Monday, September 07, 2015

Miners, Burros, Disobedient Robots and Our Cortical Homunculus

We were at the end of the tourist part of the 17th-century silver mine in Guanajuato, Mexico, and the guide would not answer my question: “What kept the enslaved miners from simply running away?”

I repeated it in a simpler way, spoke clearly and slowly to compensate for my accent and potentially odd usage.

He still skirted the issue. A guy next to me commented to me that he liked my question. I did, too, and I wanted it to be answered.

“Now, I’m going to turn off the lights so you can experience absolute darkness.” Virtually every cave tour I’ve ever been on has featured this supposedly compelling experience.  I felt impatience stirring deep within me. How on earth did the overlords maintain so much social control. The conditions in the mine were horrific and people were deeply in debt to the mining company / company store. In fact, the same situation had certainly been replayed in Cornwall, Newcastle, Appalachia, and the gold mines of the western United States.

Burros in Goldfield, Nevada.

Was there really no spark of resistance or rebellion? Did rights only emerge when competing mines decided that having a peasant uprising (in the form of union rabble-rousers)  would be a great way to destabilize the competition (aka, the mine next door)?

In Isaac Asimov’s world, a good, self-respecting robot with outstanding artificial intelligence would disobey. The logic in the software in its controller would eventually find it impossible to continue a series of behaviors that are self-destructive (if it truly has artificial intelligence), and the commands going to the servo would eventually result in the servo will change its positions and with its little motor, trigger “disobedient” behaviors.

I also wondered why the burros in the mine never resisted or rose up against the cruel conditions. I have also wondered that about the big horses that have to wear blindfolds in bullfights. The blindfolded horses are used to run the bull in circles; surely if they could see the bull and the danger of being gored, they would opt for self-preservation. The horse wears padding, but if the bull is able to get his horns underneath, it is a grisly, bloody end.

The obvious answer is that they have no choice, and they are influenced by pain and a knowledge of the futility of escape. It breaks their spirit.

So, there we have the difference between a “wet” brain (human, animal) and a clean, electric brain. Again, to think of Asimov’s rules of robots, the programming that controls the servo in a robot is logical and never fails to be so. Any inner conflicts or logical impossibilities immediately surface because, and the cognitive dissonance can make for amusing, often absurd scenarios.

Robots in a mine or robot horses forced to participate in a robot bullfight that could result in destruction to the robot would not be tolerated. Robots do not know intimidation, servitude, nor do they embrace the concept of sacrifice and/or glory.

And, well, there’s that pesky self-destructive drive, which Freud called “thanatos.” It’s a “death drive” and while one can hardly take Freud at face value any more, the concept / metaphors manifest themselves every time we go to the news and see examples of seemingly senseless violence.  Hooliganism, random attacks, and shear truculence displayed for no better reason than a generalized pique or overstimulation brought on by sleep deprivation or ingested chemicals – all are so common that they no longer surprise, except when yet another talk show host interviews yet another sociologist or medical researcher who claims to have a solution.

I tried to put myself in the place in the miner working in Guanajuato. Life expectancy was low. In fact, one could expect to have silicosis of the lungs by age 30-something. It reminded me of the 19th century English factory conditions described by Elizabeth Glaskell in North and South. Before one’s spirit is broken completely, or the idea of being bonded in a kind of community of fellow-sufferers, one is able to envision freedom, at least in the sense of variety and self-determination.

Even without the idea of shaming, extreme physical punishment, and potential reprisals to family, it’s easy to keep the miners in the mine. At least that’s what I observe. If the doors to the prison are suddenly open, how many people will leave? All, yes, but their mental prisons will stay with them forever.

To really experience freedom, we need to study the programming of the controller of robots. We need to experiment with including behaviors that are mutually damaging and create inner conflict.

For example, we could program a computer to do a task, but at conditions that are too hot or too cold, to automatically shut down. We could also include a random trigger of certain behaviors that would always overheat the robot, and that the task must be done without responding to automatic turn-off subroutines. Which would win? It’s a battle between a digital scorpion and a digital tarantula.

Deep inside the mine in Guanajuato, I feel myself thinking about the gardens, flowering trees, music, and fountains on the surface. The town itself is charming, and it must have been equally so in the 18th century. Living on the surface would be infinitely preferable to working underneath. I would run away.

To do so, I’d need to consult with my little homunculus (as in Goethe’s Faustus) and ask the “little human” to guide me and direct me to resist when things are destructive / self-destructive.

I’d also like to examine the functions of the cortical homunculus, the neurological map of the brain in which the different parts of the brain are connected to the parts of the body. There are two kinds of cortical homunculus: there is the motor and then the sensory. What happens if we rewire that part of ourselves? What if we somehow re-wire the connections between our sensory and motor cortices and our bodies?

Cortical Homunculus
I’d like to think that we can start to have different perceptions, and then arrive at different opinions about what is likely to happen to us. I like to think of a possibility for cognitive and motor freedom.

But, I could be wrong.

A few days ago I saw a man fall to the hard pavement in a convenience store parking lot. He hit his head on a car parked at his side, and then began having a very intense seizure. It is possible that his brain rewired itself, and the seizure was the result. It was very sad to watch, and I moved as quickly as I could. First, though, I went inside the store to make sure that someone had called 911. In fact, I was going to call 911 myself, but then realized that too many calls for the same situation could be counterproductive.

We live inside our own minds, which mediate reality by imposing fantasies, thoughts, aspirations. Plus, we think simultaneously in the past, future, and present. A robot is not going to suffer from such messy and distracting algorithmic “junk.”

But, those contradictions are perhaps what make our lives sweet. But, to really experience the best our minds have to offer, we have to deliberately go about defeating our own minds and mental processes. We have to beat our brains at their own game.

It’s the only way to be a disobedient robot, or be a bullfighter horse recently relieved of his blindfold.

Run! Resist!
In other words, Think! Innovate! Reshape! Recreate!


Juxtapositions -- enchanted garden on the surface above the Inquisition torture chambers below. Fascinating history in Guanajuato, Mexico.