Thursday, 31 March 2011

What we need to learn from future robots on Mars... and Bees

On this weeks ever-excellent Skeptics Guide to the Universe, I heard tell of a possible future plan for exploring the surface of Mars. Rather than use a single rover, the idea is to use a swarm of robots that will spread out from the landing spot, search a wide area and then return to upload and share data and presumably recharge. Each robot would have searched for the same list of pre-defined information and used common measuring techniques so that when the data is shared, a consensus can be reached as to the value of each robots findings.  Should a particularly interesting spot have been found, a larger group could go to analyse in more depth, or perhaps nothing of interest was found and the search could continued elsewhere.

The inspiration for the idea came from bees. It is the same process that is involved in looking for a new place to start a hive.  Each bee will scout before reporting its findings back to the hive, which will then come to a collective decision.  In each case, consensus is possible because each individual is part of the same shared reality, which is in turn interpreted the same way, according to the same rules. So what the hell is it that robots and bees have that humans don't?! Well, the question actually needs to read, "What do we humans have that these bees and robots don't?"

Here's a thought experiment (I will use the robots for the comparison, since the concepts are more familiar to us, being tools of our creation, than the inner-workings of a bees brain): Clearly the robots represent a highly simplified model of what our society actually represents.  To make analogy true therefore, we would need robots that were looking for different things, with different measuring devices, and different concepts of what information was of most importance. Furthermore, instead of each robots having an equal voice, a small percentage of the robots spoke for all the others, thereby ensuring that all but a few of the observations were ignored and consensus remains an impossibility.

We humans do not all share the same software; we are not the Borg. Indeed, geographical separation alone has ensured radically different coneptions of what has value and how to measure that value, simply by virtue of the natural environment one inhabits. On top of that, more abstract separations have further undermined the unity of our judgement: Religion, race, sex, gender, wealth, even being ginger for crying out loud; All of these things and a thousand more have ensured that we are far from the robot ideal in terms of reaching consensus. All of these things I have mentioned, together they form culture, the software, our imagined community, our political identity.  It is thousands of years of top-down cultural (bio-political as Micahel Hardt and Antonio Negri call it) production, shaping our identities, passing from generation to generation; religious, nationalistic, commercial. It is what we believe, where we live, what we do... that is what we have that bees and robots do not.  That is what gets in the way of us sharing an understanding our reality, the same shared reality that makes consensus possible in bees and robots. 

Notice above that I blame top-down cultural production for our woes? Top-down production of our identities is, by definition, synonymous with political power, not in the strict 'state' defintion but political in terms of the power to govern peoples lives in any form. This includes the religious and commercial as well. Each time communication structures have progressed, the political structure has been forced to evolve, open-up, in a constant struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Yet always the oppressors had the power of identity creation, thereby ensuring that whenever the tension did finally break, the oppressed would, like an abused child, know nothing other than retribution-in-kind.  This no longer holds.  The internet is ushering in a new dawn of democratised cultural production, horizontally-derived identity that can, in all but a few countries, ignore all of the boundaries that stop us from reaching consensus (Anonyminity being the extreme conclusion).  Note here the I'm not saying that the Web is some sort of ready-made utpoia; all I am saying is that is can allow you to ignore those boundaries and that, since kids enjoying the internet have in many cases not yet internalised prejudice and ignorance quite yet, it can innoculate the young from the prejudice filled fear-politics used by their apparent elders.  Unfortunately, evolution is slow, condemning the Internets early years to cultural production whose authors were still very much of the top-down identity.

Another criticism would be that I am arguing for us to literally become the Borg, something that is further reinforced by the fact that I'm totally up for transhumanism. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Robots and bees have one primary function.  We do not; we have and should cherish our subjectivity. Consensus need only be reached in political arenas, in areas of societal organisation that has the power to impose identity upon us. We must work toward a complete split of past culture and politics, a counterintuitive notion yet only so to that part of us that has been directly formed from hundreds of years of top-down political identity.  To put it a less counterintuitive way: Do we want the fundamentalist religious, nationalistic or capitalistic ideologies of the few to determine the organisation of all of society? For all of past identity is the creation of the few, ensuring that public policy is determined by religious ideas thousand of years old, 18th Century political philosophy and institutions or wealth grabbing corporations fresh from the 19th century.  The alternative is to allow reality, evidence, to guide us, to recognise our own flaws and the insignificance of the individual, to harness, trust and give equal voice to all of the swarm.  If we were to work toward that then, far from becoming a mindless bee, you would become free in all the other areas of your life to be more than simply an indictrinated robot.  All that is being asked is that in political arenas, where people make decisions that are imposed upon others (whether willingly or not), that those decision makers leave their personal past, their personal judgement, their concept of right or wrong at the door, and allow the evidence to dictate the end results.  This could not fail to be more humanitarian, since all of the evidence points to us all being one system.

None of us should trust our own judgement.  We must all recognise our own pejudices, reflect on the perhaps instinctive rejection of the idea of splitting our known-culture and politics. Even our physiology works against us, showing patterns that aren't there, showing us a limited confabulation of reality. Slowly we are coming to realise these things, something epitomised by the exploding growth of the skeptic movement. Consensus is possible in science, precisely because it understood very early on that culture was an impediment to truth and thus attempted to filter out its effects. It has advanced tremendously, a testament to our ability to work together toward understanding ourselves and our environment. It is by defintion a step-by-step process evolution; but we are beginning to walk the right way.

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