Robot Archie is a comic strip character waiting for a revival. He was amazingly strong and intelligent, but he had one career limiting weakness – he had a control panel that was clearly visible to others. This made him vulnerable to assailants creeping up behind him and pressing the clearly labelled off switch. Nevertheless, having labelled buttons, or even dials to control aspects of oneself would be a huge asset for humans.
Imagine setting your mood state or attitudes with a mode switch, like the ‘Dynamic’ button on Toshiba televisions, which gives an altered visual experience similar to hallucinogens.
One control we really need, besides air con, is a self-confidence dial. Most people set their level a bit too high, much like the heating on trains. The average person is over-optimistic about life in general. Psychologists have identified a cognitive bias towards overestimating things like how intelligent and attractive we are, whether our predictions will come true and how long it takes to get served at Costa. It has been argued that all trade works on this basis, where both parties in a deal overestimate the value of the item they are exchanging.
One peculiar exception to this rule seems to be life expectancy – people, including experts like actuaries, are underestimating how long they will live, which is a major nuisance for the pension funds. Another exception is people suffering from Depression, who tend towards pessimism, as well as a negative evaluation of past events.
Setting the confidence level a bit high is viewed as a defence mechanism against life’s upsets and affronts. But there are certain situations where it’s an issue, such as medical training. It is well recognised that the worst type of doctor is the overconfident one. The sort of person who thinks ‘see one, do one, teach one’ should read the other way round. The sort of person who says loudly, ‘bypass grafting – how hard can it really be?’ on his way into the operating theatre. Trainers recognise that the overconfident doctor is the most difficult one to put right. It looks as though overconfidence or even arrogance is relatively impermeable to feedback, which is perhaps why it’s such a good defence against self-loathing.
Another aspect of the overconfidence debate is whether doctors should give a completely accurate account of the likely benefits of treatment, or apply a little positive spin. Surveys have shown that service users appreciate an upbeat attitude, as well as honesty.
Modern life has removed some of the old certainties, such as how long we will live, or whether the older professions are the best careers. The employment market has too many graduates and not enough artisans. Large companies like Tesco and Microsoft, which we assumed would carry on for hundreds of years, like the Roman empire, seem to be on the decline. This has led to a situation where people change career more frequently. Many candidates for jobs think of themselves as overqualified. And the orthodoxy within firms is not to hire the overqualified person on the basis that they will become disgruntled quickly.
That leaves a serious self-calibration problem, in the absence of a human dashboard. To an extent, CBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy in particular) is an attempt to assign the correct emotional value to aspects of oneself. Otherwise it’s clear that people are just all over the place when it comes to self-evaluation.
Take a look at these small ads for instance, which illustrate some form of extreme cognitive bias – the disorder usually known as ‘Ron Hopeful syndrome’:
Elderly gentleman, heavy smoker, slightly racist, seeks supermodel for company, trips to garden centre, kinky sex and possibly more.
Nissan Micra, 1997, beige, some damage to interior due to poorly cat, looking to exchange for holiday villa in Cornwall or Devon. No time wasters.
Senior scientist wanted, PhD or post doc, nanotechnologist preferred, fluent Russian desirable, for general warehouse duties.
Wanted: chief executive officer for large healthcare organisation, should have English Language GCSE or equivalent, shovel and forklift training provided
General Medical Council seeks lay member. Performance artist preferred, e.g George Formby impersonator; street theatre, statue man, juggling etc desirable. Ukelele provided.
Crime fighting robot from 1960s available for general do-gooding and big society fieldwork, unpredictable at times. Good with dogs.
Historical footnote – contrary to my first impression, a little research shows that Robot Archie has already made a number of career comebacks. According to Wikipedia:
‘In Zenith, he was a burned out 1960’s acid casualty (renaming himself Acid Archie). Archie is apparently killed by Ruby Fox in Phase IV when she short circuits him whilst he is trying to rip off her head. Archie also appears in zzzenith.com in the special Prog 2001 edition of 2000AD. Zenith explains that rust in the brain-pan has caused Archie’s personality to change from anarchist Acid-House aficionado into a vigilante, hunting down sex offenders with a lethal vigour. He is last seen in the story escaping on a bus in a false beard after sexually assaulting pop star Britney Spears’.
It’s also possible that he gained weight with age so that he wasn’t able to reach his own controls any more, located as they are in the middle of his back. As a literal ‘locus of control’ problem, this was probably what gave Julian Rotter the idea in the first place.
To some extent, he never learned to push his own buttons properly. Like most fictional robots, his downfall was caused by getting too human to control himself.