Unreal Nature

March 18, 2019

The Gerbils Confused the Computer

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:08 am

… our algorithms and their logics allow us to create and experience systems, but never to control them.

This first is from ‘Demo Life’ by Orit Halpern in issue #49 (2016) of the independent quarterly magazine, Volume:

… At the center of the exhibition [at the Jewish Museum in 1970] was a very popular installation titled SEEK built by Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group (AMG) from MIT. This particular demo-installation consisted of a small group of Mongolian desert gerbils, which were chosen, according to Negroponte, for their curiosity and inquisitive nature. They were placed in an environment of Plexiglas-mirrored blocks that was constantly rearranged by a robotic arm.

The basic concept was that the robot-computer would observe the interaction of the gerbils with their habitat ā€” the blocks ā€” and would gradually ‘learn’ their ‘living preferences’ by observing their behavior. The gerbils were there to introduce chance and unpredictable, non-mechanical behavior into the environment, and the role of the machine was to create a stable environment in equilibrium with the gerbils.

… Yet within days of the show’s opening, having initially amazed the public and brought out the crowds, this experiment in rethinking the conventional definition of intelligence, or perhaps even of life, began to entropically degrade. The machine ceased working because of problems with both the software and the hardware, yet failure was not just due to technical errors in the computer’s design.

[line break added] The gerbils confused the computer (it constantly got jammed), wrought havoc on the blocks, and became sick and aggressive, often attacking each other. The system ended up acting paranoid and psychotic; neither the machines nor the gerbils seemed to know where they were or with whom they were interacting.

[ … ]

… Both the neural net and pandemonium models of sense perception and character recognition suggest a new cognitive-sensory paradigm grounded in a decentralized understanding of mind and analytics, and a networked form of intelligence not grounded in consciousness or human bodies. We continue to live in the legacy of these developments, where ‘smartness’ has come to replace decision-making and reason.

[line break added] This is cause for both fear and hope, and returns us to Negroponte’s gerbils in their excessively responsive environment. In SEEK, the logistics of computation had folded upon itself to produce something not just different than what was intended, but also radically nihilistic. In the non-conscious effort to thwart the machine, or surprise it, the gerbils paranoically turned against themselves; like McCulloch’s circling neuron, unable to tell a new input from a recycled one.

[line break added] But this sad story also offers some opportunity, for it demonstrates the unknowability of the future in the radical alienness of computing; that systems never behave as we expect them to. Whether dealing with financial markets, social networks, urban environments, or weather systems, our algorithms and their logics allow us to create and experience systems, but never to control them.

-Julie

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