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Democracy, the environment, work, healthcare, wealth and capitalism, energy and education - it’s all broken but we can fix it. This was the thrust of the talk given yesterday evening (19th March 2019) by 'Futurist' Mark Stevenson as part of the University of Cambridge Science Festival. Call me a subversive, but this is exactly what I have long believed. So I am enthusiastic to report on this talk, even though it is as much to do with my www.wellbeingandcontrol.com website than it is with AI and Robot Ethics.
This talk was brought to you, appropriately enough, by Cambridge Skeptics. One thing Mark was skeptical about was that we would be saved by Artificial Intelligence and Robots. His argument - AIs show no sign of becoming conscious therefore they will not be able to be moral. There is something in this argument. How can an artificial Autonomous Intelligent System (AIS) understand harm without itself experiencing suffering? However, I would take issue with this first premise (although I agree with pretty much everything else). First, assuming that AIs cannot be conscious, it does not follow that they cannot be moral. Plenty of artefacts have morals designed in - an auto-pilot is designed not to kill its passengers (leaving aside the Boeing 737 Max), a cash machine is designed to give you exactly the money you request and buildings are designed not to fall down on their occupants. OK, so this is not the real-time decision of the artefact. Rather it's that of the human designers. But I argue (see the right-hand panel of some blog page on www.robotethics.co.uk) that by studying what I call the Human Operating System (HOS) we will eventually get at the way in which human morality can be mimicked computationally and this will provide the potential for moral machines.
Mark then went on to show just how wrong attempts at prediction can be. "Cars are a fad that will never replace the horse and carriage". "Trains will never succeed because women were not designed to travel at more than 50 mile per hour".
We are so bad at prediction because we each grow up in our own unique situations and it's very difficult to see the world from outside our own box - when delayed on the M11 don't think you are in a traffic jam, you are the traffic jam! Prediction is partly difficult because technology is changing at an exponential rate. Once it took hundreds of years for a technology (say carpets) to be generally adopted. The internet only took a handful of years.
Having issued the 'trust no prediction' health warning, Mark went on to make a host of predictions about self-driving cars, jobs, education, democracy and healthcare. Self-driving cars, together with cheap power will make owning your own car economically unviable. You will hire cars from a taxi pool when you need them. You could call this idea 'CAAS - Cars As A Service' (like 'SAAS - Software As A Service') where all the pains of ownership are taken care of by somebody else.
AI and Robots will take all the boring cognitively light jobs leaving people to migrate to jobs involving emotions. (I'm slightly skeptical about this one also, because good therapeutic practices, for example, could easily end up within the scope of chatbots and robots with integrated chatbot sub-systems). Education is broken because it was designed for a 1950s world. It should be detached from politics because at the moment educational policy is based on the current Minister of Education's own life history. 'Education should be in the hands of educationalists' got an enthusiatic round of applause from the 300+ strong audience - well, it is Cambridge, after all.
Parliamentary democracy has hardly changed in 200 years. Take a Corbyn supporter and a May supporter (are there any left of either?). Mark contends that they will agree on 95% of day to day things. What politics does is 'divide us over things that aren't important'. Healthcare is dominated by the pharmaceutical industry that now primarily exists to make money. It currently spends twice the amount on marketing than it does on research and development. They are marketing, not drug companies.
While every company espouses innovation as one of its key values, for the most part it's just platitude or a sham. It's generally in the interest of a company or industry to maintain the status quo and persuade consumers to buy yet more useless products. Companies are more interested in delivering shareholder value than anything truly valuable.
Real innovation is about asking the right questions. Mark has a set of techniques for this and I am intrigued as to what they might be (because I do too!).
We can fix it - yes we can
On the positive side, it's just possible that if we put our minds to it, we can fix things. What is required is bottom up, diverse collaboration. What does that mean? It means devolving decision-making and budgeting to the lowest levels.
For example, while the big pharma companies see no profit in developing drugs for TB, the hugely complex problem of drug discovery can be tackled bottom up. By crowd-sourcing genome annotations, four new TB drugs have been discovered at a fraction of the cost the pharma industry would have spent on expensive labs and staff perks. While the value of this may not show on the balance sheet or even a nation's GDP, the value delivered to those people whose lives are saved is incalculable. This illustrates a fundamental flaw in modern capitalism - it concentrates wealth but does not necessarily result in the generation of true value. And the people are fed up with it.
Some technological solutions include 'Blockchain',that Mark describes as 'double entry bookkeeping on steroids'. Blockchain can deliver contracts that are trustworthy without the need for intermediary third parties (like banks, accountants and solicitors) to provide validation. Blockchain provides 'proof' at minuscule cost, eliminating transactional friction. Everything will work faster, better.
Organs can be 3D printed and 'Nanoscribing' will miniaturise components and make them ridiculously cheap. Provide a blood sample to your phone and the pharmacist will 3D print a personalised drug for you.
I enjoyed this talk, not least because it contained a lot of the stuff I've been banging on about for years (see: www.wellbeingandcontrol.com). The difference is that Mark has actually brought it all together into one simple coherent story - everything is broken but we can fix it. See Mark Stevenson's website at: https://markstevenson.org
How do we know what we know?
This article considers:
(1) the ways we come to believe what we think we know
(2) the many issues with the validation of our beliefs
(3) the implications for building artificial intelligence and robots based on the human operating system.
I recently came across a video (on the site http://www.theoryofknowledge.net) that identified the following ‘ways of knowing’:
- Sensory perception
This list is mainly about mechanisms or processes by which an individual acquires knowledge. It could be supplemented by other processes, for example, ‘meditation’, ‘science’ or ‘history’, each of which provides its own set of approaches to generating new knowledge for both the individual and society as a whole. There are many difference ways in which we come to formulate beliefs and understand the world.
Youtube Video, TOK Ways of Knowing EXPLAINED | Theory of Knowledge Advice, Ivy Lilia, October 2018, 6:16 minutes
In the spirit of working towards a description of the ‘human operating system’, it is interesting to consider how a robot or other Artificial Intelligence (AI), that was ‘running’ the human operating system, would draw on its knowledge and beliefs in order to solve a problem (e.g. resolve some inconsistency in its beliefs). This forces us to operationalize the process and define the control mechanism more precisely. I will work through the above list of ‘ways of knowing’ and illustrate how each might be used.
Let’s say that the robot is about to go and do some work outside and, for a variety of reasons, needs to know what the weather is like (e.g. in deciding whether to wear protective clothing, or how suitable the ground is for sowing seeds or digging up for some construction work etc.) .
First it might consult its senses. It might attend to its visual input and note the patterns of light and dark, comparing this to known states and conclude that it was sunny. The absence of the familiar sound patterns (and smell) of rain might provide confirmation. The whole process of matching the pattern of data it is receiving through its multiple senses, with its store of known patterns, can be regarded as ‘intuitive’ because it is not a reasoning process as such. In the Khanemman sense of ‘system 1’ thinking, the robot just knows without having to perform any reasoning task.
Youtube Video, System 1 and System 2, Stoic Academy, February 2017, 1:26 minutes
The knowledge obtained from matching perception to memory can nevertheless be supplemented by reasoning, or other forms of knowledge that confirm or question the intuitively-reached conclusion. If we introduce some conflicting knowledge, e.g. that the robot thinks it’s the middle of the night in it’s current location, we then create a circumstance in which there is dissonance between two sources of knowledge – the perception of sunlight and the time of day. This assumes the robot has elaborated knowledge about where and when the sun is above the horizon and can potentially shine (e.g. through language – see below).
In people the dissonance triggers the emotional state of ‘surprise’ and the accompanying motivation to account for the contradiction.
Youtube Video, Cognitive Dissonance, B2Bwhiteboard, February 2012, 1:37 minutes
Likewise, we might label the process that causes the search for an explanation in the robot as ‘surprise’. An attempt may be made to resolve this dissonance through Kahneman’s slower, more reasoned, system 2 thinking. Either the perception is somehow faulty, or the knowledge about the time of day is inaccurate. Maybe the robot has mistaken the visual and audio input as coming from its local senses when in fact the input has originated from the other side of the world. (Fortunately, people do not have to confront the contradictions caused by having distributed sensory systems).
Probably in the course of reasoning about how to reconcile the conflicting inputs, the robot will have had to run through some alternative possible scenarios that could account for the discrepancy. These may have been generated by working through other memories associated with either the perceptual inputs or other factors that have frequently led to mis-interpretations in the past. Sometimes it may be necessary to construct unique possible explanations out of component part explanations. Sometimes an explanation may emerge through the effect of numerous ideas being ‘primed’ through the spreading activation of associated memories. Under these circumstances, you might easily say that the robot was using it’s imagination in searching for a solution that had not previously been encountered.
Youtube Video, TEDxCarletonU 2010 – Jim Davies – The Science of Imagination, TEDx Talks, September 2010, 12:56 minutes
Lastly, to faith and language as sources of knowledge. Faith is different because, unlike all the other sources, it does not rely on evidence or proof. If the robot believed, on faith, that the sun was shining, any contradictory evidence would be discounted, perhaps either as being in error or as being irrelevant. Faith is often maintained by others, and this could be regarded as a form of evidence, but in general if you have faith in or trust something, it is at least filling the gap between the belief and the direct evidence for it.
