Practical Artificial Intelligence

There’s an old saying in computer science circles that when we have no idea how to make a piece of software do something smart we call it “Artificial Intelligence” but once it’s solved we look back with 20-20 hindsight and say it was “Software Engineering”.  A computer becoming the world chess champion is the quintessential example of this.  Once considered a holy grail of AI, by the time Deep Blue actually dethroned Kasparov, the computing world yawned, “Oh it was just brute force computing power, nothing truly intelligent is really happening”.

Beating the world champions at Jeopardy was slightly more interesting because we acknowledge the vast range of knowledge and language understanding involved.  But ultimately, since Jeopardy is just a game, we are left with the feeling, “so what?”  How does this affect my life one way or another?  Enter, Siri, the voice recognition system integrated into the new iPhone 4S.

When I heard about the feature and saw what it claimed to do, …

What is Fear?

Based on an informal assessment and polling I’ve done recently, here’s what we fear:

  • Identity
      • Death / Pain / Insignificance
      • Self-Exploration / Failure / Change
      • Being Found Out / Self-Expression / Lying
  • Control
      • Power / Anticipation / Fear-Itself
    • OTHERS
      • Intimacy / Just Doing It / (Lack of) Freedom
      • Disaster / Crisis / Unknown-Unknowns
  • Authority
    • RIGHTS
      • Being Unworthy / Unmet Expectation / Meaninglessness
      • Unfairness / Inequality / Injustice
    • RULES
      • Doing it Wrong / Shame / Guilt

Each of us has a unique profile of what fear is depending on how we related to various value dimensions (intrinsic, extrinsic and systemic).  For me the scariest are: (1) Unknown-Unknowns (2)  Power (3) Being Wrong (4) Self-Expression (5) Injustice

How about you?…

Scientific Singularity?

A couple of weeks ago Kevin and I went around on the topic of whether or not science is “broken”.  We came to the point of agreeing that we have different basic assumptions of what constitutes “utility”.  And because of this, while we could agree that each of our arguments made sense logically, we ultimately end up with opposite conclusions.  After all, for something to be broken it means that it once served a purpose that it no longer is able to serve due to mechanical/structural failure.  And to have a purpose means that it has value (i.e. utility) to someone.

So whether science is broken or still works depends your definition of utility.  Kevin and I agreed on a measurement for scientific utility, based on (a) how well it explains observed phenomena, (b) how well it predicts new phenomena, and (c) how directly it leads to creation of technologies that improve human lives.  We can call it “explanatory power” or EP for short.  …

The AI-Box Experiment

Several years ago I became aware of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “AI-Box Experiment” in which he plays the role of a transhuman “artificial intelligence” and attempts (via dialogue only) to convince a human “gatekeeper” to let him out of a box in which he is being contained (resumably so the AI doesn’t harm humanity).  Yudkowsky ran this experiment twice and both times he convinced the gatekeeper to let the AI out of the box, despite the fact that the gatekeeper swore up and down that there was no way to persuade him to do so.

I have to admit I think this is one of the most fascinating social experiments ever conceived, and I’m dying to play the game as gatekeeper.  The problem though that I realize after reading Yudkowsky’s writeup is that there are (at least) two preconditions which I don’t meet:

Currently, my policy is that I only run the test with people who are actually advocating that an AI Box be used …

The New Scientific Enlightenment

There is a massive paradigm shift occurring: beliefs about the nature of scientific inquiry that have held for hundreds of years are being questioned.

As laypeople, we see the symptoms all around us: climatology, economics, medicine, even fundamental physics; these domains (and more) have all become battlegrounds with mounting armies of Ph.D.s and Nobel Prize winners entrenching in opposing camps.  Here’s what’s at stake:

. . .

Scientific Objectivity

In 1972 Kahneman and Tversky launched the study into human cognitive bias, which later won Kahneman the Nobel.  Even a cursory reading of this now vast literature should make each and every logically-minded scientist very skeptical of their own work.

A few scientists do take bias seriously (c.f. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong).  Yet, nearly 40 years later, it might be fair to say that its impact on science as a whole has been limited to improving clinical trials and spawning behavioral economics.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo poignantly illustrates …

The Pattern

The wind was flapping a temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said the flag was moving; the other said the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could come to no agreement.  The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is neither the wind nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving.” — Zen Koan

“The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” — Albert Einstein

Does a whirlpool exist in the same way that a rock exists or that energy from the sun exists?  For something to exist it either has to have always existed, or there must have been a time prior to its existence.  Leaving for a moment the possibility that everything which exists today has always existed, let’s consider that it came into being at some point.

If something came into being, then not only must there have been a point in time prior to …


Daniel asks, Does the Mind Influence Physical Processes?

Proof: our mind sets out to modify our environment in particular ways (i.e. set goals); then we act in ways consistent with that intention; more often than chance, our environment changes in those intended ways (i.e. goals are achieved).

This is a form of entanglement — spooky action at a distance — between our minds and the environment (which includes other minds), but we usually dismiss this as trivial, not very spooky. On the other hand, we know that quantum entanglement exists and it seems spooky to us because we have no mechanism to explain it.

We also observe that there are quantum effects in the basic architecture of the brain (nanotubules) and wonder if these are somehow the “ghost in the machine” of consciousness. But this could be just a red herring. Perhaps quantum effects matter to consciousness, perhaps they don’t. Still quantum effects are part of the human experience in some sense — and so …

The Adjacent Possible

Stuart Kauffman has a concept called the Adjacent Possible which I find incredibly useful in understanding the world.  Simply put, if you think of the space of possibilities from the present moment forward and just concentrate on those that are achievable today — adjacent to the present moment — that’s the Adjacent Possible.

