Baby Crocodiles, Computers and the Human Personality

HumanOS v1.3

Weird Face on Mars

Warning this article is a work in progress.... More to come.

There is an amazing parallel between modern computer operating systems and the human personality [1]. The other ridiculous statement of this article, is that modern computers are made far too much like newly hatched crocodiles and not enough like babies in order to ever be intelligent. What do crocodiles have to do with computers, and what does 'windows' have to do with my personality ? Well, perhaps we can answer that, or something a bit like that anyway.

When we are born we have had very little experience. Our whole world has so far consisted of the safe, dark, and relatively quiet warmth of the womb. Suddenly and traumatically we are thrust into a confusing and noisy world. Our sensitive little eyes and ears are bombarded with an overwhelming deluge of sensations, none of which we understand - no wonder new born babies spend such a lot of time crying, it must all be so confusing.

At first life is little more than this continuous barrage of new and bewildering experiences - each one provoking an equally new and confusing response inside us. The newborn baby is born without even the ability to focus its eyes, and no understanding of how to control its body. New mothers will willingly testify to the lack of control a new born baby has over some parts of its body. The baby knows little beyond a desire to feel good - any unkown or unpleasant sensation, like hunger or cold, will cause a reaction of fear in the baby who is likely to cry. This inner desire for 'pleasure' is the basic drive that motivates its actions. Pleasure good, pain bad. Psychologists call this the pleasure principle. Life is so far out of the control of the infant, that it can understand very little beyond this need to feel good.

This is where the difference between a baby human and a baby crocodile becomes apparent. If you take a newly hatched crocodile and pick it up - by the tail I suggest - and sling it into the bush far from its mother; it will survive. Try the same with a baby human and it will poo and cry and eventually die. Baby crocodiles are born with their 'programming' already built in - their 'routines' (called instincts) of how to respond to signals from the outside world ....... human babies have to learn. However this is to their great long term advantage - babies are born with a great thirst not just for their mothers milk but also to learn. An adult crocodile never learns a great deal more than a baby one - it may learn a few tricks along the way but it basically fulfills the same 'instincts' or 'programs' all through its life.

A baby human is born with very little in built 'programming', it even has to work out its most basic of functions, but given time it is capable of learning the most complex actions. As we will see later, through repetition, tasks that are extremely difficult to learn can sometimes become so easy that they can be done without the human even being aware it is doing them ! For the moment suffice it to say that modern computers are made very like baby crocodiles - when you take a computer out of the box and switch it on, (ahem well this might be a touch optimistic) you can use it straight away - they will instantly do what they've been programmed to do. However, try as you might they don't learn very much and they don't get any more intelligent. But surely its not a fair comparison I hear you cry, computers only run programs whereas we think.....

It is sometimes easy to feel that we understand ourselves, that the decisions we make are rational and under our control. Really though, it is hard to be genuinely aware of the subconscious pressures that influence our decisions and even the way we see the world [2]. Like the operating system of a computer the part we 'see' [3] , or are aware of, is often very different from what is actually happening on the inside. Lets return to the analogy of the newly born child.

Very early in its life the infant learns to associate the signals from the eyes with the world outside - and the childs world starts to expand. It has learned to focus the eyes and starts to realise the existence of the outside world. It is also learning to control its limbs. Have you ever watched a child learning to walk ? The child pulls itself upright and totters, briefly struggling to keep its balance, before collapsing on the ground again. Then it pulls itself up and tries again. You can see in the concentration and difficulty, the many complicated movements and calculations that are necessary to stay balanced upright. At the time of writing modern technology is just getting to the point where we can make a two legged robot capable of walking and standing itself up again when it falls. The amazing thing is that this awesomely complicated task, involving continuous realtime adjustments, is managed entirely subconsciously by us most of the time - we aren't even aware we're doing it !

The same applies to learning to talk or learning to read. At first the noise surrounding the child makes no sense. Gradually through repetition (and the faces that the adult also makes) the child realises that some of the noises carry meanings. The task of learning to speak is long and slow - involving more than just associating sounds with objects but learning concepts and gaining understanding as well. For example, what 'object' does the word 'nice' apply to ? It is an abstract concept and to understand or use the word requires abstract thinking. But by now, the process is so ingrained in us that we have little consciouss control over parts of it. Try listening to someone talking and just hearing the sounds, without interpreting the meaning of the words. Virtually impossible !

So most of our handling of basic in/out, including our motor control functions, are learned routines that become subconscious through familiarity. Although they are very basic we are actually running through mental routines that we have learned. When we walk or speak or listen we are using these routines that we established as children - except now these processes form part of our subconscious mind. We are drawing on our experience and performing complicated routines of behaviour involving different parts of our brain and body. But it doesn't feel like that to us - we think walk and we do it, we want to say something and we do - the surface mind is now distanced from the actual processes that are taking place. We know they are happening because we had to go to such great pains to learn them - but having done them many thousands of time we are barely aware it is happenning. What has happened is that the as we have got better at doing these things we have had to concentrate less on them. This frees us to still do them, but to focus on other things instead. They become building blocks, or tools, as our world grows.

