Robots and Natural Selection

it's-a-lathe-not-a-robotIn an interview on Here & Now today with researcher Fumiya Iida, it was claimed that a robot – “Mother” – builds child robots “using the process of natural selection.” Is this accurate?


This one, as the kids say, is not even wrong. It is a simulation of textbook artificial selection.

First, it’s ersatz artificial selection, not natural selection. See Chapter 1 of The Origin of Species, “Variation under domestication and under nature.” Where do the selection criteria come from? Just like actual artificial selection, they come from humans, from characteristics that humans want to select for when they breed living things. Natural selection, on the other hand, is when the environment acts on variations within a population. The process of “selection” undertaken by the overseer robot does not involve reproductive success; it selects for a trait that serves some pre-determined mechanistic purpose. The technology is no different in kind than what you find on plant floors all around the world, for example, in those processes that use ultrasonic or infrared flaw detectors on an automated assembly or testing line to kick out widgets that fail to pass “genetic” muster.

Second, it’s ersatz artificial selection. Just like a factory robot, Momma R is just an instrumental extension of a human activity. How does the robot “decide” what to do once the selection criteria are satisfied? It executes a subroutine written by a human being (or within parameters imposed by a human programmer). There is no agency here, only necessity. (”If the voltage at test point A for unit 1 is greater than the voltage at test point A for unit 2, then pitch unit 2 in the rubbish.”)

Two observations:

(1) Why are so many bewitched by breathless claims about artificial intelligence and the impending technological utopia that they do not get basic facts right? It smacks of desperation, this grasping at the weakest kinds of ersatz transcendence.

(2) I suspect it is this offense given to ersatz transcendence that evokes cries of “Luddites! Away with ‘em!” just about any time someone has the temerity to critique the stories that reassure us of how wonderful, how glorious, are the technological advances overseen by our Mustapha Monds. Because medicine. And smartphones. Quibbling over scientistic equivocation is just so ungrateful.