What governs the Choice?

Things I learned at AFRL and SCARR Lab(Robotics lab at UofSC) working on learning and evaluating SLAM and Planning Algorithms, relating to life.

Photo by Lenin Estrada on Unsplash

I swear this is a non-technical, purely philosophical post.

SLAM refers to Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, and in Robotics research, SLAM and Planning Algorithms are one of the hardest research areas, as this basically translates to researching better ways to make a machine cognizant of who/where it is in the world (localize oneself), how the “world” looks like (map the world) and plan where it needs to go next (planning). When I was working on my thesis in my Masters, before dropping it i.e., this is all I could think about for about a year, as these three concepts define what we want a robot to be capable of doing, with a given set of sensors and limited energy.

Now think of this robot to be us humans. If you’re aware of these concepts technically, this post would be especially appealing to you. If not, you might learn how robotics researchers think. Get ready for some rivet thuds nevertheless.

Many wise men (and women) have told me, this life is a journey to find oneself, realize our desires, visions, eventuate our goals and aspirations, and in the process, manifest our true nature. All that happens around us and all that transpires within us as a consequence of that happening around us, leads us to micro transformations of every day. This all happens in physical form as our brain cells realign with the flow of various combinations of chemicals through our veins and nerves. This also happens consciously, as we infer meaning from events, do regression analysis, derive patterns and generate conclusions.

Who are we becoming in the process? I have a few theories to offer on the subject:

  • We allow our surroundings to govern who we become. What’s happening around us and to us becomes our baseline pattern and we try to align our future cognizance to that baseline pattern. This allows our surroundings to create bias in what we infer.
  • We allow our past experience to govern who we become. What happened in our past is how we perceive our present and future events to transpire. We remain hung up on how certain events and people and places made us feel. We anticipate outcomes that have already eventuated in our past, whether positive or negative. Even when we talk to people, we are biased on how a certain pattern concluded in our past, and keep suggesting the same outcomes to them, whether we are concerned for them, or for ourselves, or just trying to make conversation.
  • We let both of the above happen, but keep our mind sane and rational, working on how something has manifested in the present, how it is similar to and different from all the past events and experiences. We let ourselves free in the realm of possibilities and see where our intuition (and specifically not bias) takes us in the present. Some people meditate to get this kind of mindset and heart set. Some people workout or run. Some breathe. Some just be.

The question comes back to defining who am I with time and experience? Someone hung up on past, or surroundings, or someone with cogent thoughts that are reasonable and perceptive? Is it so horrible to think about your past or your surroundings, and what led you to be the person you are today? If I can accept my reshaping mind and thoughts, at the micro transformations, and believe that I am learning, everyday, then what is the harm in considering one’s past and surroundings? Should I ignore certain aspects of my past and surroundings, even when they are the ones that defined my form today and remember others? Why do researchers program robots to consider and integrate their past states and sensor data about their surroundings to infer their present states? Also, once the past and surroundings are integrated, what happens to the previous states? In robotics they are mostly discarded, because of the computational limits. What about humans?

Now we will get to what we are becoming and relate it to how we are making sense of the world around us, just like a robot is programmed to. By gathering data from sensors, and by calculating how far a robot has moved from its previous state, it draws and refines the map of surrounding world and it’s position in it. We do the same.

We analyze and sift through our thoughts, which are formed as a result of triggers from our senses, the discrete ones and the ones we cannot discern. A robot usually repeats the algorithm they are programmed to follow, for new triggers. What about humans, do we think and analyze in the same way each time a new thought appears? I don’t think so. How do we humans decide how to analyze a thought? Is there a grand repository of algorithms in the back of our head which tells us what to apply where? Do we have infinite flexibility of thoughts and how we choose to analyze them?

One thing I do know is, we change states, with each thought. These micro-transformations lead to a big picture and that picture keeps evolving. Sometimes we lose pieces from it that meant a lot in the past (Or carried a lot of weight in the robot’s head). What happens when we lose pieces that shaped our picture to its current form? Does the picture crumble? How do we put the pieces together again? How do we deal with these lost pieces? Should we just forget them? Remember they are the events and triggers that shaped our picture, there is probably no picture without them.

Relating to a robot’s brain, what happens when it crashes? We let it pick up from the last state it remembers, or allow it it to start from a default state.

I am a human, and my idiosyncrasy is that I don’t have a default state. So each time my picture crashes, I rebuild it from the left pieces, and I keep losing some precious pieces of past in the process, while I gain some new ones.

In the recent couple of years, my picture has evolved more than usual. Also, I have rebuilt my picture very often as it has crashed more than it should have. I have lost many pieces, and I have gained many, and then I have lost the ones I have gained, and gained some new ones. It’s kind of annoying, but I deal with my robot mind, everyday, nevertheless.

The planning part is most amusing of the three. The picture I mentioned above also includes my own predictions for future, based on pieces I put together with the picture. This part of the picture called future is now mostly blurred in my head, after many reformations and changes. How would I program a robot to behave in this scenario?

My default action personally is denial. Then there is anger, bargaining and so on. It always ends in acceptance. This model doesn’t always work best, but we live with what we’ve got. Could I skip to acceptance directly sometimes? Should I fight for not accepting a particular picture, especially when it is hazy? How far can I go with not knowing what the future holds for me, and keep accepting what comes my way without wasting time on denial and anger and bargaining and depression?

Roughly translating to robots, how many states can it skip before it loses constant, steady motion? I am assuming we want the robot to keep moving ahead, as we want ourselves to keep marching ahead in life.

I have probably killed all emotions in any reader by now by relating to a robot. My intuition says we are different than robots. We have something extra, I cannot decipher what yet, but we are more advanced. Robots can be mass produced so far, I don’t think we have reached close to this level of cloning yet,. Which means, we are still unique. We all form the picture differently, our evolution process is different, and we have our own pace around rebuilding that picture, and in choices of pieces to keep. Some of us have better pictures than others, some of us have a clear future picture.

There is no mechanism to compare and evaluate what picture will win the clarity competition except for diving into the unknown blurred, and hazy future, by taking a leap of faith. The pace at which we prepare for this leap matters only up till the point we actually take the plunge. After that point, it’s an unknown confounding future at an unknown pace (technically our gravity can decide the pace, but who decides the gravity of thoughts in our head?)

This brings us down to what we give priority to. It’s the choice in life we have to make everyday, every moment, at every trigger. It all comes down to what we choose every time there is a choice in front of us. How we take in all that has happened in our past and all that happens around us, how we perceive the world and evolve our picture, what future we choose for ourselves, is up to us.

We can apply all rationality to this choice, but ultimately a heart set governs this for me. What should govern this choice for a robot? What governs this choice for you?

Peace and love.

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
The Ancient One

PhD Candidate. Aunt. Daughter. Sister. Cyclist. Fighter. Trauma Survivor. Woman.