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Out of Control

Ambler's dinosaur troubles began because we humans, with our attendant minds, think we are more like Ambler than ants. Since the vital physiological role of the brain has become clear to medicine, the vernacular sense of our center has migrated from the ancient heart to newfangled mind.

We twentieth century humans live entirely in our heads. And so we build robots that live in their heads. Scientists -- humans too -- think of themselves as beings focused onto a spot just south of their forehead behind their eyeballs. There breathes us. In fact, in 1968, brain death became the deciding threshold for human life. No mind, no life.

Powerful computers birthed the fantasy of a pure disembodied intelligence. We all know the formula: a mind inhabiting a brain submerged in a vat. If science would assist me, the contemporary human says, I could live as a brain without a body. And since computers are big brains, I could live in a computer. In the same spirit a computer mind could just as easily use my body.

One of the tenets in the gospel of American pop culture is the widely held creed of transferability of mind. People declare that mind transfer is a swell idea, or an awful idea, but not that it is a wrong idea. In modern folk-belief, mind is liquid to be poured from one vessel to another. From that comes Terminator 2, Frankenstein, and a huge chunk of science fiction.

For better or worse, in reality we are not centered in our head. We are not centered in our mind. Even if we were, our mind has no center, no "I." Our bodies have no centrality either. Bodies and minds blur across each others' supposed boundaries. Bodies and minds are not that different from one another. They are both composed of swarms of sublevel things.

We know that eyes are more brain than camera. An eyeball has as much processing power as a supercomputer. Much of our visual perception happens in the thin retina where light first strikes us, long before the central brain gets to consider the scene. Our spinal cord is not merely a trunk line transmitting phone calls from the brain. It too thinks. We are a lot closer to the truth when we point to our heart and not our head as the center of behaviors. Our emotions swim in a soup of hormones and peptides that percolate through our whole body. Oxytocin discharges thoughts of love (and perhaps lovely thoughts) from our glands. These hormones too process information. Our immune system, by science's new reckoning, is an amazing parallel, decentralized perception machine, able to recognize and remember millions of different molecules.

For Brooks, bodies clarify, simplify. Intelligences without bodies and beings without form are spectral ghosts guaranteed to mislead. Building real things in the real world is how you'll make complex systems like minds and life. Making robots that have to survive in real bodies, day to day on their own, is the only way to find artificial intelligence, or real intelligence. If you don't want a mind to emerge, then unhinge it from the body.