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Society of Mind

2.5 easy things are hard

In the late 1960s Builder was embodied in the form of a computer program at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Both my collaborator, Seymour Papert, and I had long desired to combine a mechanical hand, a television eye, and a computer into a robot that could build with children's building-blocks. It took several years for us and our students to develop Move, See, Grasp, and hundreds of other little programs we needed to make a working Builder-agency. I like to think that this project gave us glimpses of what happens inside certain parts of children's minds when they learn to play with simple toys. The project left us wondering if even a thousand microskills would be enough to enable a child to fill a pail with sand. It was this body of experience, more than anything we'd learned about psychology, that led us to many ideas about societies of mind.

To do those first experiments, we had to build a mechanical Hand, equipped with sensors for pressure and touch at its fingertips. Then we had to interface a television camera with our computer and write programs with which that Eye could discern the edges of the building-blocks. It also had to recognize the Hand itself. When those programs didn't work so well, we added more programs that used the fingers' feeling-sense to verify that things were where they visually seemed to be. Yet other programs were needed to enable the computer to move the Hand from place to place while using the eye to see that there was nothing in its way. We also had to write higher-level programs that the robot could use for planning what to do — and still more programs to make sure that those plans were actually carried out. To make this all work reliably, we needed programs to verify at every step (again by using Eye and Hand) that what had been planned inside the mind did actually take place outside — or else to correct the mistakes that occurred.

In attempting to make our robot work, we found that many everyday problems were much more complicated than the sorts of problems, puzzles, and games adults consider hard. At every point, in that world of blocks, when we were forced to look more carefully than usual, we found an unexpected universe of complications. Consider just the seemingly simple problem of not reusing blocks already built into the tower. To a person, this seems simple common sense: Don't use an object to satisfy a new goal if that object is already involved in accomplishing a prior goal. No one knows exactly how human minds do this. Clearly we learn from experience to recognize the situations in which difficulties are likely to occur, and when we're older we learn to plan ahead to avoid such conflicts. But since we cannot be sure what will work, we must learn policies for dealing with uncertainty. Which strategies are best to try, and which will avoid the worst mistakes? Thousands and, perhaps, millions of little processes must be involved in how we anticipate, imagine, plan, predict, and prevent — and yet all this proceeds so automatically that we regard it as ordinary common sense. But if thinking is so complicated, what makes it seem so simple? At first it may seem incredible that our minds could use such intricate machinery and yet be unaware of it.

In general, we're least aware of what our minds do best.