In Empathy and AI: Part I I discussed the possibility of coding for empathy in our imagined AI offspring.
In Empathy and AI: Part II I wondered about how to perform the mirroring function for an AI. Most AI researchers believe that the AI's mind will evolve rather than spring into being fully formed. As such, encoding for empathy becomes a significant issue.
The early Psychoanalysts developed a Theory of Mind that continues to resonate and have significance, including having gained some support from modern neurosciences, as noted in A Conscious Digression:
Mahler's contributions included her elegant descriptions of the child's sense of self emerging from the undifferentiated mother-infant matrix. She called the first glimmers of separateness "hatching"; this was followed by the separation-individuation phase later in early childhood (12-18 months). Along with the establishment of separation, the child developed stable self- and object-representations.
In Science Friday: Differentiating the Self, I described how neuroscience was finally giving us some of the tools and the data we need to understand these concepts and connect them to their physiological substrate. I used the new research to support the Psychoanalytic understanding of the development of our stable sense of self:
Typically development is a rather complicated journey... but the essential idea that multiple self-representations (ie, different images one has and develops about oneself) must be integrated to form a coherent and consistent sense of oneself has been bolstered by the finding of areas of the brain that appear to do just such integration.
The recent discovery of "mirror neurons" is a Neuropsychological earthquake. In MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution, V.S. Ramachandran described the existence of such neurons as a paradigm shift:
How does all this lead to self awareness? I suggest that self awareness is simply using mirror neurons for "looking at myself as if someone else is look at me" (the word "me" encompassing some of my brain processes, as well). The mirror neuron mechanism — the same algorithm — that originally evolved to help you adopt another's point of view was turned inward to look at your own self. This, in essence, is the basis of things like "introspection". It may not be coincidental that we use phrases like "self conscious" when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you. Or say "I am reflecting" when you mean you are aware of yourself thinking. In other words the ability to turn inward to introspect or reflect may be a sort of metaphorical extension of the mirror neurons ability to read others minds. It is often tacitly assumed that the uniquely human ability to construct a "theory of other minds" or "TOM" (seeing the world from the others point of view; "mind reading", figuring out what someone is up to, etc.) must come after an already pre- existing sense of self. I am arguing that the exact opposite is true; the TOM evolved first in response to social needs and then later, as an unexpected bonus, came the ability to introspect on your own thoughts and intentions. I claim no great originality for these ideas; they are part of the current zeitgeist. Any novelty derives from the manner in which I shall marshall the evidence from physiology and from our own work in neurology. Note that I am not arguing that mirror neurons are sufficient for the emergence of self; only that they must have played a pivotal role. (Otherwise monkeys would have self awareness and they don't). They may have to reach a certain critical level of sophistication that allowed them to build on earlier functions (TOM) and become linked to certain other brain circuits, especially the Wernickes ("language comprehension") area and parts of the frontal lobes. [Emphasis mine-SW]
Mirror Neurons allow us to create a model of the mind of the other. Of crucial importance, Mirror Neurons do not "know" if their input is from external sources or internal sources; this must be learned by the neural circuits over time spent integrating input from all the various sources that impinge upon the human nervous system.
The Neuroscientists and Psychoanalysts agree that a mind can only develop in relation to other minds; empathy is a pre-requisite. This is likely going to be as true for AIs as for biological minds.
Back to Mahler, and her ideas on Separation-Individuation, the process whereby an infant's mind emerges from an undifferentiated fused state and learns that it is a separate and distinct entity from the Mother's mind; from Intellectualization, Free Speech, & Unintended Consequences: Part I:
As always for a Psychoanalyst, one starts in the earliest experiences of the person. Margaret Mahler wrote extensively about early childhood development. In her theory of development, she described a normal undifferentiated (autistic, then symbiotic) phase followed eventually by separation and individuation. A brief recap can be found here. Mahler described how the 10 month old infant (at the beginning of the differentiation phase), just beginning to stand upright and making his first tentative steps, develops a "love affair with the world". An infant who has the safety and security of his mother's watchful, loving eye, ventures forth into the world with a thrill of discovery. Everything is new and exciting. Everything has to be touched and held and tasted. The child is encouraged by the delight he sees in his mother's eye when he achieves a new level of development. The first baby steps are a moment of delight for the parents and the child. The child is thrilled and excited both by his parents' reaction and by his growing mastery over himself. As a child grows and develops, he gains greater and greater mastery over himself (his musculature, as in ambulation and fine and gross motor activity) and his environment. He learns to master his bodily functions (urine and bowel control) as well; the differentiating child takes great pleasure in his ability to control himself.
Along with the gains, the movement forward in development, there are accompanying losses. Mastery and control also imply the loss of some freedoms. When a child reaches the age of 18-24 months, some remarkable things take place. Up until this age the child has existed in a blissful world of omnipotence. If they are hungry, they cry, and food appears; if they need to be held and emotionally nurtured, they cry, and the mother appears; if they feel like voiding, they void; if they wish to sleep, they sleep. They essentially can do whatever they want (whatever they are capable of) with no limitations. While many of us continue to have wishes to do whatever we want whenever we want, this blissful state can not, and does not, last. By this point, the child has learned to say, "No". He is separate from his mother and begins to recognize that her desires are not always congruent with his; his fantasy of omnipotence is shattered. Some children, perhaps because of constitutional reasons, or perhaps because of an insecure attachment to an unavailable mother (depressed, narcissistic), have a very limited ability to tolerate separation and frustration. Some of these children develop the kinds of narcissistic vulnerabilities I have talked about in prior posts (Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism, and Paranoia, parts I, II, III, IV).
Melanie Klein, a highly influential analyst and one of the early students of Object Relations theory, offered a distinctive elaboration on the process by delineating a Paranoid-schizoid position, prior to the establishment of Object Constancy (where the majority of the self and object representations have been unified in a fused sense of distinct self and object) in which the infant experiences itself and its mother as different part objects at different times and circumstances. The infant, upon achieving Object Constancy, then moves into the Depressive position, characterized by a knowledge of loss of the (fantasied) omnipotent union with the mother.
[Utopian fantasies and wishes arise from the desire to recapture the fantasied blissful union with the early all powerful, all gratifying Mother.]
The process of Separation-Individuation can fail in a number of ways. When the boundaries between self and other are poorly established or too porous, or empathy is minimal or non-existent, or the sense of self is defective, serous psychopathology ensues.
Poor ego boundaries leads to a psychotic state where the person loses the ability to determine where stimuli arise; they may attribute internal stimuli to external objects, which is the fundamental error in psychosis. Because of the poor appreciation of their own limits, grandiosity often is part of their pathology.
When empathy is minimal or non-existent, depending on the neural substrate, one can develop autism or Sociopathy. The severe autistic does not recognize that the Other has a mind and desires of its own; the Sociopath doesn't care.
When the sense of self is defective, the narcissistic pathologies are the result.
How this might inform our understanding of the development of an AI's mind is the subject for Part IV of this series.