Machine or Man?

Machine or Man?

Machine or Man?


     If I learned anything from George Lucas, its how easy it is to replace my humanity with machine parts.  Maybe my past has always been working against me on this, or maybe we all have to deal with this tension.  The tension between adopting a fixed world view that I cling to and protect versus a working model of myself and the world that is receptive to constant updates and variations.

     Self-conscious experience seems to require both feedback from the outside world and what I like to call, “feedforward” from our stores of autobiographical memory.  When we stop taking in feedback and become preoccupied with feedforward, what results is a one way road to self-annihilation.  How does this happen? Why?  Can understanding some of the differences between organic and mechanical systems help?

     We humans developed a sophisticated complex nervous system the apex of which may be self-consciousness.  We internalize sensoriomotor models of ourselves and the world that help us sense, feel and move about in the environment. In the best case scenario, like a seamless, simulation system, we construct, de-construct, and re-construct what is happening between our body and the environment constantly.  This not only gives us a more accurate idea of what is happening that is salient to our life form but allows for innovative responses based on ongoing evaluation.

     Life forms on the evolutionary time line that did not develop this approach to managing their world, don biological armor, stick to singular modes of attack, and hope for the best!  They lack the processing tools to assess and re-asses what is happening and have a particularly hard time with ambiguous signals about things “out there”.

     Darth Vader had a penchant for power and control that progressively left him more and more in need of synthetic body parts.  While he may have thought his growing ambitions were organized around his life, he was progressively being “programmed” by the needs of the Empire.  His anger and violence were played upon to keep him in a neurophysiological state that precluded social engagement.  So when he lost a body part, he replaced it with one that came pre-equipped with a fixed purpose and little chance of being used collaboratively to create something new.

     Like the “Black Knight” in Monty Python’s classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there seems to be something inherently self destructive involved when we relinquish the creative life for power and control.  When confronted with a potential threat he locks into a one sided assessment of what is happening and refuses to consider that the stranger before him could be friend and not foe.  He is slowly dismembered as he continues to misinterpret Arthur’s mission and the fact that he is outmatched.  Even in evaluating his life threatening wounds The Black Knight’s redundant response is, “Tis, but a scratch!”.

     The Black Knight seems to be missing some vital information! Unaware and ill informed of their own internal present state, villains like these all suffer the same fate.  A slow and sure decline of health and well being.  When left without reliable feedback about how we are effected by the outside world in the present our thinking, feeling, and behaving becomes rigid, and stereotyped as we rely more on past appraisals of ourselves and the world while responding to present circumstances that may be different.  More devastating is how we can bring out in our internal or external environment exactly the the threat we are trying to avoid.

     Claude Shannon (April 30, 1916 – February 24, 2001) was n stranger to the world of feedback and information processing.  He was a mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer who was busy living out several passions of his when he happened to leave behind the birth of the information age in his wake.  Among his joys was a fascination with juggling and machines.  So, of course he was determined to create a “juggling machine”.  You can check out my favorite video of this, with Claude giving the narration on how the issue of a lack of feedback in a mechanical system gets in the way of juggling.

     While you might imagine someone like Claude must have been quite single-minded to accomplish what he did in his lifetime, he would not have been so successful without collaborating with others around his ideas.  His ability to find opportunity to collaborate and play in the world would not only keep him on the path of discovery but provide a whole new world of resources for academia and industry.

     In two words I would say “one way” describes the difference between how machines deal with information in comparison to organic living systems.  Claude’s juggler was clunky and stiff.  It couldn’t respond to the ongoing play of the metal balls it was working with because it lacked a connection to feedback from Claude and within it’s own body parts.  The parts within and without don’t talk to each other or independently make novel use of variations that naturally occur in the world.

     Now “Asimo” on the other hand (pictured on the right) is perhaps the most advanced machine in the world and it’s a wonder of artificial intelligence that gives a human a run for their money in it’s flexibility to respond to ongoing changes in it’s life space.  Click on the link above to see the Honda company’s remarkable feat of robotics!  At the end of the day however, even Asimo is programmed from without and lacks the evolutionary and autobiographical memory that gives his experience meaning and purpose beyond its singular experience of being a wonder to us.

     It’s in our capacity to allow information and energy to flow within ourselves (intrapersonal) and between ourselves and others (interpersonal) that sophisticated behaviors emerge born out of deep connections between two brain/body/minds that are carrying on an evolutionarily ancient traditon of collaboration.  We conventionally like to say that life is like juggling.  “I have to juggle my schedule” or “I am juggling being a parent with having a career and volunteering in my community”.  I like to think that developmental psychiatrist Alan Schore has pulled together some of the finest examples of research in the field of human bonding to describe how caregivers and infants juggle their experiences together to reach goals in living.

     Alan’s perspective that caregivers and children are embedded in “co-regulating” each other’s states sheds light on how the experience dependent development of the brain is key to maintaining our humanity in the face of stress, pain, and suffering.  In the best case scenarios when we are thriving, we do more than just cope but maintain positive emotional states accompanied by learning, hard work, and inspiration that allow for juggling of the finest kind.

