Archive for April, 2009

Robots and Emotions

Designing robots with true emotions — a topic I ran into on a different forum —
may be a matter of quibbling about semantics and definitions — e.g. if ‘true’ emotions are understood as reactions to attempts to satisfy human needs (success or failures to such attempts) then robots wouldn’t fall within that realm. I don’t want to enter that controversy, nor do I have anything to contribute from a programming / AI point of view, my programming competence being quite rudimentary as well as outdated. I feel that I can add some useful contributions from a design or planning perspective, however, that may help in overcoming one impoortant limitation of focus I have noticed there. That is the focus on emotions as reactions to events or processes related to physiological and survival needs. I am not denying the pertinence of that perspective, and am sure that pursuing it will produce interesting results. However, as an architect concerned about how the built environment produces not only satisfactory physiological conditions for survival and functioning of the human body but also emotions that seem unrelated to mere physiological mechanisms at least at first glance. Further investigations might clarify how proportions, rhythm, scale, composition of building form etc. produce physiological responses that contribute to our sense of well-being or displeasure, and therefore emotions. But I am convinced that there are additional factors involved that can only be classified as survival mechanisms with some procrustean difficulty. I see humans endowed with a need for defining themselves as individuals — that is, basically, being ‘different’ from others. This can include adopting some archetypal or culturally defined identity, a social role, a group identity based on age, work or career, philosophy, even fashion, life style, hobbies etc. I call this ‘image’ — of who we want to be. But the desire for ‘difference’ essentially ends up in a tendency or need for designing an identity — a ‘different’ one from any we have known before. And the images we humans adopt (the concept of ‘role model’ aims at this but misses the ‘design’ aspect of the need in presupposing a ‘model’ to imitate) can be quite contrary to the rationality of mere survival of body or species: it can include aspects of asceticism, of service to others, self-sacrifice, for example. Other criteria come into play here: criteria of ‘nobility’, of friendship, the good, beauty, for instance, that may appear ‘irrational’ to the survival-focused warrior.

The role of the built environment in this now becomes more clear: it can ‘match’ or reinforce that image of who we are or want to be. Or it can fail to do so: mismatch, conflict with our desired image. And that sense of match or mismatch is arguably an emotion that we as designers are crucially interested in. More importantly: If we recognize this human tendency or desire to ‘design’ / redesign ourselves according to a new image, to become individuals of our own choice, as a human right, we must ask ourselves how our building designs can help, assist people in this quest. This becomes the supreme responsibility of the architect. It cannot consist of merely expressing, asserting the creativity of the architect / designer (making design creativity a consumer item and thereby arguably cheapening it, even as we are asked to pay for fashionable design…) but should ask how it can help the user design, create that new identity, that new image. One might imagine that the image will first appear as a mental construct in the users’ mind, and then entices the person to actions that define the life that goes with it. That process may in reality be more interactive: the building may invite users to engage in occasions, activities, that define or are more in tune with a new image, which only becomes defined and recognized over time through the activities and design forms with which it is associated.

The pleasure or displeasure of this ‘matching’ or mismatching of built environment form and the imagery it evokes in users’ minds, with the images those users might want to adopt as their desired ‘way of life’ — something not just ‘chosen’ from a pre-established menu of societal options or opportunities, but actually created by the individual emerging as such in the very process of creating: those are the emotions we should be concerned about.

The question I have for the robot designers arising from this would be: How can robots be given an internal representation of such images against which to match external messages conveying (attempting to evoke) imagery? Can they be given image preferences for themselves, which would then be the basis for the emotions derived from the match or mismatch of internal image with external image messages? Can they ‘have’ their own image preferences? I assume they can be programmed with preferences if these can be adequately represented), but whose preferences would they be? Can they be programmed to ‘design’ new imagery against which to evaluate their environment? How? According to what criteria? And finally, should it not be clear that any robot lacking such capabilities but acting in the environment IS representing an image? Which may just be so ‘poor’ (in the sense of undefined) that we don’t even want to acknowledge it as such?

A related, equally interesting and potentially controversial issue is that of power. Being able to act according to a chosen ‘different’ image requires some degree of power: empowerment; the ability to creatively design and act upon new images guiding life even more so. The plans and activities arising from such efforts will likely influence, get in the way of the plans of other entities — human or otherwise. What provisions should be built into a being (human or otherwise) to ‘responsibly’ deal with the resulting conflicts? Just giving robots abilities commensurate with their mechanical power (that exceeds those of humans, which is the reason for their being designed) may not be enough. Is responsibility an emotion?

Precipitous exponential growth

The Black Swan Neck of the Exponential Growth Curve

One of the conundrums behind the current financial crisis is the puzzle concerning the exponential growth curve. Everybody looking at such a curve will concede that its application to many economic phenomena is unrealistic and unsustainable in the long run. For example, let’s assume a bank is offering an investor a 5% interest rate on a large deposit, say $1M. So in a year, the account will have $1.05M, the year after that $1. 1M, in three years $1.016M, and so on. Understanding this principle of compound interest is widely held to be one of the necessary aspects of basic financial intelligence.

