I remember a very long time ago i.e. 25 years or so, I read a vivid work of science fiction by Issac Asimov while I was at school. It was called “I Robot” and was a collection of several short stories about the moral interactions between humans and robots along with resulting conundrums that would manifest. It was a particularly good read, I seem to remember, and enjoyed the ideas it presented in hindsight. In fact it made me think quite a bit about artificial intelligence (AI)… Though I was still rather unversed in what AI actually was… In fact, for that matter, I was even unversed in understanding what and who this “I” was at that time.

I mean… For me to even produce a list of functions that a robot would have to fulfill in order to become “human-like” was a daunting task… Especially when I began doing so on my then novelty of a computer, the ZX Spectrum. To be honest, the games that came with the machine i.e. Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing, Horace and the Spiders, etc… left me somewhat wondering whether computers/robots would ever get as far as biological organisms had done. But that was then… And this is now.

So when articles pop up regarding artificial intelligence, talking about the way in which robots develop their behaviour, I jump at the opportunity to digest these insights and ponder on whether they i.e. robots, might well one day surpass most biological organisms here on Earth in both form, function and intelligence. In fact, I have already noted several interesting pointers that sufficiently demonstrate that our mechanoid counterparts are already well on the way to developing an artificial intelligence all of their own (see “TED Talks – Henry Markram Builds A Brain In A Supercomputer” and “Self-Organized Adaptation Of A Simple Neural Circuit Enables Complex Robot Behavior“)… So would it surprise if we one saw natural selection cleaning up robotic behavior into ever more refined modes of altruism? In fact… Would it be so surprising, even, if one day we saw robots evolving too? Well… Apparently, it’s already happening.

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Robots Evolve To Look Out For Their Own

A robot must protect its own existence.

This mid-20th-century dictate to the robotic clade from science fiction author and biochemist Isaac Asimov seems cleanly in step with Darwinian theory and the biological world of survival of the fittest.

But as scientists continue to witness animals and other organisms habitually sacrificing themselves for the greater good of their colony or kin, the picture of self-interested behavior in the natural world has become murkier. Might robots also learn to cooperate for the betterment of their own kind?

They already have. Meet the Alice bots. Some robots have been programmed to help each other out, but these automatons have “evolved” over generations to be more helpful—that is, to like robots.

The version of this behavior in animals is known as Hamilton’s rule of kin selection. Put forth by biologist W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s, it aimed to explain why organisms—from ants to humans—would sometimes help others at their own expense. This altruistic impulse—to spend time, energy and resources on others—is thought to be especially strong toward those who might help pass along our own genes. But just how close of kin does a person have to be for us to be compelled, under Hamilton’s rule, to help out?

Given the complexity of animal environments and actions and their relatively slow evolution, it’s been difficult to actually demonstrate Hamilton’s rule in organisms.

Cue the robots.

Researchers in Switzerland developed a band of small, rolling robots equipped with sensors and their own “genetic code”—a unique string of 33 1’s and 0’s functioning as individual “neurons” to determine sensor use and behavior—and tasked with foraging for small “food” objects and pushing them to a designated area. Those robots that failed to collect the objects were weeded out of the “gene pool” by the research team, whereas those that were successful could choose whether to collect the food object for themselves or share it with another robot.

“Over hundreds of generations,” the researchers concluded, “we show that Hamilton’s rule always accurately predicts the minimum relatedness necessary for altruism to evolve,” they wrote in a new paper describing the results, published online May 3 in PLoS Biology. The levels of relatedness that the researchers tested included full clones as well as the digital equivalent of siblings, cousins and non-kin.

“This study mirrors Hamilton’s rule remarkably well to explain when an altruistic gene is passed on from one generation to the next, and when one is not,” Laurent Keller, a biologist at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement.

Each test consisted of 500 generations of eight robots. To mimic what might happen in nature, the successful robots from each generation were “randomly assorted and subjected to crossovers and mutations…forming the next generation,” the researchers explained. And although the 33 “genes” were randomly distributed at first, “the robots’ performance rapidly increased over the 500 generations of selection,” the researchers noted. And along with acuity at collecting the food, “the level of altruism also rapidly changed over generations,” with those robots around more closely “related” individuals becoming the most altruistic.

Aside from demonstrating Hamilton’s rule in a quantifiable—if artificial—system, the work also shows that “kin selection does not require specific genes devoted to encode altruism or sophisticated cognitive abilities, as the neuronal network of our robots comprised only 33 neurons,” the researchers noted in their paper.

