Science and Science Fiction for All!3

“I’m hungry,” my oldest boy  squealed from the back seat.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hungry. I’m Daddy,” I said. Suddenly, I was a cauldron mixture of shock, deja vu and nostalgia. I just relived an experience from my youth but the roles were far different. In that moment, I was my father, my son was me, and it was surreal.

Most of us have had similar experiences, doubly so if you have kids of your own. A situation will present itself and you respond exactly as you remember how someone else had handled it. What makes it weird is when that response is something you haven’t heard in 20 plus years. Was that little packet of data just sitting in some kind of consciousness repository in the back of my mind just waiting for this moment to be released?

Another Computer Analogy for Consciousness

After the “I’m hungry” moment with my kid, I started wondering about how we handle our responses to different stimuli about our day. It’s a given that people will usually respond in the manner in which they learn. If my parents taught me to work hard, I’ll respond to work with a strong work ethic. If some classmate is annoying me, I’ll respond as my mother joked “You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’.” We’ve all heard about kids being little sponges, soaking up information like a bottomless bucket, and that seems to certainly be the case, but that analogy falls short. For the purposes of this post, let’s use a computer analogy. Kids are like data collection machines, filling their database with data about situations that might present themselves and the possible responses to those situations. The rows in their learning table are Situation and Response.

Remember, babies are born with zero data in their consciousness tables. Right away, they receive a lot of input from what they can see, smell, touch, taste, etc. but they don’t have the processes in place to translate that data into any kind of construct of what the world is. They are running on a very bare bones operating system that receives these inputs with very basic processes.

if ( self.hungry ) {

Over time, they start adding more and more data and responses to their consciousness. Using one of their inputs, they can recognize the bearer of milk:

if ( input.eyesight.sees_mom && self.hungry ) {
} else {

Their system of responses become more and more complicated. Smiles are associated with good feelings and approval. Suddenly the concept of play comes into being and they register play is a good thing because the bigger version of itself is smiling which it learned was a good thing about a month ago. Their world view becomes more organized and complex and thus, more situations present themselves. They’ll need a response to go along with these new situations and that’s what they look for from the other, bigger, bringer of food machines; the parents.

A great example (and a good lesson for new parents) is from when my kid first bumped his head on the coffee table. Luckily, my wife and I had already talked about how we would handle our kid’s first introduction to pain, and we decided we wouldn’t make a big deal out of bumps and bruises. Believe me, it paid off. But what I find amazing is the process that my kid executed while handling this new experience and situation. Here’s the scenario:

My oldest boy is waddling around the living room with a cheap toy truck in one hand and a baby safe plastic bound book in the other. He’s clearly off balance and tips over, head bouncing off the coffee table like a heavy ping pong ball. I could tell it wasn’t bad enough to leave a mark, but the surprise and shock was enough to tell him that this was a new experience, and this one didn’t seem to warrant a smile. This was the moment that struck me. He looked right at me with his eyes wide as if to say “Ok, THAT just happened. What do I do? How should I respond to this?”

You see, he had no response, he froze. Of course, he could use a baby’s default response and just cry but first, he looked at me to fill his empty response row to the new situation.

After giving a very calm “You’re okay” with a perky smile and quickly distracting him with tickle to his ribs, he completely forgot about it and carried on without a hitch. He just cataloged the experience; If I slightly bump my head, it’s not a big deal, move on. He responded the same ever since. The big bumps? Well, those are another issue.

The Psychological advantage of a parent

The philosophic knowledge one can gain from being a parent is abundant and plentiful. As parents, we are literally their world. That sounds like a nice Hallmark card but I mean it in every psychological sense of the phrase. Everything they experience, everything they respond to is basically through the parent or guardian. Now, here’s where I stop myself from going on a tangent about the importance of good parenting and how society as a whole is massively failing at this. That’s a much needed post for another time, but all things being equal and the you being a half-way decent parent, the kid is going to want to experience the world through you.

At some point, as we grow up, our consciousness becomes more complicated. Responses aren’t as easily traceable as monkey see, monkey do. We start recognizing what has originally influenced those responses. It’s in those moments of catching yourself saying the same things to your kids that your parents said to you, and once we’re fully conscious of where the “I’ll give you something to cry about” response came from, we are then presented with a choice. We can either accept that response and just roll with it or we rebel and find another way of handling that response. Either way, we are a catalog of responses just waiting for the scenario to be played out in our lives.

Cue the Free Will or Determinism conversation

So maybe this is where agency or free will can actually exist and thrive. If we have a full understanding of every influencer in our lives, we might have a real, 100% genuine choice. We can accept or rebel. See my other post about free will being possible even from a deterministic point of view.

So if we’re just a consciousness with a catalog of responses ,what happens when a new scenario is presented and we have no response to draw from? Think about the scenario of asking a woman out on a date. What would the difference between the experienced socialite pick-up artist and the geeky computer nerd with less human contact than an Elephant Seal in Antarctica? There’s no ctrl+alt, delete from that blue screen of death.

  • Lloyd

    March 5, 2014

    Fantastic post. I started following your RSS feed a while back when I read you on High Existence, and have been pleased to enjoy your perspective every time a new post pops up.

    I’m also a father (son is 6 and daughter is 3), so I’m doubly enthusiastic to read when other parents have occasion to discuss their parenting experiences along with their other deep thoughts. For all of the times I’ve been surrounded by seemingly shallow company and mused, “Don’t other parents ever wonder about __X__?!?”, posts like this offer reassurance.

    Your conclusion question certainly ranks among those worth pondering for a while. While your programming analogy fits well with the tabula rasa point of view, many emphasize that the strength human intelligence is its adaptability; its ability collect data, make comparisons, and draw intuitive conclusions in unencountered situations. This seems to be what remains most elusive in AI development, and while its not my field, I find it fascinating to read about innovative approaches researchers are using to advance the science (an interest I believe you share, from your recent Project Tango post).

    Thanks, and keep writing!

  • Rustin Odom

    March 5, 2014

    Hey thanks, Lloyd. Your comment means a lot.
    I can absolutely sympathize about other parents taking for granted the deep philosophical wells of knowledge they can draw from standing at 3 feet tall and covered in peanut butter and jelly.
    Great points about AI research and the Holy Grail they’re chasing after. I wonder how many of them take deep research in child development.

  • History and Approaches to Artificial Intelligence » TheorySerum

    April 2, 2014

    […] Intelligence and not just a pre-programmed responding mechanism, which ironically I wrote a previous blog post about our own intelligence as […]

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