EDGE 65 March 13, 2000
THE THIRD CULTURE
Dawkins on W.D. Hamilton (1936-2000)
"WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?" CONTINUED.....
I believe that a new kind of computational object - the relational artifact - is provoking striking new changes in the narrative of human development, especially in the way people think about life, and about what kind of relationships it is appropriate to have with a machine.
the host, New York literary agent John Brockman, added three
zeros to the dinner last year, there was more than a bit of
giggly discomfort among the attendees.The general agreement
was that the provocative Mr. Brockman, who also runs a discussion
Web site called Edge.org, was poking fun more than offering
EDGE IN THE NEWS
At TED, the new-media version of a Mafia wedding, you rub elbows with the dons and capos of the Internet world and become an instant member of the family...
The weather, though, from San Francisco down the coast to Monterrey, where TED is held, turned bad, and it suddenly started to look like Brockman's dinner might be short a few billionaires.
It used to
be the millionaires' dinner, but in the enthusiasm of the
bull market, Brockman upped it a thousandfold (certainly,
among the guests, there were a lot of millionaires -- maybe
everyone). Of course, the point is not the billionaires
per se but the good fellowship that the idea of proximity
to billionaires engenders. Does that fellowship disappear
just because some billionaires don't want to take a chance
on the weather?
It was billed
as the "Billionaire's Dinner" and was described earlier
in the week as a modest gathering of people who happen to
be gosh-darn rich. But literary agent John Brockman's dinner
for some 60 people in Monterey last week was more of a press-fest
than anything else. There were more people who type the
word "billionaire" in the room than people who actually
hold the assets.
THE THIRD CULTURE
RICHARD DAWKINS ON W.D. HAMILTON (1936-2000)
W. D. Hamilton (1936 - 2000)
W D Hamilton is a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin. Other candidates would have to include R A Fisher, whom Hamilton revered as a young student at Cambridge. Hamilton resembled Fisher in his penetrating biological intuition and his ability to render it in mathematics. But, like Darwin and unlike Fisher, he was also a superb field naturalist and explorer. I suspect that, of all his twentieth century successors, Darwin would most have enjoyed talking to Hamilton. Partly because they could have swapped jungle tales and beetle lore, partly because both were gentle and deep, but mostly because Hamilton the theorist was responsible for clearing up so many of the very problems that had intrigued and tantalised Darwin.
William Donald Hamilton FRS was Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Zoology at Oxford, and a Professorial Fellow of New College. He was born in 1936, spent a happy childhood botanising and collecting butterflies in Kent, was educated at Tonbridge, then Cambridge where he read Genetics. For his Ph.D. he moved to London where he was jointly enrolled at University College and LSE. He became a Lecturer at Imperial College in 1964, where his teaching skills were not highly rated. After a brief Visiting Professorship at Harvard, he accepted a Museum Professorship at the University of Michigan in 1977. Finally, in 1984 he moved to Oxford at the invitation of Richard Southwood, who had been his Professor at Imperial.
Hamilton was showered with medals and honours by the academies and learned societies of the world. He won the Kyoto Prize, the Fyssen Prize, the Wander Prize, and the Crafoord Prize - instituted by the Swedish Academy because Alfred Nobel unaccountably failed to include non medical Biology in his list of eligible subjects. But honours and recognition did not come early. The autobiographical chapters of Hamilton's collection of papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, reveal a lonely young man driven to self-doubt by lack of comprehension among his peers and superiors. To epitomise the Cambridge of his undergraduate days, where "many biologists hardly seemed to believe in evolution" he quotes one senior professor: "Insects do not live for themselves alone. Their lives are devoted to the survival of the species . . ." This is "Group Selection", a solecism which would cause today's biology undergraduates to wince, but they have the advantage of a post-Hamilton education. The young Hamilton felt that in Cambridge he was wincing alone. Only the cantankerous Fisher made sense to him, and he had been advised that Fisher "was good with statistics but knew nothing about biology."
For his doctoral work he proposed a difficult mathematical model with a simple conclusion now known as "Hamilton's Rule." It states that a gene for altruistic self sacrifice will spread through a population if the cost to the altruist is outweighed by the benefit to the recipient devalued by a fraction representing the genetic relatedness between the two. Hamilton's original paper was so difficult and innovative that it almost failed to be published, and was largely ignored for a decade. When finally noticed, its influence spread exponentially until it became one of the most cited papers in all of biology. It is the key to understanding half the altruistic cooperation in nature. The key to the other half - reciprocation among unrelated individuals - is a theory to which Hamilton was later to make a major contribution, in collaboration with the social scientist Robert Axelrod.