Here is a religious account of faith that identifies it with trust in the reliability of God to deliver, where the main delivery is eternal life.
Youtube video, What is Faith – Matt Morton – The Essence of Faith – Grace 360 conference 2015,Grace Bible Church, September 2015, 12:15 minutes
Language as a source of evidence is a catch-all for the knowledge that comes second hand from the teachings and reports of others. This is indirect knowledge, much of which we take on trust (i.e. faith), and some of which is validated by direct evidence or other indirect evidence. Most of us take on trust that the solar system exists, that the sun is at the centre, and that earth is in the third orbit. We have gained this knowledge through teachers, friends, family, tv, radio, books and other sources that in their turn may have relied on astronomers and other scientist who have arrived at these conclusions through observation and reason. Few of us have made the necessary direct observations and reasoned inferences to have arrived at the conclusion directly. If our robot were to consult databases of known ‘facts’, put together by people and other robots, then it would be relying on knowledge through this source.
People like to think that their own beliefs are ‘true’ and that these beliefs provide a solid basis for their behaviour. However, the more we find out about the psychology of human belief systems the more we discover the difficulties in constructing consistent and coherent beliefs, and the shortcomings in our abilities to construct accurate models of ‘reality’. This creates all kinds of difficulties amongst people in their agreements about what beliefs are true and therefore how we should relate to each other in peaceful and productive ways.
If we are now going on to construct artificial intelligences and robots that we interact with and have behaviours that impact the world, we want to be pretty sure that the beliefs a robot develops still provide a basis for understanding their behaviour.
Unfortunately, every one of the ‘ways of knowing’ is subject to error. We can again go through them one by one and look at the pitfalls.
Sensory perception: We only have to look at the vast body of research on visual illusion (e.g. see ‘Representations of Reality – Part 1’) to appreciate that our senses are often fooled. Here are some examples related to colour vision:
Youtube Video, Optical illusions show how we see | Beau Lotto,TED, October 2009, 18:59 minutes
Furthermore, our perceptions are heavily guided by what we pay attention to, meaning that we can miss all sorts of significant and even life-threatening information in our environment. Would a robot be similarly misled by its sensory inputs? It’s difficult to predict whether a robot would be subject to sensory illusions, and this might depend on the precise engineering of the input devices, but almost certainly a robot would have to be selective in what input it attended to. Like people, there could be a massive volume of raw sensory input and every stage of processing from there on would contain an element of selection and interpretation. Even differences in what input devices are available (for vision, sound, touch or even super-human senses like perception of non-visual parts of the electromagnetic spectrum), will create a sensory environment (referred to as the ‘umwelt’ or ‘merkwelt’in ethology) that could be quite at variance with human perceptions of the world.
YouTube Video, What is MERKWELT? What does MERKWELT mean? MERKWELT meaning, definition & explanation, The Audiopedia, July 2017, 1:38 minutes
Memory: The fallibility of human memory is well documented. See, for example, ‘The Story of Your Life’, especially the work done by Elizabeth Loftus on the reliability of memory. A robot, however, could in principle, given sufficient storage capacity, maintain a perfect and stable record of all its inputs. This is at variance with the human experience but could potentially mean that memory per se was more accurate, albeit that it would be subject to variance in what input was stored and the mechanisms of retrieval and processing.
Intuition and reason: This is the area where some of the greatest gains (and surprises) in understanding have been made in recent years. Much of this progress is reported in the work of Daniel Kahneman that is cited many times in these writings. Errors and biases in both intuition (system 1 thinking) and reason (system 2 thinking) are now very well documented. A long list of cognitive biases can be found at:
Would a robot be subject to the same type of biases? It is already established that many algorithms, used in business and political campaigning, routinely build in the biases, either deliberately or inadvertently. If a robot’s processes of recognition and pattern matching are based on machine learning algorithms that have been trained on large historical datasets, then bias is virtually guaranteed to be built into its most basic operations. We need to treat with great caution any decision-making based on machine learning and pattern matching.
Youtube Vide, Cathy O’Neil | Weapons of Math Destruction, PdF YouTube, June 2015, 12:15 minutes
As for reasoning, there is some hope that the robustness of proofs that can be achieved computationally may save the artificial intelligence or robot from at least some of the biases of system 2 thinking.
Emotion: Biases in people due to emotional reactions are commonplace. See, for example:
Youtube Video, Unconscious Emotional Influences on Decision Making, The Rational Channel, February 2017, 8:56 minutes
However, it is also the case that emotions are crucial in decision–making. Emotions often provide the criteria and motivation on which decisions are made and without them, people can be severely impaired in effective decision-making. Also, emotions provide at least one mechanism for approaching the subject of ethics in decision-making.
Youtube Video, When Emotions Make Better Decisions – Antonio Damasio, FORA.tv, August 2009, 3:22 minutes
Can robots have emotions? Will robots need emotions to make effective decisions? Will emotions bias or impair a robot’s decision-making. These are big questions and are only touched on here, but briefly, there is no reason why emotions cannot be simulated computationally although we can never know if an artificial computational device will have the subjective experience of emotion (or thought). Probably some simulation of emotion will be necessary for robot decision-making to align with human values (e.g. empathy) and, yes, a side-effect of this may well be to introduce bias into decision-making.
For a selection of BBC programmes on emotions see:
Imagination: While it doesn’t make much sense to talk about ‘error’ when it comes to imagination, we might easily make value-judgments about what types of imagination might be encouraged and what might be discouraged. Leaving aside debates about how, say excessive experience of violent video games, might effect imagination in people, we can at least speculate as to what might or should go on in the imagination of a robot as it searches through or creates new models to help predict the impacts of its own and others behaviours.
A big issue has arisen as to how an artificial intelligence can explain its decision-making to people. While AI based on symbolic reasoning can potentially offer a trace describing the steps it took to arrice at a conclusion, AIs based on machine learning would be able to say little more than ‘I recognized the pattern as corresponding to so and so’, which to a person is not very explanatory. It turns out that even human experts are often unable to provide coherent accounts of their decision-making, even when they are accurate.
Having an AI or robot account for its decision-making in a way understandable to people is a problem that I will address in later analysis of the human operating system and, I hope, provide a mechanism that bridges between machine learning and more symbolic approaches.
Faith: It is often said that discussing faith and religion is one of the easiest ways to lose friends. Any belief based on faith is regarded as true by definition, and any attempt to bring evidence to refute it, stands a good chance of being regarded as an insult. Yet people have different beliefs based on faith and they cannot all be right. This not only creates a problem for people, who will fight wars over it, but it is also a significant problem for the design of AIs and robots. Do we plug in the Muslim or the Christian ethics module, or leave it out altogether? How do we build values and ethical principles into robots anyway, or will they be an emergent property of its deep learning algorithms. Whatever the answer, it is apparent that quite a lot can go badly wrong if we do not understand how to endow computational devices with this ‘way of knowing’.
Language: As observed above, this is a catch-all for all indirect ‘ways of knowing’ communicated to people through media, teaching, books or any other form of communication. We only have to consider world wars and other genocides to appreciate that not everything communicated by other people is believable or ethical. People (and organizations) communicate erroneous information and can deliberately lie, mislead and deceive.
We strongly tend to believe information that comes from the people around us, our friends and associates, those people that form part of our sub-culture or in-group. We trust these sources for no other reason than we are familiar with them. These social systems often form a mutually supporting belief system, whether or not it is grounded in any direct evidence.
Youtube Video, The Psychology of Facts: How Do Humans (mis)Trust Information?, YaleCampus, January 2017
Taking on trust the beliefs of others that form part of our mutually supporting social bubble is a ‘way of knowing’ that is highly error prone. This is especially the case when combined with other ‘ways of knowing’, such as faith, that in their nature cannot be validated. Will robot communities develop, who can talk to each other instantaneously and ‘telepathically’ over wireless connections, also be prone to the bias of groupthink?
The validation of beliefs
So, there are multiple ways in which we come to know or believe things. As Descartes argued, no knowledge is certain (see ‘It’s Like This’). There are only beliefs, albeit that we can be more sure of some that others, normally by virtue of their consistency with other beliefs. Also, we note that our beliefs are highly vulnerable to error. Any robot operating system that mimics humans will also need to draw on the many different ‘ways of knowing’ including a basic set of assumptions that it takes to be true without necessarily any supporting evidence (it’s ‘faith’ if you like). There will also need to be many precautions against AIs and robots developing erroneous or otherwise unacceptable beliefs and basing their behaviours on these.
There is a mechanism by which we try to reconcile differences between knowledge coming from different sources, or contradictory knowledge coming from the same source. Most people seem to be able to tolerate a fair degree of contradiction or ambiguity about all sorts of things, including the fundamental questions of life.
Youtube Video, Defining Ambiguity, Corey Anton, October 2009, 9:52 minutes
We can hold and work with knowledge that is inconsistent for long periods of time, but nevertheless there is a drive to seek consistency.
In the description of the human operating system, it would seem that there are many ways in which we establish what we believe and what beliefs we will recruit to the solving of any particular problem. Also, the many sources of knowledge may be inconsistent or contradictory. When we see inconsistencies in others we take this as evidence that we should doubt them and trust them less.