“We have been able to take this experiment and extract an algorithm that we can use to evolve cooperation in any type of robot,” Dario Floreano, a robotics professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. Any type of robot? Does that mean it’s time to run for the hills?

Nope—should the bots decide to discard the other two of Asimov’s laws for robots (obeying humans and not harming them), they’ll surely be able to find us there. “We are using this altruism algorithm to improve the control system of our flying robots, and we see that it allows them to effectively collaborate and fly in swarm formation more successfully.”

by Katherine Harmon

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Plus… To find out how we can test for his rule on evolutionary altruism, please click here.

The other day I read an interesting article in Scientific American magazine… One that aptly demonstrates that our psychology is not simply centred around the brain alone – as psychology has presumed for many years – but rather is dependent on the way the brain and body work together as a single unit.

Thus I am posting it here, so as to bring it to the attention of any readers who might be following this present thread, as it will be called into reference when I discuss the origins of ‘self’ in a future blog, where I will be using a concept that I have termed to be the “mind/brain/body/environment continuum” to show how ‘self’ comes about. I will not say anymore on this matter for the moment, as I feel this article sufficiently lays down the basis for introducing this idea.

What scientists are discovering by measuring the beating of the heart…

The brain has long enjoyed a privileged status as psychology’s favorite body organ. This is, of course, unsurprising given that the brain instantiates virtually all mental operations, from understanding language, to learning that fire is dangerous, to recalling the name of one’s kindergarten teacher, to categorizing fruits and vegetables, to predicting the future. Arguing for the importance of the brain in psychology is like arguing for the importance of money in economics.

More surprising, however, is the role of the entire body in psychology and the capacity for body parts inside and out to influence and regulate the most intimate operations of emotional and social life. The stomach’s gastric activity , for example, corresponds to how intensely people experience feelings such as happiness and disgust. The hands’ manipulation of objects that vary in temperature and texture influences judgments of how “warm” or “rough” people are. And the ovaries and testes’ production of progesterone and testosterone shapes behavior ranging from financial risk-taking to shopping preferences.

Psychology’s recognition of the body’s influence on the mind coincides with a recent focus on the role of the heart in our social psychology. It turns out that the heart is not only critical for survival, but also for how people related to one another. In particular, heart rate variability (HRV), variation in the heart’s beat-to-beat interval, plays a key role in social behaviors ranging from decision-making, regulating one’s emotions, coping with stress, and even academic engagement. Decreased HRV appears to be related to depression and autism and may be linked to thinking about information deliberately. Increased HRV, on the other hand, is associated with greater social skills such as recognizing other people’s emotions and helps people cope with socially stressful situations, such as thinking about giving a public speech or being evaluated by someone of another race. This diverse array of findings reflects a burgeoning interest across clinical psychology, neuroscience, social psychology, and developmental psychology in studying the role of the heart in social life.

A key moment for the field came in 1995, when Stephen Porges, currently a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, put forth Polyvagal Theory, a theory that emphasized the role of the heart in social behavior. The theory states that the vagus nerve, a nerve likely found only in mammals, provides input to the heart to guide behavior as complex as forming relationships with other people as well as disengaging from others. A distinguishing feature of Polyvagal theory is that it places importance not on heart rate per se, but rather on the variability of the heart rate, previously thought to be an uninteresting variable or mere noise.

Since 1995, a broad spectrum of research emerged in support of Polyvagal theory and has demonstrated the importance of the heart in social functioning. In 2001, Porges and his colleagues monitored infants when they engaged in a social interaction with the experimenter (cooing, talking, and smiling at them) and when they encountered the experimenter simply making a still face—a frozen expression—toward them. Infants’ HRV not only increased during the social interaction, but also increases in HRV predicted positive engagement (greater attention and active participation by the infants) during this interaction. In adults as well, HRV appears to be associated with success in regulating one’s emotions during social interaction, extraversion, and general positive mood.

A number of recent findings converge on the role of heart rate variability in adaptive social functioning as well. One study by Bethany Kok and Barbara Frederickson, psychologists at the University of North Carolina, asked 52 adults to report how often they experienced positive emotions like happiness, awe, and gratitude and how socially connected they felt in their social interactions every day for a period of nine weeks. The researchers also measured the HRV of each individual at the beginning and end of the study by measuring heart rate during a two-minute session of normal breathing. HRV at the beginning of the study predicted how quickly people developed positive feelings and experiences of social connectedness throughout the nine-week period. In addition, experiences of social connectedness predicted increases in HRV at the end of the study, demonstrating a reciprocal relationship between heart rate and having satisfying social experiences.

