Saturday, October 11, 2008

Will we ever be able to tickle a robot?

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in an auditorium at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland to listen to Professor Robert Provine, a neuroscientist from the University of Maryland give a talk that has been advertised with the following title: "Tickle and Beyond".

The auditorium wasn't full but it was a very good crowd considering that it was a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. I'm there because it's 3:30pm and I'm essentially done with what I had to do this week and I'm curious about what "tickle" has to do with NASA. In addition, the talk is part of a Scientific Colloquium and while I've been able to attend some of the Engineering Colloquia and the Systems Engineering Colloquia, I wanted to see what a Scientific Colloquium was like. I am of course neither a scientist nor an engineer, therefore I walk into these talks anticipating that I won't really understand more than 20-30% of what is being said. Still, I'm usually getting something out of it.

What did I learn this time?
1. Chimps can be tickled and they can laugh but they don't laugh like humans. The reason they can't laugh like humans is related to the reason they can't talk: They can't control their breathing like we do.
2. Tickle is a neurological phenomenon but it's also a social phenomenon. Strangers aren't likely to tickle you. It's not something you can control. It's spontaneous.
3. You can't tickle yourself. That has to do with the fact that we have a sense of selfhood. We know the difference between self and other. Robots are limited in that they don't have a sense of self. They don't know the difference between touching something and being touched.

More around this.....

Dr. Robert Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.