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Out of Control

Tedium can unhinge a mind.

Forty years ago, Canadian psychologist D. O. Hebbs was intrigued by the bizarre delusions reported by the ultrabored. Radar observers and long-distance truck drivers often reported blips that weren't there, and stopped for hitchhikers that didn't exist. During the Korean War, Hebbs was contacted by the Canadian Defense Research Board to investigate another troublesome product of monotony and boredom: confessions. Seems that captured UN soldiers were renouncing the West after being brainwashed (a new word) by the communists. Isolation tanks or something.

So in 1954 Hebbs built a dark, soundproof cell at McGill University in Montreal. Volunteers entered the tiny cramped room, donned translucent goggles, padded their arms in cardboard, gloved their hands with cotton mittens, covered their ears with earphones playing a low noise, and laid in bed, immobile, for two to three days. They heard a steady hum, which soon melted into a steady silence. They felt nothing but a dull ache in their backs. They saw nothing but a dim grayness, or was it blackness? The amazonian flow of colors, signals, urgent messages that had been besieging their brains since birth evaporated. Slowly, each of their minds unhitched from its moorings in the body and spun.

Half of the subjects reported visual sensations, some within the first hour: "a row of little men, a German helmet...animated integrated scenes of a cartoonlike character." In the innocent year of 1954 the Canadian scientists reported: "Among our early subjects there were several references, rather puzzling at first, to what one of them called 'having a dream while awake.' Then one of us, while serving as a subject, observed the phenomenon and realized its peculiarity and extent." By the second day of stillness the subjects might report "loss of contact with reality, changes in body image, speech difficulties, reminiscence and vivid memories, sexual preoccupation, inefficiencies of thought, complex dreams, and a higher incident of worry and fright." They didn't say "hallucinations" because that wasn't a word in their vocabulary. Yet.

Hebb's experiments were taken up a few years later by Jack Vernon, who built a "black room" in the basement of the psychology hall at Princeton. He recruited graduate students who hoped to spend four days or so in the dark "getting some thinking done." One of the initial students to stay in the numbing room told the debriefing researchers later, "I guess I was in there about a day or so before you opened the observation window. I wondered why you waited so long to observe me." There was, of course, no observation window.

In the silent coffin of disembodiment, few subjects could think of anything in particular after the second day. Concentration crumbled. The pseudobusyness of daydreaming took over. Worse were thoughts of an active mind that got stuck in an inactive loop. "One subject made up a game of listing, according to the alphabet, each chemical reaction that bore the name of the discoverer. At the letter n he was unable to think of an example. He tried to skip n and go on, but n kept doggedly coming up in his mind, demanding an answer. When this became tiresome, he tried to dismiss the game altogether, only to find that he could not. He endured the insistent demand of his game for a short time, and, finding that he was unable to control it, he pushed the panic button."

The body is the anchor of the mind, and of life. Bodies are machines to prevent the mind from blowing away under a wind of its own making. The natural tendency of neural circuitry is to play games with itself. Left on its own, without a direct link to "outside," a brainy network takes its own machinations as reality. A mind cannot possibly consider anything beyond what it can measure or calculate; without a body it can only consider itself. Given its inherent curiosity, even the simplest mind will exhaust itself devising solutions to challenges it confronts. Yet if most of what it confronts is its own internal circuitry and logic, then it spends its days tinkering with its latest fantasy.

The body -- that is, any bundle of senses and activators -- interrupts this natural mental preoccupation with an overload of urgent material that must be considered right now! A matter of survival! Should we duck?! The mind no longer needs to invent its reality -- the reality is in its face, rapidly approaching dead-on. Duck! it decides by a new and wholly original insight it had never tried before, and would have never thought to try.

Without senses, the mind mentally masturbates, engendering a mental blindness. Without the interruptions of hellos from the eye, ear, tongue, nose, and finger, the evolving mind huddles in the corner picking its navel. The eye is most important because being half brain itself (chock-full of neurons and biochips) it floods the mind with an impossibly rich feed of half-digested data, critical decisions, hints for future steps, clues of hidden things, evocative movements, and beauty. The mind grinds under the load, and behaves. Cut loose from its eyes suddenly, the mind will rear up, spin, retreat.

