Primitive reflexes and artificial intelligence

You may have come across the brilliant podcast “The Knowledge project”. I just listened to the episode on Artificial Intelligence where Shane interviews Pedro Domingos, a professor at the University of Washington (thanks Marie for the tip!). It’s one of the best general “overview” of the field I have listened to. Everything is expressed with perfect clarity and precision.

Early on Pedro explains the different sources of what we call knowledge. Knowledge comes from:

  1. Evolution — it’s what is encoded in our “DNA”
  2. Experience — we keep learning during our life
  3. Culture — we learn from each other, we read books, etc

These first 3 are “natural sources”. But there’s now a 4th one:

4. Computers — they discover knowledge from data

I remember coming across a manifestation of 1., and it blew me away. It’s very common an yet it does not seem well-known.

Part of the routine neurological examination for a newborn is what they call checking “primitive reflexes”. These are fairly complex “things” every newborn knows without having seen them or being told. One of them is the walking reflex. It’s incredible: picture a baby who is less than a day old. When the doctor holds them in a vertical position and their feet touch a flat surface, they will attempt to walk!

Extract from an Arte TV documentary

Think about it for a second: if you had to “teach” a robot to do that, would it not be extremely complicated? Two legs, with a bunch of degrees of freedom, that need to move in a coordinated movement…

And yet, just like that, it’s all encoded somewhere in the human brain. Every time I see this it gives me pause. We are a brilliant machine, aren’t we!

Additional notes:

  • these primitive reflexes disappear after a little while. The development of the cortex (associated with the more elaborated neurological functions) inhibits these primitive reflexes. I find this fascinating.
  • another interesting of these reflexes is the Moro reflex or startle reaction.
  • many animals “know” how to walk (and won’t “forget”) from the moment they are born — it’s amazing what evolution has done to our brain and its construction I think…

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