Darwin’s theory of evolution, reinterpreted after the discovery of genes, states that successful genes survive and propagate across generations of living beings. Success is measured by the frequency of genes per generation which is a reflection of how well these genes adapt to – or are selected by – the ever-changing natural environment. Living beings are their genes, until culture kicks in.
Culture is a rare phenomenon in earth species. However, once it takes off it affects gene selection in the culture-acquiring species by means of self-replicating cultural information transmitted across individuals and generations. For example in humans culture-based mating choices determine which genes will pass on to the next generation, oftentimes irrespective of environmental selection.
Although the importance of cultural information in evolution was appreciated since the 1920s it was Richard Dawkins who popularized the word “Meme” (from the Greek “Μίμησις” which means “imitating”). A meme is therefore an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Like genes, memes obey evolutionary laws.
Technology is a human construct which – like art – can be regarded as driven by memetic dynamics. Some ideas fail not because they were “bad” but because they did not affect (or infect) a good enough number of brains. The survival of ideas depends on the degree of their popularity. This has always been the case but, perhaps, today more obviously than ever. Just witness the huge budgets of advertising companies in our modern world where too many ideas compete for our attention and acceptance.
Robots developed both as a need in automated manufacturing, as well as a result of advances in control engineering. Like other technological artifacts they evolve thanks to a dense and chaotic web of cultural interactions that encompass new and unpredictable challenges, old blueprints, as well as chance eureka moments. All this takes place inside and across the minds of their human designers. Industrial robots evolve in minds of their engineers through meme selection.
Memes have received a lot of criticism. Some doubt their philosophical depth, others consider them as pseudoscience, while many contend that they are just a metaphor not to be take too seriously. No one however doubts of the importance and effect of culturally transmitted information.
As the utilitarian application of robots moves from manufacturing to social interaction with human beings a new set of memes comes into action. Anthropomorphism becomes a specification in the design. But what is a “human” being anyway?
Our cultural understanding of what means to be human varies but nevertheless shapes the functionality, looks and behavior of autonomous non-industrial robots. New cultural forces come into play here. Human memory- individual and collective – recalls and infuses stored ideas, fears, hopes and myths into each new generation of robots. Our culture codified in our memories drives humanoid robot evolution. Till humanoid robots become self-replicating machines with recursive self-improvement capabilities, they will remain a mirror image of ourselves.