In the planetarium at Dynamic Earth there is a mesmerising setting: you can map the trails of all of the stars as the night progresses, until you are surrounded by a dome of warp-speed star trails all blurring together. Except for one: the North Star. Stately Polaris sails on, in the centre, unmoving, seemingly fixed in the heavens. No wonder our ancestors were in awe of this celestial way-marker. They knew the stars far better than we do, and they gave them names.
Biomimicry is about innovating using the wisdom of nature. But when it comes to AI, I fear we are not looking closely enough at the thing we are trying to copy. In our haste to program only the very best of our design into AI, we have left out all the junk code – all the bits we’re ashamed of or struggle to understand, like our emotions, and intuition, and our propensity to communicate through stories. But we can ask the stars to fill in these gaps for us.
When I was little, I was taught to find the North Star using the Plough. If you imagine the Plough as a ladle, the two stars that form the right of the bowl point to it. In our culture, the Plough is part of a constellation called Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Did you know she is a mummy bear? The beautiful nymph Callisto caught the eye of Zeus, who masqueraded as her friend the goddess Artemis to get her to sleep with him (!). When Callisto fell pregnant, Zeus’ wife Hera was furious, and turned her into a bear. Some years later, their son Arcas tried to kill the bear on a hunt, so Zeus whisked her up to the skies as this constellation, then set their son as the star Arcturus nearby, where she can watch over him in perpetuity.
If you want to check you have found Polaris, you can look for the wonky W of Cassiopeia on the other side of the North Star. Cassiopeia was so vain that the gods made her sacrifice her daughter Andromeda to a sea monster. Perseus rescued her, but Poseidon chained Cassiopeia to her throne in the heavens for posterity. There she sits, eternally gazing at herself in a mirror, like a modern teenager obsessed with selfies.
Just these two constellations tell us everything we need to know about the messy business of being human. In a recent article about AI in Fast Company, the authors issued a rallying call around the four ‘unique and precious human virtues’ that AI cannot hope to copy, which they list as humility, curiosity, self-awareness and empathy. Actually, the list is a bit longer than that. I have identified 7 items of ‘junk code’ in which lie the essential magic of our human design.
First, Free Will. This is a disastrous design choice. Letting creatures do what they want will surely lead to the rapid extinction of the species. So let’s design in some ameliorators. First, emotions. Through some unknown design choice – which again seems foolish – humans are particularly vulnerable because their young take 9 months to gestate and are pretty helpless for their first few years. Emotions would be a good design choice because it might make these creatures bond both with their offspring and in their communities to protect the vulnerable. Excellent. Now that they have some chance of making it through to adulthood, how do we stop them making bad choices? We design in uncertainty. A capacity to cope with ambiguity will stop them rushing into precipitous decision-making, and make them seek others out for wise counsel. Coupled with a Sixth Sense, they will be able to use their intuition to seek wisdom from the collective unconscious too, which should also help to de-risk decision-making. And if they do make mistakes? Well, they will learn from them. And mistakes that make them feel bad will develop in them a healthy conscience, which will steer them away from repeated harms in future. Now that we have corrected their design to promote survival, what motivators are needed for their future flourishing? Storytelling allows communities over time to transmit their core values and purpose down the generations in an efficient and memorable way. Such stories last for centuries, further future-proofing the species through learned wisdom from the lived experience of our ancestors for the benefit of our future thriving. And a vital part of this endeavour is meaning-making: a species that can discern or create meaning in the world around it will find reasons to keep living in the face of any adversity, and the human species will prevail.
The stars could have told us all of this, of course. Our ancestors looked up at those sparkling dots in the sky and made stories up about them. They made meaning in their configuration and movement, not just for navigation and the turning of the year, but also for daily life through the signs of the zodiac. And the stories of the constellations vividly illustrate the mistakes humans make when they exercise their free-will unwisely, whether through lust or vengeance, jealousy or vanity. It was arrogant certainty that did for Cassiopeia, but how very human to think that your daughter is more beautiful than the gods. It was love that saved Callisto from being killed by her own son, but jealousy that rendered her a bear in the first place. Who knows where her sixth sense had got to, at the point at which she realised Zeus was not Artemis!
We had not thought to design humanity into AI. A robot that was emotional and made mistakes would soon be sent back to the shop, especially if it behaved like Zeus. But when we truly understand that our junk code is part of a rather clever defensive design, it makes it look unwise not to translate more of our coding into AI. If this code is how we have solved our own control and alignment problems, might we not find wisdom in it for solving those problems for AI?
This blog is based on a talk on biomimicry delivered by Eve Poole in the Planetarium as part of the 2023 Edinburgh Science Festival. Her book Robot Souls is available here.