Although high heart rate variability seems to have largely positive effects on people’s emotional state and their ability to adapt to their social environment, the story may soon become more complicated. For example, in unpublished research, Katrina Koslov and Wendy Berry Mendes at Harvard University have recently found that people’s capacity to alter—and in a sense regulate—HRV predicts theirsocial skills. In three studies, Koslov and Mendes measured this capacity to alter HRV during a task involving tracking the location of shapes on a computer screen (completely unrelated to anything social), and demonstrated that people’s capacity to alter HRV during this task subsequently predicted both their ability to judge others’ emotions accurately and their sensitivity to social feedback (how much they responded positively to positive feedback and negatively to negative feedback). These findings suggest that although high HRV at rest may be adaptive for social engagement, the capacity to modulate HRV also promotes social sensitivity.

Writers from Ovid to Stevie Wonder have used the heart as a convenient metaphor to convey emotional responses toward others. Emerging research suggests, however, that this metaphor is an oversimplification. The heart has complex interactions with how we treat and evaluate others, how we cope with social stress, and how we manage our emotions, and research has only begun to explore the relationship between cardiovascular processes and social life. Although philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” it is clear that psychological research is beginning to illuminate this mystery.

written by Adam Waytz

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Just a moment ago a friend sent me a link to an article in Scientific American entitled “The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire.” As I’m particularly interested in delusions that spring forth from varied perceptive stances, or illusions that stem from blind spots within biomechanical processes within the mind, as well as illusions i.e. optical illusions and perceptual distortions, I’m posting this article here, as I feel it pertinently stands to remind us all about how something can sometimes seem greater than it actually is… Or closer than it really might be… Or even stranger than it really is.

Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.

This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example,researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?

Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).

These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.

Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” – two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.

Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.

The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.

In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.

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The solar system is a busy place indeed… And I’m wondering why this article was published so late in the Scientific American. Whatever the reason, I’m sure you’re beginning to get the idea about just how fragile, uncertain and precarious our very existence here on Earth is.

As I’ve already discussed in “On The Formation Of Suns And Their Planets” and “Just How Did Life Seed Here On Earth???,” the debris from accretion is still flying around out there… And it’s only a matter of time until one bit comes smashing into Earth again, disrupting our delicate balance of Life into shards of disorder and renewal.

A freshly discovered asteroid, roughly as long as a tennis court, will zoom past Earth at about the distance of the moon Thursday, according to NASA. The space rock, called 2010 GA6, was first observed Monday by the Catalina Sky Survey, a telescope project in Arizona that seeks out near-Earth asteroids and comets. 2010 GA6 will make its closest approach to Earth, at a distance about 430,000 kilometers, at 10:06 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time.

The proximity of 2010 GA6’s approach is not unique; in 2010 three other asteroids have come as close or closer to Earth. But the newfound visitor is the brightest asteroid, and consequently among the largest, to draw so near in the past year. Its brightness indicates an approximate diameter of 20 to 40 meters; the next brightest to pass at or within lunar distance in that time span was 2009 JL2, an asteroid about 17 to 37 meters across, in May 2009.

It is not unusual that 2010 GA6 was discovered so soon before reaching Earth’s vicinity; asteroids that small are difficult to spot at great distances. No other approaches of lunar distance or closer are known to be imminent in the next year, despite the fact that they occur every month or so. In other words, plenty of asteroids are headed this way—they simply have not been spotted yet, and asteroid watchers are more focused on the larger objects that pose greater threats to life.

In 1998 Congress charged NASA with finding kilometer-size and larger asteroids that draw close to Earth. A good portion of that population has now been catalogued, and the scope of the survey has since expanded to include objects down to 140 meters in diameter, only a fraction of which have been found. Even smaller objects of the 2010 GA6 variety probably number in the millions, and they could still do significant local damage with an impact. There is a roughly 50 percent chance of a 30-meter-plus asteroid striking Earth each century, according to Clark Chapman, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. Chapman told ScientificAmerican.com in 2009 that such an asteroid impact would cause a multimegaton atmospheric explosion over Earth’s surface, rather than impacting it. “It could be quite damaging (and even lethal) out to distances of 10 to 20 kilometers in all directions if it happened over a populated region with weak structures,” Chapman said.

by John Matson

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