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January 8th, 2017 by Wil
I have been talking here, of late, about how computers and brains process information and know things. And the gist of my observations is that only conscious beings (e.g. humans and other living creatures) can “know” anything, or derive meaning from the world. Computers can process information, in a sense, but they don’t know the results of their information processing anymore than an abacus knows the results of an addition it just performed.
Some people do say computers could one day become conscious. And I’m open to the possibility; in fact, it ties in with what I’m about to say.
I’ve been operating in a “reasonable” mode for these discussions. Now I’m about to get crazy. I’m the first to admit that everything from this point on is entirely speculative.
So, as mentioned above, I arrived at this conclusion that you need consciousness to “know” things. At that point I need to define what I mean by consciousness. It’s a surprisingly difficult term even though we all experience it all the time. Basically I mean our sense of the reality around us, our internal thoughts, our awareness, the usual stuff.
When you think about it, there’s no reason that information processing devices, like our brains, need consciousness. They (perhaps) are just inputs (our senses) and outputs (our actions/observations), just like a computer, which we presume not to be conscious. So why do we have consciousness? We do we experience a state of being? This question is what the philosopher David Chalmers refers to as “the hard problem of consciousness.”
What if consciousness is a force, sort of like gravity? It “flows” everywhere. And when it flows through a network like a brain—a complex, self-referential, feed-backing network where “wires” (e.g. neurons) often loop back and affect their own inputs—it results in our sense of self and our awareness.
Now this is certainly not my idea. It’s the crux of many religions, Buddhism, Ekhart Tolle-ism, panpsychism, and even the notion of “the force” from Star Wars. I’m simply saying here that this idea could make sense. I don’t see any immediate objection. And, I will say again, this is speculative.
Of course, saying something is a force is a bit of a cop out. When we say gravity is a force we are basically saying that we don’t know what it is. (The same with other forces like the electromagnetic force, or the strong and weak forces of quantum theory.) It’s just a “thing” that happens in semi predictable way. Why it happens, or why it works, is beyond us (though people have theories.)
I maybe totally exposing my naïveté here but I wonder if this force of consciousness is electricity*, since that is what powers the neurons of the brain. Is consciousness electricity going through a complex, feed-backing network? If it is, then the idea of conscious computers doesn’t seem that crazy (since computers are also powered by electricity, though their architecture is obviously not biological.)
* Technically, this would be the electromagnetic force.
If I’m right, living people are sort of like a computer with the power on. Our brains have an architecture which is the arrangement of our neurons (the connectome.) When that architecture has “juice” running through it, you have a living, talking person. When that juice is taken away, you have—you got it–a dead person (similar to a computer with the power off.)
The point that I think a lot of spiritual teacher types (like Ekhart Tolle) argue is that “you” are not your architecture, you are the force flowing through the architecture. And I, a self-described atheist, am conceding that there may be something to this. From this view, becoming “enlightened” is merely the conscious force flowing through one entity becoming aware of itself.
To tackle an obvious question: does this mean we all live forever? Well, not in the sense that you might like. I think your memories, beliefs, thoughts, everything that makes up “you” are held in your brain structure (e.g. connectome). When that goes, you go. But if you are not really that stuff but are rather the force that flows through that network then it could be said we continue in some way.
Anyway, this needs more thought and I realize I’m just rediscovering the wheel here. Others have said these exact thoughts (aside from some of the neuroscience stuff) for eons.
And none of this really explains what consciousness is.
For further reading: Quora answer to “Is conscioussness a form of energy?”
It’s interesting partly for the diversity of opinion and the observation that different people are using the phrase consciousness to mean different things. I’ll note one answer talks about Integrated Information Theory which is the notion that consciousness arises out of complex connections (like those in the network of the human brain.) This is similar to what I describe above (and probably where I got the idea from.)
January 3rd, 2017 by Wil
With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) there’s a lot of talk about computers knowing things, or processing information. But how does this actually work?