The great obsession of his later career was parasites - their evolutionary rather than their medical impact. Over twenty years, Hamilton convinced more and more biologists that parasites are the key to many outstanding problems left by Darwin, including the baffling riddle of the evolution of sex. The sexual shuffling of the genetic pack is an elaborate trick for outrunning parasites in the endless race through evolutionary time. This work led Hamilton into the arcane world of computer simulation, where his models were as richly textured, in their way, as his beloved Brazilian jungle. His spin off theory of sexual selection (how Darwin would have relished it!) was that bird of paradise tails and similar male extravaganzas are driven by the evolution of female diagnostic skills: females are like sceptical doctors, actively seeking parasite-free males to supply genes for their shared posterity. Male advertisement is an honest boast of health.
Hamilton's mathematical models never became arid; they were laced with, and often inspired by, bizarre natural history. Would that every mathematical lump were leavened, as Hamilton's were, by eye-witness accounts of, say, the male mite who copulates with all his sisters and then dies before any of them are born. Or of aphid females who give live birth to their daughters and granddaughters simultaneously.
For most scientists, good ideas are a scarce commodity, to be milked for everything they are worth. Hamilton, by contrast, would bury, in little throwaway asides, ideas for which others would kill. Sometimes he buried them so deeply that he overlooked them himself. Extreme social life in termites poses a particular evolutionary problem not shared by the equally social ants, bees and wasps. An ingenious theory exists, widely attributed to an author whom I shall call X. Hamilton and I were once talking termites, and he spoke favourably of X's theory. "But Bill", I protested, "That isn't X's theory. It's your theory. You thought of it first." He gloomily denied it, so I asked him to wait while I ran to the library. I returned with a bound journal volume and shoved under his nose his own discreetly buried paragraph on termites. Eeyorishly, he conceded that, yes, it did appear to be his own theory after all, but X had explained it much better. In a world where scientists vie for priority, Hamilton was endearingly unique.
Those who loved him saw a Felix with nine lives. Charmingly accident-prone, Bill would always bounce back. A childhood experiment with explosives cost him several finger joints of his right hand. He was frequently knocked off his bicycle, probably because of misjudgements by Oxford motorists who couldn't believe a man of his age with a great shock of white hair could possibly cycle so fast. And he travelled dangerously in wilder and more remote places than Oxford. He hiked through Rwanda at the height of the civil war, and was treated as a spy, so implausible was his (true) story that he was looking for ants. Held up at knife point in Brazil, he made the mistake of fighting back, and was viciously wounded. He jumped into an Amazon tributary when his boat was sinking, in order to plug the hole, like the little Dutch boy, with his thumb (the ferocity of Piranha fish, he explained, is over-rated). Finally, to gather indirect evidence for the theory (of which he was a strong supporter) that the AIDS virus was originally introduced into the human population in an oral polio vaccine tested in Africa in the 1950s, Hamilton went, with two brave companions, to the depths of the Congo jungle in January this year. He was rushed back to London, apparently with severe malaria, seemed to recover, then collapsed into complications and coma. This time, he didn't bounce back.
He is survived by his wife, Christine, from whom he had been amicably separated for some time, by their three daughters Helen, Ruth and Rowena, and by his devoted companion of recent years, Luisa Bozzi.
(This obituary also appeared in The Independent - 3.10.2000)
RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New College; author of THE SELFISH GENE,THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE,THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, RIVER OUT OF EDEN (Science Masters Series), CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE, and UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW.
"WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?" CONTINUED.....
I. A new kind of object: From Rorschach to Relationship
I have studied the effects of computational objects on human developmental psychology for over twenty years, documenting the ways that computation and its metaphors have influenced our thinking about such matters as how the mind works, what it means to be intelligent, and what is special about being human. Now, I believe that a new kind of computational object - the relational artifact - is provoking striking new changes in the narrative of human development, especially in the way people think about life, and about what kind of relationships it is appropriate to have with a machine. Relational artifacts are computational objects designed to recognize and respond to the affective states of human beings-and indeed, to present themselves as having "affective" states of their own. They include children's playthings (such as Furbies and Tamagotchis), digital dolls that double as health monitoring systems for the homebound elderly (Matsushita's forthcoming Tama), sentient robots whose knowledge and personalities change through their interactions with humans, as well as software that responds to its users' emotional states and responds with "emotional states" of their own.
Over the past twenty years, I have often used the metaphor of "computer as Rorschach" to describe the relationship between people and their machines. I found computers used as a projective screen for other concerns, a mirror of mind and self. But today's relational artifacts make the Rorschach metaphor far less useful than before. These artifacts do not so much invite projection as they demand engagement. The computational object is no longer affectively "neutral." People are learning to interact with computers through conversation and gesture, people are learning that to relate successfully to a computer you do not have to know how it works, but to take it "at interface value," that is to assess its emotional "state," much as you would if you were relating to another person. Through their experiences with virtual pets and digital dolls (Tamagotchi, Furby, Amazing Ally), a generation of children are learning that some objects require (and promise) emotional nurturance. Adults, too, are encountering technology that attempts to meet their desire for personalized advice, care and companionship (help wizards, intelligent agents, AIBO, Matsushita's forthcoming Tama).
