What separates man from machine?

I just finished an article on computers writing music which got me thinking about computers thinking. (Thinking being a big part of music writing.) When humans compose music, or write stories, or do any artistic pursuit, we are consciously processing our decisions, deciding to do this or that or try this or that idea. If computers can start to replicate these processes, they would be doing them unconsciously. (Unless we want to consider, as some have, that computers are conscious in some weird way, but that’s a debate for another time. For now I will presume they are not conscious.)

So let’s think about this. Let’s say I’m writing a story about a character named Bob who drives his car a lot. In my mind, Bob is a person and his car is an object an I shuffle them through various scenarios that create tension in fiction etc. How would a computer approach writing a story about Bob and his car. (Computers writing fiction is not that far off.)

Well, computers would never really be aware of Bob and his car. Ultimately a computer is simply turning the states of millions of transistors from on to off or vice versa. Bob would essentially just be several bytes worth of data, data simply being a collection of transistors in various states. All words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.—are simply data captured by the state of transistors. The point being the computer never really knows the meaning of the words. At best it “knows” the flow of electricity (and even that statement is a stretch.)

Essentially, computer programs map symbols (letters, music notes, patches of color, etc) on to these transistors. And then they manipulate these mapped symbols to do various things, one of which is to create art. The symbols only have meaning to the audience, which is us humans. In a sense, a novel writing by a computer could be said to not exist until a conscious human reads it.

So what makes us different from computers? We are conscious, obviously, but also these symbols have actual meaning to us. The word “Bob” can have an actual meaning, referring to particular guy, fictional or not, who has various behavioral tendencies, characteristics, a certain appearance etc. To us, Bob (the word) can represent a real person. We can map symbols to ideas/concepts/entitities.

And yet, our brains work in a way pretty similar to computers. Our neurons are powered by electricity and we, in some weird way, hold information in our synapses. So why do we humans experience meaning when computers don’t?

I dunno…

Has Portlandia sold out?

Discerning readers may know that there’s a show called Portlandia out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the Oregon city of Portland (duh!) and it seems to both cheer and ridicule the alternative/hipster culture of the city.

The show stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is probably a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.

Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived in the town of Olympia Washington for a year. Oly is where Sleater-Kinney formed (indeed, I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk rock generally affiliated with anti-establishment thinking, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and therefore they were my enemy.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community there and probably went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week.

That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. So, when I heard that an icon of that scene, Brownstein, was involved in a comedy show I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.

Eventually, however, I did watch Portlandia and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL, is these days. Not only is it funny, it tends to use the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals that I detested in Olympia as its targets.

(I should note here that I’ve softened a bit in my hatred of these types and am willing to concede they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another blog post.)

As I watched Portlandia, however, I became a bit curious at how Brownstein, who, as far as I can tell, is neck deep in the very culture the show lampoons, justifies the show’s attitude. And I suppose I could get on the web and figure this out, but I’m not that curious. Nonetheless, this general thought popped into my head when I came across the following link.

Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show

The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports. 

The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”

The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.

“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN. 

On the show, the book store serves as the setting for a similar store run by two humorless lesbians who inadvertently deliver laughs. It’s a great example of how the show, to my mind, makes fun of the very culture Brownstein is from.

A little more digging revealed a story covering the controversy generated when Armisen and Brownstein had made an ad for clothing company Old Navy. Some of the comments responding to the article include…

Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.

Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, Portlandia wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.

Now, these comments deliver all the self-righteous fury I associate with the north west punk scene. That said, I can’t help feeling they have a point. Brownstein’s actions do seem at odds with her ethics. (Not Armisen, who to my knowledge has never claimed to be anti-capitalist etc.)

It should be said that humor is complex. You can applaud a culture or idea while simultaneously holding it up for ridicule. And “Portlandia” may not be making fun of the ultra-stringent ethics of certain Portlanders, as much as it is the stern seriousness with which they apply those ethics. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to have the attitude that we’re all figuring this life thing out and maybe we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Exactly what punk rock puritans don’t do.

Anyway, that’s my take. We just started watching the new season of the show on Netflix and it feels like one of the best ever.

Do we think the way we think we think?

In the Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game,” there’s a moment when an interlocutor asks Turing, a math genius, “Can machines think the way men do?” As Turing answers it becomes apparent there were really two questions in that query. One is, “Can machines think (at all)?” Second is “Can machines think in the manner of men?” (For the record, Turing’s answers are yes and no.)

So how do we humans think? I think (ha ha) that we believe we largely think in a sort of logical fashion, almost like a series of programmatic steps. We may think, “I’m hungry. I should go to the store to get a sandwich. It’s hot out so I will take the car.” And we do often think this way though we don’t really “think out” all the dialogue. For this kind of thinking we are largely consciously aware of what’s going on. We don’t suddenly find ourselves buying a sandwich for no reason.

