Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Runeson on Rote versus Smart Mechanisms

     Rote instruments consist of large numbers of a few types of basic components, each of which performs a rather simple task. The accomplishment of complex tasks is possible through intricate interconnections (programming) between the components. The important principles of operation reside in the program, and by changing the program the instrument can be put to different uses. New problems can be approached in a straightforward, intellectual, bureaucratic, "systems", manner. The solutions will be elementaristic and often a bit clumsy.
     Smart instruments are specialized on a particular (type of) task in a particular (type of) situation and capitalize on the peculiarities of the situation and the task, i.e. use shortcuts, etc. They consist of few but specialized components. For solving problems which are repeated very often, smart instruments, if they exist, are more efficient and more economical. They are also likely to be more reliable and durable. Solution of a new problem requires the invention of a new instrument. A straightforward and bureaucratic procedure is not likely to achieve that, since the task is creative and just as much intuitive as intellectual. (Runeson, 1977, pp. 173-4).

I don't much like this kind of speculative psychology.  (I prefer my psychology experimental.)  I also don't want to deny the possibility of smart mechanisms.

But, on the one hand, it seems to me that it would be pretty hard to eliminate an important role for rote mechanisms.  It seems to me that neural circuits pretty neatly fit the description of rote mechanisms, provided one construes "programming" broadly enough to include changes in patterns of synaptic connection and synaptic efficacy.  But, if that is the case, it's going to be hard to challenge the old-fashioned psychological theories that think that visual perception involves photoreceptors.

And, on the other hand, it would seem that the plausibility or pervasiveness (as opposed to the mere possibility of) smart mechanisms depends a long on how specialized "specialized" is.  I take it that it is implausible to suppose that the visual system is specialized for finding fruit or specialized for finding food.  Of course, if one says that the visual system is specialized for vision or for seeing things, then I don't see that one really needs to evolutionary argument for that.  That appears to be close to a tautology.
Runeson, S. (1977).  "On the Possibility of 'Smart' Mechanisms" Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 18, 172-9.


  1. 'Specialised' means specialised for the smart detection of the higher order variables required by Gibson (as opposed to picking up the elements and computationally combining them).

    Smart mechanisms are a potential mechanism for direct perception of Gibsonian information; that constrains them as per Turvey et al (1981).

    And this isn't speculative; it's a suggestion for the kind of thing experimental work might want to go and look for. Experiments done just spring, fully formed into existence.

  2. It seems to me that Runeson is explicating smart mechanisms in terms of specialization: "Smart instruments are specialized on a particular (type of) task ..."

    It won't do, then, (as you appear to be proposing) to turn around and explicate specialization in terms of smart detection. That puts me back in the situation of wondering what smart detection is.

  3. The particular (type of) task is the direct perception of higher order variables.

  4. Ok. But, the problem remains essentially the same if you push the explication of "specialization" back onto to particular types of task. How finely does one individuate types of task? Is finding fruit a particular (type of) task in a particular (type of) situation? Is finding food a particular (type of) task in a particular (type of) situation?