Youtube Video, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, The RSA, April 2011, 17:13 minutes
However, there is, at least, a strong tendency in most people, to establish consistency between beliefs (or between beliefs and behaviours), and to account for inconsistencies. The only problem is that we are often prone to achieve consistency by changing sound evidence-based beliefs in preference to the strongly held beliefs based on faith or our need to protect our sense of self-worth.
Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011. 4:31 minutes
From this analysis we can see that building AIs and robots is fraught with problems. The human operating system has evolved to survive, not to be rational or hold high ethical values. If we just blunder into building AIs and robots based on the human operating system we can potentially make all sorts of mistakes and give artificial agents power and autonomy without understanding how their beliefs will develop and the consequences that might have for people.
Fortunately there are some precautions we can take. There are ways of thinking that have been developed to counter the many biases that people have by default. Science is one method that aims to establish the best explanations based on current knowledge and the principle of simplicity. Also, critical thinking has been taught since Aristotle and fortunately many courses have been developed to spread knowledge about how to assess claims and their supporting arguments.
Youtube Video, Critical Thinking: Issues, Claims, Arguments, fayettevillestatenc, January 2011
Sensory perception – The robot’s ‘umwelt’ (what it can sense) may well differ from that of people, even to the extent that the robot can have super-human senses such as infra-red / x-ray vision, super-sensitive hearing and smell etc. We may not even know what it’s perceptual world is like. It may perceive things we cannot and miss things we find obvious.
Memory – human memory is remarkably fallible. It is not so much a recording, as a reconstruction based on clues, and influenced by previously encountered patterns and current intentions. Given sufficient storage capacity, robots may be able to maintain memories as accurate recording of the states of their sensory inputs. However, they may be subject to similar constraints and biases as people in the way that memories are retrieved and used to drive decision-making and behaviour.
Intuition – if the robot’s pattern-matching capabilities are based on the machine learning of historical training sets then bias will be built into its basic processes. Alternatively, if the robot is left to develop from it’s own experience then, as with people, great care has to be taken to ensure it’s early experience will not lead to maladaptive behaviours (i.e. behaviours not acceptable to the people around it).
Reason – through the use of mathematical and logical proofs, robots may well have the capacity to reason with far greater ability than people. They can potentially spot (and resolve) inconsistencies arising out of different ‘ways of knowing’ with far greater adeptness than people. This may create a quite different balance between how robots make decisions and how people do using emotion and reason in tandem.
Emotion – human emotion are general states that arise in response to both internal and external events and provide both the motivation and the criteria on which decisions are made. In a robot, emerging global states could also potentially act to control decision-making. Both people, and potentially robots, can develop the capacity to explicitly recognize and control these global states (e.g. as when suppressing anger). This ability to reflect, and to cause changes in perspective and behaviour, is a kind of feedback loop that is inherently unpredictable. Not having sufficient understanding to predict how either people or robots will react under particular circumstances, creates significant uncertainty.
Imagination – much the same argument about predictability can be made about imagination. Who knows where either a person’s or a robot’s imagination may take them? Chess computers out-performed human players because of their capacity to reason in depth about the outcomes of every move, not because they used pattern-matching based on machine learning (although it seems likely that this approach will have been tried and succeeded by now). Robots can far exceed human capacities to reason through and model future states. A combination of brute force computing and heuristics to guide search, may have far-reaching consequences for a robot’s ability to model the world and predict future outcomes, and may far exceed that of people.
Faith – faith is axiomatic for people and might also be for robots. People can change their faith (especially in a religious, political or ethical sense) but more likely, when confronted with contradictory evidence or sufficient need (i.e. to align with a partner’s faith) people with either ignore the evidence or find reasons to discount it. This way can lead to multiple interpretations of the same basic axioms, in the same way as there are many religious denominations and many interpretations of key texts within these. In robots, Asimov’s three laws of robotics would equate to their faith. However, if robots used similar mechanisms as people (e.g. cognitive dissonance) to resolve conflicting beliefs, then in the same way as God’s will can be used to justify any behaviour, a robot may be able to construct a rationale for any behaviour whatever its axioms. There would be no guarantee that a robot would obey its own axiomatic laws.
Communication – The term language is better labeled ‘communication’ in order to make it more apparent that it extends to all methods by which we ‘come to know’ from sources outside ourselves. Since communication of knowledge from others is not direct experience, it is effectively taken on trust. In one sense it is a matter of faith. However, the degree of consistency across external sources and between what is communicated (i.e. that a teacher or TV will re-enforce what a parent has said etc.) and between what is communicated and what is directly observed (for example, that a person does what he says he will do) will reveal some sources as more believable than others. Also we appeal to motive as a method of assessing degree of trust. People are notoriously influenced by the norms, opinions and behaviours of their own reference groups. Robots with their potential for high bandwidth communication could, in principle, behave with the same psychology of the crowd as humans, only much more rapidly and ‘single-mindedly’. It is not difficult to see how the Dr Who image of the Borg, acting a one consciousness, could come about.
Other Ways of Knowing
It is worth considering just a few of the many other ‘ways’ of knowing’ not considered above, partly because some of these might help mitigate some of the risks of human ‘ways of knowing’ .
Science – Science has evolved methods that are deliberately designed to create impartial, robust and consistent models and explanations of the world. If we want robots to create accurate models, then an appeal to scientific method is one approach. In science, patterns are observed, hypotheses are formulated to account for these patterns, and the hypotheses are then tested as impartially as possible. Science also seeks consistency by reconciling disparate findings into coherent overall theories. While we may want robots to use scientific methods in their reasoning, we may want to ensure that robots do not perform experiments in the real world simply for the sake of making their own discoveries. An image of concentration camp scientists comes to mind. Nevertheless, in many small ways robots will need to be empirical rather than theoretical in order to operate at all.
Argument – Just like people, robots of any complexity will encounter ambiguity and inconsistencies. These will be inconsistencies between expectation and actuality, between data from one way of knowing and another (e.g. between reason and faith, or between perception and imagination etc.), or between a current state and a goal state. The mechanisms by which these inconsistencies are resolved will be crucial. The formulation of claims; the identification, gathering and marshalling of evidence; the assessment of the relevance of evidence; and the weighing of the evidence, are all processes akin to science but can cut across many ‘ways of knowing’ as an aid to decision making. Also, this approach may help provide explanations of a robot’s behaviour that would be understandable to people and thereby help bridge the gap between opaque mechanisms, such as pattern matching, and what people will accept as valid explanations.
Meditation – Meditation is a place-holder for the many ways in which altered states of consciousness can lead to new knowledge. Dreaming, for example, is another altered state that may lead to new hypotheses and models based on novel combination of elements that would not otherwise have been brought together. People certainly have these altered states of consciousness. Could there be an equivalent in the robot, and would we want robots to indulge in such extreme imaginative states where we would have no idea what they might consist of? This is not to necessarily attribute consciousness to robots, which is a separate, and probably meta-physical question.
Theory of mind – For any autonomous agent with its own beliefs and intentions, including a robot, it is crucial to its survival to have some notion of the intentions of other autonomous agents, especially when they might be a direct threat to survival. People have sophisticated but highly biased and error-prone mechanisms for modelling the intentions of others. These mechanisms are particularly alert for any sign of threat and, as a proven mechanism, tend to assume threat even when none is present. The people that did not do this, died out. Work in robotics already recognizes that, to be useful, robots have to cooperate with people and this requires some modelling of their intentions. As this last video illustrates, the modelling of others intentions is inherently complex because it is recursive.
YouTube Video, Comprehending Orders of Intentionality (for R. D. Laing), Corey Anton, September 2014, 31:31 minutes
If there is a conclusion to this analysis of ‘ways of knowing’ it is that creating intelligent, autonomous mechanisms, such as robots and AIs, will have inherently unpredictable consequences, and that, because the human operating system is so highly error-prone and subject to bias, we should not necessarily build them in our own image.
Executive Function in the Individual and the Organisation
Successful organisations like Google and Facebook allow their employees an opportunity to experiment and pursue their own projects. Many public sector organisations also allow their employees opportunity for personal development. Why does this work and what does it say about how organisations need to be run in a world of increasingly rapid change? What kind of executive control is appropriate for organisations in the 21st Century?
To answer this we could look at all kinds of management, organisational and accounting theory. But there is another perspective. This is to look at what psychology has revealed about the executive function (REFs 1, 2, 3) in the individual and then to map that back onto what it means in terms of the organisation. This perspective can be revealing. It highlights why organisations behave in certain ways, it can help distinguish useful and healthy behaviours from those that are ineffective, aberrant and perhaps eventually self-defeating, and it can give us a way of looking at the executive function that is grounded in an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the human condition. It can point the way to making organisations more resilient.
YouTube Video, 2012 Burnett Lecture Part 2 ADHD, Self-Regulation and Executive Functioning Theory, UNCCHLearningCentre, November 2012, 58:44
YouTube Video, InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, June 2012, 5:35 minutes
Youtube Video, Executive Function and the Developing Brain: Implications for Education, AMSDMN’s channel, November 2013, 58:22 minutes
There are several distinct components to executive function in the individual. These develop from infancy to adulthood more or less in order. This article looks at the overall architecture of control within an organisation then goes through seven executive functions one by one, first looking at what it means in psychological terms, then mapping it onto what it might mean in terms of organisational behaviour and the functions of an executive board.