But we are also aware that some of our thinking is subconscious. We muse upon a problem, decide to put it away or “sleep on it,” then suddenly a day later the answer appears to us magically. (I solved a particularly pesky VPN issue this way years ago.) It seems clear that some part of our brain was working on the problem without us being aware of it.

Buried in the dialogue in the Turing film is, perhaps, the idea that machines, specifically computers, can’t consciously think. They’re thinking is more like our unconscious processing.

Let me throw in an added complexity. Let’s say a guy looks at a beautiful woman and says, “I’d sure like to have sex with her!” It would appear he wants sex, as everybody does, and his brain is voicing a thought that occurs to him upon the appearance of a attractive mate. The thinking is all conscious. But we humans also have the idea of evolution and the notion that what really drives us is our cells’ desire* to pass on their genes. According to this idea, somewhere along the line there’s some kind of information processing (something like thinking) that says, “Ah, here’s a chance to pass on our genes. Let’s dupe this guy into thinking he merely wants to put his penis in this attractive female.” So there’s two levels of “thought” here—the guy’s conscious thought and some weird level of informational processing occurring well below the brain.

*Of course, we don’t really think cells are conscious in such a way that they can have desires. But on some level are cells are driven to the goal of duplicating themselves.

Anyway, I don’t what to make of all this but thought (ha ha) I would put it down.

Terrorist Drones

I continue to track Scott Adams’ blog to view his predictions about Trump. But today he tackled a different subject and he made note of something I’ve thought about myself.

Another key part of my prediction is that the Caliphate will start to weaponize hobby-sized drones for attacks all over the world.

Drones, these little miniature helicopters that are popping up all over the place, seem the perfect vehicle to lob explosives into crowds of people. I’m not talking about the rather small drones you see at the park, but the kind of drones that can have cameras mounted on them, or the kind Amazon is testing for deliveries. If it can carry a package it can certainly carry a bomb. And if the sky is awash with Amazon drones how will we tell the legal drones from ones delivering death? (There may actually be a way, in fact, I presume there is, but it complicates things.)

I think the bigger picture here is this realization: for every new technological advance from now on, we need to ask: how could this be employed by terrorists? Certainly robots and drones have obvious implications for terrorists. So too do advances in the biological sciences like the designing of virus in a garage laboratory. And what can people create with 3d printers?

On a side note, recall that it was the Japanese in WWII who first utilized drone bombs.

The power of the road

I recently took a trip that involved a lot of driving, going from San Diego to Portland and back. We took a leisurely pace, not driving for more than 5 hours or so in a day. But I found the whole experience quite calming. I’ve always found something almost hypnotic about long drives on the freeway.

So why is this? I think there’s something substantially different about your experience on the road as compared to day to day. What is your day to day existence? For most people, myself included, there’s a lot of repetition. I get up in the same bedroom, eat breakfast in the same kitchen. Go off to various coffeehouses or parks to work. I see a lot of the same stuff day in and day out. But when you are driving, the scenery—the visual input—is always changing. Your round a bend and here’s a lake you’ve never seen before. You take an off ramp and here’s a little town that’s totally new. You are bombarded with constant new stimulus. And for the most part, it’s quite nice—pleasant nature, small towns, etc.

My theory is that this gentle stimulus has a calming effect on your brain. And this is ultimately what we’re after when we travel, this combination of the new and the pleasant. Very few people take vacations to war torn countries after all.

I suppose this kind of stimulation could be a goal of VR technology. Strap on a headset and you could be in outer space, the medieval past, heaven or who knows where else.

The immigration question

So, not long ago I used the topic of immigration as an example of a political debate that was very hard to unravel. Is immigration (illegal or otherwise) good or bad for the U.S.? I read a bit on the topic (for about an hour) and discovered a dense mush of opinions. It was very difficult to get a straight answer.

Today I stumbled across an article that claims to have an answer. The author claims that immigration does hurt low income workers who compete with immigrants for jobs, but benefits employees who can press for lower wages.

Do I buy it? It’s definitely the clearest documents I read on the subject. I suspect there’s more to the quagmire (and the author has a whole book on the topic) but maybe it just got a bit more transparent.

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.

Has Adams lost it?

For about nine months or so I’ve been commenting on Scott Adams’s blog posts alleging that Donald Trump has achieved his political success by being a master persuader. By Adam’s descriptions, Trump has a learned or intuitive sense of exactly how to push people’s buttons and get their political support. The term hypnosis has occasionally been thrown around though not in the “woo-woo” carnival side-show sense.

To some degree, Adams must be on to something as Trump’s rise really was unanticipated by almost all of the “serious” political pundits. Adams’ writing on this topic has caused me to reflect on why I make the decisions I do and I’m starting to see how ethereal those reasons can be. I do think the subconscious can be prodded to lead the conscious mind to make decisions, sometimes stupid or bad ones.

