I, robot

I was sitting in the park yesterday evening, silently giggling at the two little boys frolicking in the clearing before my bench, and rereading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate:

In the same way, for children to learn about culture they cannot be mere video cameras that passively record sights and sounds. They must be equipped with mental machinery that can extract the beliefs and values underlying other people’s behavior so that the children themselves can become competent members of the culture.

Even the humblest act of learning — imitating the behavior of a parent or a peer — is more complicated than it looks.

A few sentences later, Pinker quotes AI researcher Rodney Brooks on the difficulties of imitative learning. Brooks gives the example of a robot observing a person struggling to open a jar:

The robot then attempts to imitate the action. [But] which parts of the action to be imitated are important (such as turning the lid counter-clockwise) and which aren’t (such as wiping your brow)? How can the robot abstract the knowledge gained from this experience and apply it to a similar situation?

As I read this passage, the two boys abruptly dropped their game of “Blast-off to Outer Space!” and switched to the ever-popular game of “Like Daddy Does.” The younger of the boys picked up a spindly fallen branch and announced “I’m gonna break it like Daddy does!”

The bigger boy immediately followed suit, falling upon an equally reedlike stick. “Me, me, I’m gonna break it like Daddy does!” Their exaggeratedly tortured expressions were caricatures of exertion as each grasped a tiny stick by the ends, pressed the center to a knee, and, muttering cries of exertion and frustration, happily failed to effect a snap.