The Age of Cultured Machines

The Age of Cultured Machines (SAPIENS)

Two robots traverse the desert floor. Explosions from a decades-old conflict have left a pockmarked and unstable territory, though many more improvised bombs lie concealed in its vast reaches. Sunlight splays off the beaten edges of Optimus, the smaller robot. Its motors whir as its claw grasps an u…

From Sapiens.

This imaginary scene shows the power of learning from others. Anthropologists and zoologists call this “social learning”: picking up new information by observing or interacting with others and the things others produce. Social learning is rife among humans and across the wider animal kingdom. As we discussed in our previous post, learning socially is fundamental to how humans become fully rounded people, in all our diversity, creativity, and splendor.


If we didn’t have social learning, we wouldn’t have culture. As zoologists Kevin Laland and Will Hoppitt argue, “culture is built upon socially learned and socially transmitted information.” Socially acquired knowledge is distinct from what we learn individually and from information inherited through genes or through imitation.


Soon we might add robots to this list. While our fanciful desert scene of robots teaching each other how to defuse bombs lies in the distant future, robots are beginning to learn socially. If one day robots start to develop and share knowledge independently of humans, might that be the seed for robot culture?


This system of demonstrating tasks to one robot that can then transfer its skills to other robots with different body shapes, strengths, and constraints might just be the first step toward independent social learning in robots. From there, we might be on the road to creating cultured robots.

The post does a good job (IMHO) of connecting social learning to machine learning. The one loose thread they dangle is the one of culture. I don’t think I’m ready to frame this robot culture. I think there is more involved in culture.
It also seems to be obvious that the robot does not have motivation. It’s motivation lies in the activities of human beings in which it is included. The human participants in such activities have that motivation within themselves though, and consequently they have motivations. The robot has no more motivation than a hammer has motivation.

All annotations in the source.

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