Evolution – The key to understanding Humans and Robots

This week I am primarily focused on preparing my talk for the TEDx event in Frome on 28th January. I am giving a talk about how humans interact with robots, and why it is important that we design our robots to be understandable and transparent, rather than mysterious and deceptive.

However, as I started thinking and writing — you can’t do much useful thinking without starting to write, I think that’s because we don’t have full access to our own thoughts, so we need to read them — I realised that almost half my talk was about evolution. My research topic concerns the interaction of human intelligence with artificial intelligence, so why so much about evolution?

Well, if you want to understand how humans interact with machines, you really need to understand how humans work. Humans were not designed, they evolved, just like all other life on our planet. Our evolutionary history is the key to unlock the way we work. That includes not just our morphology but also our behaviour and our internal mental life.

Whilst we may to some degree understand humans and predict their behaviour by looking through the lenses of philosophy, arts and humanities, the ground truth of why we are here, and why we are as we are is really to be found in evolutionary biology. These mechanisms forged us over millions of years, before there was any philosophy, religion, arts or humanities. It is through understanding the mechanisms of evolution that we can find ground truth about why we are as we are, and why we behave and think as we do. Darwin’s dangerous idea transforms the mystery of our existence into a set of scientifically tractable problems, which is why it was considered so dangerous in its time.

Just as I’m thinking about evolution again, I notice that the building work on the new Milner Centre for Evolution has begun here at the University of Bath. I’m really excited about the third objective of the centre ‘Taking evolutionary research into the community‘. We must work together to educate and inspire people. Education gives people tools to help them thinkĀ in a more skeptical way, to question the ideas and assertions of others, particularly those in authority or seeking power. Understanding something of evolution is, in my opinion, essential for forming an understanding of the world we live in.

Back to the TEDx talk …..

Rob Wortham

January 2017

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