Conferences Are Groups, Too

by Michael Bell

The news from UCL that the brain’s so-called ‘supplementary motor regions’, located in the medial frontal cortex, inhibit unconsciously-triggered actions supports the classical idea that many or most of the brain's eventual decisions are the result of a delicate balance between excitation and inhibition.

This has interesting implications for the design of non-human cognitive systems. Most control systems for machines - including robots - are weighted far more heavily towards excitation than towards inhibition. That's to say, the control system takes account of incoming and resident data, reaches a conclusion and implements it.

The brain, on the other hand, seems to operate by generating large numbers of initiatives, most of which are inhibited, leaving only a tiny proportion which turn into actioned results, after a complex (and almost entirely unconscious) counter-balancing process.

Asimov's famous Laws Of Robotics, interestingly, lean towards the inhibitory side. Although the study of neural nets, whose operating principles are often set to be close to those of the brain, is at a very early stage, it may be that this is the direction in which robotic control systems will develop, especially if we want the robots to be 'humanoid' in their behaviour.

The UCL researchers' description of yet more unconscious elements in human decision-making also throws further doubt on the role of consciousness and the nature of free will. If the brain's decision process consists of a vastly complex set of interacting factors and influences of which we are (consciously) quite unaware, then how much freedom of action can we ascribe to the conscious 'I'?



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