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.

Technology and Education

A happy graduation to the class of 2015, and to all other students and teachers, congratulations on completing another academic year!

Summer will be busy around here as I have lots of new content to post and some important revisions to old content that I’ll make available in shiny new packaging. So you can expect regular posts for a change. I’m aiming for no less than two per week. If you have specific requests, please do dash off a note to me.


To whet your appetite, I bring to your attention an article that appeared in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education,” by Kentaro Toyama. In a subsequent post, I’ll take a closer look at his argument, so for now I’ll highlight one of his key claims and leave you to cogitate upon it:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is.

In my first-year Honors Seminar, The Human Event, the assignment my students had the strongest reaction to, both positive and negative, was the E-Medium Fast (download pdf). In my next post, I’ll connect the goals that I had in this assignment with Dr. Toyama’s article.

Essay Writing – Post Upcoming

New work and business opportunities have thrown my best laid plans for regular posting on Core Texts into disarray. We’re regrouping over here, having to do the heretofore unthinkable: long-range planning. Nevertheless, we are gratified that the site has unexpectedly garnered so many readers. It’s all very encouraging and motivates us to provide meaningful and helpful content more regularly.

The next post will concern an important skill you’ll need to succeed on your essay writing: assimilating and integrating feedback on earlier drafts and essays into your next essay. I’ve covered the basics of argumentative essay writing in the “Mastering the Human Event” Honors Seminar Tutorial, but knowing what to do with feedback from your instructor is a critical skill for you to learn if you want to improve your writing performance.


Engaged students “taking notes”

While I’m finalizing that post, I recommend this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to you about one professor’s experiment banning laptops in class for a year. There is a connection to the forthcoming post.