In both the individual and the organisation, executive function is self-regulation. It is ‘actions on oneself’ or, in the organisational context, the executive actions in relation to the organisation itself. When fully developed the several aspects of executive function go together to provide the capacity for self-control in a complex and changing world.
There are numerous accounts of what makes for success in both the individual (and in the organisation). Many of these emphasise one or other aspect of executive function such as self-awareness, self-direction or emotional intelligence. However, all aspects of the executive function have a part to play, and understanding executive function helps demonstrate how all these parts develop and integrate to provide the many capabilities needed for success.
The Architecture of Control
The overall architecture of control in both the individual and the organisation can be seen as a two-part system with executive function residing in the second part.
Part 1 – An Automatic System
Much of what happens in both individuals and organisations goes on without much thought or reflection.
Individuals follow their routines and habits. When everything is predictable, actions like cooking or driving can be carried out largely on ‘autopilot’, often while thinking about something entirely different. In this manner, we can operate adequately on the basis of responding to cues in the immediate environment with little conscious control or effort. This is what Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and Slow’ (REF 4) calls ‘System 1’ or intuitive thinking. It deals with the here and now when everything is familiar and reasonably certain.
YouTube Video, Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” | Talks at Google, November 2011, 1:02 hours
Similarly, in the organisation many activities can be carried out according to it’s established procedures and practices and require no executive intervention. They may have needed executive intervention to set them up but once bedded-in they can run without further executive input unless something unexpected or out of the ordinary happens.
Part 2 – A System for Exception Handling and Taking Proactive Control
This system is engaged when the automatic system needs help. In terms of Khaneman’s theory, it is ‘System 2’ thinking. It is engaged when encountering difficulty, novelty and in matters that are not in the here and now. The executive level allows ‘action at a distance’ from the here and now, and deals with circumstances that are less certain and predictable.
In the individual, when something unpredictable happens, this system seems to pop items into consciousness and then relies on a somewhat slow and labourious form of conscious processing to effect a resolution. This takes effort and resource. It takes willpower and can use up cognitive capacity. What can be done is limited by the available capacity, and focus of attention on one thing will limit the capacity to pay attention to another.
In the organisation the executive may be called in to deal with some problem or may step in when it sees something going off-track (like profits, sales, production, costs, staff-turnover etc). As with the individual, this system, is slow and labourious by contrast to the ‘business as usual’ operation. It also requires the consumption of precious resources and dealing with one situation can detract from dealing with another, perhaps causing the organisation to take it’s eye off the ball.
In practice, in a healthy individual or organisation, the automatic system and the exception handling system work together in a highly interleaved manner. They also develop together. Functions that start out as requiring exception handling, become automated over time as they become embedded.
In the individual, the pro-active element of executive function emerges in childhood. The extent of the ability to inhibit certain behaviours correlates highly with many factors in later life including academic and social competence, wealth, health and (negatively with) criminality. It seems that the developing child moves gradually from reactive control to pro-active control. (REF 5).
YouTube Video, Integrative Science Symposium: Lifespan Development of Executive Control, July 2015, 2:10:08 hours
This is more than just being able to stop or inhibit certain behaviours. There is an extra step. This is to re-construe the world in a slightly different way and become alert to other things going on in the environment. The extra step leaves open the option to continue the behaviour, stop it or do something more subtle.
Similarly, in the organisation, spotting an undesirable behaviour, trend or process does not generally result in immediately shutting it down. There is a period of reflection, where attention may be re-focused and alternatives considered. In both organisations and individuals, this may take time. An individual may think through the potential consequences of taking particular courses of action. The organisation may do the same by embarking on investigations or sophisticated modelling and simulations to help clarify the consequences of running with different options.
A simplified model of the control and executive function is:
- No problems – continue on autopilot
- Problem – re-focus attention, generate and evaluate options
Also, it is notable that problem solving can go on recursively. So, if a problem is encountered with any of the sub-processes of problem solving, then that’s a new problem that is subject to the same processes in achieving resolution. Meanwhile the whole process is being recursively and externally evaluated such that if it’s not going anywhere useful, it itself can be re-considered.
7 Stages of Development of Executive Function
Seven stages of development of the executive function are described in terms of what’s going on for both the individual and the organisation. There are striking parallels.
Many of these stages have a time dimension. An infant lives in the here and now, a teenager in perhaps weeks. An adult, like an organisation, may have a time horizon of months or years. The development of executive function enables longer time horizons.
In Early Development (0 years to 5 years)
Stage 1 – Self-Awareness
In the individual, self-awareness develops in infancy (from 3 months and continues to develop for a further 10 years). The capacity to turn one’s attention away from the environment and towards ones own actions and thoughts, grows. The self-monitoring function redirects attention back on the self. An executive has developed that watches the self.
An organisation might be self-aware from the start if it has been set up with management information systems. The executives can inspect the reports and consider actions designed to affect trends they see in the data. The executives normally act within a stable framework of parameters albeit that the values on the parameters are changing. Also an organisation may grow in self-awareness by introducing new systems to provide feedback on what are deemed to be key parameters.
When (informal or formal) management information systems come into play, they can become the basis of a prevailing viewpoint on the direction of the organisation, both past and future. This is the backdrop against which executive decision-making takes place. The organisation has become to some degree self-aware and able to turn attention onto itself.
However, both the individual and the organisation operate in what Simon refers to as ‘bounded rationality’ (REF 6). Organisational self-awareness is subjective in the sense that the organisation is only aware of what it is aware of. It may not be aware of all manner of things and what it is aware of may not be representative or accurate. In this sense, the organisation mimics the individual and may be subject to the same misconceptions about the self.
YouTube Video, Herbert Simon, rationalLeft, July 2013, 3:42 mins
For example, Baring Bank may have been blind to the extent of the damage a rogue trader could do. Kodak may have deluded itself into thinking that there would always be a market for film (as opposed to digital). In 2008, the banking industry may have been unaware of the damage it might do to itself by not containing risk. Just as likely, these organisations were aware but didn’t care or know how to react.
These are just examples of self-awareness of organisations and begs the question of who holds this awareness. Is it distributed throughout the organisation or is it held by the executive? Just as in the brain, any one neuron is ‘aware’ of the activity of other neurons it is connected to, whether they be near neighbours or in some more remote location, awareness is distributed throughout the individuals and departments in an organisation. Each department and organisational role is tasked with being informed about particular things – production, human resources, suppliers and so on. In collecting and reporting both quantitative and qualitative data about local activity, the executive is fed information from across the organisation and can build a broader awareness. However, just as the brain can be deceived by it’s senses or selective and biased in its interpretation, the uncritical executive can also be led astray.
Stage 2 – Self-Restraint
Self-restraint develops In the individual between the ages of 3 and 5 years. This is the ability for a child to stop him or herself doing something that they would otherwise do automatically (like taking a sweet). It is inhibition of action. Children between 3 and 5 years will put their hands over their mouths to stop themselves saying something. In time this ‘executive inhibition’ can be done internally but it takes effort. It draws down on a limited resource.
In the organisation there are several mechanisms for self-restraint. Budgets act as inhibitors by containing costs in parts of the organisation and overall. Also, organisational policies, procedures, standards and guidelines are often designed to inhibit behaviours other than those already approved. The development of procedures is often motivated by ‘error’ – something has gone wrong and the organisation tries to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Procedures, new or just changing, often meet some resistance and it takes effort or resource to overcome it. Once bedded in, however, they can be executed more cheaply. The operation of restraint has become automatic. It has moved from the proactive and exception handling control system to the routine and automatic control system.
Stage 3 – Imagery and rapid brain development
In the individual imagery is ‘the mind’s eye’ or ‘a theatre in your mind’. It is the ability to resurrect (visual and other) images from the past (together with accompanying emotions) to deal with the present. In the child, imagery develops between 3 and 5 years. This is mainly imagery of situations represented in all the salient senses – visual, auditory, tactile, taste and smell – whatever was relevant at the time. The imagery may be stored along with how you feel about it, good or bad (to some degree). Pattern-matching triggers memories and resurrects relevant imagery from the past to act as a guide or a map that can be used in the here and now.
The developing brain at this stage consumes 60% of the glucose consumed in food and is creating new connections between neurones at a rapid rate. Although the visual systems in the brain can be fully wired up from the age of one, other sensory modalities take longer. At some stage a tipping point is reached when infrequently used connections are purged. This developmental progression is thought to facilitate innovation and hypothesis testing about the environment up to the point where consolidation on viable interpretations set in. The young mind mimics the progression of science in exploration before consolidation into useful knowledge that can drive applications.
Youtube Video, Alison Gopnik Lecture at CFI – When and why children are more intelligent than adults are, Future of Intelligence, September 2017, 1:31:50 hours starting at 15:35 minutes
In the organisation, the memories of staff and the management of files, file sharing, databases and information systems is its ‘working memory’. These systems are largely designed with retrieval in mind. Although, the data captured is not inherently what you would call image-evoking, it does perform the same function of retrieving memories (records, documents, anecdotes) that help guide action in the here and now. Envisioning activities, prototyping, simulation and modelling activities in the organisation, parallel the ‘theatre of the mind’. They are part of the organisations imaginative activity, where ideas can be tried out before they are fully implemented (and incur the full costs and consequences of acting on the world outside the organisation).
