Sunday, October 29, 2006

Consciousness is communication

Suppose you wanted to evaluate whether some alien creature, or artificial intelligence software, or big-brained sea mammal was a conscious, intelligent being, and not just a boring algorithmically-directed lump of cells or chips or data structures. How would you do it?

Alan Turing addressed this question with the Turing Test, where contestants try to guess whether the entity they're communicating with over a teletype, is a person or a computer. I've never found this very satisfying, because I can imagine a being I thought was intelligent, that couldn't convince people it was human, simply for lack of a lifetime experience of being human.

I think that sensing an intelligence or consciousness in a being's words or behavior, is an ineffable, subconscious process. You're going to get the impression from dealing with someone that: they know they exist, and they know you exist, and they know you're aware of them, etc. That impression is going to be something hard to pin down: it'll comes from subtleties you take in with all your senses and experiences, any one of which could be isolated and removed, and you'd still say "there's someone in there".

So, suppose Alice thinks Blob is a conscious being, but thinks Clump is just an automaton. I think the interesting thing to study is not what Blob does and what makes Clump tick, but what Alice is perceiving and what makes Alice assign personhood to Blob and not Clump. Maybe it will come down to Alice finding it more practical to deal with Blob using the social navigation parts of her brain, and to deal with Clump using the object manipulation parts of her brain.

So in the end, Artificial Intelligence is really the study of human personfication. All the stuff about neural networks, embodied intelligence, vision algorithms and self-referential data structures are just fascinating implementation issues.

...But, you may object, just because Blob can fool Alice into thinking "he's" a "person", doesn't mean he really is, inside! Maybe I'm distracted by appearances and missing all the metaphysical stuff about qualia and the fact that it feels like something to be conscious. Well, maybe. If I knew the answer to that for sure I'd be the best philosopher in the world, living in the fanciest ivory tower on the block. But my suspicion is that qualia are illusions, and that we're hard-wired to seriously misperceive certain (practically useless) philosophical truths, that only Buddhist monks and category theorists really get right.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Following the News

I've heard this idea come up a couple of times recently, that it's not a healthy thing to follow the news, because so much of what happens on a global and national scale isn't anything you can do anything about; it's little more than voyeurism and a distraction from the good you can do in the local world you actually live in.

I think it's true that the news is rarely relevant, and that political awareness and involvement is irrational from a pure self-interest perspective. The chances that your vote, or your letter to the editor, or your contribution to a cause, will be a deciding factor, is slim-to-none, unless you have more money than George Soros.

But I wonder what will happen as people are more and more able to create their own realities, by choosing to read only stuff that interests them, and ignore the larger direction humanity is heading day to day. Maybe the animosity between red- and blue-state people in the US is fueled by the fact that we're drifting into different informational universes.

When Turkey and France got in this tiff about whether the Armenian genocide really happened, I don't think it's that one side or the other is blinded by hate or something; it's just that people getting a general education in the two countries, get presented with a different consensus, that they usually just adopt unless they have a special personal reason to take an interest in pursuing the truth.

The fact that the Turks and the French disagree about this, then, is no big surprise; they're different cultures, consuming different media, speaking different languages. But with the diversification of media that the internet allows, we're starting to see this same divide happen within our own culture, with liberals and conservatives clustering around their own media.

In the end I think more choices in media will end up being a good thing somehow. I can't say how; I just have a kind of faith that people are basically good, and so personal empowerment leads to good things in the long run. But I'd advise anyone who cared to listen, that maybe it's a good idea to keep one eye on the global media, as awful or irrelevant as it seems sometimes, just so your personal universe doesn't totally wall itself off into a mirror maze where every piece of data you have about the world is something you put there yourself.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Perceiving Patterns

I'm continually amazed by the human mind's way of finding meaning in randomness.  I've been trying to learn Japanese characters lately, using the Heisig method, where you make up little stories to remember what pieces go together to make each character.  It's a little weird how well this works.  For example the character for "hemp" (麻) is made up of parts that mean grove (林) and cave (广).  Makes sense, doesn't it, that you'd have to grow pot in a cave, to hide it from the police.  Others aren't so easy: the character for "feminine" (雌) is made of parts meaning footprint (止), spoon (匕), and turkey (隹).  So I've got this silly picture in my head now of a very feminine turkey who holds her toes in when she walks to make her footprints look like spoons, thinking that shape is more feminine than normal turkey-foot-shaped footprints.

So, I'm stuffing my head with hundreds of these stories, and it's working well for me so far, but I'm probably stuck with that strange association for the rest of my life.  The thing is, as the flashcard for "feminine" comes around 3, 4, 5 times, the association comes quicker and quicker, and starts to make a weird kind of sense. 

I've noticed this playing around with tarot cards as well.  Each card has a whole bunch of vague meanings, and the card's position in a layout has a vague significance of its own.  So it's no surprise that a layout of cards can be interpreted as meaning something.  What's is a surprise, is that when I lay the cards out and start trying to make a consistent message out of them, a message often tends to appear quite strongly.  I get the distinct sense that I've "found" what the cards are "trying" to tell me.  I don't believe there's anything supernatural going on -- it's a demonstration of how our minds search for meaning, and goose us with a satisfying "aha" when a best-fit interpretation is settled on.

One more example: a program called ELIZA was written in the 1960's that you could type at and it would respond in a crude imitation of a psychotherapist, by feeding you leading questions peppered with words taken from your own responses.  Remarkably, it sometimes could fool people for a short time into thinking there was a real person behind it.

It's my belief that when we attribute intelligence or consciousness to another being, this same sort of mechanism is at work filling in the gaps.  If we ever do succeed in building software systems that people consider to be artificially intelligent, it may be partly because we've come to understand better how this creative perception mechanism works, and how to spoof it for longer and longer periods.