Aug 8 2008 11:00pm

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!"

In 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.

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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La Tlönista
1. tlonista
Another data point: Keepon the dancing robot, a bulbous, squishy yellow thing with googly eyes, is not especially anthropomorphic as robots go. But it's so relatable, because it moves human -- it dances.
Derek Bizier
2. tke.hijacker
I think that WALL-E was defiantly the movie of the year as far as I'm concerned, I saw The Dark Knight and Indiana Jones, etc. and by far WALL-E struck home with the cute little robot who really became a human character to me in my heart.

Having a degree in philosophy, I was not only moved emotionally, but I also was moved on completely intellectual level as well, could a robot evolve to have humanistic qualities that Wall-E attains after 800 years of solitude? This was brilliant. I think it was here that I really decided that I needed to find out more about robotics.

And so now I find myself in the endless throws of google searches trying to find out as much as I can about AI and robotics I was always interested but WALL-E has given that drive a boost to find out more, sigh, Thanks WALL-E for giving me something else to spend hours in useless internet searches!
Debbie Moorhouse
3. GUDsqrl
If I dangle a toy behind my cat while she can see both me and it in the mirror, she goes for the real toy, not the reflected toy.
Sammy Jay
4. Malebolge
Maybe the dog's barking at the mirror because he knows it's not himself at that moment- it's himself a fraction of a percentage of a millisecond ago, and as such a different dog.
Debbie Moorhouse
5. GUDsqrl
I had a fish once that used to make endless threat displays at his reflection. Fish are stupid.
Torie Atkinson
7. Torie
Try the mirror game with babies. It's fascinating. He'll think it's another baby, and get really excited that they can play together. But once the baby realizes he can't actually play with or touch the other baby, he gets angry and upset.

Puppies are cuter though.
Debbie Moorhouse
8. GUDsqrl
Depends on the fish. This one consisted of swimming up and down very fast. Lots of tail-waggling too.
E Palacios
9. E Palacios

Slightly off subject but the best mirror scene in film.
David Keck
10. dkeck
I'm right with Mr. Padnick on WALL-E.

There's a good rave in The New Yorker that might help convince the resistant:

Past Shock, page 2

Eric Tolle
11. ErictheTolle
With keepon I find it interesting that movement seems to be a more viable medium of duplicating "humanlike" elements than actual features. Keepon for instance seems more personable and "humanlike" than CGI models that try to duplicate human features. The Uncanny Valley seems to be something that doesn't apply to motion.
careY t.
12. carey.tse
I love how this post starts with a puppy video, ends in a plea for all to watch Wall-E, and had such a thoughtfully written mid-section to tie it all together :)
David Siegel
13. bigscary
I object to only one statement in this piece: it is entirely possible to read WALL-E as female, in which case
"she" is the personal pronoun you want (agreed entirely that a personal pronoun, rather than "it" is appropriate, and that the conscious gender-coding of the creators is probably to make WALL-E male, and EVE female, rather than the other way around or both one gender.)
Steven Padnick
14. padnick
"it is entirely possible to read WALL-E as female"
That's a... bold statement. How do you read Wall-E as female?

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