“We want to build a machine that will be proud of us”

          That was the motto of the <<Thinking Machines Corporation>> which Daniel Hillis had co-founded in the ’80s decade. At that moment Hillis was carrying out his PhD thesis at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the area of massive parallel computing. A kind of computational processing which is really complex, related to Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). The sentence identifies with humor one of the major ambitions of people who research how to design a machine that can be truly ‘intelligent’.

          Once the joke is over, underneath that humor the ambition is really serious. A.I. as a discipline seeks getting to the bottom of how circuits should be connected in order to treat information in the same way our brain does. The idea of neuro-computing is that, if all our thoughts and feelings are supported on the fact that our neurons manage information, that management could be replicated with another kind of circuitry -not necessarily biological. And as an ultimate goal, scientists could create a machine which would think by itself and would have emotions. Topics of so many movies… From AI by Spielberg to Terminator by Cameron, and even the famous Matrix.

          But the point I want to highlight here is not related to A.I. itself. In fact, modern neuroscientists have identified a whole series of chemical mechanisms that involve neurons and the rest of the body as well (immune and endocrine systems, for instance) which would make insufficient the model that a machine might feel only thanks to managing information through electrical impulses. The point I want to make here rests within the same sentence of the title.

          Sometimes, taking a sentence out of its context allows us to discover what lies behind the intentions and concerns of the person who pronounced it, which does not necessarily have anything to do with the issue in discussion. In this case, I believe the sentence speaks more about a core human motivation than about anything else. Let’s notice that we do not want a machine <<that shows indifference or scorn to us>>. We aim at creating something that admires us, that owes respect to us, that appreciates us.

          I call this fundamental human motivation search for approval. It is that very same one that makes us prefer a dog as a pet (that jumps out of his body in joy when seeing us arrive), or a cat that purrs and rubs itself against our legs. Instead of a cold and calculating iguana, or a canary that steps apart from our nurturing hand, or even a turtle that keeps ‘kool’ when we are fantastic to her. “But I have an uncle who owns a lizard…” someone will argue. Well, your uncle must be finding enough approval from another source.

          Actually, we search for approval fundamentally from our peers, from those around us, from our colleagues, our friends, couples and relatives. And the way we do it expresses itself in an infinite number of manners. We appreciate a encouraging words, we are cheered up by handshakes, we are inspired by hugs and we are stimulated when shown affection and loved back. However, this particular human motivation is so deep and ‘rooted’ in our emotional principles, that works even when we face a package of circuits and cogs simulating an animal. Such as those furry teddy dogs sold in the streets, which bark, move and put the tiny tongue out.

          What do we prefer? The little robot in sharp edges and corners that speaks in an iceberg-pitched tone and only obeys orders, or some kind of furry and friendly android that does not do much but shows affection and loves us? There is no need for A.I. to exist: this sort of machines nowadays can be invented and in fact it is being done. We call them toys. They seem to have feelings and thoughts, but they are just suitably programmed.

          Our most anthropomorphic creations (that resemble people) are full of features that respond to our eagerness to be rewarded and valued. Even those that are only two-dimensional, such as the modern movies ‘3D animations’.

          If A.I. happens to move forward far enough, we will probably witness washing machines that turn happy when seeing their owners.



  • Minsky, Marvin (2006), La Máquina de las Emociones: sentido común, inteligencia artificial y el futuro de la mente humana; Debate, Buenos Aires, 2010; (p.75). (The Emotions Machine).
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