These are only the earliest, crude examples of the relational technologies that will become part of our everyday lives in the next century. There is every indication that the future of computational technology will include ubiquitous relational artifacts that have feelings, life cycles, moods, that reminisce, and have a sense of humor, which say they love us, and expect us to love them back. What will it mean to a person when their primary daily companion comes is a robotic dog? Or their health care "worker" is a robot cat? Or their software program attends to their emotional states and, in turn, has its own?. We need to know how these new artifacts affect people's way of thinking about themselves, human identity, and what makes people special. These artifacts also raise significant new questions about how children apporach the question of 'What is alive?" In the proposed research the question is not what the computer will be like in the future, but what will we be like, what kind of people are we becoming?
Relational artifacts are changing the narrative of human development, including how we understand such "human" qualities as emotion, love, and care. The dynamic between a person and an emotionally interactive, evolving, caring machine object is not the same as the relationship one might have with another person, or a pet, or a cherished inanimate object.
We have spent a large amount of social resources trying to build these artifacts; now it is time to study what is happening to all of us as we go forth into a world "peopled" with a kind of object we have never experienced before. We need to more deeply understand the nature and implications of this new sort of relationship - and its potential to fundamentally change our understanding of what it means to be human.
We need to be asking several kinds of new questions:
* How are we to conceptualize the nature of our attachments to interactive robots, affective computers, and digital pets?
* How does interacting with relational artifacts affect people's way of thinking about themselves and others, their sense of human identity and relationships? How do the models of development and values embedded in the design of relational artifacts both reflect and influence our ways of thinking about people?
* What roles - both productive and problematic - can relational artifacts play in fulfilling a basic human need for relationship? Their first generation is being predominantly marketed to children and the elderly. What does this reflect about our cultural values about these groups? How will these objects influence their understanding of who they are as individuals and in the world? Are we reinforcing their marginality? Are we tacitly acknowledging that we do not have enough "human" time to spend with them?
In my preliminary research on children and Furbies, I have found that children describe these new toys as "sort of alive" because of the quality of their emotional attachments to the Furbies and because of their fantasies about the idea that the Furby might be emotionally attached to them. So, for example, when I ask the question, "Do you think the Furby is alive?" children answer not in terms of what the Furby can do, but how they feel about the Furby and how the Furby might feel about them.
Ron (6): Well, the Furby is alive for a Furby. And you know, something this smart should have arms. It might want to pick up something or to hug me.
Katherine (5): Is it alive? Well, I love it. It's more alive than a Tamagotchi because it sleeps with me. It likes to sleep with me.
Here, the computational object functions not only as an evocative model of mind, but as a kindred other. With these new objects, children (and adults) not only reflect on how their own mental and physical processes are analogous to the machine's, but perceive and relate to the machine as an autonomous and "almost alive" self.
My work with children and computational objects has evolved into a decades long narrative about the way computation has affected the way we make sense of the world. In many ways, the behaviors and comments of children have foreshadowed the reactions of adults. In the first generation of computer culture I studied, the children of the late 1970s and early 1980s tended to resolve metaphysical conflicts about machine "aliveness" by developing a concept of "the psychological machine"-concluding that psychology and a kind of consciousness were possible in objects they knew were not alive. This way of coping with the conundrums posed by computational objects was pioneered by children, and later adopted by adults. Later cohorts of children's responses to computational objects that were more complex and problematic in new ways again reliably foreshadowed the conclusions the culture at large would soon reach. First, they explained that although machines might be psychological in the cognitive sense (they might be intelligent, they might have intentionality), they were not psychological in the emotional sense, because they did not know pain, or love, they were not mortal, and they did not have souls. Soon after, the children I interviewed began consistently citing biology and embodiment as the crucial criteria that separated people from machines; they insisted that qualities like breathing, having blood, being born, and, as one put it, "having real skin," were the true signs of life. Now, I have begun to see a new pattern - children describe relational artifacts not as "alive" or "not alive", but as "sort-of-alive." Categories such as "aliveness" and "emotion" seem poised to split in the same way that the categories of "psychological" and "intelligent" did twenty years ago.
Children's reactions to the presence of "smart machines" have fallen into discernable patterns over the past twenty years. Adults' reactions, too, have been changing over time, often closely following those of the children. To a certain extent, we can look to children to see what we are starting to think ourselves. However, in the case of relational artifacts, there is more to the choice of children as subjects than a simple desire to stay ahead of the curve in anticipating changes in computer culture. By accepting a new category of relationship, with entities that they recognize as "sort-of-alive", or "alive in a different, but legitimate way," today's children will redefine the scope and shape of the playing field for social relations in the future. Because they are the first generation to grow up with this new paradigm, it is essential that we observe and document their experiences.
SHERRY TURKLE is a professor of the sociology of sciences at MIT. She is the author of THE SECOND SELF: COMPUTERS AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT; PSYCHOANALYTIC POLITICS: JACQUES LACAN and FREUD'S FRENCH REVOLUTION, and LIFE ON THE SCREEN: IDENTITY IN THE AGE OF THE INTERNET.