Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy

Do Robots Have Feelings?

October 13th, 2015

Emotion algorithms

cairn To answer the question whether robots have feelings or not we must have some notion about the nature of feelings. What are feelings? Or emotions? Are they to be accounted for purely physically; the expression of electrochemical processes that take place within one’s body? Our psyche’s perception of the physiological activity taking place in our bodies when we are feeling that emotion?

In this view emotion is what we experience when we are carrying out the imperatives of nature. Emotion IS physiology. That was the view of William James. His idea is explored in the posting, Sense of Volition. Suppose we accept this mechanistic view. Then robots might have feelings!

Consider a game playing robot. It ‘decides’ which move to make in order to win. “Because I like to win, I play thusly,” the robot appears to declare as it makes its move. It seems ‘to know success.’ It appreciates winning. Within the computer program is embedded a ‘want-to-win.’ A desire.

Is the robot fooling us? You say, “The robot has no ‘desires’; that’s just the way he’s programmed.” In a computer we ascribe it’s apparently emotional behavior to the program; it’s how the program functions.

Is my ‘desire’ not how my ‘program’ functions? Perhaps we should accept the same architecture for a human; that what we call emotion is behavior executing some electrochemical program within us. Then the associated emotion is how that chemistry feels to us. That being the case, it may very well be that the computer being programmed to exhibit some behavior, ‘feels’ the associated emotion. Their very programs are the execution of emotional drives. The program itself contains the emotional content.

There is a strikingly insightful video about the nature of a computer in which Richard Feynman explains how a computer works. The essence of the matter has not to do with computation at all; but rather with the processing of data. The video is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKWGGDXe5MA

Using Feynman’s paradigm we may perceive how emotion is embedded in a game-playing computer. So here is an elemental game to explore the idea. It is so simple that the entire tree of possible games is visually manageable.

I call this game, Four Quadrants. It’s a simpleton’s tic tac toe. Black or green fills some empty quadrant of the square in alternating sequence. Black starts. Black ‘wins’ if the top row is black. Otherwise it loses.

Here is the tree of all possibilities.

Each node of the tree represents the appearance of the four-quadrant board upon which a move is to be made. Examples of these board configurations are pictured at some of the nodes. The root of the tree is at the center where the game begins with no quadrants filled. The emanating branches are the moves made. They terminate in new nodes corresponding to new board appearances.

The blue lines represent the four ‘win’ paths. The twenty orange ones are all ‘lose paths’. Alternately first black and then green play using the overriding rule: at your turn, fill an empty quadrant with your color. This ‘rule’ is not learned, but programed.

For Green the choice of quadrant is made randomly. For Black the rule is more complicated. Black is programmed to ‘want to win’; to learn how to win. Only at the beginning does it choose randomly.

A game is played out. After three moves – black, green, black – the game ends. If the two upper squares are black the game is a win for black. If not the game is a loss. And the command ‘stop playing’ is encountered. A new game may begin.

Now the important thing is this: that all of the games are recorded in a data base. So, at each move, Black may consult that data base. He compares the current look of the board to its appearance in all of the past games ever played. Eventually there are many of these past games available. Black can query the data base as to whether a particular move led to a win or to a loss in past games. If it led to a win Black is directed to play it. Thus is Black’s passion to win produced by a program.

With this learning technique Black improves his chances of winning against a random-play opponent from only one time in six to a win two out of three times – pretty impressive.

But a human does not learn this way. A human learns a heuristic. In order to win, the heuristic that a human Black must learn is: Play the top row if you can. The computer ends up doing this but the idea is nowhere written in the program.

In the sense used by Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011) a heuristic is a rule-of-thumb judgement that we rely upon to cope with pressing affairs. It is a prejudice or stereotype that we use to reach a rapid conclusion. When an immediate response is required we act using a heuristic rather than giving concentrated thought to the matter. Using a heuristic is what Kahneman calls a ‘System One’ response.

In computing, a heuristic has a different meaning: it is an algorithm that constrains possibility space. It is a search method to query a data base more effectively. A way to avoid going through every single one of all previous games – all the possibilities – in the data base so as to locate a winning move. An evident example from common experience is in looking up a word – say the word ‘quit.’ Rather than scanning every word in the dictionary we look only among the words beginning with the letter q. That is a heuristic algorithm. It saves a lot of effort in the data base search.

What is the relationship between the two? Between a prejudice in decision making and a restricted scan of a data base. Seems suggestive.

