The Self and the Humanoid

From time immemorial philosophers and religious people have been battling to understand the self; they are still at it as it eludes definition. The 17th century philosopher John Locke defined a person as “an entity with reason and language, possessing mental states such as beliefs, desires and intensions, capable of relationships and morally responsible for its actions”. Daniel Dennett, the modern philosopher from Boston University, concurs with this definition, but supplements with an important rider: “a person is someone who is treated as a person by others”. So being a person will reside in the eyes of the beholder.

Meanwhile scientists have been standing aloof and chuckling below their moustache, because investigating anything intangible, immaterial and subjective was anathema to them, and deemed to be a waste of time. However, as neither Locke nor Dennett had implied that it should be a biological entity, they might have tickled the scent trail of some scientists.

So far the latter have been interested only in positivism; inventing machines and instruments of all sorts were their prerogative and bread and butter. But since a decade or so they have made a 180-degree U-turn; social scientists had woken up to the problem of happiness and well-being of the individual and of the nation; and biotechnologists are asking how about infusing some sense of the self into their robot? Suddenly, true to their ideal and beliefs, they had to start from scratch, define the self and explore what the philosophers had been thinking and talking about all along.

That’s how we discover that Descartes’ famous enunciation “Je pense, dont Je suis”, which assumed that the self is constant, and always being reinforced by new knowledge and ideas, is being challenged by those scientists; while the Buddhists’ and David Hume’s concept of the self as being an illusion is having their favour. It seems that they view the self as purely abstract.

Memories and experience are looked upon as scaffold that the brain builds upon to generate a sense of the self; they maintain open certain fixed neural circuits in the brain during our waking period, which sustain that sense of continuity of the self. When we go to sleep we efface our self; when we wake up we pick up where we left, establishing once again that continuity. Suppose when we are asleep someone injects us with a powerful drug like LSD. When we wake up, would we be the same self or would we have a different self with horrendous visions and hallucinations? And if this is repeated day in day out, what type of self will we finally construct within us?

And what could convince us more than the bizarre behaviours of patients after an array of trauma or diseases of the brain when they lose their normal behaviours and sometime even act as completely different persons; lesions of the hippocampus, the seat of memories, may stir another self. People with some type of injury cannot remember the past, nor can they conceive the future; they start acting as zombies and are said “to be marooned in the present! A key insight is that the self should be considered not as an essence, but as a process – a process being a virtual machine running inside a physical one, as when a program runs on a computer.”

Is not senility an eye opener to the onlooker? How embarrassed we are when we meet friends who, being on some psychiatric treatment, start acting queer and different. We know that we would not be able to respond adequately and faithfully to the bizarre self opposite us. What about the drug addicts? We tend to keep aloof from them also, because of their unpredictable personality, for which we have a tendency to ‘persecute’ them, as they embarrass our ‘normal’ self and make us feel very uneasy. Nowadays, psychiatric patients are being viewed differently by a few medical authorities; they believe that the very drug treatment meted to them makes them worse and destabilizes their personalities. After all society would like to have docile, less garrulous individuals around. All these happenings are convincing scientists that the self is just a neurological, chemical-induced phenomena.

Psychologists’ Conception

The psychologist Ulric Neisser in 1995, reinforcing his knowledge from the work of past philosophers and psychologists, and capitalizing heavily on recent research and development on cognition, has enunciated 5 categories of the self:

(a) the ecological self — feeling of body ownership and being different;

(b) the interpersonal self – self recognition – as in a mirror; developing empathy;

(c) the temporally extended self — which has a personal past and future;

(d) the conceptual self — having motivations and values, goals and a life story, and

(e) the private self — having a stream of consciousness; knowing that you have an inner life.

As their breakdown definition is worked out, researchers are developing clearer and well-defined conceptions to juggle with and create a new database for their Neurorobotics science. In fact, an article in the March 2015 issue of New Scientist tells us that various research centres in Europe are cooperating to unravel or deconstruct these new modules of the self, and from there to invent new electronic techniques to reintegrate such conceptions, all of which will be incorporated in a new robot. Such a humanoid robot, known as iCub, already exists and has the sense of vision, of touch, of hearing and sense of position; it can speak and interact with its world, and it improves its performance by learning!

At Sheffield Robotics, the iCub “has a control system modelled on the brain, so that it ‘thinks’ in ways similar to you and me”! And the researches are working to give it a sense of self.

Scientists realize that the “self feels compellingly real, yet, when examined closely, seems to dissolve away”. However, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience are doing their best to unravel the mystery, and understand how the psychological self emerges from brain activity. One of the founders of modern psychology, William James, believes that the self has to do with experience and ideas; experience of the self will translate into our “I”, while ideas about our self translates into the “me” phenomenon. (That might remind some religious people of the three horizontal sacred ash marks fond to the Shivaites: the first represents the ‘I’, the second the ‘mine’ and the third the ‘others’). William James says nothing about the third; may be it has to do with the faculty of “seeing the other person as a person”.

That’s how psychological and brain processes are being analysed to be incorporated into robotic programming, which is modelled on its cognitive architecture.

Deconstructing and Encoding

The ecological self, ability to distinguish self from others, is being developed and taught to robots in the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa; it learns about small movements and its consequences – as human babies do – this being called ‘motor babbling’.

The next step is consciousness. Presently many scientists are prone to espouse the concept that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, that is which arises when all the processes of the brain are acting and functioning together in harmony. One million molecules of water can present themselves as ice, solid and cold; the same million can become warmer, liquid and start flowing, and at other times after acquiring more heat they become water vapour. Physically they are the same but their behaviour depends on their different level of energy, which promotes different emergent phenomena. Consciousness is said to be such a phenomena – it emerges where there are total cooperative neural processes initiated in the brain matter.

However, we are far from understanding fully the ego and consciousness; will they ever be incorporated into a humanoid? Time will tell.

Our mechanical humanoid, if gifted with all the modules that constitute the self, will impress us as being a real person. Many will remember the boy robot in the film ‘A.I.’, how the family who bought it became very attached to it, but they ultimately got rid of it in a forest, and the audience strongly empathized with it and finally looked upon it as a human.

Yet our main interest is to have an intelligent robot, which will obey us, do our dirty donkey work (clearing mine fields more intelligently, say), look for endangered people during catastrophes, give company to ageing individuals and do all sorts of household chores. We hope they will be better than our animal pets, which will imply that one day some of us will shed tears when the time comes to depart; some of us, rich enough, may employ some caretaker associations to look after our faithful humanoids when we are no more, as a few sensitive and eccentric people are already doing for their cats and dogs!!!

  • Published in print edition on 11 September 2015

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