An example you might be able to relate to is learning to drive. At first the task of turning at a junction can seem impossible - slow down, change gear, check your mirrors, indicate - all at the same time, very confusing. However a matter of months later you may find yourself doing all that without having to think about it and hold a conversation and listen to the radio all at the same time ! The driving 'program' has become so ingrained that you may only refer to your conscious mind when something unexpected happens. This, of course can be a very dangerous way to drive.

As you can see, basic responses are learnt, often with great difficulty, and then become subconscious. As we no longer have to focus our conscious effort on something our attention turns to the next exciting and unfamiliar experience. Ever watched a child play for hours with a simple object like a pine cone or a cardboard box ? To them everything is new and everything is exciting. Colours and textures and even the force of gravity. As we encounter people and events we have an emotional reaction to them, and in the same way patterns of behaviour emerge. We like it when people are good to us (it satisfies that inner drive) and so we try to make them behave like that. On a basic level as a child we learn that when we smile at adults they smile back and this makes us feel good, so we smile at people more. Patterns of behaviour are built up gradually like this as we grow and they shape our character. We have layer upon layer of ways of reacting to the world as we grow in sophistication. This is what our character is - its the sum total of all the different ways we learn to deal with the world (including the unknown because experience can't deal with everything life throws at us). Unfortunately our bad experiences also become part of our character, perhaps our parents don't love us as much as they could and we learn to be suspicious of people who claim to love us or whatever, we all bear the marks of having grown up in an imperfect world.

character formed through experiences - explore the inner drive

When we are safe and things are operating normally information is processed very quickly - sounds are interpreted very quickly into meaning and passed to whatever part of our soul needs to deal with them. Perhaps it is everyday conversation, so we ramble about minor matters, perhaps it is business where we are looking to make a deal or learn something - all the time we are interacting with our outside environment and responding to our inner feelings as well.

If something can't be dealt with immediately then it might be put on hold or the information filed until it can be dealt with. Sometimes several pattterns work in conjunction with each other. Sounds are translated into meaning which instantly provokes feelings as well as causing some decisions to be made instantly and inspiring actions whilst also causing trains of thought that may take a while to reach any decision or even attitude of mind. At any one time many of these processes may be going on beneath the surface - feeding each other (sometimes conflicting) and going to make up together the total mental state. Sometimes the failure of one system may block correct operation of another - for example when nervousness causes us to be unable to remember a friends name.

In fact, because the conscious mind can cope with dealing with relatively little at one time, most of what is happening goes on below the surface (the awareness) - we only feel the very small portion of the whole soul called the conscious mind. Ironically this small part of the mind thinks its in control - when in actual fact it is blown around by the winds of feelings and instinct, the operations below the surface ! At times we don't know why we feel a certain way, or react out of all proportion to a situation - because we are cut off from what is ally going on inside ourselves.

So what we see and recognise as the 'character' of a person, are distinctive patterns of behaviour that mark out their individuality. As we grow we develop habitual, so ingrained that we don't even see them as habitual, means of dealing with the world to free us to deal with new situations. Whatever particular set of patterns we have developed becomes our character and is unique to us.

But this explanation only goes so far - what about breathing, which cannot possibly be learnt in the womb and also genetic factors which both experience and science teach us shape not just our appearance but our character as well.

The body has some physical reaction to outside stimuli that don't involve the brain at all. Certain events trigger a reaction that cause signals to only travel a short way up a nerve before causing a response. This is called the autonomic system (related to automatic and automoton) and can be seen in the reflex reaction sometimes tested by doctors - a certain part of the knee is struck and the reflex response of the nerve causes the lower leg to jerk. I believe a muscle movement of the throat, called peristalsis, is and also the sudden movement of the hand away from something hot. I'm not suggesting breathing is like this - but it does however lead us neatly away from talking about what we could call the software of the soul and onto the hardware.

We all know that we inherit characteristics from our parents, not just the way we look but also a propensity to develop certain diseases and also elements of our character. If our mum is very musical or our dad good at maths (to draw on two obvious gender stereotypes !) then the likelihood is we will have one or more of these qualities.

In fact 'the scientists' have mapped quite precisely the way we inherit these qualities and are ever more discovering the precise way that these individual units, called genes, actually contribute to making us who we are - both body and soul.

Psychologists have long argued between 'nature and nurture' as to which has more power and influence in shaping us. We have looked at how the 'software' might develop the character - but how does the 'hardware' affect this ?