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September 8th, 2015

Hypotheses I cannot prove; taken on faith

I’m thinking about my axioms of faith. On what unprovable hypotheses do I confront the world. My axioms are my prejudices; the fewer the better. The first one is this:

1. That reality exists. That a world exists in whose catalogue of entities I am one. And what I encounter of its other entities are my access to reality.

But illusions exist. They may be mistaken for reality but are not ‘real’. One such is that the sun sets! The sun’s apparent motion in the sky is an illusion. The effect is entirely due to the rotation of the earth on which we are fixed; that is the reality. Other illusions are not on such a grand scale; most are of a personal nature. That a snail speaks to you.

How are we to know that we know reality? How are we to distinguish between what exists in reality and our interpretation of reality? To distinguish objective from subjective? These words, ‘objective’ and ‘subjective,’ are the ones which are commonly used to partition the two; to differentiate reality from strictly personal experience.

Many philosophers contend that nothing is objective. You can’t ever be sure that you know reality. The moving-sun illusion epitomizes that idea. Until a few hundred years ago the whole world’s consensus was that the sun is an object that physically moves across the sky from east to west. Like a bird or clouds move across the sky. Mankind surely classed this as an objective fact. But, that the sun moves is a communally subjective experience. It is not an objective fact but an illusion shared by many.

Since our notions of what constitutes reality can change, how can we, in fact, trust that we know what reality is? The axiom of faith that reality exists is of no consequence without addressing how one can know reality. And there is no assurance that one can. So to proceed further I need another axiom of faith. It’s this:

2. That the ‘provisionally objective’ findings of science are genuine pictures of reality. So all we can know of this reality comes from studying the world via the methods of science. In exploring the world scientifically we are learning about reality; its parameters and properties, the laws governing it. That’s the axiom.

A problem arises in that science can change its mind. That ideas be revised in the light of new evidence is at the kernel of scientific inquiry. What is classified by science as objective reality may change. So how can we speak of an objective reality if what is considered to be objective turns out later not to be so. To cope with this we have to take ‘objective’ to mean the ‘provisionally objective’ idea of science.

The axiom, then, is that the current findings of science constitute what we know of reality. Science gives a valid picture of reality; pictures that contradict science are not valid. By this axiom what is classed as objective, changes with scientific understanding. So that the word, ‘objective,’ must be understood as ‘provisionally objective’. Objective is whatever current science says it is.

My axiom of faith is that ‘objective’ = the collective opinion of savants. By savants I mean the community of scholars who publish findings on the study of nature and check the findings of others. We make decisions based on confidence in certified expertise. Confidence in independent honorable experts whose research is open to confirmation. Built into the scientific method expected of these people is the recognition that new results may change the consensus.

The methods of science include these two features:

a. To be classified as objective, an event must be verifiable. Events not verifiable by independent observers may not be ranked as objective.

No one knows the experience of another only the outward signs. The outward signs can be verified. The color called blue is consistently indicated by all parties. That this color is blue is thus verified. But whether, in fact, Smith’s experience of blue is the same as Snell’s is not verifiable. The experience is, therefore, subjective, not objective.

b. Theoretical deductions from verifiable experience about how the world works must bear the signature of refutability. Out of the theory must come a prediction for the outcome of an experiment. Such a deciding experiment is one that includes possible outcomes, which if observed, would refute the theory. This notion is charmingly portrayed in an essay by Karl Popper – as valid today as when written. (‘Science: Conjectures and Refutations’ in “Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge” by Karl Popper (1963) Routledge, N.Y. Accessible online at http://worthylab.tamu.edu/Courses_files/Popper_ConjecturesandRefutations.pdf)

Using these axioms a remarkable finding emerges: that data collected via science can be represented by mathematical statements. We see that nature is governed by laws. These can be cast as mathematical equations. The universe is not capricious. There are underlying rules which govern its behavior. Order in the universe resides precisely in the laws that govern it. It is this that gives rise to the conviction that everything proceeds by natural process by which is meant, processes investigable by science.

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Right Wrongs

August 1st, 2015

Drowning in the ocean of injustice.

Context: An atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945. This event was the critical one which ended the Second World War. Some claim that it was an act of savagery needlessly killing many because the war could have been ended without that event.

Dear Ted:

Thank you for the passages from Zinn. (H. Zinn, 2010, “The Bomb”) Your outrage against the injustice portrayed by Zinn is understandable. My world outlook forbids me from accepting Zinn’s thesis without scrutiny but let us accept it for the sake of conversation. The thesis is this:

    Influential advisors, mainly Jim Byrnes, led President Truman, in 1945, to sacrifice the lives of over 200,000 people unecessarily, by dropping an atomic bomb on them, for the sake of a political power gambit: to pre-empt any Russian influence in the defeat of Japan. To “let us dictate the terms of ending the war.”

