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Dr. Laakasuo of Cognitive Science: “Raise your child to be kind, friendly, reliable and honest, for these qualities are the constants of humankind”

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Helsinki chapter.

It is November 18th, 2017. I’ve come to interview Dr. Michael Laakasuo and as I enter his apartment, the first thing I hear already points out his peculiarity: “Would you like some tea?” – he asked. Being Russian, I could not refuse, since everything I have been offered in Finnish homes so far is coffee.

One might think Michael is a rather cold and overly-rational person judging from his facial expressions and emotional feedback he gives while conversing. But later on one realizes that is not the case at all. His moral principles are solid and his life perception is anything but cold or cynical. The reader will have a chance to establish a detailed image of Dr. Laakasuo by means of this interview.

Michael Laakasuo, holding a PhD degree in cognitive science, is remarkably casual while not on stage at some conference. One might think he is just like anyone else. Well, maybe he is. Only with a PhD degree. Although, he is also the right person to ask touchy questions about the AI and what we, humans, are supposed to do with all this lightness of being resulting from ubiquitous algorithms designed to make our life easier.


Let’s start with your background. How did you end up in such a field as cognitive science?

I entered a university at the age of 23, that is, relatively late. Before that I had been living in a ghetto in Espoo hanging out with people who had substance abuse problems. I was so poor I could not afford as much as a train ticket. There were also times, a couple of weeks maybe, when I ran out of food which resulted in me not eating for three days. It was due to the back then new legislation amendment, which prevented under 25-year-olds from receiving unemployment allowance.

When I was 18 I refused to do military service and my mother kicked me out shortly after. So it took me some time to put my life together.

The problem was that my High School Certificate was worth nothing. You see, when I went to high school I wasn’t even aware of university’s existence as an institution. This tells something about my family background, in fact, it is rather far from academia. In addition, I learned to properly read books at the age of 17. My family held only a few books and no proper library in their possession. So, upon my entering high school I was convinced that this was all there was to the education, nothing beyond that. I thought I could do something useful – maybe become a policeman. I had high hopes for the Police Academy. But I had given up this idea shortly after I got fined by a police officer for having driven 100 meters with my headlamps off. I got disappointed in such police work.

At the age of 21, I realized I wanted to do something sensible with my life, so I signed up for the Helsinki Open University. There I studied anthropology and social psychology. At the time it never occurred to me I was smart. That’s why I was shocked to have become a straight “A” student, I was in awe by the very fact that it was possible. Then I realized that I could change my life totally by studying hard.

After one and a half years at the Open University and due to me having changed my social setting, I started receiving death threats from some of my former friends. This environment got me rather stressed and I decided to leave. So I applied to the University of Kuopio: they had a social psychology program there and it was far enough from Helsinki. There I engaged in political activism, because I still didn’t know what to do with my life. And I kept getting A’s at the university and I kept discovering that I was capable of more than I had expected of myself.

At some point I realized that biology might have something to say about human social behavior, so I got in to it through self-studying. Later I found out about evolutionary psychology, but in order for me to understand it, I had to study numerous other subjects like logic, basic computation etc. This led me to the minor program in Cognitive Science at the Helsinki Open University. That was the beginning of my studies in Cognitive Science. Around the same time I started writing my Master’s Thesis. In it I went as deeply into the cognitive aspect of social psychology as I could and got the best possible grade for it. Then I entered the University of Helsinki as a PhD student in 2010.

I realized that cognitive science in Finland was too much EEG-centered. I wasn’t really interested in brainwave studies. So I applied to the Free University of Amsterdam, which had a program in Experimental Psychology, where they taught game theory as well as social neuroscience and programming. In two years I had obtained all the tools necessary to conduct experimental cognitive research from the social psychology perspective. I did my PhD in poker decision making.


Do you believe in the co-operation of humans and AI or rather in AI’s dominance in the long run?

We are already co-operating with narrow AI. It cannot become dominant on its own. Although, it can be a tool of dominance but only if a human decides to use it so. Narrow AI does not act on its own, it does not think: “there is nobody home”, if you may. At the moment it is not capable of setting its own goals, its own agenda.


Which of the following professions are doomed to disappear and when?

  • Accountant

Most likely. They are already replaceable.

  • Teacher and a day care teacher.

If day care teachers become replaced by machines, it will be a purely value-based decision, a politically motivated decision. At the moment it is a horrible idea. This level of AI will not be achieved in the next 30 to 40 years, which would be needed to make such a machine even remotely reliable.

  • Doctor

It depends. I can say that for sure some part of doctors’ work will become more efficient with the help of AI. Doctors still have too much paperwork and AI is supposed to take up this part of workload. So I don’t think doctors will completely disappear, although their job description may change quite a bit.

  • Translator

As long as machines are not able to live human life, experience events and understand meaning, there will be work for translators. When one considers literature translation, there are many other things to translate apart from the text itself: emotions, cultural context etc. But translation of documentation will not be human-centered anymore. Machines will do just fine here. They could also provide a rough translation, which a human can go over and fix the nuances. Let’s just say I wouldn’t give anyone advice to study translation, since this profession already poses difficulties and is rather low-paid. It will be even more so in the future.

  • Taxi driver

In Finland this transition will take much longer time to take place due to climate conditions, roads etc. The concept of driverless cars is based on the assumption of perfect visibility, weather and traffic signs everywhere. So it’s hard to predict the exact time frame for such change.

  • Structural/industrial engineer

This profession is unlikely to disappear in the next 30 to 40 years.


