Would robots care about Meaning and Relating?

A few weeks ago, Vaniver gave a talk discussing meaning and meaningfulness. Vaniver had some particular thing he was trying to impart. I am not sure I got the thing he intended, but what I got was interesting. Here is my bad summary of some things I got from the talk, and some of the discussion after the talk (in particular from Alex Ray). No promises that either of them endorse this.

Epistemic status: I am not very confident this is the right frame, but it seemed at least like an interesting pointer to the right frame. ”

WTF is Meaning™?

Humans seem to go around asking questions like “What makes life meaningful? What is ‘The Meaning of Life?’. What is my purpose? What is the point of it all?”

What is the type-signature of a “Meaning”, such that we’d recognize one if we saw it?

When asking a question like this, it’s easy to get lost in a floating series of thought-nodes that don’t actually connect to reality. A good rationalist habit around questions like this is to ask: “Do we understand this ‘meaning’ concept well enough to implement it in a robot? Could a robot find things meaningful? Is there a reason we’d want robots to find things meaningful? What sort of algorithms end up asking “what is the meaning of life?”

Here is a partial, possible answer to that question.

Imagine a StarCraft playing robot.

Compared to humans, StarCraftBot has a fairly straightforward job: win games of StarCraft. It does a task, and then it either wins, or loses, and gets a boolean signal, which it might propagate back through a complex neural net. Humans don’t have this luxury – we get a confused jumble of signals that were proxies for what evolution actually cared about when it programmed us. We get hungry, or horny, or feelings of satisfaction that vaguely correlate with reproducing our genes.

StarCraftBot has a clearer sense of “what is my purpose.”

Nonetheless, as StarCraftBot goes about “trying to get good at StarCraft”, it has to make sense of a fairly complex world. Reality is high dimensional, even the simplified reality of the StarCraft universe. It has to make lots of choices, and there’s a huge number of variables that might possibly be relevant.

It might need to invent concepts like “an economy”, “the early game”, “micro”, “units”, “enemy”, “advantage/​disadvantage.” (disclosure: I am neither an ML researcher nor a Starcraft pro). Not only that, but it needs some way to navigate when to apply one of those concepts, vs another one of them. Sometimes, it might need to move up or down a ladder of abstraction.

StarCraftBot has had the Meaning of Life spelled out for it, but it still needs a complex ontology for navigating how to apply that meaningfulness. And as it constructs that ontological framework for itself, it may sometimes find itself confused about “What is a unit? Are units and buildings meaningfully different? What principles underly a thriving economy?”

Now, compare this to humans. We have a cluster of signals that relate to surviving, and reproducing, and ensuring our tribe survives and flourishes. We end up having to do some kind of two-way process, where we figure out…

  • Specific things like: “Okay, what is a tiger? What is food? What is my family? What is ‘being a craftsman?’ or ‘being a hunter?’”

  • Higher order things like “What is the point of all of this? how do all of these things tie together? If I had to tradeoff my survival, or my children’s, or my tribes’, which would I do? What is my ultimate goal?”

A thing that some religions and cultures do is tie all these things together into a single narrative, with multiple overlapping tiers. You have goals relating to your own personal development, and to raising a family, and to having a role in your tribe that helps it flourish as a group, and (in some cases) to some higher purpose of ‘serve god’ or ‘serve the ancestors’ or ‘protect the culture.’

The idea here is something like “Have a high level framework for navigating various tactical and strategic goals, that is coherent such that when you move from one domain to another, you don’t have to spend too much time re-orienting or resolving contradictions between them. Each strategic frame allows you filter out tons of extraneous detail and focus on the decision-at-hand.”

Hammers, Relationships and Fittingness

Meanwhile, another concept that might bear on “Why do humans sit around saying ‘what does it all mean!?’” is fittingness.

Say you have a hammer.

The hammer has a shape – a long handle, a flat hammer-part, and a curved hook thingy. There are many different ways you could interact with the hammer. You could kick it with your feet. You could grab it by the curved hook thingy. You could grab it by the handle. You could try to eat it

How do you relate to the hammer? It’s not enough to know it exists. If a chimpanzee were to find a hammer, they might need some sense of “what is the hammer for?”. Once they realize they can bash walnuts open with it, or maybe bash in the skull of a rival chimpanzee, they might get the sense of “oh, the thing I’m supposed to do here is grab the handle, and swing.”

Later, if their concept-schemas comes to include nails and timber and houses, they might think “ohhhhh, this has a more specific, interesting purpose of hammering nails into wood to build things.”

Later still, they might realize “ohhhhhhhhhh, this weird hook thing on the end is for pulling nails out.” This involves using the hammer a different way than they might have previously.

Hammers vs Fathers

Okay. So, you might come upon a hammer and say: “I have this weird-shaped-object, I could fit myself around it in various ways. I could try to eat it. It’s unclear how to fit it into my hand, and it’s unclear how to fit it against the other parts of my environment. But after fiddling around a bunch, it seems like this thing has a purpose. It can bash walnuts or skulls or nails.”

The process of figuring that out is a mental motion some people need to make sometimes.

Another mental motion people make sometimes is to look around at their tribe, their parents, their children, their day-to-day activities, and to ask questions like “how do I fit in here?”.

Say you have a father. There are a bunch of ways you can interact with your father. You can poke them on the nose. You can cry at them. You can ask them philosophical questions. You can silently follow their instructions. You can grab them and shake them and yell “Why don’t you understand me!!?”.

Which of those is helpful depends on your goals, and what stage of life you’re at, and what sort of tribe you live in (if any).

If you are a baby, “poke your father on the nose” is in some sense what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re a baby. Your job is to learn basic motor skills and crudely mimic social things going on around you and slowly bootstrap yourself into personhood.

If you’re in some medieval cultures, and you are male and your father is a blacksmith, then your culture (and correspondingly, your father’s personality), might give you a particular set of affordances: follow their instructions about blacksmithing and learn to be a blacksmith. [citation needed]. Learn some vaguely defined “how to be a man” things.

You can say to your dad “I wanna be a poet” and ask him questions about poetry, but in this case that probably won’t go very well because you are a medieval peasant and society around you does not provide much opportunity to learn poetry, nor do anything with it. [citation needed again]

You can grab your father and shake him and say “why don’t you understand me!!!?”. Like the chimpanzee holding a hammer by the wrong end, mashing walnuts with the wooden handle, that sorta kinda works, but it is probably not the best way to accomplish your goals.

As you grow up, the culture around you might also offer you particular affordances and not others. You have a strong affordance for becoming a blacksmith. I don’t really know how most medieval societies work but maybe you have other affordances like “become a tailor if for some reason you are drawn to that” or “join the priesthood” or “become a brigand” or “open an inn.” Meanwhile you can “participate in tribal rituals” and “help raise barns when that needs doing”, or you can ignore people and stick to your blacksmith shop being kinda antisocial.

Those might lead you to have different relationships with your father.

Analogy or Literal?

It’s currently unclear me if the questions “how do I relate to my hammer” and “how do I relate to my father?” are cute analogies for each other, or if they are just literally the same mental motion applied to very different phenomena.

I’m currently leaning into “they are basically the same thing, on some level.” People and hammers and tribes are pretty different, and they have very different knobs you can fiddle with. But, maybe, the fundamental operation is the same: you have an interface with reality. You have goals. You have a huge amount of potential details to think about. You can carve the interface into natural joints that make it easier to reason about and achieve your goals. You fiddle around with things, either physically in reality on in your purely mental world. You figure out what ways of interacting with stuff actually accomplishes goals.

A schema for how to relate to your father might seem limiting. But, it is helpful because reality is absurdly complex, and you have limited compute for reasoning about what to do. It is helpful to have some kind of schema for relating to your father, whether it’s a schema society provides you, or one you construct for yourself.

Having a mutually understood relationship prunes out the vast amount of options and extraneous details, down to something manageable. This is helpful for your father, and helpful for you.

Relating and Meaning

So, in summary, here is a stab at what meaning and relating might be, in terms that might actually be (ahem) meaningful if you were building a robot from scratch.

A relationship might be thought as “a set of schemas for interacting with something, that let you achieve your goals.” Your relationship with a hammer might be simple and unidirectional. Your relationship with a human might be much more complex, because both of you have potential actions that include modeling each other, thinking strategically, cooperating or defecting in different ways over time, etc. This creates a social fabric, with a weirder set of rules for how to interact with it.

Meaning is… okay geez I got to the end of this essay and I’m still not sure I can concisely describe “Meaning” rather than vaguely gesturing at it.

The dictionary definition of “meaning” that comes up when I google it is about words, and what words mean. I think this is relevant to questions like “what does it all mean?” or “what is the meaning of life?”, but a few steps removed. When I say “what do the letters H-O-T mean?” I’m asking about the correspondence between an abstract symbol, and a particular Thing In Reality (in this case, the concept of being high-temperature).

When I ask “What does my job mean?”, or “what does my relationship with my father mean?” or “what is the meaning of life?”, I’m asking “how do my high level strategic goals correspond to each other, in a way that is consistent, minimizes overhead when I shift tasks, and allows me to confidently filter out irrelevant details?”

While typing this closing summary, I think “Meaningmaking” might be a subtype of “Relating”. If Relating is fiddling-around-with or reflecting-on a thing, until you understand how to interact with it, then I think maybe “Meaningmaking” is fiddling around with your goals and high level strategies until you feel like you have a firm grasp on how to interact with them.


Anyway, I am still a bit confused about all this but those were some thoughts on Meaning and Relating. I am interested in other people’s thoughts.