Let’s grant this interesting thesis. What are we to make of it?

I know, Ted, what you make of it. A reason for moral outrage. A call to wake fellow citizens to this atrocity committed by our government.

To what purpose? To let the decision makers know that inhumane actions will earn them the curses of posterity? To let politicians know that future bad behavior will lose them their constituency? To inaugurate more responsible leadership, a more humane society?  May these come to pass.

Ted, I am grateful that there are human beings like you, about. Our world would be a seethingly evil place were there not compassionate, selfless and concerned people among us. The lives of many are blessed because of your dedication. There is power in your indignation.

What I would like to understand is this: how do you keep from drowning in the evident ocean of injustice, suffering and misery around us?

For every exposé by Zinn, ten thousand lay buried. And without any Zinns at all there are valid calls for justice and humanity in every direction. Against the torture of human beings. For the care of the poor, the oppressed, the sick. For the rescue of the persecuted and of the refugees migrating to escape war. How bear the overwhelming burden of what is so evident; that the calls for help are interminable? And valid!

Most must be ignored. Else what time is left for play, for art, for merriment, for the fanciful, for adventure, for science, for theater, for rejoicing and celebrating life? For irrelevancy? For delicious decadence? Musn’t one ignore injustice – at least for intervals of time? Were the burden of injustices to infuse all art and dance and music it would be a sorry world. As sorry as it would be to lose those who fight for justice. One’s meagre allotment of life’s spare moments may be rationed in many ways: used to play games, used to be entertained, to go shopping, for socializing, used to explore nature, to succor the needy, to right wrongs and to promote justice, to analyze the righting of wrongs  . . .

Fighting injustice is one of the passions; as consuming and noble as that for art or for dancing or for science or playing tennis or buying clothes …  We allot our most precious life moments to these enthusiasms. Fighting injustice is a passion. It has an appeal to some. It is ignored by others. They are consumed with other enthusiasms.

Righteous indignation is a very compelling emotion. When it engulfs me I lose perspective, become humorless. So I try to minimize it. I cannot be righteously indignant and celebrate life. Jubilation and anger don’t coexist.

Therefore my reaction to Zinn’s news is not righteous indignation. This news is about one of ten thousand wrongs to be righted; on my ranking, not worth my time. I am no activist to make the world a better place. There is no respite from that angry task.

Worse, the task may be in vain. The goal is too elusive to be achieved. From my readings the decision to drop the atom bomb is the norm for history. It’s what I would expect. Of government. Of business. Of academe. Of my neighbors. What any constituency demands of its leaders is decisive actions on the basis of personal conviction.

‘The world will be a better place’, thought Byrnes and Truman, ‘if Japan is kept out of Russian hands. A blow of overwhelming awesome power would accomplish it. That 200,000 Japanese would die was of minor concern; they, the enemy, would enslave us if they could.’

Truman and Byrnes were sure what ‘good’ was. One cannot imagine that they viewed their action as atrocity; as doing evil? Not even Zinn would say so, I’m sure. They perceived their decision as a good. They believed they were working from a broader perspective; steering the ship of state not only by the sea at its bow but by the look of the whole broad ocean of history around them.

And, indeed, many would not fault them. Suppose the Russians had invaded before the war ended. The atom bomb preceded the scheduled Soviet invasion only by days. With their troops in Japan the Russians would have leverage for a voice in the peace. They had just such leverage in Eastern Europe and in Germany. There the Soviets created despotic puppet states in which generations of people suffered abuse of human rights, lived poorly and in terror. How would the Japanese have faired under such Soviet domination? Not happily, I’m sure. Were 200,000 lives worth fifty years of prosperity and freedom from Soviet oppression? I expect even Japanese could be found to say that it was.

Values change. What’s right now becomes what’s wrong later. A generation ago the virtue of eating meat was unquestioned in the West. Now less people eat beef. One commonly hears the moral rationale, “I only eat what I, myself, could kill”. That principle would restrict me to lettuce, flies and mosquitos! Too unappetizing a principle for me to contemplate. But those who know the ‘good’ view my choice to eat beef as bad.

Any number of things might have gone differently if Byrnes had not prevailed. These scenarios would be the theses of alter-Zinn historians full of righteous indignation that Truman withheld the bomb when, in the name of humanity, he could have used it.

Acting within the context of their situation – the hysteria of war and their personal prejudices – a decision was made to make the world a better place. From our present broad humanitarian perspective we find the world is not a better place. Or is it?

May my words be powerless, Ted, to sway you from your crusades.


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