Fallor Ergo Sum: Through the Lens of Cybernetics

Relax. Nothing is under control. (Zen proverb)

A kid watching Tom-the-cat chasing after Jerry-the-mouse may get an impression that the cat is in control and may be puzzled by Tom’s propensity for getting in trouble. If a kid is highly perceptive, however, she may notice that it is Jerry who is controlling Tom by changing his direction (perhaps, leading the cat into a wall or a mousetrap). Tom and Jerry form a control system within which Jerry is Tom’s (temporary) controller located outside of Tom’s physical boundaries. Tom is not free for as long as he is intent on catching Jerry.

~~~

Both living systems and the evolution that brought them about share a peculiar quality of having apparent intentions. An early theory of evolution, developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck at the beginning of the 19th century, had teleology (the study of purpose) explicitly baked into it. For example, Lamarck’s theory suggested that by stretching their necks to reach higher branches, giraffe’s short-necked ancestors grew longer necks, which they passed on to the future generations. While Darwinian theory of natural selection replaced Lamarck’s conjecture (generally speaking, without diving into the subtleties of epigenetics), it may still be helpful to metaphorically think of organisms as striving “toward” their goals. Similarly, observes Antonio Damasio, even though unicellular organisms are unlikely to have minds capable of intentions, their actions implicitly aim at persisting into the future, such as when they move in the direction of nutrients.

Normally, we don’t notice our intentions at work, but they are always around, operating stealthily under the surface. We may only become aware of an intention when it is blocked. The feeling of effort reveals our default gearing-up response to encountering the obstacle (not necessarily a physical one). Every moment of consciousness, observes Evan Thompson, approaches its object with an intention. Our sense of purpose permeates our experience of the external world, which we see as being full of agents harboring intentions of their own.

Infants are already excellent “agency detectors.” Children’s concept of agency isn’t simply an anthropomorphic projection. Even though parents generally prefer causal explanations to teleological ones, young children tend to look for hidden intentions. For example, instead of seeing the rain as something a cloud “does,” reports Jeremy Lent, some preschoolers believe that producing rain is what clouds are “made for.” Similarly, suggests Michael Shermer, conspiracy theorists are prone to infusing the patterns of random events with an intentional agency, which makes them believe in “the puppet masters pulling political and economic strings” behind the scene.

~~~

Biological organisms use balancing feedback loops to keep their temperature, oxygen, water, protein, calcium, and other physiological parameters within the ranges necessary for survival. The property of homeostasis, essential for the very existence of life, counters the tendency of the matter to drift into disorder. For example, a change in the external temperature triggers the homeostatic response that tries to maintain the optimal temperature by making us shiver or sweat (thus reducing blood circulation to the skin). If protracted regulation is not sustainable, such as during a long winter, the organism can adjust the required temperature threshold by triggering hibernation.

The popular notion of homeostasis, observes Damasio, conjures up the ideas of “equilibrium” and “balance.” But life doesn’t seek equilibrium, which would be thermodynamically synonymous with death. Unlike a thermostat, the homeostatic process strives for more than merely maintaining a steady state. It aims at the future of the organism, which projects itself in time through optimized life regulation. It may be better described as allostasis, the property of complex systems to maintain constancy through change. It is the process by which the body responds to regain homeostasis. While the goal of homeostasis is to maintain a steady state, allostasis anticipates the needs and prepares to satisfy them before they arise.

Thus, to warm up, we can assist the biological thermoregulation by putting on a jacket, tossing another log into a fireplace, consuming a hot drink, or turning up an electrical thermostat. On a longer timescale, the need to survive has led humans to control their environment by erecting shelters, raising crops, installing solar panels, and outsourcing their thermoregulation to air-conditioners. An even more strategic allostasis may involve building spaceships suitable for colonizing distant planets, in preparation for the (rapidly approaching) time when fleeing the Earth may be the only viable survival option left.

~~~

Living organisms have evolved to both control their environment and resist being controlled by it. Even single-cell amoebas extrude pseudopods to absorb the specks of nutrients. The entire field of cybernetics was launched by Norbert Wiener to study control “in the animal and the machine.” Cybernetics has found its way into such diverse disciplines as engineering, computer science, biology, ecology, neuroscience, and social sciences.

Consider what happens when you take a break from reading to get a glass of juice. The feeling of thirst makes you get up, walk downstairs, take a juice carton out of the refrigerator, pour it in a glass, and drink it. If you zoom into each step, you will find layers of feedback loops. Getting up involves shifting your weight forward until your muscles jointly engage to propel the body upward. Walking downstairs consists of shifting your weight to the front foot until it catches your body from below and the previously loaded back foot becomes free to take the next step. When you get to the kitchen, you continue pulling the refrigerator door until it is open wide enough for you to take out the bottle. You keep pouring until the glass is full. You continue drinking until the thirst subsides or the glass is empty. And so on.

Much of our everyday control is guided by subconscious processes. The ability to automate sequences of highly coordinated actions that demand complicated skills protect us from being overwhelmed by attending to every minute detail. We would have never accomplished anything otherwise. However, mastering even a seemingly straightforward act, such as descending a staircase, must have demanded our complete attention when we were learning to walk. And it may become deliberate again if we injure a leg, develop a neurological condition, or decide to make our movement more effortless and graceful. Otherwise, we tend to keep our attention focused on our creative pursuits while letting the subconscious routines run the show, relieving us of the need to stay fully awake to the world.

