Automatism + Automaticity – First Thoughts

Automatism and automaticity are “real concepts”, but they are not widely used … or at least not widely used everywhere in the same way.

One of the fields where these concepts are most widely used is in the broad field of medicine (or even more broadly biology). Here, the conceptual nomenclature is sometimes more focused on automatism, sometimes more on automaticity – but in either case it is primarily concentrated on how the central nervous system signals certain processes to function automatically. This might involve simple things like breathing or regular heart functioning, or also more complex behaviors such as jumping when startled or walking without precisely being aware of the movements of our limbs, feet, the muscles involved, etc. Although I am by no means a specialist in these fields, my impression is that such automatism / automaticity are very fundamental, basic functioning – closely associated with the brain stem, the amygdala, “lizard brain” thinking, etc. My gut feeling impression also leads me to believe that there are good reasons for such automatism / automaticity to have been useful from an evolutionary perspective (e.g. jumping up into a tree might have been a good way to survive at one point in time).

Let me fast forward hundreds of millennia, or maybe even a couple million years to the present. A few hundred years ago, there were many technological breakthroughs (for example: the printing press). Soon thereafter, many related developments led to what many people today refer to as “democratic government” – what is usually referred to here is what Tom Paine meant when he wrote “in America, law is king”. Of course the Magna Carta was also a law that could be relied on, but these new forms of government introduced and expanded constitutions and similar legal rule-based systems greatly. Today, we live in a world that is to a very significant degree based on written laws. Oddly, human lives are from this perspective actually controlled by written codes.

The way I see it, both of these phenomena are about automatism / automaticity. In both cases, things that happen … happen automatically.

Indeed, there are (in my humble opinion) many phenomena throughout the everyday lives of humans, perhaps throughout all of life in general which are embedded with principles of automatism / automaticity. One of the primary reasons we aren’t talking a whole lot about them is that these things seem invisible to our awareness, or perhaps so blatantly obvious that we don’t ever mention them because we’re convinced they must be plain and simple “common sense”.

These days, such “common sense” attitudes seem to becoming more widespread. People who have been following my writings for a while will probably not be shocked to hear me say that I have been becoming increasingly alarmed at the apparently unbridled naiveté with which the vast majority of the online population surfs the World-Wide Web.

Yet my incessant discussions with friends about issues related to my exasperation over the overwhelming degree of illiteracy and the continued lack of enlightenment with respect to rational information-seeking behaviors have now led me to what I consider to be a truly rewarding outcome: Automation is not inherently good or evil; and it is a human moral imperative to pay attention to “right automation”.

What does that mean?

I don’t know yet, but I want to find out. One method I would suggest to start off with is by process of elimination – right automation is not wrong automation. I would say that first hypnotizing someone and then commanding the hypnotized patient to drink a lethal dose of poison ought to obviously qualify as wrong automation – and I would add that there do seem to be such prohibitive laws in cases of torture, inhumane acts, etc.

I hope that such extremely dire cases of depressing despotism are rare. I expect that we will increasingly pay attention to increasingly reasonable logic, rationality and reasoning as we think more and more about methods that could be automated, that ought to be automated and so on.

For example, consider search algorithms: Do we want search results to show links to any result based simply upon how much money will be paid (whether by us or by someone else)? Or based upon whether sufficient money is paid and whether the person (or computer or smartphone or robot or whatever) searching is in the United States, Europe or some other location? Do we always want the same results, or do we want the types of results we get to depend also on our own wishes? In other words, do we want to have several algorithms at our disposal – such that we would be free to choose which algorithm we want to use right here, right now, right for us? These are just some more or less random examples; I hope I will be able to figure out a somewhat more rational approach to the vast field of possibilities in some kind of reasonable way.

Let me end this first essay with such an exercise in rationality. I will use the term “automatism” to refer to the actual automation development process. For individual instances of automation, I will use “automaticity”. I think this will be roughly equivalent to the evolutionary terms “ontogenesis” (or here, “automaticity”) and “phylogenesis” (in this case, “automatism”). I think this distinction is worthwhile because I expect there might be cases in which it would make sense to think about the principles that underlie the evolution of automation versus the automaticity of any particular automaton.

[thank u, next]

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