I’ll be upfront here and say, “I don’t know,” at least in any detailed sense. But thinking out loud on the topic might turn up some interesting observations.
Computers have been information processing for ages (and before computers, calculators, abacuses etc. were doing it.) With AI, computers are simply processing information better, faster and “deeper” than ever before.
But what is really going on when we say a computer processes “information”? What information?
Let’s first consider the notion of a “bit.” The term comes from the relatively recent discipline of information theory and refers to the smallest unit of information possible. In essence, it’s a yes or no question. For example, let’s say I was tracking information about the couches in my couch factory. These couches come in three colors—red, green and orange. So I could track that information in three bits: a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is red, a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is green and a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is orange. Actually I could get away with using only two bits by saying, “if the red bit is set to no and the green bit is set to no then the couch must be orange.”
When you look out at the world, you can basically describe it using bits. Look at your best friend. Are they male, yes or no? Do they have a mustache, yes or no? Do they read this blog, yes or no? Are they gay, yes or no? And on and on…
You can see how this can be a remarkably effectively tool, and this tracking of bits is what drives computing. For example, images can be “held” in a computer if you track the red, green and blue value (represented as a number which can be captured as a series of bits*) for each pixel, plus, I think, luminescence and maybe a few other things.
* More detailed explanation here, if you care.
But it’s key at this point to take a step back and realize that just because computers hold information about couches, best friends or images, that doesn’t mean they really know anything. They know nothing, because they are basically dumb electrical signals shuffling around. A computer knows the image it contains no more than an abacus knows the number value it just helped add. Both tools require a human being to come along and observe the information being represented. Without the human, a computer’s information is a bunch of yeses or nos, devoid of context or purpose.
I’m pretty sure some information theorists would disagree with some of what I’ve said here, but this is how I see it.
So that makes us feel pretty special as humans, right? We know stuff whereas these dumb computers just sit there twiddling their switches. But do we really know anything?
Like computers, we also seem to hold information in bits of a sort. We have neurons and they fire or they don’t*. (I believe I’m correct in saying neurons can actually impart more than just yes or no values because they can fire at different strengths. To be honest, I’ve never really been clear about that but for the purposes of this post we merely need to agree that neurons hold information in some way.) So, you observe a coffee cup and various neurons that activate for round shapes start firing, as do neurons that activate for the smell of coffee, past memories of coffee, the general sense of being amped up and awake and on and on. Our brain “represents” the coffee cup using a lot of bits… I dunno how many. And we are aware of this represented information with different degrees of awareness. I might be strongly conscious of the notion: that is a coffee cup, but I’m less aware of the sense that coffee tastes bitter, or that it has caffeine.
*I’m aware that information in brains is really held in the connections between neurons (synapses), but I think this explanation works for our purposes.
My point here, and I do have one, is this: with computers, we track information about objects (or concepts or whatever) but we understand that that information is meaningless until a conscious agent, probably a human, comes along and observes it. But brains also track bits of information. So who/what is the conscious agent that is required to observe that information in our brains and “convert” it from meaningless bits to useful information? This could be another way of asking, “What is consciousness?”
While thinking about this I stumbled across this interesting quora question with fascinating answers (though no conclusive answers.) How much information does a human brain neuron store?
December 22nd, 2016 by Wil
I’ve been perplexed for a long time by what information really is. We often hear that the brain holds information. How is this so? The gist, as I understand it, is that information comes into our brains via the senses and these “bits” of sensory information are held in the activation of neurons. So, as a child I might have petted a cat and that sensory experience was encoded in my brain. Later, a cat scratched me and that experience was also encoded. Numerous similar experiences occurred (as well as more formal booklearning about cats) and now when I think of cats, all these encoded sensory experiences activate to various degrees and as a result I have information about what a cat is.
Part of the gist there is that I need consciousness to experience sensory input and therefore consciousness is (probably) necessary for information to exist (if “exist” is even the right term.)