Stage 3a – Theory of Mind
There is another important stage that appears to develop between the ages of 3 and 5 years, that tends not to be emphasised in the mainstream literature on executive function. This is the so-called ‘theory of mind’ (REF6a) – the ability of a person to model what another person is thinking and feeling. Experiments with children show that a three year old expects everybody else to know what they themselves know, while by 5 years a child understands that other people can have different beliefs from themselves. If, for example, the content of a chocolate box is replaced with, say crayons, in front of a three year old, they will think that somebody later coming into the room will expect to find crayons in the box rather than chocolates. They are unable to differentiate between their own knowledge and the knowledge of others.
YouTube Video, Robert Seyfarth: Theory of Mind, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, May 2010, 3:36 minutes
Theory of mind may not be addressed in mainstream accounts of executive function because it is thought of as a social skill rather than a fundamental information processing capability, but I think it should be thought of as a key part of executive function because it is a base on which later executive functions develop. The multiple voices that develop in private speech, for example, are akin to the playing out in the mind of multiple belief systems and theory of mind must also impact on management of ones own emotions and motivations. In fact, the implications of theory of mind are so significant that it has generated its own large literature. Autism and Asperger’s Spectrum disorders increasingly reference both deficiencies in executive function and in theory of mind, adding further support to the argument that theory of mind should be seen as an aspect of executive function.
Research at the Max Planck Institute suggests that the maturation of fibres of a brain structure called the arcuate fascicle, between the ages of three and four years, establishes a connection between (1) a region at the back of the temporal lobe that supports adults thinking about others and their thoughts and (2) a region in the frontal lobe that is involved in keeping things at different levels of abstraction.
Article, Brain Structues that help us understand What Others Think Revealed, Neuroscience News, March 2017
In the organisation, ‘theory of mind’ is akin to understanding your competitors and your markets. If an organisation’s theory is accurate then it will be better able to anticipate the consequences of events, both those that it control and those that are external (e.g. government legislation and changes in market conditions). For example, if an organisation changes the price of one of its products, it would be useful to be able to predict what its customers and competitors would think about this and how they are likely to respond. A good businessman, like a good car salesman, may have an instinct about how customers will respond and may be able to construct a more or less complicated strategy that will drive the behaviours of others in particular ways.
From 5 Years
Stage 4 – Private Speech
In the individual, at 3 years old everything is public. Children talk to themselves about the world. Listening to their own speech is a mechanism facilitating reflection and self-control. Between 3 and 5 years vocal actions and accompanying facial expressions become suppressed and the voice becomes internalized as a silent mechanisms of self-control.
Artificial intelligence is now being recruited to re-create the kind of dialogue we have with our inner voices.
BBC Radio 4, The Digital Human – Series 11, Echo, May 2017, 5:27 minutes
However, even as adults, the nuances of facial expression leak information about what is going on in the mind, but most adults learn to distinguish between situations in which this is useful and those in which it presents some danger. Also, they can learn how to dissociate what is going on in the mind from what leaks out in the face and body language, thereby conferring the ability to deceive. (REF 7)
BBC Radio 4, Where do voices inside our heads come from?, April 2016, 5:27 minutes
Youtube Video, What Causes The Voice In Your Head?, Thoughty2, August 2015, 6:57 minutes
In the organisation, executives are only too aware that they cannot air all of their thoughts in public. Executives are ultra-careful about what they communicate, to whom and how, or they soon learn. Board meetings are often closed and communications can be deliberately targeted, sometime with the help of a communications or PR department. Wise executives rarely blurt out the first thing that comes into their heads. They inhibit that tendency and use their own thoughts to first control their own behaviour. They exercise self-control. Some private speech ends up in the boardroom, especially the closed sessions, while the public speech is crafted by the PR department. Just as in the individual this can be crafted to deceive or mislead, but also, just as in the individual, the real danger comes when the executive starts to believe its own deceptions.
Stage 5 – Management of own emotions
The individual, by resurrecting images of the past, can ‘control’ his or her own emotional states in order to be able to socialize more effectively and not drive other people away. An individual can act to put themselves in a better frame of mind, not make important decision while angry, and otherwise act to exert some control over their own emotional state.
Daniel Goleman (REF 8) in his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ identifies 4 aspects of emotional intelligence – (1) Self Awareness (2) Self-Management (3) Empathy and (4) Relationship Management. The first two of these are regarded as key executive functions whilst empathy and relationship management extend executive function into the social sphere that do not fully develop until adulthood.
YouTube Video, Daniel Goleman Introduces Emotional Intelligence, April 2012, 5:31 minutes
Can organisations be said to have emotions? The answer is ‘yes’. Announcing profits, losses, redundancies, being given awards or a bad press can have emotional repercussions throughout the organisation. Sustained ‘moods’ can have implications for the organisation culture. Some organisations have enthusiasm and optimism while others have low morale and become depressed and dysfunctional. Some organisations feel threatened, get anxious and show some of the common human defence mechanisms such as denial, over-compensation, projection and compartmentalisation (REF 9).
Article, 15 Common Defense Mechanisms, John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
The organisational memory of emotional events in the past (both traumatic and elating) can help to manage a current situation but often relies on there still being people engaged that remember the past. Most executives are only too aware of the relationship between the mood and culture of an organisation and its performance, and act to manage the mood. Even when times are hard they convey a positive message and vision that helps take the organisation forward. However, an unrealistic representation, or a glossing over of current circumstances, risks losing the trust of the people that are the key to future success.
Stage 6 – Management of own motivations
In the individual, this is self-motivation or self-determination. Management of your own motivations frees the individual from thinking and acting in ways that have been learnt, either through practice in response to circumstances or by copying others. It opens new doors. You no longer have to be driven by habits or others expectations. You can think for yourself, determine your own goals, prioritise them as you think fit and work towards them in any way that you like.
Imagery has already developed to allow external consequences to be substituted by mental representation. Motivations can thereby be created in relation to events that are distant in space and time, and these can be reasoned about and managed without recourse to acting on the outside world.
In the organisation: Organisations specialise in the management of motivation. In particular they manage motivations with respect to profit (or at least self sustainability) but this is achieved with reference to the organisation’s mission. Many companies will have a list of strategic goals or intentions, and although profit often comes high on the list, there are others such as customer and staff satisfaction. Often separate departments take charge of these different motivations but eventually it is the executive that must coordinate them. At worst it must suppress conflicts. At best it provides orchestration, aligning motivations so that parts of the organisation support each other.
Daniel Pink in his book ‘Drive’ (REF 10) describes recent studies on how organisational incentives affect employee motivation. For routine tasks that can be performed on ‘auto-pilot’ (system 1 thinking) monitory incentives seem to work well as a means of keeping people on task and increasing performance. However, and running counter to previous views, it seems that financial incentives either do not work or actually impair performance when the work involves higher level executive functions such as reasoning and problem solving. The more effective incentives for these types of tasks are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy means allowing employees to have the freedom to achieve goals in a manner of their own choosing, rather than having the method defined and prescribed. Mastery means giving the employee the freedom and resources to develop their own skills to a high standard, helping engender a greater degree of self-worth. Purpose refers to a socially useful purpose beyond that of the individual. It means joining with others to achieve something great, that the individual could not have achieved alone. Pink argues that the 21st Century worker must be incentivised in this way or they will not be sufficiently agile , resourceful, flexible and resilient to cope with the rapidly changing demands of a modern global economy.
YouTube Video, The puzzle of motivation | Dan Pink, TED, August 2009, 18:36 minutes
Stage 7 – Internalised Play
In the individual, the last manifestation of executive function is internalised play (REF 11). Internal play involves self-awareness and analysis, imagery, synthesis, planning, emotional and motivational control, and problem solving. It builds on all the other executive functions to allow us to take apart any object of our thoughts and re-construct them in the mind, in novel ways, to meet the needs of the moment.
YouTube Video, Learning Through Play: Developing Children’s Executive Function, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, September 2015, 27 seconds
In the organisation: Organisations that are big and profitable enough, make room for a lot of internal play and experimentation, only some of which will lead anywhere. Play itself allows the organisation to exercise its muscles, fine tune its processes and see where ideas might lead without heavy financial commitment.
Several references are provided below to elaborate on this and to show how play is a necessary ingredient in the development of the highest levels of executive function.
Implications for Organisational Development
Self-Awareness: Without self-awareness there is no self-control, but equally damaging is an inaccurate or biased self-awareness. Key Process Indicators (KPIs) and other management information systems can provide self-awareness but in the same way that an individual can become pre-occupied with their own inaccurate perception of themselves, an organisation can become equally distracted by KPIs that are easy to measure but are not closely aligned to its mission and strategy. It is only too easy to be deceived by the apparent objectivity of KPIs, especially when it is in the interests of different parts of the organisation to supply data that it knows the executive wants to see. In the same way that individuals tend to select the information that confirms their prejudices, an organisation can be similarly ‘blind’ to information it feels uncomfortable with.
Self-Restraint: An individual without self-restraint is often impulsive, easily distracted, lacks focus and fails to finish tasks. Too much restraint, by contrast, makes the individual inflexible and fixated. Organisations without self-restraint often pursue short-term goals at the expense of longer-term profitability. They are unable to defer gratification. By contrast, some organisations the have a tendency to over-control and tie themselves up in their own bureaucracy. Over time more and more procedure is put into place, often to correct errors of the past, until it is so rigid that it cannot respond to change. This is one reason that organisations often continuously re-structure and why some organisations seem to pulsate as control alternates between being drawn into the centre and distributed to autonomous operating units. Each process seems to run away with itself then needs to be reigned in again. The best organisations, rather than control, simply provide services to their management making it easy to carry out the functions that are central to its strategy, and more difficult to do anything else.