~~~

Sensing and acting influence each other through the seamless integration of perceptual feedback loops. According to William Powers, perception evolved to enable control. While it may appear that the environment directs our behavior, it is our deliberate action that prevents outside disturbances from interfering with our agenda. We continue moving toward the desired state and observing the outcomes of our actions until the results look satisfactory. If we are trying to keep our car in a lane, we are not content until we see it within a comfortable margin from the lane dividers. Similarly, if we are trying to prevent a child from running into a street, we control her to remain within a comfortable margin from the edge of the sidewalk.

For any control system, the desired state is called the goal, and the difference between the current state and the goal — the error. Control systems use balancing feedback loops to decrease the error via progressively smaller adjustments until it is contained within an acceptable margin. While “error” may sound like something undesirable, no useful activity could ever occur without at least some allowance for it. A system bent on squashing any deviation from the goal at the first sight would find itself shaking in perfectionistic convulsions. Only scripted, rigidly defined activities would remain. Transportation would be reduced to streetcars and rocking horses. Kids would never learn to walk, bike, and sing, let alone think and decide. And, of course, blog would never get written.

Mechanical systems such as cars are deliberately designed to make feedback unambiguous. For example, just like a human driver, the automotive cruise control “acts” to increase or decrease the flow of fuel to maintain the speed consistent with the preset goal. If the car starts climbing a hill, the system detects the speed drop as an error and adds fuel to reduce it. The nature of a controller makes little difference as long as the system is converging on the goal. For example, one musician has claimed to maintain the desired speed by keeping the engine noise frequency close to that of a particular musical note.

~~~

Recall how you learned to ride a bike. To an outside observer, you may have appeared struggling to remain in control. However, your inexperienced brain couldn’t have known how to control the bike quite yet. All it could do was to actively engage its sensory-motor system. To support vision, the brain engaged your eyes in conjunction with the neck and eye muscles. It continuously integrated the incoming sensory stream with the outgoing motor commands, feeding the information about your body position against the environment back to the motor nerves, in a seamless self-correcting loop. By continuously observing the impacts of your movement on the bike’s direction, stability, and speed, your brain kept ceaselessly adjusting it to reduce the perceived deviation from the stable ride. But did you experience any of this mind-boggling complexity? Chances are, you did not notice any of it, just as the fish does not notice the surrounding water. Rather, the riding was simply becoming more effortless over time.

Similarly, the task of controlling a car comes down to maintaining its perceived speed (ideally, below the speed limit) and its perceived position (between the lanes) while countering the inevitable disturbances (slopes, potholes, people crossing the road, and other cars cutting you off). To maintain the ideal speed, your brain must compare the current speed reading with the goal, calculate the error, and signal the muscles of your right leg to push down on either the accelerator or the brake to correct the error.

If you had to tell your arm and leg muscles how to contract, you would quickly become overwhelmed. Fortunately, both machines and brains are organized as hierarchical control systems. The cruise control doesn’t know (or care) whether the road is climbing or descending. It can only calculate the required change in the flow of gas by sensing the change in speed. It then passes this information to a lower-level system that knows how to adjust the throttle and move the brake pads but has no idea why it is making the adjustment.

Higher-level systems have evolved to be good managers, telling the lower-level ones what perceptions to strive for and letting them implement the requested changes. Each level of your mind acts like a boss of a spy ring, feeding the low-level operatives the pieces of the puzzle on a need-to-know basis but never letting them gain the full understanding of the big picture (or even become aware of its existence). In return, the operatives try to avoid inundating the boss with the step-by-step progress reports — even when such feedback could have offered potential benefits for the operation as a whole. Any feedback they do provide is interpreted by your mind within the context of its mental model that was used to issue the original directions. If that model happens to be inaccurate, the boss may keep forcing it down the line to correct the imaginary error — say, by flooring the gas pedal when a car is stuck in the mud, digging it in deeper, and setting it up for a sudden take off.

Next time you are pulled over for speeding, you can offer this technically accurate, impersonal explanation to the cop. Be ready for a drug test, though.

This story is best enjoyed as part of the The Uncharted Present series of articles, starting with an intro. If that’s how you got here, please continue to the next one.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store