The cataracts that afflict elderly men and women after a life of sight can be removed, but not without a brief journey into a blindness even darker than what cataracts bring. Doctors surgically remove the lens growths and then cover patients' eyes with a black patch to shield them from light and to prevent the eyeballs from moving, as they unconsciously do whenever they look. Since the eyes move in tandem, both are patched. To further reduce eye movement, patients lie in bed, quiet, for up to a week. At night, when the hospital bustle dies down, the stillness can match the blackness under the blindfold. In the early 1900s when this operation was first commonly performed, there was no machinery in hospitals, no TV or radio, few night shifts, no lights burning. Eyes wrapped in bandages in the cataract ward, the world as hushed and black as the deepest forever.

The first day was dim but full of rest and still. The second day was darker. Numbing. Restless. The third day was black, black, black, silent, and filled with red bugs crawling on the walls.

"During the third night following surgery [the 60-year-old woman] tore her hair and the bedclothes, tried to get out of bed, claimed that someone was trying to get her, and said that the house was on fire. She subsided when the bandage was removed from the unoperated eye," stated a hospital report in 1923.

In the early 1950s, doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York studied a sample of 21 consecutive admissions to the cataract ward. "Nine patients became increasingly restless, tore off the masks, or tried to climb over the siderails. Six patients had paranoid delusions, four had somatic complaints, four were elated [!!], three had visual hallucinations, and two had auditory hallucinations."

"Black patch psychosis" is now something ophthalmologists watch for on the wards. I think universities should keep an eye out for it too. Every philosophy department should hang a pair of black eye patches in a red firealarm-like box that says, "In case of argument about mind/body, break glass, put on."

In an age of virtual everything, the importance of bodies cannot be overemphasized. Mark Pauline and Rod Brooks have advanced further than most in creating personas for machines, because the creatures are fully embodied. They insist that their robots be situated in real environments.

Pauline's automatons don't live very long. By the end of his shows, only a few iron beasts still move. But to be fair to Pauline, none of the other university robots have lived much longer than his. It is a rare mobile robot that has an "on" lifetime of more than dozens of hours. For the most part, automatons are improved while they are off. In essence, robotists are trying to evolve things while dead, a curious situation that hasn't escaped some researchers' notice. "You know, I'd like to build a robot that could run 24 hours a day for weeks. That's the way for a robot to learn," says Maja Mataric, one of Brooks's robot builders at MIT.

When I visited the Mobot Lab at MIT, Genghis lay sprawled in disassembled pieces on a lab bench. New parts lay nearby. "He's learning," quipped Brooks.

Genghis was learning, but not in any ultimately useful manner. He had to rely on the busy schedules of Brooks and his busy grad students. How much better to learn while alive. That is the next big step for machines. To learn over time, on their own. To not only adapt, but evolve.

Evolution proceeds in steps. Genghis is an insect-equivalent. Its descendants someday will be rodents, and someday further, as smart and nimble as apes.

But we need to be a little patient in our quest for machine evolution, Brooks cautions. From day one of Genesis, it took billions of years for life to reach plant stage, and another billion and a half before fish appeared. A hundred million years later insects made the scene. "Then things really started moving fast," says Brooks. Reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals appeared within the next 100 million years. The great, brainy apes, including man, arrived in the last 20 million years.

The relatively rapid complexification in most recent geological history suggests to Brooks "that problem solving behavior, language, expert knowledge and reason, are all pretty simple once the essence of being and reacting are available." Since it took evolution 3 billion years to get from single cells to insects, but only another half billion years from there to humans, "this indicates the nontrivial nature of insect level intelligence."

So insect life -- the problem Brooks is sweating over -- is really the hard part. Get artificial insects down, and artificial apes will soon follow. This points to a second advantage to working with fast, cheap, and out-of-control mobots: the necessity of mass numbers for evolution. One Genghis can learn. But evolution requires a seething population of Genghises to get anything done.

