Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Asma on the Nature of Imagination

In this fascinating piece, the philosopher Stephen Asma lays out a compelling case for why the faculty of imagination may be older - and conceptually prior - to language. In his formulation, wordless imagination was an earlier step above the "lizard brain" state of purely stimulus-response and instinctual behavior. It represented the ability of the brain to generate states that were not triggered directly by stimuli, i.e., a kind of confabulation. Language is then seen as a further complexification, where an apparatus evolved to harness the power of imagination to more useful ends.

This view resonates strongly with my own conception of the nature of the mind, which must be seen in an evolutionary and developmental context to be fully understood. The the "higher" capabilities of human and animal cognition are essentially layers built on top of the basic stimulus-response animal. As these layers of intertwining and autonomously activatable neural networks developed, they created increasingly complex ways for information to "dwell" and ramify within the brain, thus creating room first for imagination and then for language. And next, who knows for what?

This is especially significant in the quest for AI. The entire AI enterprise began with a top-down symbol-centered view. Even though that has now given way to more emergence-based conceptions such as neural networks and subsumption, the phylogenetic sequencing by which intelligence arose in the world is still not appreciated. Nor is the similar ontogenetic sequencing whereby a developing animal moves from a "primitive" stimulus-response functionality towards an increasingly "linguistic" one based on explicit communication. This is true not just in humans but also in primates, birds, probably cetaceans and many other vertebrates. Perhaps we need to abandon all the "short cut" methods we are currently using to produce artificial intelligence, and follow Nature's evolutionary pathway. Start with the simplest Braitenberg vehicles, and let them evolve brains capable first or imagination and then of language. It would be especially interesting to see whether these things emerge spontaneously as a consequence of complexification in brain and body.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Calamari Editors

It seems that octopuses, squids and cuttlefish are really good at using RNA editing to produce proteins that their genes don't code for. This interesting article argues that this flexibility may be an important component of their intelligence. It would be interesting to see if this also plays a big role in the remarkable ability of these animals to change color and camouflage themselves. However, this comes at a price, since it slows down evolution. So yeah, you can open bottles and change colors like nobody's business, but you'll always have eight tentacles growing out of your head....

Your Snout is Showing...

Never forget that when you eat chicken, you're eating a dinosaur. Now some scientists are beginning to unmask the chicken and show us it true face - snout and all. Be very afraid....

One quibble with this piece: There was nothing "accidental" about what happened here. These scientists were out to do exactly what they did. Now if only they'd hatch some of these ugly devils.

Brain Hacking

Getting earworms into your head isn't enough any more. It appears that social media and other on-line businesses are hacking into our brains in quest of clicks, eyeballs and ka-ching. If you are holding your cell-phone, put is down and move away slowly until you can neither see the screen nor hear alerts. Sit down and breathe normally. You'll feel much better in an hour .... that is if you can survive the anxiety of being far from your phone for an hour. Good luck!

Emergent Art - the Reddit Version

This really cool experiment on Reddit demonstrates how complex order can emerge bottom up from relatively simple rules under constraints. While it isn't clear that says all that much about the genesis of art, it certainly provides very interesting insights into the self-organization process - and especially on the delicate balance between randomness and constraint that seems to be essential to produce truly non-trivial and useful order.


(via Yaneer Bar-Yam)

Fair Inequality

In an interesting review piece in Nature Human Behavior, Starmans et al argue that, in realistic settings involving large groups, people show a preference for "fair inequality" over "unfair equality" in economic terms. The studies with children are the most interesting because studies involving adults are probably too confounded by political leanings and social norms.

"There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Reflecting on AI

A nice reflection on AI, its current status, and future possibilities by Namit Arora - with a very useful set of links.

"As for the more dramatic claims about AI, my view, which I articulated in The Dearth of Artificial Intelligence (2009), remains that even if we develop ‘intelligent’ machines (much depends here on what we deem ‘intelligent’), odds are near-zero that machines will come to rival human-level general intelligence if their creation bypasses the particular embodied experience of humans forged by eons of evolution. By human-level intelligence (or strong AI, versus weak or domain-specific AI), I mean intelligence that’s analogous to ours: rivaling our social and emotional intelligence; mirroring our instincts, intuitions, insights, tastes, aversions, adaptability; similar to how we make sense of brand new contexts and use our creativity, imagination, and judgment to breathe meaning and significance into novel ideas and concepts; to approach being and time like we do, informed by our fear, desire, delight, sense of aging and death; and so on. Incorporating all of this in a machine will not happen by combining computing power with algorithmic wizardry. Unless machines can experience and relate to the world like we do—which no one has a clue how—machines can’t make decisions like we do. (Another way to say this is that reductionism has limits, esp. for highly complex systems like the biosphere and human mind/culture, when the laws of nature run out of descriptive and predictive steam—not because our science is inadequate but due to irreducible and unpredictable emergent properties inherent in complex systems.)"

