I recently posted about an article that pure logic is the key to understanding all programming languages (Logic is the Key). That led one astute reader to ask a question about the limits of logic and programming:
Q: Might there be any limitations to what can be programmed that we otherwise would rely on our senses for?
The short answer:
All that we sense is interpreted by our brain before we are even aware of it. In some cases we automatically start responding to that input before the awareness reaches our consciousness. So, yes, there are limitations in at least that ‘use case’. Having said that, hearing aids can do an amazing job of compensating for hearing loss, some early attempts have been made to feed an image from a camera straight to the brain of a blind person, and some prosthetic hands are getting a sense of touch.
The long answer:
Let’s consider the case where we need a machine to operate in an environment apart from us (whether operating on a tether or autonomously). Further, let’s consider each of our five main senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Note: this is more of a thought experiment than a review of the technology state of the art.
Of all of the senses, this probably on of the easiest to mimic. We have cameras under the sea and in space, even on other planets. There are even cameras small enough to slip into our veins to look for blockages or to guide a surgeon removing a growth on an organ. Autonomous vehicles use cameras to watch for hazards on the road. Night vision goggles let us see in the dark, or warm bodies against a cooler background.
As mentioned earlier, hearing aids can compensate for hearing loss. Siri and Alexa can answer our spoken questions. An alarm system can detect the sound of glass breaking and alert a guard. Our phones can listen to spoken words and play back the translation in a different language. But some ear issues are currently beyond our ability to repair.
Touch, to degree of sensitivity and discrimination we enjoy, is very hard to mimic and faithfully pass on to us. We have systems that use resistance to movement as feedback, but that isn’t quite the same thing. There are pressure switches that provide a sense of touch, but still not like we have.
Taste & Smell
Because these two senses are closely related in us, I’m going to lump them together. Tasting or smelling for us with the same range and discrimination I believe is beyond our current technology. Sensors can detect specific chemical signatures and inform us of their presence, usually long before we could on our own. But that’s not the same as what we experience and thus a sensor cannot transmit to us what we can taste and smell ourselves (at least not yet!).
So what is the bottom line answer to the question? We can remote sense somethings well (vision and hearing), some in some fashion (touch) and the rest not so well (taste and smell). Can we give a machine access to these senses for themselves that would allow them function in their environment better than they might otherwise today? I suppose it all depends on the use case and the environment they are functioning in, but that is another line of inquiry (any takers?).
So in short, the answer is yes, no, and it depends.
Feel free to share if you know any technologies that can, indeed, enhance or replace the senses we have or that a machine might need in its environment!
Very pithy summary of the limitations, indeed, I find!
So lovely to pick up your reply (finally). I was detained by my own research into our senses so as to have a paralell thoughtline to yours and discover better where exactly your logic misses mine. Needless to say (I hope) your examination of how technology enhances our sense impressions is a great way in to appreciating the benefits of technology, while also outlining the limitation found in the primary need for such enhancements in the first place, often very time and location specific (the - let's say - traditional Papua New Guinean does not think of getting a hearing aid, or pocket camera - he has no pocket...).
Still, it remains troubling to think which brains are behind the programmes the are designed to make us function better; to what aim as well (a better participation in society? A greater sense of personal welfare?); and therein I find the greater limitations. Say, for example, a programmer is totally unaware of the sense of I? Or sense of thought (conceptual sense)? Or if the spirit constitution of the other or the inner sun, or being of the other is not catered for? Will we lose our finer sensory perception to logic? A hearing aid, e.g. is practical regards messages that need to be conveyed, but won't help you appreciate sweet little nothings in your ear any better, or connect you to the birds on a windy plain any better.
Are we perhaps, ironically, tragically, losing our humanity by focussing too hopefully on the enhancement of our five predominant (and therfore catered to) senses? Have we maybe forgotten collectively that our sensory sytem is a twelve-fold one, needing to be worked on in different stages of our life, in different intensities, hard to schedule or find applications for?
I really enjoyed your piece!
To share with you where I come from, see below: these are the 12 senses as described by R.Steiner (pencil seems to add in Swedenborg's notions).
I fully agree with your thoughts and concerns. You point out that there are many more dimensions to the area of “senses” than I ventured into, some that I hadn’t considered at all, and each worthy of their own deep discourse. There are physical (mechanical, electrical, chemical), societal, and philosophical aspects that all have implications, some trivial and some profound, for man and machine alike. I think one could make it a life’s work and still there would be aspects left unexplored for lack of time or resources!
Thank you for bringing up the list of senses beyond the five classic ones that I addressed, although a couple I might put into a different category assuming a ‘sense’ is a fundamental interface to one’s environment (for lack of a better description). Ego, language and conceptual, for example, to me seem more like computational (again, probably not the best word here) results than stimulus based entities. I’m ‘thinking out loud’ (or free writing as some would call it) here, so no doubt there are better ways of expressing these ideas! I hope it makes sense to you :) As you may have gathered, I do enjoy these explorations into areas not often considered!
It makes perfect sense, how you would categorise those "obscure" senses differently (there is a vein in psychology which I think has "discovered 39 different senses!! Clearly thinking along programming lines, detailing neurological responses,... I presume for now).
But the thing with spiritual science (which I research) is that it DOES see these 12 senses as direct and separate and critical INTERFACES for the integration of spiritual and physical realities...With trainingrounds rooted in actual life experience, independent from neurological feedback (or you'ld be dealing with loops). But I've given up on the more technical arguments for this, seeing that there is also a necessity to by-pass computational logic to even be aware of such a spiritual reality. Proving it exists is a Catch 22 in this case (very frustrating, but there is always art to try next!)
Look forward to more exciting explorations with you!
Hi dear @jdkennedy.
These interesting approaches that you make to us may seem like a plot out of a science fiction movie, but they are so real and current that anyone could be surprised at the high progress that technology has made on this subject.
As you explained, involving taste and smell would be the limits to be reached in the coming years. But in terms of vision, hearing and touch there are great advances.
Virtual reality, augmented reality and imersive reality are proof of that.
Investigating a little I could meet "Basis Neuro". This technology created a Headset for brain-machine communications and brain stimulation.
It is possible to control everyday devices only with our brain waves.
All best, Piotr.
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