Your New, Improved President


by Michael Bell
15/03/2008

Research at the Free University of Brussels is developing robots that can influence the behaviour of animals which congregate in groups. "It would be interesting to build our own intelligent societies of animals," says a member of the team, perhaps momentarily forgetting that we are all already part of one.

In our society, leaders who use intuitive techniques to influence people are called politicians. Businesspeople or military leaders achieve their goals more often by force than by cleverly influencing group behaviour, although there are exceptions.

Although humans don't like to think of themselves as being heavily influenced by their group memberships, and prefer to believe that they are highly individual, the reality is that, as the researchers are discovering, groups can achieve more for a species than individuals. Leadership is itself a groupish phenomenon: there had to be groups before there could be someone to lead them; indeed, there is no evidence of kingship or the equivalent in the early development of human groups.

If it is possible to work out the psycho-dynamics involved in the social behaviour of cockroaches, chickens, sheep, dogs and apes, we are clearly next on the agenda. And once someone has scientifically described the 'social calculus' as it is referred to, it would evidently be possible to build leadership into a robot, alongside other less worrying characteristics such as empathy, kindness and a sense of humour.

Early uses of robo-leadership may arise in robo-armies. Probably even now, there are secret military laboratories working on how to program a robot to lead its troops of less-intelligent tanks, planes and fighters. And robot teachers, so much more effective and less opinionated than their human equivalents, will need a good dose of group leadership skills to deal with inner-city teenagers.

But in future how will you know if Hilary Clinton is the real thing, or a souped-up version? Just look carefully at whomever Vladimir Putin chooses to replace himself when he finally steps down in 2023.



 

 

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