January 15, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

The Brain as the Computer Robots Need

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially once you realize how incredibly powerful it is.  In some ways it’s like a computer that needs maintenance; in other ways, it is too powerful to describe in machine language.  Here are a few mind matters to mind because it matters:

  1. Reboot to clear the ringing:  Many people suffer from various degrees of ringing in their ears, called tinnitus.  For the first time, there is hope for clearing this condition (which ranges from annoying to debilitating), by “rebooting” a part of the brain responsible for it.  PhysOrg reported on studies with rats that showed tinnitus could be drastically reduced or eliminated by playing certain pitches while stimulating the vagus nerve.  Instead of just masking the ringing, it actually eliminates it: “Similar to pressing a reset button in the brain, this new therapy was found to help retrain the part of the brain that interprets sound so that errant neurons reverted back to their original state and the ringing disappeared.”  New Scientist called it “brain training” that reverses ringing in ears.  Incidentally, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has also been effective in treating epilepsy and depression.
        Another article on PhysOrg explained that tinnitus is much more than a hearing problem.  A neuroscientist said a part of the brain involved, the corticostriatal circuit, “is part of a general ‘appraisal network’ determining which sensations are important, and ultimately affecting how or whether those sensations are experienced.”  Science Daily called tinnitus “the Result of the Brain Trying, but Failing, to Repair Itself,” indicating that mechanisms are in place to keep the brain in good working order.  But when they fail, maybe a reboot is the last resort.
  2. Why music is beautiful:  When sound is organized by intelligent design in music, instead of being an accidental malfunction like tinnitus, it makes us feel wonderful and satisfied.  Why is that?  Science Daily explored why music gives us chills.  “Scientists have found that the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain important for more tangible pleasures associated with rewards such as food, drugs and sex.”  Even the anticipation of favorite music can start the chills, the researchers at Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University found.
        According to the article, “the results suggest why music, which has no obvious survival value, is so significant across human society.”  But did it evolve?  While it may be uncontroversial that dopamine is “a neurotransmitter vital for reinforcing behavior that is necessary for survival,” suggesting that music evolved to help humans survive and pass on their genes leaves many questions hanging.  How did music get associated with dopamine release?  If it merely a physiological response of sound impinging on eardrums and nerves, why don’t all animals respond in the same way?  How do non-musical people and the deaf survive?  How can different people have different reactions to the same sounds?  Can the sensation of pleasure and chills be understood apart from a mind?
  3. Robot see, robot do:  A new “mimic-bot” was reported by New Scientist that can watch a human and learn to imitate what it sees.  “Developed by Ji-Hyeong Han and Jong-Hwan Kim at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, the system is designed to respond to the actions of the person confronting it in the same way that our own brains do,” reporter Helen Knight explained.  “The human brain contains specialised cells, called mirror neurons, that appear to fire in the same way when we watch an action being performed by others as they do when we perform the action ourselves.  It is thought that this helps us to recognise or predict their intentions.”  We can only hope these designers do better than Mickey Mouse did in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia, by ensuring the robots know the meaning of “Stop!”

New Scientist intimated that robots work better by evolving.  Describing tests at the University of Vermont, where a robot learned to walk after first experimenting with crawling, reporter Paul Marks said, “Virtual robots learning to walk are steadiest on their feet when they start out with no legs and are allowed to evolve limbs over time.  As well as helping to design more stable robots, the implication is that creatures whose body plans morph as they grow may have an evolutionary advantage.”  But doesn’t that describe the stages every baby goes through? 

Evolution has nothing to do with these stories.  Marks made the mistake repeatedly of using evolve as an active verb or infinitive, “to evolve,” as if the robot was making a purposeful choice:

  • Virtual robots learning to walk are steadiest on their feet when they start out with no legs and are allowed to evolve limbs over time
  • to seek out a virtual light source and evolve a walking gait to reach it.
  • A third type of virtual bot had four upright legs to start with and lacked the ability to evolve its body plan.
  • Each bot used a software routine called a genetic algorithm Movie Camera to evolve a slithering or walking gait that would best get it to the light source given its current body plan.

Evolution is not an active verb.  It is the passive effect of random variations doing whatever they do, if not killing an organism.  You cannot choose to evolve any more than you can choose to grow a new sense organ by hoping that the right cosmic rays cause fortuitous mutations that produce some new sensation you cannot now fathom.  Algorithm and evolve do not belong in the same sentence, unless “evolve” is defined in the mathematical sense of “unfolding.”  Evolutionary algorithm is an oxymoron, like dishonest truth or aimless plan.
    Then Marks stumbled further by confusing evolution with child development:

In terms of biology, evolving behaviours like locomotion may be easier if the animal progresses through body plans that allow for gradual learning over time, says [Josh] Bongard [U of Vermont].  “This is what human infants do: they progress from crawling to walking gradually, even as the bones in the legs and feet change to accommodate the change in behaviour.”

Child development is not evolution, for crying out loud.  It’s the outworking of an intelligently designed program.  This kind of equivocation over the meaning of evolution should long ago have been exploded out of the territory behind Darwinian rhetoric.  Then Marks followed that groaner with this: “The results are useful for engineers….”  Please don’t advise engineers to use evolution (in the Darwinian, biological sense) for their programs.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

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