robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond
Irrational Machines and Humans


Fear not the malevolent toaster, weaponized Roomba, or larcenous ATM. Breakthroughs in the competence of machines, intelligent or otherwise, should not drive paranoia about a future clash between humanity and its mechanical creations. Humans will prevail, in part through primal, often disreputable qualities that are more associated with our downfall than salvation. Cunning, deception, revenge, suspicion, and unpredictability, befuddle less flexible and imaginative entities. Intellect isn't everything, and the irrational is not necessarily maladaptive. Irrational acts stir the neurological pot, nudging us out of unproductive ruts and into creative solutions. Our sociality yields a human superorganism with teamwork and collective, distributed intelligence. There are perks for being emotional beasts of the herd.

Thought experiments about these matters are the source of practical insights into human and machine behavior and suggest how to build different and better kinds of machines. Can deception, rage, fear, revenge, empathy, and the like, be programmed into a machine, and to what effect? (This requires more than the superficial emulation of human affect.) Can a sense of self-hood be programmed into a machine—say, via tickle? How can we produce social machines, and what kind of command structure is required to organize their teamwork? Will groups of autonomous, social machines generate an emergent political structure, culture, and tradition? How will such machines treat their human creators? Can natural and artificial selection be programmed into self-replicating robots?

There is no indication that we will have a problem keeping our machines on a leash, even if they misbehave. We are far from building teams of swaggering, unpredictable, Machiavellian robots with an attitude problem and urge to reproduce.