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We, Robots

I usually enjoy William Saletan's Frame Game column in Slate, but his most recent article, discussing the news that scientists have managed to turn rats into remote-control robots, is certainly one of his most muddled and least thought-out arguments.

The hijacking of rodent brains, Saletan argues, amounts to nothing less than mousey Big Brotherism. In particular, he gets THE SHIVERS when he thinks about the fact that the scientists "programmed" the rats by activating their pleasure centers when they behaved as desired. Saletan writes:

What's creepy about the robotized rats isn't that they're unhappy. It's that they're happy doing things no autonomous rat would do. Chapin's paper boasts that his team steered the rats "through environments that they would normally avoid, such as brightly lit, open areas." ... The rat wasn't whipped or pushed. It was "motivated."
In the next paragraph Saletan ominously speculates that soon we will be using this technique -- activating the pleasure centers of organisms as rewards for desired behavior -- on dogs, and then monkeys, and eventually on one another.

All this would sound like alarmist paranoia, if not for the fact that Saletan is fretting about something that is already routine: humans (and rats, and dogs, monkeys) are already slaves to the rewards programmed by the vagarities of evolution and meted out by our own bodies. Take, for example, our cravings for fat and sugar. At some point in our evolutionary history, fat and sugar were both scarce and essential to life, so we evolved the ability to feel pleasure whenever we consumed such foods. Now over half of all Americans are considered overweight or obese because we can't stop pursuing these intangible rewards. Likewise, a man cheats on his wife because his body will "reward" him (if ever so briefly) for his indiscretion. Folks like me set up blogs for the utterly ephemeral "reward" of status and notoriety.

If Saletan is so worried about people being controlled by a system of fictitious rewards, he needn't wait for some Orwellian science-fiction scenario to come to pass before lodging his complaint. Instead he should be railing against advertising and casinos. When a beer brewer puts a scantily clad supermodel on their billboard, what are they doing if not associating desired behavior (purchasing their brand of beer) with illusionary rewards (sex with a supermodel)? When state lotteries promise fantastic wealth for only a dollar, what are they doing if not preying upon irrational desires (and an ignorance of statistics) to make a quick buck? Like the researchers in the aforementioned study, marketers "motivate" us to do things no autonomous person would do, all for their own benefit.

Of course it's exactly these impulses and quirks which make us human. Without them -- if we were always behaving rationally, instead of lurching about in response to a million years of evolution -- then we would truly be the robots Saletan fears.

Posted on May 13, 2002 to