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KEEPING THEM ON A LEASH

ROBERT PROVINE

Neuroscientist, emeritus professor of psychology, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

Fear not the malevolent toaster, weaponized Roomba, or larcenous ATM. Breakthroughs in the competence of machines, intelligent or otherwise, should not inspire paranoia about a future clash between humanity and its mechanical creations. Humans will prevail, in part through primal, often disreputable qualities more associated with our downfall than with salvation. Cunning, deception, revenge, suspicion, and unpredictability befuddle less flexible and imaginative entities. Intellect isn’t everything, and the irrational is not necessarily maladaptive. Irrational acts stir the neurological pot, nudging us out of unproductive ruts and into creative solutions. Our sociality yields a human superorganism with teamwork and collective, distributed intelligence. There are perks for being emotional beasts of the herd.

Thought experiments about these matters are the source of practical insights into human and machine behavior and suggest how to build different and better kinds of machines. Can deception, rage, fear, revenge, empathy, and the like be programmed into a machine, and to what effect? (This requires more than the superficial emulation of human affect.) Can a sense of selfhood be programmed into a machine—say, via tickle? How can we produce social machines, and what kind of command structure is required to organize their teamwork? Will groups of autonomous social machines generate an emergent political structure, culture, and tradition? How will such machines treat their human creators? Can natural and artificial selection be programmed into self-replicating robots?

There’s no indication that we’ll have a problem keeping our machines on a leash, even if they misbehave. We are far from building teams of swaggering, unpredictable, Machiavellian robots with an attitude problem and an urge to reproduce.

 
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