Is the human brain still in beta?

Or is it society that’s not yet fully debugged?

I’m supposed to be working hard at the moment, which is, of course, why I’m spending far too much time on Facebook. Anyway, yesterday and today a series of disparate Facebook threads seemed to come together as if to raise a single question, so I thought I’d ask for opinions.

1. There was this obscenely stupid video by Rick Barber, a Republican congressional candidate. The message of the video is that a) social welfare requires working people to pay taxes; b) being required to do something is tantamount to being enslaved; c) slavery is a bad thing; therefore d) social welfare is a bad thing and e) people (who look, in the video, remarkably like mindless zombies) should rise up like an army against it. Brilliant! The man is a syllogistic genius! My question is, what possible circumstances would conspire to make someone, who’s presumably at least capable of tying his own shoelaces unaided, think that this was a reasonable and defensible position on which to base a political campaign? Where was he and what was he doing at the moment when this pathetic, absurd and infantile idea actually started to seem like a good one? Did someone put him up to it or was the stupidity all his own? Did he fall foul of circumstances or was he pushed?

2. The British enquiry into the Iraq war has been told by a diplomat that he believes the government deliberately exaggerated claims about weapons of mass destruction. We kind of knew that already, after the famous “dossier” was released a few years ago. Understandably, some of my friends are thus calling for justice against Blair and Bush for deliberately starting a war. I’ve heard a number of explanations for why our leaders are supposed to have done this, generally focused around oil and international economics. In the abstract I can accept that the modern military/industrial complex might be what ’caused’ the war in Iraq, but I find it very hard to believe that two intelligent (well, let me rephrase that: one intelligent), educated, family men, and their entire governments, would sit down one day and say to themselves “Hey, if only we declared war on Iraq we might get what we want.” Do reasonable people REALLY decide to cause the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents, just to further their own sinister aims, or even the legitimate aims of the country they represent? Politicians do seem to tend towards having psycopathic or at least narcissistic personalities, but are they really that dysfunctional? I doubt it. I’m sure Blair and even Bush felt they had little choice, under the circumstances. They problem is, they lied about the circumstances, so we can’t imagine where they were and what they were doing when this pathetic, absurd and infantile idea actually started to seem like a good one.

3. The oh so inappropriately named English Defence League is apparently on the march, stirring up racial hatred. Racial strife in a multicultural country is a genuine issue, but to what extent, on both sides, is this the result of deliberate decisions? In a largely Muslim neighborhood, people will, quite naturally, tend to behave like Muslims. I don’t suppose they do it to offend – they’re just responding to their context. Meanwhile, during a late night pub crawl, stupid white youths will, quite naturally, tend to behave like jerks. Under those circumstances of mutually-reinforcing opinion, it’s easy enough to see how anti-Muslim (or indeed anti-anything) rhetoric can escalate into the conviction that violence and abuse are somehow “good” responses. Did they do this of their own accord or were they “encouraged”? If the latter, by whom and why? And what in turn caused these shadowy figures to hold their views?

4. Oh, and I might as well include a couple of nice ladies who just knocked on my door and tried to tell me that they’ve based their entire emotional and intellectual (not to mention moral and ethical) lives on the belief that their book – the Book of Mormon – is the fount of all wisdom, because it was transcribed in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr. from golden plates given him by an angel, incorporating the 3,000-year history of a tribe of Native Americans who were, as if any of this sounds even remotely plausible, followers of Jesus Christ. To be honest it would be easier and far more reasonable to found a religion on the works of J.R.R. Tolkein. They were sweet girls who didn’t really seem to know much about the details that underlay this belief. All they knew was that it was true and they should believe it, whatever the actual facts might be. In fact they reminded me of the Electric Monk from my favorite book, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective agency. So in this instance I feel more comfortable drawing the conclusion that they believe what they believe, simply because they grew up in circumstances where, well, that’s what you believe, isn’t it? It’s not that they’re particularly dim, just victims of circumstance. And I don’t suppose they do much harm.

But my general question is this: how BAD are people, really? I honestly don’t know. My own faith in human nature has been shaken somewhat, these past few years. Not that I believe people are inherently bad, just that they don’t always act rationally. You knew that, of course, but I guess I didn’t really believe it. I’m so naive. But what actually happens to make a politician decide that looking after his fellow man is somehow a crime? What happens to make an educated, intelligent, socialist leader decide to ally with his political opposite and sentence thousands to death? What actual circumstances convince a bunch of louts that they’re crusading for a noble cause by throwing bricks at people in turbans? What, in turn, overcomes the masterminds that surely lie behind this (and behind Bush, etc.), such that they come to believe in their own cause? Or do they?