That said, currently Trump really is looking weak as a presidential contender. Clinton has a healthy lead in the polls even with two third-party candidates – Jill Stein and Gary Johnson – taking some votes that would otherwise go to Clinton. (I’ve always presumed a Libertarian candidate like Johnson would take votes from the right, but I read something the other day that argued otherwise. Who really knows?)

Despite all that, Adams continues to insist that Trump will win in a landslide (though he has given the Clinton team credit for improving their persuasion skills, mainly by setting Trump up as a figure to be feared.) Here’s Adams today arguing in favor of Trump. (One of Adams’ most annoying predilections is his insistence that he supports Clinton when he clearly is in the Trump camp.)

To many people – if not most – Donald Trump looks like the type of candidate who would become a “strongman” president, ignoring the advice of experts and the opinion of the people. That’s the persuasion framework that Clinton has created in your mind, probably with the help of the Master Persuader I call Godzilla.

But does the evidence support that view? I see the opposite.

Months ago, when Trump stumbled on his answer about criminal penalties for women who seek illegal abortions, the public went nuts, and Trump immediately corrected his position. That’s direct democracy. Trump heard the opinion of the majority and instantly adopted it.

Consider Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration. The public felt his position was too extreme, and let him know. Eventually, Trump softened his stance to talk about countries of origin, not religion. The public still wasn’t pleased, so Trump softened again to his current position of “extreme vetting.” That evolution in policy looks like direct democracy to me. The public told Trump what it wanted, and Trump evolved to it.

Likewise, we found out this week that Trump’s plan to deport 11 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally has some wiggle room. Maybe there won’t be so much deporting after all. Because the public doesn’t want it.

Consider also Trump’s public persona. We witness that he is using the teleprompter (as advised) and crafting a friendlier version of himself, which is exactly what the public asked of him.

One interesting point: Adams alleges that the “Master Persuader” in Clinton’s camp is none other than Robert Cialdini who wrote the book “Influence” that I recently commented on.

So what to make of all? Certainly it seems like Trump is softening his positions, but months after he should have. Can he possibly pull out of the spiral he’s in?

My suspicion is no. But I’ve been wrong before. And Adams isn’t the only one on this page. Here’s a CNBC article I just stumbled across.

Donald Trump still has an uphill battle in this election. But when it comes to controlling the news cycle in this election, he’s running unopposed.

Consider the recent pivot in the Trump campaign. It began with a speech expressing his regrets for his past hurtful comments, followed by a visit to flood ravaged Louisiana. And it continued this weekend with a meeting with Latino supporters where he signaled a desire to temper his immigration policies and shift away from his previous support for mass deportations.

Trump’s recent pivots won’t convince any of his most ardent detractors and Clinton’s biggest fans to change their minds, but there are still a good number of undecided voters out there who might. And then there’s the traditional Republican voters who have been a little embarrassed by Trump, who will now be able to point to the plausible excuse of Trump’s “maturing process” to vote for and more publicly support him.

This article is basically saying that Trump is doing what Adams has been saying Trump will do—creating a “third act” in the story of Trump’s rise, an act characterized with deference and humility. Is it in time to win over voters?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, a lot of people don’t like Hillary. If the third parties suck up enough of her votes and undecideds and “embarrassed” Republicans swing towards Trump, I suppose it could happen.

Taking seriously the possibility of multiple consciousnesses

Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:

A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.

The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”

The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.

Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.

And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.

UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the patients seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.

More thoughts on “Influence”

I recently finished the book “Influence” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. The book explores six tendencies of the human brain that can be exploited to trick us into making decisions we might not otherwise make. One tendency, for example, is the valuing of scarcity. We walk past a shoe store and see some nice shoes and are informed that only two pairs are left. We become agitated—if we don’t buy the shoes now we may never get another chance. So we buy the shoes, go home and realize that they really aren’t that great. We were tricked by our brain’s proclivity for lusting after scarce things.

In an earlier post I mentioned a con man who, years ago, knocked on my door, cooked me some food and then asked for money. He played on an tendency Cialdini refers to as reciprocity. Basically, when someone helps us or gives us something we feel we “owe” them. The example Cialdini gives in the book is Hare Krishnas approaching people in airports with the gift of a flower and then asking for a donation. These travellers are already flustered, looking for their gate, and they give up the cash just to move past the the situation. Of course they never asked for the flower and it’s worth only pennies. Why give money? They got taken.

Basically, by abusing these proclivities of the mind, con men and sales people can trick you into doing things against your best interests. And it happens to all of us, all the time. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize that the pull towards the unwise decisions is almost subconscious. There’s a sense of “why am I doing this?”