warning about overambition (father-and-son inventors and wax wings suddenly melting in the sun). We’re now strangers in a strange world of our own devising, where becoming a creator, even the Creator, of other species is the ultimate intellectual challenge. Will our future robots also design new species, bionts whose form and mental outlook we can’t yet imagine?
Way back in our own evolution, we came from fish that left the ocean and flopped from one puddle to another. In time they evolved legs, a much better way to get around on land. When Lipson’s team asked a computer to invent something that could get from point A to point B—without programming it how to walk—at first it created robots reminiscent of that fish, with multihinged legs, flopping forward awkwardly.
It’s a touching goal. Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside one’s head. A time of potent magic in the landscape. Mountains attracted rain clouds and hid sacred herbs, malevolent spirits spat earthquakes or drought, tyrants ruled certain trees or brooks, offended waterholes could ankle off in the night, and most animals parleyed with at least one god or demon. What was human agency compared to that?
To be sure, this question of where robots are headed isn’t a negation of human agency or human potential but, rather, a celebration of it. Reflecting on our “extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety, and know-how,” on “the small unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day,” Ackerman concludes by reconsidering our human journey in relation to nature, the inescapable backdrop against which — to borrow Carl Sagan’s beautiful language — “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” She ends with an invocation at once gentle and urgent:
We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults — without losing our innocence, playfulness, or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.
Nature is still our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent… As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers…
We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment. The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered. Perhaps we also need to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in, and how do we design that human-made sphere? …
We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices… Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.
The Human Age is a spectacular read in its entirety, pointing the poetics of science to the heart of such ensnaring open questions as what an imaginary future geologist might deduce about our civilization based on our human-made landscapes, why there might be more to the weather than we realize, and how 3-D printing will reshape the notion of the body.
Published October 6, 2014