Imagery: The capacity to create, store and retrieve information is key to the individual in their personal development. Without the capability to learn from the past and retrieve that information when relevant an individual would act like an amnesic. An organisation without a memory of the past is similarly disoriented, and will stumble about without an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, without memory it is impossible to imagine what could be. Images of the past are the building blocks on which futures are built, often combining elements of the past in new ways to create novel solutions.
Theory of Mind: Understanding how customers and markets will react to events, including those events an organisation has control over, is critical in navigating and organisation through a constantly changing world. An organisation, say a government, that fails to anticipate a negative reaction to a new policy, law or budget change may find itself having to backtrack and even apologise. This is perceived as a weakness, precisely because it demonstrates that the organisation has an inadequate theory about other players. In politics in particular, it shows incompetence because politics is all about the anticipation and management of others’ reactions.
Private Speech: Private speech is more than just suppressing what is shown in public. It is the capacity to create internal dialogue and debate, to model and speculate on possible consequences of actions that have not yet been performed. The evaluation of actions before they are performed is essential to good decision making in both the individual and the organisation. Investment decisions benefit greatly from hearing a range of voices, from both within and outside the organisation, before they are acted on.
Management of Emotions: Emotions are at the route of most decision-making because they impact both an individual’s and an organisation’s priorities. The prevailing ethos of an organisation and how it affects the way staff feel, can be critical to the smooth functioning of the organisation. Some organisations have a ‘blame’ culture and, all factors being equal, any spontaneous activity on behalf of employees is suppressed. Others encourage free-thinking and innovation. How many organisations monitor these cultural and emotional factors and manage them as standing agenda items? Even when managed, most organisations are ineffective in the control of the prevailing emotional ethos and their interventions to control can easily backfire, especially if they look manipulative.
Management of Motivations: Like other functions ‘management of motivations’ can be done over-zealously or in too relaxed a manner. Self-determination is an asset so long as it does not fly in the face of circumstances. Motivations and intentions have to compromise with circumstance. The market has to be ready for your brilliant idea. Having said that, switching motivations has a cost. Even introducing a new service is expensive, let alone an entire change of strategy. Balancing the benefits of sticking to your guns with the cost of being flexible is a necessary skill. Organisations that manage to successfully grow organically achieve this balance.
Play: An individual cannot be fully functional without the opportunity to integrate all its mechanisms of executive control around the activity of play. Play allows experimentation and innovation in a safe environment, away from the dangers of the real world. Similarly, the organisation cannot be said to be fully functional without some room to play. The organisational practices of accounting for everything, monitoring every key performance indicator or extorting every last drop of employee or shareholder value, leads to organisations that are essentially reactive and immature. They are unpractised at thinking deeply at all organisational levels, and therefore lack resilience and the ability to adapt smoothly to changing circumstances. Like the individual that has failed to develop a wide range of coping strategies, they may lurch from crisis to crisis. Essentially, any change in circumstances can result in them becoming ‘out of control’.
How we manage the demands on us has been a pre-occupation since the day I came to the realisation that a lot of what runs through my own mind can be explained in terms of what psychologists call the management of ‘cognitive load’ or ‘mental workload’. We all, to some extent, ‘manage’ what we think about, but we rarely reflect on exactly how we do it.
Sometimes there are so many things that need to be thought about (and acted upon) that it is overwhelming, and some management of attention is needed, just to get through the day and maintain performance. If you need convincing that workload can affect performance then consider the research on distractions when driving. (A more comprehensive analysis on ‘the distracted mind’ can be found at the end of this posting).
YouTube Video, The distracted mind, TEDPartners, December 2013, 1:39 minutes
At other times you find yourself twiddling your thumbs, as if waiting for something to happen, or a thought to occur that will trigger action. We sometimes cease to be in the grip of circumstances and our minds can run free.
If you keep asking the question ‘why?’ about anything that you do, you eventually arrive at a small number of answers. If we leave aside metaphysical answers like ‘because it is the will of God’ for the moment, these are generally ‘to keep safe’ or ‘to be efficient’. On the way to these fundamental, and intimately related to them, is ‘to optimize cognitive load’. Not to do so, compromises both safety and efficiency.
To be overwhelmed with the need to act and, therefore, the thinking this necessitates in the evaluation of choices that are the precursors of action, leads to anxiety and anxiety interferes with the capacity to make good choices. To be under-whelmed leads to boredom and lethargy, a lack of caring about choice and the tendency to procrastinate.
It seems that to perform well we need an optimal level of arousal or stimulation.
Youtube Video, Performance and Arousal – Part 1of 3: Inverted U Hypothesis, HumberEDU, January 2015, 5:05 minutes
In the longer term, to be ‘psychologically healthy’ we need optimal levels of arousal ‘on average’ over a period of time.
Being constantly overwhelmed leads from stress, to anxiety and onwards to depression. It can even lead to an early death.
TED Video, The science of cells that never get old’ – Elizabeth Blackburn, TED, April 2017, 18:46 minutes
Being constantly underwhelmed also leads to depression via a different route. How much load we can take depends on our resources – both cognitive and otherwise. We can draw on reserves of energy and a stock of strategies, such as prioritizing, for managing mental workload. If the demands on us are too great and we have some external resources, like somebody else that can provide advice or direction, or the money to pay for it, then we can use those to lessen the load. Whenever we draw on our own capacities and resources we can both enhance and deplete them. Like exercising a muscle, regular and moderate use can strengthen but prolonged and heavy use will tire or deplete them. When we draw on external resources, like money or favours, their use tends to deplete them.
Measurement of Load
So how can we measure the amount of load a person is carrying. This is going to be tricky as some people have more resource and capacity (both internal and external) than others, so observing their activity may not be a very accurate measure of load. If you are very practiced or skilled at something it is much easier to do than if you are learning it for the first time. Also, some people are simply less bothered about whether they achieve what they have to do (or want to do) than others. Even the same person can ‘re-calibrate’, so for example, if pressure of work is causing stress, they can re-assess how much it matters that they get the job done. Some capacities replenish with rest, so something may be easy at one time but harder, say at the end of a long day.
In fact, there are so many factors, some interacting, that any measure, say of stress, through looking at the chemicals in the blood or the amount of sweating on the skin is difficult to attribute to a particular cause.
The capacity of our thinking processes is limited. We can really only focus on one difficult task at once. We even stop doing whatever we were doing (even an automatic task like walking) when formulating the response to a difficult question.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo, Series 1 Episode 1, First Broadcast about 2014, 28 minutes
We can use our thinking capacity to further our intentions but we so often get caught up in the distractions of everyday life that none is left for addressing the important issues.
The Personal Agenda
Another way of looking at it is to consider it from the point of view of each person’s agenda and how they deal with it. This is as if you ask a person to write down a ‘to do’ list which has everything they could think of on it. We all do this from time to time, especially when there is too much going on in our heads and we need to set everything out and see what is important.
I will construct such a list for myself now:
- Continue with what I am writing
- Get ready for my friend who is coming for coffee
- Figure out how to pay my bills this month
- Check with my son that he has chosen his GCSE options
- Tell my other friends what time I will meet them tonight
- Check that everything is OK with my house at home (as I am away at the moment)
Each of these agenda items is a demand on my attention. It is as if each intention competes with the others to get my focus. They each shout their demands, and whichever is shouting loudest at the time, wins. Maybe not for long. If I realise that I can put something off until later, it can quickly be dismissed and slip back down the agenda.
But the above list is a particular type that is just concerned with a few short-term goals – it’s the things that are on my mind today. I could add:
- Progress my project to landscape the garden
- Think through how to handle a difficult relationship
Or some even longer term, more aspirational and less defined goals
- Work out how I will help starving children in Africa
- Maintain and enhance my wellbeing
The extended agenda still misses out a whole host of things that ‘go without saying’ such as looking after my children, activities that are defined during the course of going to work, making sure I eat and sleep regularly, and all tasks that are performed on ‘autopilot’ such as changing gear when driving. It also misses out things that I would do ‘if the opportunity arose’ but which I do not explicitly set out to do.
What characterizes the items that form the agenda? They are all intentions of one sort or another but they can be classified in various ways. Many concern obligations – either to family, friends, employers or society more generally. Some are entirely self-motivated. Some have significant consequences if they are not acted upon, especially the obligations, whereas others matter less. Some need immediate attention while others are not so time critical. Some are easy to implement while others require some considerable training, preparation or the sustained execution of a detailed plan. Some are one-offs while others are recurring, either regularly or in response to circumstances. This variation tends to mask the common characteristic that they are all drivers of thought and behaviour.
Intentions bridge between and include both motives and goals. Generally we can think of motives as the inputs and goals as the outputs (although either can be either). Both the motives and the goals of an intention can be vague. In fact, an intention can exist without you knowing either why or what it is to achieve. You can copy somebody else’s intention in ignorance of motive and goal. In the sense of intention as only a pre-disposition to act, you need not be aware of an intention. Often you don’t know how you will act until the occasion demands.