Now the bank, in order to live up to its promise of paying back the deposit with interest, will have to earn that interest, plus, of course its own profit on doing so, from other people, who are borrowing money from the bank. So it must lend money at an interest rate that necessarily must be higher than the original 5%. If is only 1% more, the interest rate at which the ‘economy’ of the combined other borrowers must ‘grow’ per period, has to be at least 6%, just to be able to pay back the loans. But of course these people are doing that to make profit of their own as well, so that profit rate will have to be added to the necessary growth of the economy as a whole. This applies to every segment of that economy. But we also know that there are certain entities and resources in the economy that are inherently limited: the amount of land, or water, for example. Even to expect the production of food to grow at the same exponential rate year after year is patently impossible and unrealistic. This measn that in order to remain a responsibly viable participant in the economy, ( that is, for larger entities, to be acceptable investment vehicles on Wall Street) these sectors of the economy must raise their prices so as to ‘produce’ the expected growth rate, at least as much as is needed to cover the difference between the overall expected growth rate and the actual growth rate of their porduction. In other words, inflation. The expected , predicted inflation rate now becomes a factor in the interest rate expectation of our original $1M investor: the interest rate must rise to also cover inflation, otherwise such an investment would be less preferable that to spend the money on goods etc. at today’s prices. This means, that for an economy functioning according to these principles, a steady rise of inflation is a necessity. It is held in check only by the fact that there will be a number of ‘losers’ in the process, whose losses reduce the required rate of inflation. The regrettable fact of there having to be such losers is glossed over by the mantra that they ‘deserve’ this fate by being less industrious, or inventive, or sufficiently smart in marketing their services — all aspects that detract from the question of the true value of whatever they contribute. It is also demonstrably advantageous for the ‘winners’ or would-be-winners in this process to ever so subtly misprepresent the value of their ‘new, improved’ contributions and to persuade people that they realy really do need these things, and even to arrange legal and regulatory conditions inn favor of their products and services, by appropriately massaging the egos and pocketbooks of legislators.

The question — apart from those regarding fairness and justice and ethics, that may be dismissed with the old nugget of ‘buyer beware’ — is: why do serious economists and government officials incurring public debt in the expectation that future growth will pay for its expenditures, still continue to rely on the exponential growth expectation as a guide to policy? Why is it that even the highest experts profess to surprise as to that and how fast the collapse was happening — the prime example of a ‘black swan’ event that nobody expected?

Could it be that the answer may be found in the human tendency to consider only short term implications of policies and tactics? This is institutionalized in form of the common habit in the financial world, of evaluating economic performance (and stock market attractiveness, etc.) according to quarterly profit growth. What this does to the analyst (who ought to know better) is this:

Instead of the dizzying steep grade of an extended exponential growth curve after a number of time periods, it allows the analyst to ‘start from zero’ again each period: the value of the end of the previous period is moved to the point of origin in the new tracking chart, and the steepness of the curve looks perfectly benign: 5%, 6%, etc.: all close enough to the ‘normal’ horizontal steady state to allay any acrophobic fears. It hides the fact that one is already high up on the curve, leaning over precipitously from the vertical so as to perceive the current point as the horizontal starting point. This delusion can go on only for so long, of course: sooner or later, the perspective so gained will have to reveal itself as unsustainable, because leaning over so far from the safe true horizontal as to cause the viewer to lose all sense of what’s up or down, and lose balance. Followed by a sobering fall.

It would be satisfactory to be able to identify some culprits or villains in these machinations, to be appropriately pilloried in the public devastated marketplace. This would be missing the point, however. All indications are that just about everybody honestly believed in the appropriateness, validity and fairness of adopting this perspective of continued growth, of interest and profit, — from the lowliest holder of a measly savings account to the top managers on global banks, and government officials at all levels. An indication of this universally shared misconception is the current rash of government bailouts of the largest investment and insurance entities, which must be realistically seen as just moving the economy back to some previous point on the curve, one that wasn’t as close to the tipping point as to scare people from more and more lending and borrowing. It is a strategy that, given the mechanics of exponential growth, must inevitably, soone or later result in the same catastrophic collapse. Mitigating the progress toward such collapse by reining in certain accelerating follies — such as the selling and reselling of loans many times over (each time expecting more interest and profit, to the point where the combined earning expectation vastly exceeded even modest predictions of the actual growth of the real economy that ultimmately would have to pay for all those profits) will only slow down the inevitable repetition of the crisis.

Does the only realistic hope, as this little thought experiment suggests, for salvaging the economy lie in a fundamental reorientation of the basic expectations relative to growth in the economic system? The mantra of growth at any cost must give way to a more meaningful measure of the viability of economic policies. And the real basis for the widespread pessimism with respect to such a reorientation is that as far as can be seen in the public discourse, nobody — in the financing system or in government, nor in the media — is even raising this crucial question.

Abbé Boulah He Is Looking at the Stimulated Outrage

Abbé Boulah He Is Looking at the Stimulated Outrage at the Bank and AIG Bailouts and Bonuses.

