Monday, June 2, 2008

Sigmund Freud and Artificial Intelligence

Intelligence is a very interesting topic. Most smart people think that the way that they personally are smart is the best way to be smart, or even the only way. But that is a notion grounded more in personal confidence than reality. Our human intelligence is as variable as our fingerprints. Each person's intelligence is a complex mixture of natural endowment, motivation, and experience. Instead of one standardized test, if we were advanced enough to devise them, each person would have their own customized test to assess their particular style of intelligence.

However, a much bigger mistake would be to accept the common wisdom that human intelligence is the only possible model for an intelligently behaving AI system. The premise that this is the only path to a well-behaved, "moral" robot is, I suggest, deeply inaccurate, and an AI system modeled exactly on the human mind would be quite undesirable in many ways.

Our human brand of intelligence is actually 3 distinct kinds of intelligence, sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing, and real AI systems will have different mixtures of this combination that make will make them safer and more commercially successful. To understand the different facets of human intelligence, we need to go back to Sigmund Freud. I have found Freud’s characterization of the human mind into components of id, superego, and ego amazingly useful for understanding real people. And as it turns out, Freud’s model turns out to be even more valuable for understanding how AI systems will be architected.

Briefly, Freud describes the human mind in three components which perpetually struggle for dominance: The “id” is the animal brain, the most primal, and is the source of our emotions and also the interpreter of other’s emotions, as well as other creatures, such as assessing if an approaching dog is friendly or not. The id is by far the strongest of the 3 components, and influences mightily almost everything we think and do.

Ironically, the id represents many of the things we consider central to being human – this, the most ancient part of our brain, the one with which we share the most similarities with other animals. It's the wellspring of human creativity. It’s also the source of human strategic thinking. When a CEO determines he wants to double a company’s size, especially without the obvious appearance a major opportunity, that’s an "id thing”. Office politics is an id thing. All the emotions are id things. The ability to recognize faces is there too, most likely. And lots, lots more besides.

The“Superego” is the next most powerful component. Among its important functions seems to be a control mechanism for the human id, which without a control mechanism would rage largely unchecked. It is the product of the values your were raised with by your parents, church, school, and other primary influences. All the opinions that are strong in us, baked in and quite resistant to change, are superego. The important point is that this part of the brain is largely uninfluenced by the rational mind. Ideally, a given opinion is carefully vetted by the rational mind before being committed to superego, yet probably a healthy majority of our superego’s conceptions have not been through an this objective. Whenever you judge instantly and strongly, that is your superego talking, not your rational mind.

Last and perhaps unfortunately least in terms of influence is the “ego," the rational mind, the objectively analyzing and problem-solving brain. It is a distant third to the other two in terms of its power to influence thought processes and resulting human actions and thoughts. In fact, in many ways the ego isn't really a control mechanism at all, in terms of influencing our behavior - rather, it is a tool used by the id to further it's survive, thrive, and procreation objectives. The myriad manifestations of these three objectives permeate almost everything we think, say, and do; sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes very subtle. Thus, the rational ego is relegated to a far less dominant position in the scheme of human consciousness, at least when viewed from the perspective of a control mechanism.

I would suggest that many if not most complex animals have these three components as well - ids, superegos, and egos. Arguably, these are often optimized in different ways, and it seems clear that we have the most advanced egos, ie, rational analysis capability, of any creatures on the planet. This can be explained by considering that rational intelligence has been our major evolutionary strategy for the last several million years and the gray matter invested in this is the greatest of all animals. We don’t give enough respect to our animal brethren in this regard, that the fundamental nature of their intelligence is not so different from ours, but of course molded in myriad ways to make the most sense for their particular evolutionary strategies. Things like fast legs, hard shells, and sharp claws and teeth reduce the need for rational intelligence as a survival mechanism to some degree for the vast preponderance of Earth's creatures during the entire history of life on this planet.

So, loosely put, human intelligence is primarily id-driven, with the superego providing a powerful id-control mechanism as well as "instant" judgment on many topics, and the rational mind helping the id execute its desires as needed. The mistaken notion that we have 1 mind, not 3 working in synchronicity (and often competing with each other) is the reason we consider the total of all that stuff swirling around in our heads as “intelligence”. And since that is what intelligence is, the thinking goes, we assume that an AI-powered droid must also have these same constituents organized in the same way in order to behave intelligently.

This is an excerpt from a very informative lecture explaining the relevant ideas of Freud in more detail. Not only are the id, ego, and superego carefully and clearly described, these are compared and contrasted with the tripartite views of self described by Plato, and of Marx:

This lecture describes the consequences of Freud's psychological components on civilization overall, contrasting his ideas carefully with those of Marx:

Listen carefully, perhaps more than once (it took more than once for me for it to sink in). But the resonance is deep, the insights profound.

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