Now in whatever way our genetic inheritance might affect us - the main thing it does is guide the forming physical body into the precise form it will take, including the brain. Some of us are strong, some big, some gangly and so on. Not only that but we now know that certain parts of the brain are specialized to perform specific functions - the physical structure of the brain affects your ability to perform mental functions, and it is this physical structure that is defined by your genes.

So obviously, for example, having a large language centre means you are going to find it easier to develop and learn language skills. This means that as you grow you will find certain skills come more easily and so you naturally develop these aspects of your character. In this way your genetic inheritance (the resources available to you) act as a predisposition towards developing certain qualities but not an absolutey determining factor - experience (or choice) could feasibly cause you to not develop qualities (or failings) that you might otherwise be predisposed towards. (Predisposition against predetermination !). In this way your 'hardware' shapes your character as you grow, in a similar way to experience - by pushing you in particular directions.

So how is any of this similar to a computer operating system ? Well, as a user we interact with the computer through various means called input and output devices. For example, we have physical devices that carry information to and from the machine - the mouse, speakers, the serial port and so on. On the screen we point and click, open and close windows and choose menu items etc. At most points we think we are in charge and know what is going on.... but all too often things go wrong and show how little we understand what is going on below the surface.

Take for example loading a text document into a word processor. What we see is a menu appearing with a list of files to choose from, we pick the right one and the words appear. The actual operations performed by the computer are a lot more complex. When you click on the menu option 'load file' it has a routine that draws the right box, another routine to fetch the list of files and then draw them on the screen and so on - all the time in the background following the movement of the mouse and updating the screen.

But that isn't even the end of the story. The bit that asks for the file list doesn't look straight on the disk - thats a very complicated affair involving complex timing and controlling the disk. Instead there is another layer of the operating system that handles requests for stuff from the disk. It queues them all up and passes information to processes requesting them as it gets it from another routine buried deep in the 'subconscious' of the machine - so requests for files from the disk are not made straight to the device, that would be very difficult and require all the 'concentration' of a program that has better things to think about ! If you like it makes its request to this 'virtual device' instead. As an illustration, heres an extract from one of the documents [4], called an RFC, that defines the way computers are to communicate with the internet :

A driver is software that communicates directly with the network interface hardware. A module is software that communicates with a driver, with network applications, or with another module.

As you can see this defintion gives a name to specific bits of code that handle the job of communicating with the hardware. This then passes the information to another program where it will actually be used. Sometimes there might even be more layers in between, the data could be converted into an understable type before it is handed to the user. For example turning the raw numbers from the internet into pictures. All this happens below the surface, below the 'conscious mind'. Meanwhile in the background the computer might be reading a disk or printing something. If everything froze just because the user moved the mouse it wouldn't be very good. The information flow has to be maintained until it is used - sometimes these information flows even interact with each other.

As you know a conflict below the surface - two different routines trying to access the same data or use the same resources perhaps, can cause the system to crash - so these 'invisible' processes are not irrelevant - they are vitally important and the system will only run smoothly if they are kept in good working order. In some sense they are the real operation of the computer and what appears on the surface is just a metaphor for what happens below.

In the same way our brain takes information from our input/output devices and converts it into useful information - it interprets gestures and intonation into understanding what someone really means, all the time drawing on memory and experience to do this without us even being aware of it. We are constantly flowing with peoples body language, subconscious cues making us feel more relaxed or nervous without even being consciously aware it is happening.

The part of our brain that turns sounds into words then passes them on for the meaning to be assessed - and we react to that meaning, perhaps filing important bits for use later - all the time using routines we have developed as we grew and are now barely conscious of even having. In the same way a modern program uses many routines that it uses all the time - freeing the program itself (or the user) to do other things.

This has interesting implications to the issue of AI. If character is the aggregate of behaviour patterns, then perhaps modern computers already have a basic, if rather inflexible and determinate character [5]. What restricts them is not an inability to communicate, but an inability to learn. If something had the flexibility to organically develop patterns to interpret data, combined with an inner drive to do so, then perhaps it would naturally develop enough skills for us to say it had a character of its own.

Initially written 2002 and 2003.


[1]The original version said soul which is possibly more accurate but more controversial and also harder to understand. In actual fact the two terms can be used almost interchangeably. (Link to 3-part man ?)
[2]The rise of the theory of the subconscious. Jung and Freud.
[3]A very good article on this whole subject, purely from the point of view of the computer, is 'In the Beginning Was the Command Line' by Neal Stephenson. It has an excellent history of computers as well as an explanation of operating systems and what they do. They basically form the 'interface' between the human world (and language) and the computer world of chips and the binary language of 1s and 0s. You can read the article here. But read it after you've finished this !
[4]RFC document reference and link.
[5]Any avid fan of the Mac or Amiga will attest to the personality of their computer.

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Last edited Sun Oct 01 20:14:48 2006.