Ghosts in the machines

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget noted that in children’s’ minds there is an implicit understanding of the world in which all events are the product of consciousness or intention. Things happen for a reason and never by chance. Piaget’s discovery has tremendous repercussions in the way we understand ourselves and our relationship with the world. It is apparent that we humans are born with a cognitive inability to distinguish the external world from one’s own psyche. We are born with our consciousness embedded in a continuum that extends beyond our physical bodies. Evolutionary biology is at play here: the seamless connection of one’s mind to the environment promotes survival by automating fear responses. Quick reflexes are far superior to reflective cogitation when something moves in the dark. Asking what is out there would have been a fatal question in the living conditions of our hominid ancestors. Better to respond with an a priori hypothesis deeply embedded in the brain, that whatever is out there has intention and that this intention concerns me.

In this evolutionary wiring of our brains must lie the roots of animism, our common proto-religion. Early humans saw the workings of a conscious, all-pervading lifeforce in everything that surrounded them. There was a soul, or a spirit, or a ghost, in everything: in the animals they hunted, in the caves in which they lived, in the forest, in the water, everywhere. We still believe that, deep inside. Amazingly, contemporary developmental psychology has confirmed that we manage to distinguish between inanimate and animate objects only through learning. Our belief that inanimate objects and natural forces are soulless is acquired through living in a society that has evolved away from the dangers of savanna-living. It is a social skill. As such, it is constantly challenged by our deeper, cognitive systems.

(Left: She is beautiful. But is she “alive”?)

We dream of childhood in terms of innocence, and within this framework we become nostalgic of the period in our lives when toys would come alive in our imagination. It turns out that these toys were indeed alive. We did not imagine them so. Our brains evaluated them as living creatures. As adults we often approach robots in a child-like fashion. For anyone who has been next to a sophisticated human-like robot with sophisticated behavior, the feeling of seeing something with an intention is formidable. It seems to stem from deep inside our psyche. It is. Despite the technical obstacles and hiccups (See my post on “uncanny valley”) we will ultimately accept androids in our society because they will appeal to our deepest, most primal cognitive beliefs that machines with intentions must be “alive”, that they must have a soul just like ours.

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