To evolve machines, we'll need huge flocks of them. Gnatbots might be perfect. Brooks ultimately dreams of engineering vivisystems full of machines that both learn (adjust to variations in environment ) and evolve (populations of critters undergoing "gazillions of trials").

When democracy was first proposed for (and by) humans, many reasonable people rightly feared it as worse than anarchy. They had a point. A democracy of autonomous, evolving machines will be similarly feared as Anarchy Plus. This fear too has some truth.

Chris Langton, an advocate of autonomous machine life, once asked Mark Pauline, "When machines are both superintelligent and superefficient, what will be the niche for humans? I mean, do we want machines, or do we want us?"

Pauline responded in words that I hope echo throughout this book: "I think humans will accumulate artificial and mechanical abilities, while machines will accumulate biological intelligence. This will make the confrontation between the two even less decisive and less morally clear than it is now."

So indecisive that the confrontation may resemble a conspiracy: robots who think, viruses that live in silicon, people hotwired to TV sets, life engineered at the gene level to grow what we want, the whole world networked into a human/machine mind. If it all works, we'll have contraptions that help people live and be creative, and people who help the contraptions live and be creative.

Consider the following letter published in the June 1984 IEEE Spectrum.

Mr. Harmon Blis
Topnotch Professionals Inc.
7777 Turing Blvd.
Palo Alto, CA 94301

June 1, 2034

Dear Mr. Bliss:

I am pleased to support your consideration of a human for professional employment. As you know, humans historically have proved to be the providers of choice. There are many reasons why we still recommend them strongly.

As their name would suggest, humans are humane. They can transmit a feeling of genuine concern to their clients that makes for a better, more productive relationship.

Each human is unique. There are many situations that reward multiple viewpoints, and there is nothing like a team of individualistic humans to provide this variety.

Humans are intuitive, which enables them to make decisions even when they can't justify why.

Humans are flexible. Because clients often place highly varied, unpredictable demands on professionals, flexibility is crucial.

In summary, humans have a lot going for them. They are not a panacea, but they are the right solution for a class of important and challenging employment problems. Consider this human carefully.

Yours truly.

Frederick Hayes-Roth

The greatest social consequence of the Darwinian revolution was the grudging acceptance by humans that humans were random descendants of monkeys, neither perfect nor engineered. The greatest social consequence of neo-biological civilization will be the grudging acceptance by humans that humans are the random ancestors of machines, and that as machines we can be engineered ourselves.

I'd like to condense that further: Natural evolution insists that we are apes; artificial evolution insists that we are machines with an attitude.

I believe that humans are more than the combination of ape and machine (we have a lot going for us!), but I also believe that we are far more ape and machine than we think. That leaves room for an unmeasured but discernible human difference, a difference that inspires great literature, art, and our lives as a whole. I appreciate and indulge in those sentiments. But what I have encountered in the rather mechanical process of evolution, and in the complex but knowable interconnections underpinning living systems, and in the reproducible progress in manufacturing reliable behaviors in robots, is a singular unity between simple life, machines, complex systems, and us. This unity can stir lofty inspirations the equal of any passion in the past.

Machines are a dirty word now. This is because we have withheld from them the full elixir of life. But we are poised to remake them into something that one day may be taken as a compliment.

As humans, we find spiritual refuge in knowing that we are a branch in the swaying tree of life spread upon this blue ball. Perhaps someday we will find spiritual wholesomeness in knowing we are a link in a complex machine layered on top of the green life. Perhaps we'll sing hymns rhapsodizing our role as an ornate node in a vast network of new life that is spawning on top of the old.

When Pauline's monsters demolish fellow monsters, I see not useless destruction, but lions stalking zebras keeping wildlife on course. When the iron paw of Brooks's six-legged Genghis hunts for a place to grip, I see not workers relieved of robotic jobs, but joyful baby squirms of a new organism. We are of one nature in the end. Who will not feel a bit of holy awe on the day when machines talk back to us?