Culture Magazine

AI, Robots, and Imitation

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Might I hazard a somewhat contrary response to François Lachance [Humanist 34.222]?

This thread on machines and imitation makes me wonder what is being imitated. I know the focus has been on intelligence. But is there not a gamut: reflex, tropism, instinct, intelligence, personhood (as in agent for speech act)? What value might there be in approaching the problematic from alternative categories: to what extent might we speak of a machine-reflex?

It's not always about imitation. Take chess for example. Chess is a classic domain for AI investigation and, as far as I know, the primary objective has almost never been to play chess like a human. Oh, psychologists have investigated how humans play chess and that work may well have been employed in programming chess into computers, but the objective was not to play chess like humans, but to beat humans at chess. Determining whether or not a player has won a game, or at least forced a draw, is easily done, so the question of whether or not humans are being imitated is at best only a secondary issue. In the case of the recent AlphaZero, I believe it has been remarked that it exhibits stylistic traits unlike any exhibited by humans, and yet it always wins.

I presume that AI investigators settled on chess in part because it is a game known to enable displays of great intelligence (for want of a better term). So, the reasoning would seem, if a computer can beat a human at chess, that computer must be intelligent. Does anyone think of these chess-playing computers as being intelligent? Does anyone care? I'm told, by the way, that the most exciting chess in the world these days is that played by teams involving humans and computers. Do the human members of these teams regard their computers as being highly intelligent, of do they think of them as very useful, nay indispensable, aids? [BTW, John McCarthy is said to have remarked that if geneticists treated drosophila like AI have treated chess, that we'd have a lot of very fast house flies but scant knowledge of genetics.]

Now, Frederik Schodt has remarked, Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia (1988), that, back in the early days of industrial robotics, a Shinto ceremony would be performed to welcome a new robot to the assembly line. Industrial robots look nothing like humans nor do they behave like humans. They perform narrowly defined tasks with great precision, tirelessly, time after time. How did the human workers, and the Shinto priest, think of their robot compatriots? One of Schodt's themes in that book is that the Japanese have different conceptions of robots from Westerners. Why? Is it, for example, the influence of Buddhism?

It was the Japanese who introduced the Tamagotchi back in 1996. As you may recall these are small hand-held devices that function as virtual pets. Wikipedia says (

Upon activating the toy, an egg appears on the screen. After setting the clock on the device, the egg will wiggle for several minutes, and then hatch into a small pet. In later versions, inputting the player's name and birthday is also required when setting the clock, and at birth, the player can name the pet and learn of its family group and/or gender. The player can care for the pet as much or as little as they choose, and the outcome depends on the player's actions. The first Tamagotchis could only be paused by going to set the clock, effectively stopping the passage of time in the game, but in later models a pause function was included. Pets have a Hunger meter, Happy meter, Bracelet meter, and Discipline meter to determine how healthy and well behaved the pet is. There is also an age and weight check function for the current age and weight of the pet. [...] The pet goes through several distinct stages of development throughout its life cycle. Each stage lasts a set amount of time, depending on the model of the toy, and when it reaches a new stage, the toy plays a jingle, and the pet's appearance changes. The pet can "die" due to poor care, old age, sickness, and in a few versions, predators. The pet's life cycle stages are
Baby, Child, Teenager, and Adult. Later Tamagotchi models have added a Senior model. Usually the pet's age will increase once it has awakened from its sleep time.

The Tamagotchi doesn't look like a dog, a cat, a hamster, a turtle, a gold fish, or any other animal people use as pets, and yet serves as a pet for those who have them. Is there any imitation involved?

It's not only that imitation would seem to require conscious intention, as Jim Rovira has argued ( Humanist 34.218), but that the terms of imitation must be defined as well. In the visual arts, caricature is a kind of imitation; the subject of the caricature must be recognizable in the image. At the same time, the image is never a realistic portrayal; there is always an element of exaggeration. What are the terms of correspondence between the caricature and its subject? The same can be asked of those comedians who do impressions of others: What are the terms of correspondence between the impression and the subject?

And so we can ask of the Tamagotchi, what are the terms of correspondence between the Tamagotchi and a real (live) pet? What affordances must the Tamagotchi exhibit in order to be taken for a pet?

It's but a step from Tamagotchis to "companion robots" (do a search on the term), robots designed as companions for humans, particularly the elderly and young children. The Japanese have pioneered here as well and are using companion robots. Some of these companions are cute and fuzzy, but are not designed to imitate real cute and fuzzy animals (thus avoiding the uncanny valley? - a Japanese conception by the way). Others look more sleekly robotic but still somehow companionable.

As for machine-reflex, what about Roomba, the autonomous robot vacuum cleaner? When it bumps into a wall it backs away and changes direction. Is that a reflex? By what criteria? What about photo-tropism in flowers, flowers changing their orientation during the day so as to follow the sun? Reflex or not? What are the criteria?

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog