The Robots That Teach Each Other

Two robots traverse the desert floor. Explosions from a decades-old conflict have left a pockmarked and unstable territory, though many more improvised bombs lie concealed in its vast reaches. Sunlight splays off the beaten edges of Optimus, the smaller robot. Its motors whir as its claw grasps an unusual orb lying by its side. If Optimus were programmed to hope, it would hope the object was just a rock and not another bomb. It couldn’t afford to take many more hits, and its algorithms have grown wary of the risk.

A hulking shape shimmers in the heat as it approaches Optimus, lolling like a huge, headless cowboy. Atlas, the second robot, inspects the orb and knows it holds a cocktail of volatile chemicals. The robot gently lifts the bomb from Optimus’ claw and shows it how to pluck out a barely visible blue wire. Now Optimus will know how to defuse this type of device in the future. As Optimus trundles off to resume its work, Atlas stands as content as a robot can be when saving its little partner from permanent decommission.

Learning Socially

This imaginary scene shows the power of learning from others. Anthropologists and zoologists call this “social learning”: picking up new information by observing or interacting with others and the things others produce. Social learning is rife among humans and across the wider animal kingdom. As we discussed in our previous post, learning socially is fundamental to how humans become fully rounded people, in all our diversity, creativity, and splendor.

If we didn’t have social learning, we wouldn’t have culture. As zoologists Kevin Laland and Will Hoppitt argue, “culture is built upon socially learned and socially transmitted information.” Socially acquired knowledge is distinct from what we learn individually and from information inherited through genes or through imitation.

Various species of whale have also developed all manner of cultural traditions that are specific to certain populations living in different places. Over a 27-year period, humpback whales adopted lobtail feeding, a new twist on their common hunting technique, allowing them to catch different species of fish. Killer whales also display distinct cultures, learning repertoires of songs and migration routes from one another, and singing in different dialects. Some groups have “greeting ceremonies,” where they line up in two opposing factions—like a cetacean West Side Story—before bounding about together in a blubbery mosh pit.

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