There’s a fun 1980s sci-fi flick called Moontrap, the plot of which has something to do with Bruce Campbell and his buddy Walter Koenig bringing an alien seed back to earth.

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This alien rebuilds itself out of various biological and electromechanical parts.

At one point the robot had a skillsaw end effector, not unlike the robot in this exquisite depiction of saw-hand prowess, the game Cyborg Justice (Sega Genesis, 1993):

In that game you could mix-and-match legs, torsos, and arms to create robots.

The later movie Virus had a similar creature to the one in Moontrap, and if I remember correctly, the alien robots in the movie *Batteries Not Included could modify and reproduce themselves from random household junk.

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The ability for a creature to compose and extend itself is quite fascinating. Not only can it figure out what to do with the objects it happens to encounter, but it can adjust its mental models in order to control these new extensions.

I think that building yourself out of parts is only a difference in degree from tool use.

And tool use is just a difference in degree from being a cyborg.

As the artist Stelarc said:

We have always been coupled with technology. We have always been prosthetic bodies.

Tools and Flow

I’m going to drop a quote from a book called Flow1M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990., which is about happiness, but not in the normal way you might think of happiness. It’s more like the happiness when you’re doing something, even work, but your capable and enjoy using your capability, and you’re most likely very focused. And you’re very likely in tune with the tools you are using.

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It’s also kind of like in the movie The Social Network when a programmer is “wired in.”

Here’s the quote from the Flow guy, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

During the long watches of the night the solitary sailor begins to feel that the boat is an extension of himself, moving to the same rhythms toward a common goal.  The violinist, wrapped in the stream of sound she helps to create, feels as if she is part of the “harmony of the spheres.”  The climber, focusing all her attention on the small irregularities of the rock wall that will have to support her weight safely, speaks of the sense of kinship that develops between fingers and rock, between the frail body and the context of stone, sky, and wind.

Tools as Extensions of our Bodies

Are humans the most adaptable animals on earth?

Our action-perception system may have morphology-specific programming. I.e., our minds know how to control our specific bodies. But it’s not so specific that we cannot add or subtract from it. Your body itself is always changing anyway, especially so during development.

For instance, anything you hold in your hand becomes essentially an extension of your arm. Likewise, you can adapt to a modification in which you completely replace your hand with a different type of end effector2“In robotics, an end effector is the device at the end of a robotic arm, designed to interact with the environment.”.

You might argue that holding something does not really extend your arm. After all, you aren’t hooking it directly to your nervous system. But the brain-environment system does treat external objects as part of the body.

Something unique about hands is that they may have evolved due to tool use. Bipedalism allowed this to happen. About 5 million years after bipedalism, tool use and a brain expansion appeared3R. Leaky, The Origin of Humankind. New York: BasicBooks, 1994.. It’s possible that the homo sapiens brain was the result of co-evolution with tools.

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Oldowan Handaxe (credit: University of Missouri)

The body itself is part of the environment, albeit a special one as far as the brain is concerned. The brain has no choice but to have this willy-nilly freedom of body size changes—or else how would you be able to grow from a tiny baby to the full size entity you are today?

An example of body-environment overlap is this experiment: the Cutaneous Rabbit Hopping Out of the Body4M. Miyazaki, M. Hirashima, D. Nozaki, “The ‘Cutaneous Rabbit’ Hopping out of the Body.” The Journal of Neuroscience, February 3, 2010, 30(5):1856-1860; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3887-09.2010..

The original cutaneous rabbit experiment demonstrated a somatosensory illusion: your body map (in the primary somatosensory cortex) will cause you to report tapping (the “rabbit” hopping) on your skin in between the places where the stimulus was actually applied.

The out of the body version extends this illusion onto an external object held by your body.

When tapped sequentially on the left and right fingers, people sensed taps in the space along the stick as well. Those taps in the middle never happened, they were illusory. And the stick felt like it was part of the body.

Some other relevant body map illusions are the Phantom Nose Illusion5Kilteni, K., Maselli, A., Kording, K.P., & Slater, M. (2015). Over my fake body: body ownership illusions for studying the multisensory basis of own-body perception. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9., the Rubber Hand Illusion6Botvinick, M.M., & Cohen, J.D. (1998). Rubber hands ‘feel’ touch that eyes see. Nature, 391, 756-756., and the Face Illusion7Tsakiris, M. (2008). Looking for Myself: Current Multisensory Input Alters Self-Face Recognition. PLoS ONE, 3..

Levels of Embodiment

Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity8T. Metzinger, “Self models.” Scholarpedia, 2007, 2(10):4174. defines three levels of embodiment:

First-order: Purely reflexive with no self-representation. Most Behavior-Based Robotics architectures could be categorized as such.

Second-order: Uses self-representation, which affects its behavior.

Third-order: In addition to self-representation, “you consciously experience yourself as embodied, that you possess phenomenal self-model (PSM)”. Humans, when awake, fall into this category.

Metzinger refers to a particular starfish robot as an example of a “second-order embodiment” self-model implementation. The starfish robot develops its walk with a dynamic internal self model, and can also adapt to body subtractions (e.g. via damage).

I don’t see why we can’t develop robots that learn how to use tools and even adapt them into their bodies. The natural way may not be the only way, but it’s at least a place to start when making artificial intelligence of a Strong variety. AI has an advantage though: even when using the naturally inspired methods, researchers can speed up phylogenetic space (basically, evolutionary history).

What I mean by that is I could adapt a robot to a range of environments through evolution in simulations running much faster than real time. Then, I can deploy that robot in real life where it continues its learning, but it has already learned via evolution the important and general stuff to keep it alive.

Could we get to Third-Order conscious robots? I don’t see why not! But, more on that in future essays.

The Ancient Art of Cyborg Hands

This natural adaptability that you have as part of your interaction with the world could also help you modify yourself with far stranger extensions than chainsaws and cyborg hands.

Perhaps the same scheme could work even with a complete body replacement, or a mind-in-computer scenario in which you may have multiple physical bodies to choose from. However, there are a lot of problems with the the concept of uploading a mind into a computer. But, if it was possible, a big part would probably be the transition from one body to another (even if virtual), maybe with a gradual stepping so the mind has a chance to adapt to the changes.

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