[Humanist] 28.369 us and them: reciprocal inspiration?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Oct 4 07:18:24 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 369.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 03 Oct 2014 14:50:41 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: reciprocal inspiration

Evelyn Fox Keller, in "Booting Up Baby", Genesis Redux: Essays in the 
History and Philosophy of Artificial Life, ed. Jessica Riskin (Chicago, 
2007), reproduces Rodney Brooks' one-sentence summary of the work of 
"The Cog Shop" at MIT 

> a long-term exploration of what developmental psychology can teach
> robotics, and vice versa

This work is fascinating and important for several reasons, but what 
caught my eye was Brooks' insight in the explicit reciprocity of that 
"vice versa".

So often digital humanities is presented to the world and taken by the 
world wholly in terms of what it can do for the disciplines of 
application. Is it ever the case that the benefit, the intellectual 
gain, is conceived as going in the other direction as well? I don't mean 
merely more efficient algorithms. I mean demands no computing can 
currently address. But now for the irony of that.

At the end of her essay, Keller muses on the phenomenon common 
to us humans and our technological inventions. She asks her reader to

> ... consider some of the recent uses of computational models in
> contemporary biology in which genetic (and biochemical) data and the
> schematic models that molecular biologists have until now employed to
> make sense of that data are used to construct computer simulations
> that are then, in turn, analyzed to explore the adequacy of the
> original data and accompanying models. In a number of cases, this
> procedure has revealed inadequacies in the original models and has
> accordingly led to the development of better models. My point in
> raising these examples from other fields is this: If there appears to
> be a disturbing circularity in the expectations for robotic
> simulations of human development, and if I am right in suggesting
> that the same problem arises in the uses of computer simulations,
> then the issue becomes a more general one. Furthermore, an
> examination of constructive examples in other fields ought to help us
> to see how what first appears as circular might be more appropriately
> characterized as spiral, with a forward momentum quite compatible
> with the back-and-forth traffic between model and modeled that is
> more the norm than the exception for so much of techno-scientific
> practice.

My question is this: if indeed, as would seem to be the case, 
improvement of robotic models based on human developmental 
psychology leads to reworking of ideas about that psychology, and so 
revision of the robots and so on, what sort of a spiral might this be, and 
what would we say about the direction it is going? One can certainly 
predict reactions along the lines of 'as they become more like us, we 
become more like them', which I suspect is true to some degree, but is 
there anything particularly new here? 

Keller's response follows:

> This is of course not the first time people have tried to build
> machines that mimic the processes of human development and learning,
> but earlier efforts were not nearly so successful, nor were they
> quite so seductive.

She notes that now that "use runs hand in hand with, if it does not 
actually precede, invention" and cites the Japanese example of "a large 
humanoid robot research initiative" intended "to serve the elderly -- as 
companions, as helpers, as nursemaids". She then notes the "meteoric 
rise in the incidence of autism in the general [American] population" and 
suggests robotic companions for autistic children could help. Perhaps they 
could, or even have since she wrote. But is there a prior relationship 
between the rise of autism and the equally impressive devotion to 


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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