And wonders mightlily at the number of split minds He can harbor about all this. For: yes, it does gall the peace-and-justice-loving soul to contemplate the injustice of big bonuses and payments to people whose foolish actions (or so it seems) have caused the downfall of the mighty institutions, and the loss of employment of untold workers not only in their own companies but in many other segments of the economy. It’s just not fair. Even though He does understand the alleged legal basis of such decisions, there being contracts involved that must be honored — the question of whether such contracts also would have to be honored if the people involved were also lai off? He is a bit more mystified at the argument that these people, being so knowledgeable about how they maneuvered the company into the current trouble, are so very much needed to get out of it: without any acknowledgement of just what the mistakes were or what new improved principles are now to be followed? Just get the money flowing again? He is not totally without understanding for those folks and even a smidgeon of compassion: they were faithfully following the glorious tenets of free enterprise and profit-maximizing they had been taught: growth, at all cost, beating the competition, even playing some little devious games with the accounting and promotion policies — after all, buyer beware, — but invest with confidence even if the fund managers turned out to be confidence men…
He does shake His head in incomprehension at the contradictory arguments regarding regulation: that is was the lack of regulation that allowed the misconduct, that the brave Republicans who even warned of such lack of regulation when the Democrats were — finally — beginning to cave in to the sustained onslaugth of Reaganesque (unsustainable) deregulation fervor, finally conceded that business was suffering from too much regulation. Huh? and Treble Huh? And He admits to being at a total loss when pondering the question why the role of beliefs in fundamental mantras and the role of power in all these events is not even brought up in any of the startling discussion revelations of having told us so long ago and we just didn’t pay no tuition? Such as the issue of growth. Has there been no MBA or economics professor ever showing these bonus-prone folks an exponential growth curve? And ever so slyly encouraging a question as to where that curve would end, if allowed to continue? But of course, in a culture of quarterly profit-orientation, such questions would be utterly incomprehensible. So if anyone in the employment of the institutions in question were to even contemplate questions of this nature, this had to be seen as potentially damaging to said quarterly profit growth but tendentially treasonous — heretical to the high principles of free trade and enterprise proclaimed by prophets like Milton Friedman? No, Abbé Boulah cannot really blame these people; the combined peer pressure and profit prospect would have been too much to resist for even the most virtuous of free traders. Nor can he really blame the government officials who, along with the much lower incomes than their former classmates now in the banking and insurance industries, finally caved in to incessant drum of demands that governments be run like a business, and accordingly adopted strategies akin to those so successfully demonstrated in business by hostile take-overs financed by future debt of the companies taken over: massive debt-financing of all kinds of government programs and wars, and now bank bailouts, relying on the very continued future growth that just had proven elusive in the business world?

Or regarding the role of power: having endured for decades the lamentations of the business leaders as to the deplorable temptations of power afflicting government leaders, He wonders why even timid questions about such afflictions were never raised about leaders in the business world? Or why the valiant efforts of the Constitution-framers to contain government power — by means of checks and balances, division of government into its various branches, time limits of appointments and the like, were not also applied to the business segment of the economy: because they still did not work well enough?

Left to ponder all these questions without guidance from either the business, government, or religious leaders much less the so-called free press that also has been subjected to the iron rule of Murdochian quarterly profits and line-toeing, Abbé Boulah is playing in His sandbox with his own heretical suspicions:

What if the measure of performance of both government and business were changed to something like ‘maximizing opportunity’ or maximizing occasion (i.e. life event) opportunity quality (for citizens and consumers, rather than pecuniary profit? To include equilibrium instead of growth? What if the marginal interest and profit rates were inverted from their current shapes all rising with higher deposits or investments (some even unsustainably exponentially?) to shapes of declining marginal increase as investments and sales volume increases? What if budgets of governments were not established in terms of dollar amounts but as percentages of whatever revenues will actually be received? What if power were recognized as just another human need, even addiction, for which those who wish to indulge in it would be asked to pay, rather that having all of us pay for it? With decisions likely to affect large numbers of people requiring a ‘deposit’ which will be forfeited if the decision turns out poorly, and a bonus if it succeeds — but only after establishing success? What if there were a ‘dual’ economic system? One public, in which everybody is a member — owner-employee — by virtue of being a citizen, and working in it for nominal wages or credits on common purpose projects that increase opportunity for everybody (infrastructure). The other private enterprise, with everybody encouraged to work there according to the ‘free trade’ and ‘free enterprise’ principles and higher earnings? But on a flexible sliding time scale– so that if either sector runs into trouble (as in the current housing-construction-financing crisis — people’s involvement in one or the other would be automatically adjusted, thus avoiding the massive layoffs that merely increase the problem? That would free the enterprise part from all kinds of burdensome paperwork, since basic taxes and insurance would be done by the public sector? (People of course being able to buy enhancements on the free market for other-than-basic coverage.) What if people would be able to indicate on their election ballots how much, in percent, of their taxes they would like to see designated for what programs and purposes?

Ah well. Too many questions and possibilities. He just wishes there were somebody He could discuss at least some of these with, over a glass of sustainably priced wine?