It’s easy to be glib, lean on the bar and simply say that politicians, etc. are greedy psychopaths, but surely the truth is that they either find themselves trapped in a position where they have no option, or they believe they’re trapped in a position where they have no option, because somehow things have conspired to distort their perspective? Is evil intent really a property of social systems, not individuals? Did Saddam genuinely believe he was good for his people, for instance? After all, he was holding an artificial and rebellious collection of tribes together in some sort of productive unity, albeit with an iron grip. Was it the construction of Iraq that created Saddam? Was it the military/industrial complex as an entity in its own right (as opposed to individual people within it) that forced Bush and Blair into a situation where war became inevitable? Bush and Blair were the hub of the situation: they alone had the power to start or stop the war, in theory, so they have to take much of the responsibility for it. But did they actually have the opportunity to prevent conflict? We just don’t know, because they lied about it so much that we can’t yet see the sequence of events which might have made them feel they were taking the right action. Perhaps they were just as hoodwinked by circumstances as the girls from the Church of Latter Day Saints, who I doubt would have believed a single word Joseph Smith said, if they’d ever been given a chance to look at the evidence without first being brainwashed by the environment in which they grew up.

Or are politicians really immoral, amoral or indeed mentally ill? Most people I’ve talked to are firmly of the opinion that politicians and businessmen are, in general, motivated purely and knowingly by greed. Certainly narcissism is a perfect qualification for anyone who wants to succeed in politics. Most people think Hitler was a psychopath, and the evidence is supportive. In fact most people seem to think most leaders are psychopaths, or at least greedy and narcissistic. And yet we still vote for them – is that because the only other candidates are just as bad?

Another thread I wanted to bring into this was a documentary I watched last night, about fetishes and sadomasochism. Apart from the two women, who had their own reasons, all the clients interviewed at this S&M brothel were bankers or CEOs. There were probably politicians, too, but they presumably had more sense than to go on camera stark naked, on all fours, wearing bondage gear. All of them had serious issues about control, stretching back into childhood. In general they seemed desperately to need severe doses of submissiveness in order somehow to balance the domination that they exert in their day jobs. They craved the chance to be slaves and paid good money to be humiliated. If their evening activities were any guide at all to their daytime ones then nothing they do should be regarded as rational or moderate, poor devils.

So is the truth a composite of my two hypotheses? Are people in power genuinely corrupt and self-serving, but only because the System itself conspires to make this happen? Have we got ourselves into a situation in which corruption is self-sustaining and successful? If so, perhaps we are doing the wrong thing by holding the individuals responsible. Perhaps that just distracts us from the real culprit and satisfies our innate need to embody something that’s really incorporate. People who are three feet tall tend to end up in the movie business more often than basketball. Similarly, some poor suckers are the victims of childhood abuse, domineering fathers or whatever, and end up as politicians and bankers, because that’s what their neuroses and psychoses best suit them for.  They happen to be deranged in just the right way to make them ruthless and hence successful businessmen, or self-centered, corruptible politicians. And then we vote them in, or buy their products, or lend them our money, because we, too, feel we have no choice. I guess that makes us just as culpable as them, or them just as innocent as us.

Let me finish with one last Facebook post. This one was a link to a robotics project that is clearly funded by, and heavily tailored towards, the Military. The research team is developing robot helicopters that can fly through windows and latch onto a target. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what military applications this might have, and those applications are potentially very destabilizing, because they provide the opportunity to blow people up at zero risk to the person who chooses to do it. Warfare evolved under fairer circumstances than these and we really don’t know what will happen when wars can be fought from an armchair. Now, quite a large proportion of robotics research is actually funded by the Military – without that funding the field of intelligent robotics probably wouldn’t exist. Do the researchers have qualms about the intended applications of their work or where their money comes from? I sincerely hope and assume so. Are they going to stop? I doubt it. They have good motives, and this is the only way they feel they can make progress with them. They justify it to themselves. I’ve been there – I know how easy it is to turn a blind eye to your own misgivings, or assume it’s someone else’s problem. I don’t do that kind of work, but then I don’t have a job either. That may well be the price people would have to pay. And so it goes: Innocent, well-meaning people do things that could have terrible consequences, because, well, because if they don’t do it someone else is going to, aren’t they, and that will be worse. The system conspires to make swords instead of plowshares, and yet everyone’s just doing their best under the circumstances.

It’s a problem.

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Please join our robotics community

Sara’s been working hard on a website for our Grandroids project, and as part of it she’s set up a community site for those of us who are interested in amateur or research robotics and AI. Quite a few people have already signed up, even though we hadn’t really publicised it yet. Please feel very welcome to join in. We’d love to hear from you.