Now think of computers. They too hold information (or so we are told.) Information in computers is held in on/off switches which are transistors with electrons running through them. But where is the consciousness? I think they general consensus is “nowhere.” The information in a computer is meaningless until a conscious mind observes it. (Bringing to mind the old “tree/forest” koan.)
And yet, people talk about artificial intelligence gaining consciousness.
Both brains and computers are networks in the sense that they are interconnected nodes. The basic node of the brain is the neuron and the basic node of the computer is the transistor (though it could be anything that can be in an on/off state.) But, again, computers don’t really “know” the information they hold (because they are not conscious.)
Bee hives and ant colonies are also networks and the basic nodes are the individual bees or ants. And hives and colonies seems to “know” information that the individual nodes can’t know (like how to work together to build a bee hive). They can even perform calculations.
So where is this information held? Is there a meta consciousness that must exist to appreciate the information held in the connecting nodes (ants and bees)? Or are they more like computers? Dumb nodes with no self awareness? (I’m aware ant and bees probably have some kind of consciousness but not necessarily the amount needed to appreciate the information they collectively hold.)
(Part of the answer to these question may be found here:
The Remarkable Self-Organization of Ants)
I find myself wondering if information even exists at all.
December 18th, 2016 by Wil
Lately, I’ve become interested in the concept of narratology. Wikipedia conveniently defines it.
Narratology refers to both the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception.
As I see it, the theory of narratology lists the components of stories (themes, characters, archetypes, etc.) and also describes how stories guide or distort our perception of reality.
It’s the second part that interest me most. It’s the idea that we see the world around us and try and fit it into a narrative—a story to make sense of it all.
This certainly relates to politics and you see it now in the Trump era. Some people look at Trump and a defender of the little guy who will disrupt the corrupt powers that be. Others see a rising fascist who may destroy democracy. Obviously both groups have access same information, the same surrounding reality. How can they come to such disparate conclusions? (Additionally, both sides are manufacturing facts to support their narrative.)
This is where narratology comes in. I believe we have a story in our heads and we force what we see to fit into that narrative.
What do all good narratives need? A good guy and a bad guy. Someone to root for and someone to hate. The different groups have forced the emergence of Trump into their narrative.
(You might be asking me: what do you think of Trump? Check out my latest acid logic article for the answer. In general, I’m wary about him but doubt he’s the end of civilization.)
On a side note, I think narratology is related to health. I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine told me about his grandfather. The man walked into the ER one day, convinced something was wrong with him. He demanded the doctors check him out and they did, wearily reporting that everything was fine. The grandfather insisted it wasn’t and died that night. (I realize this anecdotal story doesn’t really prove my point, but it’s all that comes to mind right now.)
So where do these narratives—these story templates with which we generate our interpretation of reality— come from? Maybe they are, on some level, embedded in our biology. I’m pretty unclear on how this could be possible but Jung, among others, believe it. (I think he did; I’m not an expert.)
Or maybe narratives evolve and are passed culturally through Richard Dawkin’s “memes.”
For the most part, I’m wary of narratives. I think they blind us to the true nature of reality, causing us to make heroes and villains out of what are basically flawed if perhaps unusual and exceptional people. For the most part, I think our narratives fail us. (You can see this especially in numerous conspiracy theories that arise and are easily debunked yet still earn followers.)
December 16th, 2016 by Wil
I’ve been reading a fascinating book entitled “This Rise of the Robots.” It is, as you might suspect, all about celery gardening.
I jest, of course. It is about robots and how the automation of physical and mental work threatens our economy.
There’s a interesting little premise that barely gets a mention in the book (so far) but seems worth describing here. We all understand that a lot of physical labor in product manufacturing has been replaced by robots. This has been easy because manufacturing involves a lot of repetitive tasks which robots excel at. What is harder for robots to do is diverse physical labor like what a janitor does. A janitor doesn’t repeat the same exact task over and over again. He might clean one bathroom, then mop a floor, then clean some windows, then throw out some boxes etc. And he might does this in a variety of buildings with different floor plans etc. Getting a robot to navigate all these tasks is still difficult. For one thing, while technology for robots to “see” is improving, it’s still not perfect.