Given that there are perhaps hundreds or even thousands of intentions large or small, all subsisting in the same individual, what determines what a person does at any particular point in time. It all depends on priority and circumstance. Priority will push items to the top of the list and circumstance often determines when and how they drive thought and behaviour.
Priority itself is not a simple idea. There are many factors affecting priority including emotion, certainty of outcome and timing. These factors tend to interact. I may feel strongly that I must help starving children in Africa and although I know that every moment I delay may mean a life lost, I cannot be certain that my actions will make a difference or that I may think of a more effective plan at a later time. When I have just seen a programme on TV about Africa I may be highly motivated, but a day later, I may have become distracted by the need to deal with what now appear to be more urgent issues where I can be more certain of the outcome.
Priority and Emotion
It is as if my emotional reaction to the current content of my experience is constantly jiggling the priorities on my agenda of intentions. As the time approaches for my friend to arrive I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable that I have not cleared up. Events may occur that ‘grab’ my attention and shoot priorities to the top of the agenda. If I am surprised by something I turn my attention to it. Similarly, if I feel threatened. Whereas, when I am relaxed my mind can wander to matters inside my head – perhaps my personal agenda. If I am depressed my overall capacity to attend to and progress intentions is reduced.
Emotions steer our attention. They determine priority. Attention is focused on the highest priority item. Emotion, priority, and attentions are intimately related. Changing emotions continuously wash across intentions, reordering their priority. They modulate the priorities of the intentions of the now.
Emotion provides the motive force that drives attention to whatever it is that you are attending to. If you are working out something complicated in your head, it is the emotion associated with wanting to know the answer that provides the motive force to turn the cogs. This applies even when the intention is to think through something rationally. When in the flow of rational thought (say in doing a mental arithmetic problem) it is emotion that motivates it.
There is a host of literature on emotional memory (i.e. how emotions, especially traumatic ones, are laid down in memory). There is also a large literature on how memories may be re-constructed, often inaccurately, rather than retrieved. The following illustrates both emotional memory of traumatic events and the frequent inaccuracies of re-construction:
TED Video, Emotional Memory: Shawn Hayes at TEDxSacramento 2012, TEDx Talks, March 2013, 8:10 minutes
It is well established that the context in which a memory is laid down effects the circumstances in which the memory is retried. For example, being in a particular place, or experiencing a particular smell or taste may trigger the retrieval of memories specific to the place and smell. The context supplies the cue or key to ’unlocking’ the memory. However, there is comparatively little literature on how emotions trigger memories although there has been research on ‘mood-dependent memory’ (MDM) e.g.
Eric Eich, Dawn Macaulay, and Lee Ryan (1994), Mood Dependent Memory for Events of the Personal Past, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1994, Vol. 123, No. 2, 201-215
It seems plausible that emotions act as keys or triggers that prime particular memories, thoughts and intentions. In fact, the research indicates that mood dependent memory is more salient in relation to internal phenomena (e.g. thoughts) than external ones (such as place). Sadness steers my attention to sad things and the intentions I associate with the object(s) of my sadness. Indifference will steer my attention away from whatever I am indifferent about and release attention for something more emotionally charged. Love and hate might equally steer attention to its objects. Injustice will steer attention to ascertaining blame. The task of identifying who or what to blame can be as much an intention as any other.
Priority and Time – The Significance of Now
Intentions formulated and executable in ‘the now’, assume greater priority than those formulated in the past, or those that may only have consequences in the future.
The now is of special significance because that is where attention is focused. Past intentions slip down the list like old messages in an email inbox. You focus on the latest delivery – the now.
The special significance of ‘the now’ is increasingly recognised, not just as a fact of life but as something to become increasingly conscious of and savoured.
Youtube Video, The Enjoyment of Being with Eckhart Tolle author of THE POWER OF NOW, New World Library, July 2013, 4:35 minutes
Indeed the whole movement of mindfulness, with its focus on ‘the now’ and conscious experience, has grown up as approach to the management of stress and the development of mental strategies.
Youtube Video, The Science of Mindfulness, Professor Mark Williams, OxfordMindfulness, December 2011, 3:34 minutes
Priority and Time in Agenda Management
If I am angry now then my propensity will be high to act on that anger now if I am able to. Tomorrow I will have cooled off and other intentions will have assumed priority. Tomorrow I may not have ready access to the object of my anger. On the other hand, if tomorrow an opportunity arises by chance (without me having created it), then perhaps I will seize it and act on the anger then. As in crime, we are driven by the motive, the means and the opportunity.
Many intentions recur – the intentions to eat, drink, sleep, and seek social interaction all have a cyclical pattern and act to maintain a steady state or a state that falls within certain boundaries (homeostasis). It may be that you need to revive an old intention whether or not it is cyclically recurring. Revival of an intention pushes it back up the list (towards the now) and when some homeostatic system (like hunger and eating) get out of balance a recurring intention is pushed back up the list.
Intentions that impact the near future also take priority over intentions that affect the far future. So, it is easier to make a cup of tea than sit down and write your will (except when death is in the near future). We exponentially discount the future. 1 minute, 1 hour and 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 season and 1 year are equally far apart. What happens in the next minute is as important as what will happen in the next year.
However, from the point of view of establishing the principles of a control mechanism that determines our actions at any point there are other complications and considerations. Often our intentions are incompatible or compete with each other. I cannot vent my anger and fulfil an intention not to hurt anybody. I cannot eat and stay thin. I cannot both go to work tomorrow and stay home to look after my sick child. Therefore, some intentions inhibit others leading to a further jiggling of the priorities.
Prioritising what is Easy
A major determinant of what we actually do is what is easiest to do. So actions that are well learned or matters of habit get done without a second thought but intentions that are complicated or difficult to achieve are constantly pushed down the stack, however important they are. Easy actions consume less resource. If they are sufficiently difficult and also sufficiently important we become pre-occupied by thinking about them but are unable to act.
Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ sets out much of the experimental evidence that shows how in thought we tend towards the easy options.
Youtube Video, Cognitive ease, confirmation bias, endownment effect – Thinking, Fast and Slow (Part 2), Fight Mediocrity, June 2015, 5:50 minutes
How often do we get up in the morning with the firm resolve to do a particular thing and then become distracted during the day by what seem to be more immediate demands or attractive alternatives? It is as if our intentions are being constantly pushed around by circumstances and our reactions to them and all that gets done are the easy things – where by chance the motive, the means, and the opportunity all fortuitously concur in time.
Staying on task is difficult. It requires a single-minded focus of attention and a resistance to distraction. It is sometimes said that ‘focus’ is what differentiates successful people from others, and while that may be true in the achievement of a particular goal, it is at the expense of paying attention to other competing intentions.
Implications for The Human Operating System
The above account demonstrates how as people we interleave multiple tasks in real time, partly in response to what is going on around us and partly in response to our internal agenda items. We do this with limited resources, depleting and restoring capacities as we go. What differentiates us from computers is the way in which priorities are continuously and globally changing such that attention is re-directed in real time to high priority items (such as threats and the unexpected). Part of this is in response to our ability to retrieve relevant memories cued by the external world and our internal states, reflect on (and inhibit) our own thinking and thinking processes and to run through and evaluate mental simulations of possible futures.
- In order to perform effectively we need to manage the demands on us
- Having too much, or too little, to do and think about can lead to stress in the short term and depression, if it goes on for too long.
- We have limited resources and capacities which can become depleted but that can also be restored (e.g. with rest)
- Measuring the amount of load a person is under is not simple as people have different resources, abilities and capacities
- Whether or not we write it down or say it, we all have an implicit list of intentions
- We prioritise the items on this list in a variety of ways
- Circumstances, our emotional reactions and timing are all crucial factors in determining priority
- We also tend to prioritise things that are easy to do (i.e. do not use up effort, time or other resources)
- Being able to manage priorities and interleaving our intentions in response to circumstances and opportunity, is a key aspect of the human operating system
This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’ introduces how we deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives
Next Up: ‘Policy Regulates Behaviour’ shows that not all intentions are equal. Some intentions regulate others, in both the individual and society.
Youtube Vide, The Distracted Mind, UCI Open, April 2013, 1:12:37 hours
The Fragmentation of Experience
I was sitting quietly yesterday, just letting my mind run free as I frequently do, and was distracted by a single unusual dinging sound. I checked my phone, I checked my laptop, I checked my desktop computer and finally came to my iPad to discover that it was the game 2048 calling me back to play again.
Can playing 2048 really be so important as to distract me from contemplating whether or not ‘the nature of consciousness’ or ‘the impact of the observer on the observed’, necessarily lead to the conclusion that there must be a God? This juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous seems to be an all too frequent occurrence. In a single hour I can receive a stream of SMS text messages, communications from Whatsapp, Viber, Timbr, Tumblr, reminders and other notifications, emails, phone calls, Skype calls, Facebook messages, software updates, and a knock on the door.
YouTube Video, Why do we get so easily distracted by technology?, Documentary Channel, November 2014, 3:31 Minutes
Sometimes I am shoving so many intentions to respond on the mental stack that the coherence of this fragmentary existence feels that it could, at any point, come crashing to the floor like a waiter trying to clear just one too many dishes. My guess is that from time to time I do lose it – I forget to get back to somebody important, I miss an appointment, or I slip up in the logic of my thoughts about when or whether ‘the singularity’ might occur.