Looking at the World with Human Eyes

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on 3 Quarks Daily arguing that thinking of realistic AI as being hyper-rational was a mistake, and that AI that is convincingly "real" will, in fact, be convincingly irrational - albeit not necessarily in ways that humans are.

This article reports on an attempt to develop a machine learning system for image analysis that makes mistakes similar to humans. This is much more than just a "cute" idea. As the report says, quoting David Cox, the study's lead researcher:

"Algorithms that make decisions in a similar way to us could also be easier to understand and trust, says Cox. Computer systems sometimes make mistakes that humans wouldn’t – like Tesla’s Autopilot system failing to notice a white trailer against a bright sky. Systems trained on brain data would make mistakes in a more human way. “And if you make mistakes that a human would make, humans will continue to trust that system,” says Cox."

Ultimately, the effort to make the irrationality of intelligent machines similar to that of humans will fail because machines capable of autonomous learning will go in unpredictable directions, but it isn't a bad place to start.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Artificial Stupidity

My new 3QD piece on the nature and future of AI:

"With exponential growth in computational power and availability of data, the unthinkable (literally, that which could not be thought) is now almost possible: Optimal – or near-optimal – choices can be calculated in real-time from vast amounts of data, even in some very complex tasks. And, thanks to the magic of machine learning, the mechanisms underlying these choices do not have to be specified by brain-limited humans; they can be inferred by the machines using the available data. So is AI finally going to give us the idealized rational agents of economists’ dreams? That is extremely doubtful! True, unlike the mechanisms of most human learning, the algorithms of machine learning are often based on rational objectives, but, like humans, machines must also learn from finite – albeit much larger – amounts of data. Thus, like humans, they too must fill in the gaps in data with heuristics – interpolating, extrapolating, simplifying, and generalizing just as humans do, but possibly in very different ways. And therein lies the rub! For now, machines try to learn something close to the human notion of rationality, which is already quite different from human thinking. But as intelligent machines progress to increasingly complex real-world problems and learn from increasingly complex data, the inferences they make will become less comprehensible, not more, because the complexity of the tasks will make the decision-making more opaque. And if machines are to become truly intelligent, they must become capable of learning rapidly like humans and other animals. But what they learn in that case will necessarily be even more biased by their priors and even less clearly interpretable to human observers – especially since many of these priors will themselves be acquired through learning."

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Inherent Bias

All demagogues and salesman are instinctive experts at exploiting what Kahneman and Tversky called "the availability heuristic" - having a particular exemplar come to represent a whole category because it is more readily available to the mind. This is, of course, the basis of stereotyping and ultimately of all bigotry. It is also an inescapable - and useful - feature of human cognition. The ability to evaluate a category in terms of a few exemplars is very useful when you're a hunter-gatherer on a dangerous prehistoric savannah and can't afford to see every kind of predator before learning to recognize dangerous animals. It is even useful in everyday life today, where quick decisions on whole categories of books, movies, foods, etc., that we do or do not like saves us a lot of time and effort for other. more useful things. The problem is that the bias carries over to judgments about categories of people. That is why no civilizational imperative has been more difficult to sustain throughout human history than the equality of all humans, and also why no bias has been exploited more successfully by tyrants and demagogues through the ages. Now we are seeing it again....

Trump's Foreign Policy

A look at Trump's incoherent, chaotic, foreign policy. This quote is spot on:

"As a result, not only is there nothing even close to a Trump doctrine, which would be more than anyone should expect, but even saying what the administration’s policy is on any given major issue is virtually impossible. This is not just embarrassing, but dangerous. The world will not wait until we get our act together. Left to their own guesswork, adversaries and allies can easily miscalculate the strength of our support or opposition. And other nations—friends like Germany, but also competitors like China—will move to fill any vacuum left by the confusion over America’s basic approach. All this suggests that the handwringing during the campaign about the potential for Trump to squander America’s global position by deliberately shifting the country toward a posture of isolation was misplaced. What is emerging is something else entirely; an abdication of our leadership by default."