But imagine this. You make an ambulatory robot with cameras attached and “grabbing” mechanisms as hands. You give control of this robot, via the internet, to some guy in an Indian call center. The Indian guy, payed a pittance, provides the seeing and motion control for this robot. By running the robot, probably via something like a video game interface, the Indian does the work.
Could it be that this process of human/robot collaboration could put real, first world janitors out of work (especially with the push to raise the minimum wage)?
But wait. As they say, it gets worse. As this robot is being guided through the janitorial tasks isn’t it being trained to do these jobs all by itself? For example, let’s say the Indian guy guides the robot to wash the windows in a particular building once a week. As he guides the mechanical appendages through the process of window washing, the robots records them. Next week it can do this job all by itself. Really, the human is only needed to train the robot a few times, then the robot takes over. (This is sort of how the robot Baxter, working in factories as we speak, operates.)
And don’t get me started on remote controlled robot prostitutes!
December 13th, 2016 by Wil
So what do we know? We know that during the presidential campaign numerous emails were hacked from computers belonging to the Clinton campaign and the DNC. These emails were handed to the Wikileaks organization who made them public. The effect was that the Clinton campaign was embarrassed for various reasons.
So who did the hacking? Many U.S. intelligence agencies say it was the Russians. That certainly seems like the likely answer.
At the time of the hacking it was a bit unclear why the emails were hacked and made public. A reason often mentioned was that the Russians wanted to undermine the democratic process. Now U.S. Intelligence is saying the reason was to actually help the Trump campaign.
Frankly, is one reason any worse than the other? If Russians are attacking our democracy, shouldn’t we be pissed of regardless of their motivation. Let’s say it turned out they did it as a big prank. Is that a better reason than trying to get Trump in office?
So why are people obviously much more upset with the second reason? I think it’s partly because we are wired to be opposed to unfairness. If the Russians were just hacking to undermine democracy, that doesn’t really favor one group over the other. But if they are playing favorites, that galls (some of) us.
So why does it gall us? What’s the psychological reason? I think it raises the possibility that you can work your ass off and still lose for reasons outside of your control. The landscape is against you.
And that’s a perfectly good reason. But in the big picture, I feel would should be upset about foreign meddling for any reason.
I’m not convinced, however, that were the shoe on the other foot (say the Russians hacked Trump’s servers a released pictures of him having sex with goats) that many now outraged wouldn’t be thanking the Russians.
November 27th, 2016 by Wil
Recently, an online petition circulated demanding that the electoral voters voting for Trump change their vote to Clinton. One argument made was that the electoral voters should do this because Clinton won the popular vote by handy margins.
The counter argument to this was that Trump could say, “Look, I pursued a specific campaign strategy to win this election and that stategy was to win the electoral college. If you now say I needed to win the popular vote, you are changing the rules after we all played the game.” And it would be a fair point.
Now there’s currently a bit of rumbling from some Democrats that the country should get rid of the electoral college. And they’ve got a legitimate grievance. Twice in 16 years a Democrat has won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. It would seem that getting rid of the college would benefit Democrats, no?
But it may not be that simple. We realize that all of a state’s electoral votes go to whoever wins the majority vote in that state. (There are rare exceptions to this.) And certain states reliably swing one way. My state of California is a good example; it always swings towards Democratic candidates. As a result, Republican voters in this state are disincentivized to vote—why vote for your guy when you know he or she has no chance of getting your state’s electoral votes?
However, if we switched to a popular vote, that disincentive disappears. Suddenly a lot of people who might not be that eager to vote have a reason to do so. Suddenly their vote does count. And suddenly political parties have a lot more reason to actively pursue those votes. (Right now, I suspect a lot of Republicans don’t even bother with California.)