     The biopsychosocial bond between a caregiver and child allows for very physical changes to occur in the brain of both participants in the exchange of gaze, touch, smell, sound, and taste.  Yes, all of the sensory modalities including the 6th sense or gut feeling about the outside world, become part of the back and forth feedback that allows the caregiver to know the state of the child and respond to minimize negative emotional states and maximize positive emotional states.

     During these exchanges the inner evolutionarily older structures of the brain are integrated with the cerebral cortex as it grows at exponential rates.  All of this activity within and without will allow the child to self regulate as the cortex takes over the primary regulatory function of the more instinctual brain structures that got things going during early development.  We go on to develop autobiographical memory that organizes our behavior around seeking connection with others to help reduce negative emotional states and amplify positive states.

      One thing that sets us apart from machines is the ubiquity of “re-entrant feedback loops.  Feedback between organelles at the molecular level, neurons at the cellular level, brain structures at the level of organs, and mental models at the psychological level.  Of course the exchange humanitas is between two of us at the social level.  We sense and feel with all of our senses in the best case scenario and use artifacts of culture like art and music to deepen our expression and broaden the modalities through which we connect with one another to communicate the state of our organism.  We are pulsing, sensing, feeling organisms alive with an inherent pull toward growth and complexity.

     Expansion.  Not just size.  Not just bigger, but deeper, wider, broader connections between the very small and larger aspects of our humanity allow for our unique self-conscious experience.  It is our way to defeat the 2nd law of thermodynamics (“everything dissipates and falls apart”). We do this by remaining open to feedback.  Feedback within ourselves and between ourselves and others.  We use it to flexibly respond to changes in our world.  Our world is always changing, always in flux.  We store memory of being open like this that helps us defy that law that governs movement in the physical world.

     Whether due to trauma, our socialization, or temperament, we can come to act more like a closed biopsychosocial system. One that looks more like a series of one way interactions. This is observable when we become inflexible in our sensing, feeling, thinking, and moving.

     The loss of our own intrapersonal awareness of our body and the ongoing stream of perceptual feedback from the outside world can lead us to stop feeling authentically.  We lose the capacity to feel others who feel what is happening inside us as well.  It’s not unlike having cold steel and wires for body parts.  Surrounding ourselves with people who also can not feel whats going on can lead to cascading misinterpretations and uncoordinated attempts to collaborate.

     As Darth was bullied by his own past into adopting a singular passion for power and control he found the only equipment he needed were elements of defense and war. Like a dog with a sword for a tale he chased his own fears down and they bit back.  Only being able to sense the fear of something or its absence does not leave much awareness to build a life around.

     There is a way that working through our own fears and sorting out our past naturally leads us to connect more with others, not less.  It takes hard work, patience, and a tolerance for real biopsychosocial connection for bonds to take hold that foster an inner life of creativity.  An abundance of two way flows of information provide the medium within which a self is sustained.  Watch the multi-talented performers Nate & Kate Marshall exemplify this as they integrate music with street performance and share their joy for the performing arts.  Just click here and look out for the “Four Ball Blues” and you will see them play music and juggle, together!

     When I first saw them perform this phenomenal feat of interpersonal synchrony, I was blown away by imagining how many hours of connecting and communicating must have gone into the act.  They must have had moments of feeling like it wasn’t possible or was too complicated to make happen.  Moments of frustration and anger.  It appeared to be a unique accomplishment in my experience. I had never seen this done before and if it has I can’t imagine that many have accomplished it.

     And so there is an important relationship between two way communication and behavioral flexibility in human relationships.  While computational neuroscience will never relinquish the quest to make a man out of a machine, mother nature has a clear edge on this.  From the complex bi-directional flow of energy and information within our neurobiologal structures and face to face social interactions to the exchange between these levels, we have a profound capacity to coordinate and adjust each moment.  Not to demonize machines, but they are mechanical.  They essentially perform without spontaneity, spirit, or individuality and they are controlled and effected by physical forces.  When we catch ourselves characteristically acting like them, something has gone awry.

     Whereas, we humans have found a way to be moved and move by emotional, mental, psychosocial sources.  We expand toward increasing degrees of freedom and complexity out of the rush and thrill of  co-creating our experience of self with others.  Whether it’s the excitement of the caregiver and child finding just the right toy, food, or type of touch for the present occasion or Nate & Kate cranking up their act to the next level of mastery, we share in processes that are intentional and generative yet born out of the mystery and uncertainty inherent in a world where our behavior is not always pre-programmed.

     The world that we co-construct to inform our experience must first and foremost include reliable feedback related to our own unique experience.  This can be provided by an internal attunement to how life is going for us and what goals in life seem salient to us.  What turns us on, what inspires us to get up in the morning, what makes it all worthwhile matters.  Without personal goals and aspirations we fall prey to manipulation and ill-informed projects that are sure to leave us more alone in the universe.







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