Shouldn’t cognitive science get more attention from Finnish government? Why isn’t it?

It definitely should. I assume that those who are responsible for decision making merely don’t know what is going on in the world, they are unaware of all the benefits this tiny field can bring. It should have ten times as many resources as it has now. Cognitive science has already become a significant part of our everyday life. At least one course in it should be implemented on high school level.

Why is Helsinki University suspending intake of new students to the program at such a crucial moment like this? Isn’t it a step backwards?

As far as I grasped the main argument for it, this program is not financially beneficial. It’s not bringing any money to the university. Although there haven’t been any professors who could bring any money since 2010. The politics of this decision works so that if we suspend one program, there will be a bigger slice of financing left for the others. And since cognitive science is so poorly understood, it is easy to get rid of. Also, the suspension of student intake will result in less protests and student activism against the suspension of the whole program. In fact, it hasn’t yet been suspended only thanks to student activism. It has helped save the program at least twice and now we need more student resources than ever to prevent it from happening again.


Helsinki University markets itself as a scientific trend pursuer and it also promotes modern views in the academia, although it is not willing to acknowledge the other world leading universities’ experience where cognitive science is prospering. How come? Isn’t it a grave mistake to make?

Yes, it is indeed a major mistake and I don’t have a slightest idea why it is not willing to do so. Cognitive science students even sent a letter to Noam Chomsky at MIT at some point asking for advice and his opinion. He replied saying that indeed cognitive science is the field of the future and it has delivered relevant breakthroughs. We also have a similar message from Steven Pinker, Professor in Cognitive Psychology at Harvard, who also stated that if Helsinki University suspended the program, it would be a loss for the whole European scientific society. The university is fully aware of those messages, they had been sent forward. So I have no idea what is really the matter here.

What are the major companies doing cognitive research in Finland? Have you worked for any of them?

I am rather anarchistic by my nature, so no. The only company I can imagine myself working in is my own. But Finland does have companies specializing in cognitive science: branches of IBM and Microsoft, ZenRobotics, The Curious AI Company.


What would be your advice to the generations to come, who will one day become parents? What should they teach their children in order for them to be successful in the constantly changing and progressing world?

In fact I myself decided not to have children because of reflections like this. I don’t know what kind of advice to give, but I would say that one should not prepare their child for a specific job or aim at a certain social status for their child. Rather, raise your child to be kind, friendly, reliable, honest. Teach them to listen to their heart, to stay calm in difficult situations, teach them to concentrate. All of the aforementioned qualities and skills are the constants of humankind. Without them we wouldn’t have learned to co-operate, we would have never gotten out of the rainforest, so to say. From the evolutionary perspective these things are the most relevant, they constitute trust. Friendship and kindness will always matter.

Make sure your child is cherished and loved, that they feel safe. This will help them manage in circumstances.


Since you promote such high parental standards and since you believe in all of those qualities, wouldn’t it be right for you to actually have children? Wouldn’t you like to contribute to the society this way?

No, I can barely take care of myself, not to mention another living being. I can’t even get my apartment cleaned properly. My lifestyle requires calmness and silence, since participating in academic discussions and being overall academically active is based just on that. A child and all the things that I enjoy doing in life are incompatible.


Would you reveal some of the results of your research about Moralities of Intelligent Machines? Have you discovered anything you hadn’t anticipated?

Yes, many things. We tried to find out what people might think of a mind upload technology and what makes certain people to approve of or to condemn such technologies. We have noted two factors: first, people who believe in the sanctity of life, who are religious, and tend to oppose the use of these technologies. Secondly, sexual disgust issues predicted condemnation of usage of the aforementioned technology. And it did so very consistently. To put it simply, a person who feels disgusted while thinking about oral sex, tends with high probability to condemn the usage of mind upload technology. We have no clue about the origin of this correlation. Although, one can speculate. Disgust and sexual disgust in particular is an evolutionary protection mechanism that has protected us through a millennia from bad mating decisions, which is essential.

People who are into science fiction and those who condemn suicides (surprisingly) tend to approve of such technologies, whilst those of generally high moral purity reject the above mentioned technology. These findings are rather surprising and extraordinary.

Another study of ours concerned brain chip implants. People tend to approve of this technology only if it is used to cure a disease for example. If superhuman capabilities are concerned, like improved memory and overall performance, the approval rate drops dramatically. I presume that sexual disgust has to offer an explanation in this study as well.

We also offered our participants futuristic stories to read and one of them featured a nursing robot, which gives a medicine prescribed by a doctor to a patient. The patient refuses to take the medicine and at this point there are two situations: the robot forcing the medicine into the patient or the nurse doing the same thing following the doctor’s orders. It appears people don’t approve of a robot doing that, although the human nurse doing the same thing seems to be ok. A similar story was made up featuring a faulty and unreliable nursing robot and an unreliable human nurse with a bad professional reputation. In this setting the results were quite different. An unreliable robot got the same low approval rate in case of forcing the medication. Thus, the aspect of reputation showed to be irrelevant for robots, whereas a human nurse received a dramatic approval rate drop, showing that the reputation element is still the key factor for a human.


What is Finland’s current role in the AI development?

We are lagging behind. Although there is one company that is doing high-quality research and can be compared to the leading research companies in that area. It’s The Curious AI Company. But overall due to lack of major companies like Google or Tesla, we are lagging behind 5 to 10 years in this field. We are not producing any forefront applications such as DeepMind or Google are working on. Although we could do that, but it would require substantial state funding.


Helsinki Contributor