Day 037 - The amnesia of infancy

Submitted by Sam on 26 June, 2011 - 23:12

Describing the action of picking up a cup of tea to drink as a 'simple task' conceals a great complexity of individual sub-tasks, each of which must be mastered and marshalled in the appropriate sequence to allow the completion of the task. Marvin Minsky describes these sub-tasks as agents 1, and categorizes some relatively high-level, conceptually-simple agents involved in picking up a cup of tea as follows:

  • Grasping agents, tasked with holding the cup
  • Balancing agents, tasked with preventing the tea from spilling
  • Thirst agents, which want you to drink the tea
  • Moving agents, tasked with getting the cup to your lips

In Minsky's schema, each agent can be broken down further and further, through chains of hierarchy and interaction in to very small functionally irreducible parts. Each agent, mindless in itself, interacts with many others in very special ways to produce true intelligence. However, through what Minsky terms “the amnesia of infancy”, we assume that many of our extremely complex abilities (like picking up a cup of tea and drinking it) are both simple and ready-made in our minds, forgetting how long it took us as children to learn the myriad of steps which tell us how objects in the real-world interact, thereby concealing the vast complexity of these interacting processes.

As a result of this concealment, answers to questions such as “why is a chain more than its various links?” seem obvious to us as adults, because we cannot remember how hard it was to learn the rules of interaction (such as those which prevent two objects from ever being in the same place) which are now second nature to us. We operate under an illusion of simplicity which results from a distancing from what happened during our infancy, when our first abilities were formed. As each skill was mastered, as each agent matured, additional layers were added on top of them, until the foundational layers, the most basic agents, seem so remote to us as adults that we forget we ever had to learn them.

This distancing effect obscures the fact that things like “common sense” and “simple tasks” are in fact wondrously diverse and intricate, composed from “an immense society of hard-earned practical ideas - of multitudes of life-learned rules and exceptions, dispositions and tendencies, balances and checks”.

  • 1. Minsky, Marvin Lee. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986. Print.
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