This video of trying to negotiate a labyrinth with the Brainport is only very loosely related to the rest of this post, but I still wanted to stick it in.
I went to the Robotics exhibit and IMAX at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This time I went without the Brainport, so I had no intention of writing about it here. But obviously I am, so apparently I found a connection.
In the IMAX, one man said his robot has over 500 senses. That caught my attention. I’ve heard people talk before about humans as having more than 5 senses. I have to admit that I’m inclined to mostly dismiss a lot of that talk. The most common one would be people claiming to sense spirits from dead humans, thank you Bruce Willis and The 6th Sense. Then there are the people who say they feel electromagnetic waves or pesticides in their pears… I don’t want to dismiss what they claim to sense… but I have to admit that I don’t really believe it. All of that being said though, I do like to think that humans have more than 5 senses. In a world where humans only have 5 senses, I’m so often predominantly identified in terms of my sensory deficits. I wind up feeling both inadequate and annoyed that other people have to point out how I’m different or less. But if vision is just one of many senses, then maybe we can stop getting so hung up on it.
It’s interesting to think about senses that go past the traditional 5—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. The first one I think of is the sense of humor. Is that actually a sense? Miriam Webster defines a sense as giving us information about the world around us, and the sense of humor does do that—it tells us when something is ironic or unexpected or incongruent. I’m really grateful to understand the world that way. The sense of proprioception tells us where different parts of the body are with respect to one another and how much we are exerting one part or another in movement. This sense allows us to coordinate our movements and to stay upright. As we walk, it tells us about changes in the ground and how we need to respond. Maybe you could argue this is just a form of the sense of touch, but proprioception originates in areas such as the tendons, muscle spindles, and the fibrous capsules in joints, not the areas we normally associate with other touch. proprioception seems like a pretty significant sense that we take for granted until we lose it or have to consider it, great effort has gone into trying to get robots to develop it. Another sense that comes to mind is pain. You could argue that pain gives information about what is happening inside of us, but I’d say it gives just as much information about how our body is interacting with the world around us. I might even argue that pain with a seemingly internal origin such as fibromyalgia or depression tells us something about interaction with the external world. It’s harder to say that I appreciate that sense, but I know it gives really important information, not having that sense leads to severe injury and death at an early age, so I am grateful for it.
The Robotics Imax and exhibit were fun, because they showed what is currently possible and left you to imagine some of what they might do some day. The Imax left me feeling like robots function much more seamlessly than they did in the exhibit. The movie showed all they’ve managed to teach robots to do, even walk on 2 legs, whereas the exhibit let you actually interact with robots. In the exhibit, there was a set of robots playing soccer, but it was my very inexpert opinion that the goalie robot was coming out from the goal way too far. The other robots didn’t seem to notice this. The robot that was supposed to imitate your facial expression didn’t seem to notice that one of my eyes is always closed. I totally beat the robot that was playing tic tac toe. And Albert is much more responsive and pet-able than the emotional support seal I tried petting. All the same, they are pretty incredible.
Throughout the movie and exhibit, they repeatedly spoke about how robots go through a 3 step process where they sense, plan, and then finally act. So far, I think the area where robots might have humans beat is with their ability to sense. I think I would have a hard time coming up with a list of 500 senses for humans, even if I argue there are more than 5. Humans with our complex and sloppy brains far surpass robots in their ability to plan and act. Robots might out-do humans in one or a small set of tasks, but no robot is anywhere near as versatile and flexible as a human. But think how incredible it would be to be able to sense and integrate the world in 500 different ways.
Sometimes I wonder if the Brainport is a new sense. Sure, you could just argue that it’s the sense of touch being used in a novel way. I don’t know what neural pathways are being used, so I can’t make an argument either way with that information. I can try to make other comparisons though. People do touch or feel things with their mouths, babies being the most common. It could be that babies are just trying out the whole range of a block—Does it taste? Can I eat it? Can I chew on it? Do I feel better when I suck on it? Or maybe there is something else unique we learn about the world when we touch it with our mouths, and it gets socialized out of us. I don’t want to romanticize the Brainport into some sort of mystical, reconnecting with the world kind of thing, I just want to consider the possibilities. The sensations I get from the Brainport do start to turn into something I experience visually, which is also true about the things I touch. This would suggest it is just like all other touch. But it gives me a way to perceive the world as a picture and then touch that, so touch, but in a new way. I’m not sure how to categorize it.
But one thing I’ve noticed, particularly at dusk, as there is less and less that I can perceive through the Brainport, the world around me will transform into one with lines and shapes and angles and shades from places very distant from Boulder. I’ve started to think of them as the places hidden behind the common façade of a medium size Colorado city. Part of me recognizes they are just a result of my imagination, but this is the first time these imaginations have been triggered, so maybe there is some new stimulus in there. Whatever it is, it’s leading to me experiencing the world differently. I appreciate that.