Now, does this mean the popular vote would swing more Republican? Obviously there are plenty of Red states where, under a popular vote system, Democratic voters might be more incentivized to vote. The only way to really figure this out would be to examine the populations and voting tendencies of each state and take some educated guesses. I did look up the voting tendencies of the current US population and it’s about an even split between Dems and Repubs. (There are more registered Democrats, but independents tend to slightly swing red which evens it out.) So it’s hard to really predict what the results of a popular vote would be.
The larger point here is that you can’t make predictions about one system based on the results from another. Or, more boldly, don’t fuck with shit unless you really know what you’re doing.
Now, of course, there’s a reasonable, non-partisan argument that we should just switch to the popular vote system because it is more democratic.
November 21st, 2016 by Wil
I’m currently working on an acid logic piece taking a look at Scott Adams’ predictions about Trump and seeing how they stand up to the election results. Obviously Adams was right on his main prediction that Trump would become President.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of Adam’s arguments. One comment he makes often is that reality doesn’t exist. Physical reality like molecules might exist (though Adams is at times dubious of that; very Buddhist of him) but social reality and political reality are not real. Trump, I think Adams would say, created a new political reality via masterful powers of persuasion. People who clung to the old reality, who did not see how Trump was changing the rules of the game (I might fall into this category) got played.
I just stumbled across an article about rapper Kanye West going on a long political rant onstage in Sacramento. He make comments that sound Adams-esque.
During his rant West said: “If your old a– keeps following old models, your a– is going to get Hillary Clintoned. You might not like it, but you need to hear it.”
Frankly, that would be a great motto for the Democratic Party going forward.
West, it should be noted, states he is going to run for President in 2020. Before the Trump victory I would have presumed the likelihood of this actually happening to be low. Now I’m not so sure.
November 14th, 2016 by Wil
I can often be founding complaining in this blog about the speed of modern life. The constant assault of news, media, texts, emails, and even entertainment turns us into distracted, annoyed and un-focused creatures.
I’d like to further argue that the speed of modern information does more than just upset our personal equilibrium. It upsets the zeitgeist—the shared context the pervades the cultural moment.
Zeitgeist is a deliberately vague word (despite being German) but we all have some familiarity with it. It’s whatever makes the culture of now feel like the culture of now. It’s the hit songs on the radio, it’s the shows on Netflix (not so much TV) that people are talking about, it’s the news stories that fill the air, and on and on.
I think in the past, we had a bit more time to acclimate to the zeitgeist. Trends would rise and they would sit there in the air a bit before wafting away. To use an example, hair metal, the genre of heavy metal popular in the 1980s, lasted a good 2-3 years* before being usurped by grunge, which itself lasted even longer. I don’t think that’s the case now. Musical genres seem to rise and fall rather quickly.
* If one wants to gets picky about it, one could really identify two periods of hair metal in the 80s. There was the early 80s period that brought about groups like Motley Crue and Quiet Riot, and the later period kicked off by Guns-n-Roses which led to a mass signing of hair metal bands to record labels.
Another example: I was just listening to some podcast where an interviewee was bemoaning the loss of power experienced by magazines like The New Yorker and the Atlantic. These magazines are still around, of course, but the guy was complaining that they no longer “drove the conversation.” These magazines no longer define the zeitgeist in the way they used to.
There’s also a political and intellectual zeitgeist happening at any moment. (Clearly the political zeitgeist just had a massive change with the election of Donald Trump.) This zeitgeist is defined by the topics and policies under discussion, the books being read, the blog posts making the rounds, the ideas about politics, policies and ethics defining the spirit of the times. And I think that zeitgeist too is moving much quicker.
How do I know? Well, Trump is a good example. The media—the guys who should control the zeitgeist or at least have some insight into it—got him wrong at the beginning and then continued to get him wrong. At the start, they, like me, thought he was a joke. Then they predicted his political implosion five thousand times. Then they predicted, armed with lousy polls, that he would lose the election. And yet here we are.
The media aren’t controlling the zeitgeist. They’re playing catch-up with it.
I’ll give an example of my personal failure to feel the zeitgeist. When Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination, I figured he’d last about two days. The “socialist” moniker was going to kill him, I thought. Instead, he had a long run and a case can be made that he would have defeated Trump had he been given the spot. What did I get wrong?
I think it’s that the term “socialist” just doesn’t carry the negative connotation anymore. I grew up in the 80s during the chill of the cold war when “socialist” wasn’t that far from “communist,” and the communists were the guys with a billion nukes pointed at us. We feared them. But someone who is in their twenties today (and many of Sanders supporters were young) would have never experienced that fear, at least not directly. For them, the power of these terms has changed, and thus so has the zeitgeist.
November 13th, 2016 by Wil
This is my first post-election post and while I do feel like I’ll have plenty to talk about down the line, for now I want to touch on a single thought that jumped into my head.
We understand that part of Trump’s appeal was that he is anti-free trade. He wants to undo free trade agreements like NAFTA, TPP etc.
(I’ll note here that I generally favor free trade though I don’t have particularly thought out reasons for this. I generally like simpler rule sets for things and nothing is simpler than “free.”)
Let’s also revisit the moral thought experiment called the trolley problem. Philosopher Joshua Greene describes this in his book “Moral Tribes”
A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big to stop the trolley and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?
Fundamentally, the trolley problem asks whether it is all right to sacrifice one person to save five, or, more broadly, whether the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.
The complaint from a subset of Trump voters is that free trade agreements took their jobs away. This New Yorker article examines some of the details of all this.
“…economists agree almost unanimously that free trade boosts a nation’s overall welfare. In March, 2012, when the University of Chicago Booth School of Business polled a panel of economic experts, fifty-six per cent agreed and another twenty-nine per cent strongly agreed that “Freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment.” But even within the precincts of orthodox trade theory (which is not, I am told, the whole of economics), free trade is acknowledged to have a downside, too. In June, 2012, half of the same panel of experts agreed and another thirty-three percent strongly agreed that “Some Americans who work in the production of competing goods, such as clothing and furniture, are made worse off by trade with China.” The professional consensus among economists, in other words, isn’t that free trade helps everyone; it’s that free trade so benefits the country as a whole that the government should find it easy to compensate the subset of citizens hurt by it—those who lose their jobs because workers abroad displace them.”
So, free trade is good for society as a whole, but there’s definitely a group that it screws. If no meaningful help is offered to people (and little is according to the article and others I’ve read) it should be no surprise that they will demand change.
What intrigues me here is that this election seems to drag a boring thought experiment out of the halls of academia and into the real world. The trolley problem asks about the morality of sacrificing the welfare of a few for the welfare of many. And that’s exactly what we face with the issue of free trade.
Of course, it’s more complex than that. How do we measure these benefits to larger society or these deficits to smaller groups? How do we measure economic pain? Merely in dollars and cents? Or do we try to factor in ethereal elements like dignity, pride and self-worth and even unintended consequences? Some liberals are doubtless now feeling that if free trade means that the people you sacrifice then vote in Donald Trump, it’s not worth it.
(Another point to keep in mind here: Democrats did have an anti-free trade candidate, Bernie Sanders, and there’s a lot of evidence that he could have bested Trump.)
On a final tangent, in a later paragraph, the New Yorker article argues that merely throwing money at Americans screwed by free trade doesn’t solve the problem.
Even if a welfare program like the Trade Readjustment Allowance were amped up, it’s not likely that this population would become meek and grateful. They’re aware that the socioeconomic élite—lawyers, financiers, and consultants—profited mightily from the economic changes by which they were dispossessed over the past couple of decades, and I suspect that they don’t want to be the objects of such people’s charity. They want their dignity back. They want to be what they once were: workers, an independent source of economic value, ambivalently regarded by and even somewhat menacing to the upper class.
This struck me as it’s very similar something I wrote many months ago in a post entitled “Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump.”
The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities.
Had Hillary Clinton read my blog post and integrated its wisdom, I suspect she would be President right now.