Tom Thomas is a writer with a career spanning forty years in publishing, technical writing, public relations, and popular fiction writing.
“My business now is to weave circumstance, happenstance, intention, and mischance into stories.”
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I was watching a baseball game the other day. As a batter stepped into the batter’s box, I took note of his motions. He scraped the dirt with the tip of his bat, tracing out an obliterated line on one side of the box. He set his feet, then kicked out a rut in the dirt, and set his feet again. He tapped home plate twice with his bat, then brought the bat up behind his shoulder. He took a slow practice swing—but not all the way through—while waiting for the pitcher. He brought the bat up again. He shifted his feet and lifted one knee.
We’ve all seen this performance before. But then I got to wondering how the game of baseball would be played by robots. A machine would walk or wheel itself into position—a place determined by triangulation from visual cues in memory to be the perfect location for the hitting of a ball. It would raise the bat to the correct elevation and angle for a perfect swing—again established by past programming. It would then wait for the pitch and for its cameras to collect enough information on the ball’s inbound trajectory to make the perfect connection in terms of speed, force, and angle, allowing for proper deflection and spin to put the outbound trajectory in the strategically perfect part of the field. And in between these separate acts—positioning, attaining bat angle, observing trajectory, and swinging—there would be nothing, stillness, silence, and neural calm, because everything was determined by programming from prior analysis and evaluation of previous experience and optimal probabilities.
Does this stillness due to programmed experience make the robot the better player? No, because the human being has just as much experience. Although a human batter could not verbally articulate or consciously identify all the previous pitches he had seen and all of his best responses and swings, they would indeed be stored somewhere in his memory and fed into his muscles by training and learned reflex.
Why then does the human batter have to move around so much? Why is he wasting energy that should be contained and stored and fed into the muscle power behind his swing?
Consider that our bodies are made up of individual cells. These are collected into nerve networks and muscle fibers, but each cell is still functioning as an independent metabolic factory. Each nerve is firing and each muscle is moving all the time, even when not needed—sometimes even when they are not wanted. Our bodies are complex associations of once-independent organisms, rather than intelligently designed, single-purpose—or even multi-purpose—machines. As individuals, we must learn to harness this energy. If we desire stillness, either mentally or physically, we must learn it through practice and concentration. Our natural state is daydreaming and fidgeting.
This is a survival skill. Not the peaceful pose and focused mind of the meditative Buddha, but the wandering mind and restless body of our keyed-up natural state. For a species that once lived by hunting and gathering—and often being hunted ourselves by larger, fiercer predators—we benefited from a pair of eyes that constantly scan and search from near to far and then left to right, an attention span that focuses briefly here and there in the underbrush and then in the sky, and muscles twitching and poised to move instantly in any direction. We put that excess energy in all those nerve and muscle fibers to good use: ready to snatch the next berry we spot, shoot an arrow at the next shadow that moves in the forest, or take advantage of a sudden line of retreat when the bushes shake and the leopard leaps.
This excess energy means that our minds and bodies are reevaluating current conditions and recalibrating our potential all the time. We need that in our upright stance and bipedal gait, because balancing on two legs requires constant tensioning of our muscles and tendons to maintain our posture, and constant monitoring of our inner-ear balance in relation to gravity as we sit, stand, or move in order to keep our upright bodies from toppling. It’s a problem that a turtle dragging its shell along on four legs—or a robot stabilized on four wheels or a tripod—does not have to face.
This excess energy and the jumpy, unfocused awareness and twitching muscles that accompany it mean that we not only have to practice stillness—such as when we wait patiently along a game trail for the shy deer to approach—but also when we want to perform a coordinated activity, like drawing and shooting an arrow or hitting a baseball with a bat. We must practice the individual acts of preparation, tension, and release; match the starting and ending positions of hands and limbs to the smooth movements we are about to make; focus our eyes on the selected target; and prepare our minds with rehearsed imagery and spiritual self-talk in order to keep our thoughts focused on the task at hand and coordinate the entire performance subliminally. We do these mental rituals so that this time—in actual execution instead of random practice—we don’t have to consciously break the performance down into the tiny, component movements and intermediate physical and mental positions that make up the whole.
Humans are dynamic systems that brim with energy—both mental and physical—and operate at much higher cellular and nervous rates—“clock rates,” if you will—than any machine designed for a single, dedicated purpose. The machine’s computer brain might have quicker reflexes, but it is programmed to pick up certain, pre-defined signals and then make predictable, pre-written responses. The machines—at least in their current generation—are a “one trick pony.” Give them the wrong signal or one for which they have not been programmed, and their response will be unpredictable—or they will remain completely inert.
To give the machines the appearance of versatility, a programmer must plan for and write instruction sets for more and more conditions, signals, and responses. With large memory capacity and high cycle rates, the machine may be able to store more and more programming able to cope with more and more situations. But a machine—at least in the current generation—will not be able to encounter an entirely new condition, receive a totally unknown signal, and intuit a correct response by comparison with past experience.
Humans also might not do well in a new situation for which they have not practiced. Give a bat to a young boy who has never played baseball, then throw a ball at him, and he might not hit it with any skill or grace. But if he has ever seen a ballgame or watched a brother or sister at play, he might at least try, because mimicry is another human trait. A robot will wait for specific instructions as to how to focus on the ball, position the bat, and swing it.
We humans divert all that excess energy and mental capacity into random fidgets and idle daydreams, because we are omni-purposed beings who live in an unpredictable world.
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