But it is dangerously incorrect to claim, as the headline does, that Trump has "no foreign policy". The lack of coherence is, in fact, a policy, not an accident. This should not be confused with any sort of "three-dimensional chess" or "deliberate confusion". That is too optimistic a view of what we have. Rather, Trump's foreign policy reflects his view of the world and America's place in it. He sees both in simplistic, "toy world" terms, and does not feel the need to have a coherent policy beyond brandishing the military and threatening world leaders randomly without thinking. Policies are seen as necessary in situations that are recognized as being too complex for ad-hoc decision-making. Trump does not see the world in those terms. He plans to run the presidency as he has run his business: As an opportunistic enterprise. Of course, this will quickly lead to disaster on multiple fronts, not just in foreign policy. As others recognize the superficiality and arbitrariness of Trump's governance, whole industries will arise to take advantage of this. Breitbart is only the first of these. The price, of course, will be paid by the country and, indeed, the whole world. Trump isn't just the dog that has caught the car; he's the dog who has managed to get in the driver's seat. And we are all passengers in that car....

Jihad vs. McWorld

I remember reading this celebrated (and oft-mentioned) piece "Jihad vs. McWorld" by Benjamin Barber when it was originally published 24 years ago (yes, I was already an Atlantic subscriber then :-), but I think I only truly understand it now. The term "prescient" doesn't even begin to capture all the ways in which this analysis has remained valid through a quarter century of global upheaval. Anyone who hasn't read it should read it for the same reason as that one must read 'Heart of Darkness' or '1984': It captures the truth of our world beyond simple description.

Reading this now, I find it impossible to select a single paragraph to quote. Each one is more apt than the other! But here is how Barber begins the analysis:

"The tendencies of what I am here calling the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad's centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld's centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic—or so I will argue."

That last insight - that BOTH forces work against democracy - is the crucial one.

H/t Richard Florida on twitter

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Remembering J.K. Galbraith and a very important period in South Asian history.

Embodied Mathematics

This beautiful piece by Margaret Wertheim makes a profound point that is surprisingly little-appreciated: The universe computes from quarks to galaxies. We may need complex math to describe physics, chemistry and biology, but physical, chemical, and biological systems embody that math in their very being. They calculate and solve the complicated equations for free - just by existing! Once upon a time, in the pre-history of half a century ago, we did use this capability in the form of analog computers. Now we're beginning to use it again in exploiting biochemistry and quantum mechanics to do computations.

The World According to Mark

I feel so much better knowing that My Lord Mark the Benevolent is working to make the world a better place and to lead humanity to the next stage:

"There’s no perfect analogue for what Zuckerberg is proposing, but it’s closest to the role that major religions have played throughout history. Facebook is to become an organizing space where you meet people, engage with your neighbors and your world, organize to make changes in your community, relax with people like yourself, and receive information that helps you participate in government. And like religions — but unlike virtually any other organizing force in human history — Facebook is truly, intrinsically, global."

Actually, for all his noble intentions, what Mark Zuckerberg is discovering is the fact that, in complex systems, almost all consequences are unintended.

Counting on One's Fingers

Before there was fitbit or Apple Watch, there was this abacus on a ring....

Presidential Rank

Lists are both meaningless and interesting. This annual ranking of US presidents by historians is a good example. An especially remarkable fact is that, with the election of Donald Trump, the lower bound of this list is now fixed for all future time....

Hello, Pleistocene Park!

The mammoth will walk again, and a whole new menagerie will follow.

Shooting for the Stars

The future of space travel will not be an exclusive American or American-Russian project. Others are making remarkable strides. This achievement by India - the launching of more than 100 satellites in one mission - is a remarkable feat! It shows that the even more rearkable mission to Mars was not a one-off thing.

What Does the President Not Need to Know...

"Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns", reports the Wall Street Journal. This is truly terra incognita. We have only seen things like this in movies:

"The current and former officials said the decision to avoid revealing sources and methods with Mr. Trump stems in large part from the president’s repeated expressions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his call, during the presidential campaign for Russia to continue hacking the emails of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton."