Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Disutility of Learned Enjoyment

One of the earliest and most renowned experiments on associative memory was the one known as the Pavlov’s dog experiment. As we all remember, a bell was rung before a dog’s food was brought out, and after some days or weeks, the dog started to salivate upon hearing the bell. Its brain associated the pleasure of food with the sound of the bell. One way of saying this is that the dog enjoyed hearing the bell. This was an example of learned enjoyment.

On the human side, if a toddler has a mother who is affectionate and caring, the toddler will associate things from his experience with his mother, if they are repeated, with happiness, meaning affection and care. If the mother, to choose an example, collects sea shells and the toddler is involved with them, it will grow up with some associations from this. Perhaps the adult version of that toddler will also like sea shells, or the color white, or collecting small objects or sorting them, or whatever.

This is the nature of the associative neural structures that animals on Earth have, and which seems to be a likely candidate for the only way a complex brain could evolve and operate, even on alien worlds. Perhaps the details of how the neurons reinforce themselves, or the way in which they build membranes, or the specific neurochemicals used in the reinforcement are different, but the general idea of associative memories can hold despite these details being different. If it does, the same type of learned enjoyment could be present in alien brains as well as ours.

Learning what is enjoyable, meaning what is associated with already learned or instinctual memories, can then be wholly disconnected with the essential needs of life. Just as bell ringing does not satisfy the dog’s hunger, and having a button collection does not satisfy any of the basic needs of the adult into whom the toddler grew, many, many of the associations that an alien member of a civilization could have could be non-useful. These associations could provide positive reinforcement, ‘happy’ chemicals, when some early learned association was triggered. Since this association occurs in an artificial environment, such as the dog’s cage or the toddler’s nursery or the alien youngster’s whatever-place-they-have, there is no necessary connection between what is associated and the earlier underlying structure of memories or even instinctual rewards.

This is where the term disutility comes from.

In trying to figure out what an alien civilization would be, how it would operate, and what would drive the decisions the members would make, it is important to try and figure out what they would like. If they like space travel, they might bite the bullet and spend the resources to do it. If not, maybe that is the reason they are not here. Learned enjoyment is the third drive, besides memes and inspiration, that might motivate an alien civilization to come here, or to do something that gives off a signature that we can recognize.

One of the tools used in thinking about alien civilizations is to divide the blocks of learning they should accomplish into several grand transitions. We on Earth have been through a couple, or more, depending on how they are divided. One that has been used in this blog is the agricultural transition, where hunters become farmers and animal owners. Another is the industrial one, where we learned how to make mechanical gizmos to do various useful things, like sew fabric or gin cotton or grind flour. The electronic one is underway and the robotics one is just beginning. The genetics one is still in our future.

But the alien civilizations we speak about here, in the large part, are ones which have gone through all of them. They finished learning science and engineering. And also remember that science means knowing about any aspect of the world, including psychology, neurology, training and education, and so on. This means that somewhere in the genetic transition, or if it is subdivided, somewhere in the training transition, the alien science community figures out how to efficiently train young aliens. They might be past the gestation stage, where artificial gestation is used for new members of the civilization, leaving the door wide open for institutionalized training from the very beginning of sentient existence for the young aliens. So, would an alien civilization induce learned enjoyment in its young for non-useful purposes, or would it carefully tailor their experiences to have the most useful set of likes and dislikes?

If the governance of the alien civilization, in whatever form that takes, is tasked with improving the lives of the members of the civilization, among other tasks, it would make choices on how to train the young aliens based on the benefits that different aspects of the training would provide to individual members and to the civilization as a whole. Some balance would be achieved, but the provision of non-useful associations to young citizens would only be chosen if there was some society-wide benefit to it. There might be some arising from the need to have an interesting society in which the members could engage, if indeed they did that. Then, on top of all the useful associations that the member would be given, there might be some randomly chosen set of them, layered on top, that are there only to make the society a bit more random and provide members with some novelty. Having a society will near-identical members, genetically, and then on top of that, with near-identical training, might be a tad too boring. So there could be some social benefit to having non-useful associative learning, i.e., enjoyable activities, that were random and diverse.

But this top layer of associations would not be strong enough to cause antisocial behavior in any members, aside from a few undetected errors. So the answer to the question about how would the training of young members be conducted, relative to enjoyable activities, is that they would be given the benefits of training that would help them enjoy activities that would promote the welfare of the alien civilization, plus a bit more to stir up the pot, so to speak. In one member, speaking publicly might have been emphasized a bit more than in another, which means that, while all members would have the ability to speak publicly, some probably small subset of them would enjoy it more than others and more than they enjoyed other things, and so there would be those who engaged in it frequently and who specialized in it.

This is simply more detail on how an omniscient alien civilization would structure itself. It helps paint a mental picture of what their society would likely be. This picture needs more detail to see how this would interact with star travel.

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