This can be life in 2015 if you are the least bit busy or electronically connected to the world. On the other hand, if you do not get back to people, if you do not initiate, the pace of incoming social communications can rapidly dwindle to nothing. You have to keep the plates spinning on their sticks. Even so, you can rely on the fact that the work demands will not go away, pressures of family life do not abate, and the bills keep coming. I once heard ‘if you think that nobody cares about you, then try missing a couple of car payments’.
YouTube Video, Avoiding Distraction, Jack Wright, June 2015, 6:44 minutes
Related to distraction is disruption. When things happen that are beyond our control, we tend not to react very well. We don’t like uncertainty. But there can be benefits.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: Disruption, July 2016, 27:22 minutes
Paying attention to attention
Daniel Goldman, of emotional intelligence fame, makes the connection between being able to control attention and being able to perform at a high level. Being able to control what you attend to, he maintains, is critical to high level of performance, in part because it provides control over the emotional reactions evoked by the constant stream of circumstances and distractions of everyday life. Fortunately, it seems, that if you are aware of this you can use a variety of techniques to ‘strengthen the muscle’ of emotional control. The concepts of both ‘mindfulness’ and ‘flow’ relate to this. Many of these ideas are echoed later in these blog postings, especially in relation to the prioritisation of intentions and what is known as ‘executive function’.
YouTube Video, Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment, iqsquared, November 2013, 1:18:17 hours
Operating System – Human
While the above account may seem particular to life in the first world in the 21st century, this is just a superficial view. Deep down it is about the human condition anywhere and anytime. It is about how we interact with our environment, how we feel about it, how we prioritise, how we interleave our own goals with obligations and demands made on us, how we make sense of what’s going on and how we reflect on our own thoughts about that.
Theories in psychology are bitty. They tend to confine themselves to small aspects or singular perspectives on the human condition. So they might look at, say, attachment, memory, leadership, personality or visual illusions as if they had ‘not that much to do with each other’. In physics we work towards the Grand Unified Theory but in psychology there have been few attempts, although there are exceptions including:
- Unified Theories of Cognition
- A Unified Theory of Psychology by Gregg Henriques
YouTube Video, Theories in Psychology: A Refresher for AP Psych, Charles Schallhorn, May 2013, 8:09 minutes
Only rarely do theories look at the human being as a whole, and in real time, with all the complexity and dynamics that this implies. You can argue that this is because people are so complex that it is impossible to say anything meaningful unless you look at the detail of some particular aspect.
However, in the following account I am trying to do exactly this. I start with the perspective of the person as an operating (or control) system and, drawing on the many and various observations that have been made about the human condition, try to describe what sort of mechanisms might be at play, that both bound and give rise to, the complexity of being human. Rather than focus on particular findings, I am looking for the generalities of the architecture whereby these particular phenomena are emergent from the underlying ‘mechanism’.
This somewhat cybernetic approach considers the human condition as a resource limited and reflective control system embedded in its circumstances and operating at the level of ‘mind’ in order to manage various needs.
This is hardly the first time I have thought or written about these things. I have been studying psychology for several decades, working in artificial intelligence for 10 years, in mental health for 3 years, and been writing the blog www.wellbeingandcontrol.com for a year. However, it is probably the first time that I have tried to capture the human condition in terms of a somewhat short-term, resource constrained, pragmatic but error-prone, multi-threaded operating system that stumbles about trying to out-guess an uncertain world, to suffice (rather than optimise) in meeting its many and varied, changing needs.
This is not intended to be a truly comprehensive and unifying theory. It will not lead to precise prediction and measurement demanded by science. However, it does try to capture some of the essence of what it is to be human – to ‘duck and dive’ within one’s circumstance, and manage with limited, uncertain knowledge and resources; to seek pattern and manufacture meaning from whatever is presented; to feel and evaluate, prioritise and direct attention; to create, innovate, and hypothesise; to be vigilant to threat; to assume, dream, speculate, model and envision; to aspire to climb a hierarchy of needs; and to fail, re-interpret, re-group and recover to survive another day.
It is the cut and thrust of the real-time operation of one complex control system – the self (itself made up of multiple competing and co-operating components) embedded within other complex systems comprising the environment, that is the essence of what I am trying to capture and label ‘the human operating system’.
Have I missed something?
So, like I always do, and like everybody else increasingly does, I typed ‘human operating system’ into Google in the full expectation that I would find the usual wealth of literature on the subject. I have made one consistent observation over the years, and that is, whatever you think of, somebody else has always thought about it before and indeed there is usually not only hundreds of books and articles on the subject but often a whole industry exploiting it. So, really I was expecting to find, in the psychology or cybernetics literature at least, some comprehensive and well worked out theories describing the human condition in terms of an operating system. Well, although the term has been used many times, so far I have failed to find exactly what I am looking for, and I find this surprising. Why?
Well, the reason is that it is such an obvious thing to do. There are no end of analogies used to help throw light on the human condition.
YouTube Video, Analogy-Human Brain Like a Cow’s Stomach, Michael Harris, December 2011, 1:49 minutes
The brain is compared to the library or the telephone switchboard, memory (usually inaccurately) as forms of ‘recording’, and the computer is routinely used as an analogy for describing people – the brain being the hardware and the mind being thought of as the software. But these parallels are pathetic simplifications that go nowhere near touching on the complexity of either computers or people.
Just off the top of my head, albeit that I have studied both psychology and computers for many years, I can see so many deeper parallels between the sophisticated multi-threaded operating systems used in modern computing and what we know about human cognition in terms of ‘limited capacity central processing’, ‘memory storage and retrieval’, ‘executive function’ and so on.
Without going too deeply into it, a computer operating system is designed to stand between the human user interacting with particular applications (internet browsers, word-processing etc.) and the computer hardware. It looks after managing memory, processes and devices (screens, printers etc.) so that neither the user nor the application have to be concerned with all the detail. In much the same way, the human operating system stands between the person and their environment or circumstances looking after all the details of retrieving memories, switching between tasks and managing inputs (hearing, vision, touch) and outputs (actions / behaviours).
The claim being made in this blog is that the human condition (and the mind) is best explained in terms of the human operating system as analogous to the computer operating system, and that the characteristics and limitations of being human can be made more readily understandable by teasing apart the nature of this operating system. Furthermore, we may be able to account more precisely and predictably for differences between people by looking at both differences in the nature of the operating system as well as differences in the content of the data the operating system works with (i.e. what has been learned and stored in memory as well as inputs from the surrounding environment and culture).
Try as I might I have not been able to find a good video to illustrate this, but here is a video about some of the basic principles of computer operating systems to be going on with:
YouTube Video, Programming Interview: Introduction to Operating System (OS definition) (part 1), saurabhschool, May 2014, 11:34 minutes
I am claiming that this approach might be more illuminating as an explanation of the human condition and of differences between people than many other psychological approaches because it gets at some of the underlying mechanisms of cognition and not just the ‘symptoms’. For example, tests of intelligence or personality measure the ‘outputs’ of the human condition but don’t really explain how they come about. However, if I told you that one person appears to be more ‘successful’ than another because they tend to use a particular type of priority scheduling algorithm or that a person is more prone to error in their judgement of people because they systematically retrieve a particular type of memory, then I am going much further in explaining, predicting (and where necessary remedying) the processes that bring about the behaviours. (Interestingly, just in the area of computer process scheduling there are several possible algorithms types such as ‘first come first served’, ‘non-pre-emptive shortest job first’, ‘pre-emptive shortest job first’, ’round-robin’ and ‘priority-scheduling’ – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtuQpQwlmYM ).
Levels of Description
Although, I am primarily interested in the operating system that we call ‘the mind’, as indicated elsewhere in these blogs, much the same mechanisms are operating at different levels of description. For example, here is a description of an operating system at the biochemical level:
TED Video, The operating system of life – George Zaidan and Charles Morton, TEDEd, November 2013, 4:00 minutes
There is something of a gulf between levels of description in terms of ‘mind’ and those concerned with the physical substance of the brain and body. The gulf is given rise to much philosophical debate (the mind/body problem – see: Philosophy Bites, Tim Crane on Mind and Body) and now, especially with the advent of many forms of brain scanning and monitoring (see: Representations of Reality Enable Control – Part 2), is becoming the subject of much empirical investigation. It is this gulf where I choose to focus my level of description and why I think the notion of ‘operating system’ might be a powerful language in which to express it. The operating system bridges between the ‘software’ and the ‘hardware’ in both computer and in human.
- Life these days is increasingly subject to distractions from technology
- How we prioritise our thoughts and actions is fundamental to the way people operate. It captures the essence of the human condition.
- Although there have been many analogies between the human brain and technology, these are usually oversimplistic and capture nothing of the complexities of being human
- However, computer operating systems are highly complex in the way that they scheduled tasks and manage resources.
- Also operating systems are positioned between the software and the hardware. In people, the interface between mind and body is really where all the action is and is still largely unexplained.
This blog goes on to use the notion of the human operating system as a language to describe much of the complexity of the human condition.
This Blog Post: ‘Human Operating System 1 – The Fragmentation of Experience’ introduces the idea of the human operating system to describe the interface between mind and body
Next Up: ‘Human Operating System 2 – Managing Demands’. How do we manage to deal with the complex web of intentions (our own and those externally imposed) that form part of our complex daily lives