The one thing A.I. needs is the one thing we likely cannot program

Silicon Valley might just be missing the most important aspect of being human: the ability to feel.

Silicon Valley might just be missing the most important aspect of being human: the ability to feel. (Image: Public domain/Big Think)
Silicon Valley might just be missing the most important aspect of being human: the ability to feel. (Image: Public domain/Big Think)

Bacteria are likely not the first thing to come to mind when contemplating human cultures. Yet biologists cultivate bacteria in a culture in order to watch the community of bacterium interact. This is more than a simple analogy or clever wordplay. In fact, this idea forms the basis of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s latest book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.


Unicellular organisms rely on chemical molecules to sense and respond to their environments. They need to know where to seek nutrients and when to flee from danger. This initially occurs thanks to an ability to feel its way around its surroundings; Damasio argues that humans practice this all the time. Feelings form the basis of consciousness, an essential step in the construction of cultures.

Feelings are also how we know when something is wrong inside of our bodies, which, more than one unified system, is really a complex network of interacting systems. Indigestion likely won’t cause my foot to hurt, while stubbing my toe is not going to cause me to massage my forearm. The feeling that something is wrong is indicative of a system out of balance; conscious attention seeks the problem locally. Damasio continues:

Feelings are the mental expressions of homeostasis, while homeostasis, acting under the cover of feeling, is the functional thread that links early life-forms to the extraordinary partnership of bodies and nervous systems. This partnership is responsible for the emergence of conscious, feeling minds that are, in turn, responsible for what is most distinctive about humanity: cultures and civilizations.

Bacteria cultures are not that dissimilar from those created by humans. Bacteria navigate dangerous terrain and compete with other groups for resources. Most importantly, each bacterium needs to cooperate with its neighbors to ensure the success of the group. While speculation over the number of bacterial cells versus human cells in our bodies ranges from ten to one to roughly the same number, it makes sense that we’d act in a similar manner as bacterial cultures, considering they comprise a sizable portion of what we are.

While Damasio’s thesis on the formation of cultures is fascinating, it also brings to mind another question. If feelings underlie what we term consciousness, and a specific form of consciousness is required to create intelligence, is artificial intelligence possible if we can’t replicate the feelings necessary for its formation? Or will the “artificial” aspect always mean we’ve created a computer simulation void of true expression?


Renaud Meyer (L), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Country Director for Nepal, introduces humanoid robot Sophia at a conference on using technology for public services in Kathmandu on March 21, 2018. Sophia, a robot created by Hanson Robotics, was named by UNDP as its first non-human Innovation Champion, in November 2017. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

This scenario has not escaped futurists or philosophers. In a recent NY Times editorial on the HBO series, Westworld, Paul Bloom and Sam Harris note the emotional investment of viewers watching robots get murdered and raped over and over again. Indeed, watching visitors find glee in these acts is one of the more disturbing facets of this show, a sort of transhumanist Stanford Prison Experiment. Bloom and Harris argue that as we create robots that are closer approximations to humans, will we program in a moral code—in us as much as them?

After all, if we do manage to create machines as smart as or smarter than we are—and, more important, machines that can feel—it’s hardly clear that it would be ethical for us to use them to do our bidding, even if they were programmed to enjoy such drudgery. The notion of genetically engineering a race of willing slaves is a standard trope of science fiction, wherein humankind is revealed to have done something terrible. Why would the production of sentient robot slaves be any different?

The type of robot we’re discussing matters. Damasio resists a popular metaphor originating in science fiction and now spread across popular culture: the notion you can “download” consciousness into a machine. He continues:

It reveals a limited notion of what life really is and also betrays a lack of understanding of the conditions under which real humans construct mental experiences.

Mental experiences do not result from brains alone, but the interaction of brains and bodies as well as feedback those bodies receive from their environment. Without downloading the body scientists cannot replicate consciousness in any way similar to what we experience.

Of course, in Westworld there are plenty of manufactured bodies that bleed and fight and are raped. That viewers find this disturbing is not surprising; it’s similar to breeding dogs to slip into handbags. We display empathy for other sentient beings. If they look and act like us, the leap to feeling for non-sentient beings is not far, even if they cannot feel for us. A dog is truly happy to see us. Dolores Abernathy sure can fake it, which might be enough.

Creating an emotional experience in a robot is, while great fodder for imagination, still beyond us. Reverse engineering the very skill bacterium mastered billions of years ago will not be without its challenges. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. It results from the interaction of numerous systems, and may, as neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues in his new book, be part of a layered system: not one consciousness, but several, depending on the system that takes control at any given moment.

Damasio is equally skeptical of championing one form of consciousness as representative of the species. He concludes:

There is plenty of evidence that artificial organisms can be designed so as to operate intelligently and even surpass the intelligence of human organisms. But there is no evidence that such artificial organisms, designed for the sole purpose of being intelligent, can generate feelings just because they are behaving intelligently.

How one defines intelligence will be of primary importance. As Gazzaniga notes, the human brain may have evolved to control our motor systems. The neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas argues the same; he speculates that thinking might well be the symbolic internalization of movement, as thoughts fire motor neurons. We are, first and foremost, animals that move, and that movement is dependent upon feeling our way around our environment.

Without that ability to feel, it is unlikely A.I. will ever truly mimic human beings. Its intelligence may far surpass our organic computing power, but life is not a series of algorithms. The terrain we live within is meant to be grappled with and seduced. Missing that primary skill, it’s hard to imagine a truly functional A.I.

That’s not to claim that someone won’t figure it out. It’s just a reminder—an important one in a tech culture that generally loathes the body and wishes to transcend it at every turn—that without incorporating the fundamental importance of physicality, we’re unlikely to ever cross that gap.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
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If we do find alien life, what kind will it be?

Three lines of evidence point to the idea of complex, multicellular alien life being a wild goose chase. But are we clever enough to know?

A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
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  • Most of Earth's history shows life that is single-celled. That doesn't mean it was simple, though. Stunning molecular machines were being evolved by those tiny critters.
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