Man in the Mirror

First, a cute puppy:

Okay, so, that’s adorable, right? In a variation on the Cat Proximity Phenomenon, we are left with the overwhelming urge to say things along the lines of, say, “Oh, look at the puppy! Look at him pawing at the glass! He thinks it’s another puppy. Oh, yes he does, yes he does!”


More to the point, the puppy vs. mirror video demonstrates an interesting issue for philosophy, psychology, and literature, the matter of self-recognition. A dog, looking in a mirror, sees another dog. How is it that when we look in a mirror, we see ourselves?

It’s not because we know what we look like and can see it. We only know what we look like because that’s how we look in a mirror.

We know the image is ourselves because the image behaves in accordance with what we do. We lift our right arm, the image lifts its left. We cut our hair, the image’s hair is shorter. We do the hokey-pokey, it turns itself around. We watch the image long enough to learn it has no agency of its own, that we control its every action. That is enough for one to point to the thing in the mirror and say, “That’s me!”

A face to rememberIn this way, scientists at Yale taught a robot to recognize itself and its own reflection in a mirror. Simply, the robot measures if movement it sees corresponds with its own motors moving. If an object does not move simultaneously, it gets labeled “inanimate” or “animate other”, and if it does, it gets labeled as “self.” (The actual math is much more complicated, obviously.) The algorithm calculates probability over time, so that even if an object happens to move in time with the robot, unless the object keeps time perfectly and consistently, the robot can still tell the difference between its reflection and an imposter in as little as five seconds. Sorry, Harpo.

What’s fascinating about this is that it allows the robot to make observations about itself and its relation to the rest of the world, using basically only visual input. (Video demonstration here). This is true even if the appearance of the robot changes (because the light is different, the robot is moved, the robot is damaged, the robot is wearing a jaunty Yale cap).

Okay, why this is fascinating is that what allows the robot to see itself in a mirror, is the same phenomenon that allows us to see ourselves in a robot.

You knew this was coming

If you haven’t seen Wall-E yet, go see it. Now. Turn off your computer, tell your boss you’re seeing a doctor, and find a matinee.

I’m not joking.

Wall-E, the titular robot, is one of the most human, likable, and relatable characters in film in years, which is pretty impressive for a trash compactor with a pair of binoculars stuck on top. He (and it’s impossible not to refer to Wall-E as a “he”) suffers and loves and jokes and imagines his future in a way that is immediately, intuitively understandable to the audience.

We can “read” Wall-E as well as we do because of the way he moves: his trembling hand as he reaches for Eve’s conveys his longing; the way he balances a spork trying to decide if it belongs with the forks or the spoons tells us how he organizes his thoughts; the shudder that goes through his frame shows us when he’s scared. As he ineffectively swiped at his treads hung on the wall, trying to “get dressed” in the morning before being fully recharged, I was pointing at the screen saying, “That’s me!”

And then, having recognized myself in the image I saw, I could now make observations about myself in relation to the world. His world, the post-environmental collapse Earth and the consumerist mono-culture of the Axiom, became my world, and his problems became my problems. Moreover, Wall-E’s optimism and sheer determination became positive example of how to respond to such problems, and I walked out of there certain I could save the world.

This is why we read science fiction and fantasy: to look at strange bodies in alien worlds and see ourselves in ways that mere reproduction could never achieve. A picture of myself would tell me nothing about myself. But seeing a little robot turn a hubcap into a straw hat tells me everything I need to know.

(Photo of “Nico” taken by Kevin Gold, used with permission. Wall-E © Disney/Pixar)


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