What’s interesting about possibility-space is that tomorrow’s Adjacent Possible depends on the actions and choices we make today; it’s not symmetric and it’s nonlinear.  Certain actions generate more future possibilities than others.  In my experience, those actions tend to be the cooperative ones, ones that produce network effects: financial, social and otherwise.

Due to our evolutionary heritage, having come from a resource-constrained world, we may be predisposed to see the more competitive actions which tend to shrink the Adjacent Possible.  Whether or not this is a bias or an actual state of affairs, much of our thinking is based on scarcity, so we are drawn to actions that become self-limiting.

Here’s …

Science 2.0

I liken cognition to a hill-climbing search on the landscape of theories/models/maps that explain/predict reality.  It’s easy to get stuck on peaks of local maximality.  Injecting randomness creates a sort of Boltzmann machine of the mind and increases my chances of finding higher peaks.

But I have to be prepared to be more confused — and question more assumptions than I intended to — because chances are my new random placement on the landscape is initially lower than the local maximum I was on prior.  This part is scary.  People around me don’t understand what I’m saying initially because I necessarily need new words, new language, to describe the new landscape.

And rather than start totally afresh with a new lexicon, I notice it’s more productive (personally and in communication) to overload old terms and let them slowly blend into their new meanings.  We all resist the strain, especially those who did not sign up for the jump through hyperspace.  They use the …

Why Falsifiability is Insufficient for Scientific Reasoning

In my post about The Process it turns out that I stepped on a pedagogical minefield when using describing the Anthropic Principle (AP).  Two preeminent physicists had a very public argument a while ago in which one called the AP unscientific because it’s unfalsifiable.  I will return to that in a moment since it’s the crux of what’s wrong with Science right now, but I need to get the terminology issue out of the way first.

Lee Smolin claims that AP is bad and favors a Cosmological Natural Selection view instead (on grounds of falsifiability).  I believe this is a false dichotomy and that they are really one and the same.  Here’s why:

  1. Normally natural selection requires some form of “replication” or it’s not actually natural selection.   But replication is not needed if you start with an infinity of heterogeneous universes.  In other words replication is simulated via the anthropic lens over the life-supporting subset of all possible universes.
  2. Replication is a red herring anyway

Decision Education: A Call to Arms

“Extensive research has shown that people tend to lead either from their head or their heart. Unless we make a conscious choice to achieve the appropriate balance, we tend to do what comes naturally and solve the problem from within our comfort zone” (from the Decision Education Foundation)

Those of us on the analytical side of the spectrum often completely discount feelings in making decisions. But it’s worth noting that the Decision Education Foundation (DEF) was founded by Stanford professors who pioneered the science of decision analysis and whose work spawned an entire consulting industry that helps companies make billion dollar decisions. DEF is adamant about the importance of using both head and heart:

Using your heart means taking into account what you really care about, which often includes the effect on other people and retaining their respect and trust. It means listening to your emotions and intuition. If you have taken your heart into account in the appropriate way, a decision feels right.


How do we know what we know?

If you grew up like me you were brought up in a culture based on a dualist metaphysics, one that asserts that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves (whatever “we” are) and that we know about it indirectly through our senses and conscious reasoning.  This is the basis of the Western traditions of science, liberal arts and symbolic systems (such as mathematics and human language).  Essentially anything that can be studied is part of this metaphysics.  Gödel showed us that this metaphysics will never lead to complete knowing, though everyone agrees we can continually refine our knowledge and thereby at least asymptotically approach enlightenment.

Descartes proved to us that each of us individually do indeed exist, and he tried to argue further that the universe as we perceive it — however imperfectly — does indeed exist too.  But before you drink too deeply from the Cartesian well, keep in mind that his argument for an external


As readers of my blog posts know, I talk a lot about evolutionary systems, the formal structure of cooperation, the role of both in emergence of new levels of complexity, and I sometimes use cellular automata to make points about all these things and the reification of useful models (here’s a summary of how they all relate).  I’ve also touched on this “thing” going on with the system of life on Earth that is related to technological singularity but really is the emergence or (or convergence) of an entirely new form of intelligence/life/collective consciousness/cultural agency, above the level of human existence.

From The Chaos Point. Reproduced with permission from the author.

In a convergence of a different sort, many of these threads which all come together and interrelate in my own mind, came together in various conversations and talks within the last 15 hours.  And while it’s impossible to explain this all in details, it’s really exciting to find other people who are on …

The Limitations & Dangers of Incentives

If you liked this, check out these posts:

What Obama Needs to Do

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

This is part of a brilliant article by cognitive science and linguistics pioneer, George Lakoff (emphasis mine).  His argument about what …

Don't Eat That Marshmallow!

Short but brilliant TED talk by Joachim de Posada.  I love the economic point he makes at the end.


Has anyone played Foldit, the protein-folding game that is designed to advance the science?  This Wired article makes it sound like Ender’s Game meets biochemistry!  Sounds like the Poehlman kid is the protein-folding equivalent of Stephen Wiltshire.  I love the crowdsourcing, the meta-evolutionary algorithm of it (to find the savants), and the implications for science.…

Amazing Feats of Memory

From time to time we hear about people with “photographic” memories who supposedly can remember every detail of something they experienced.  When you look into what’s really going on though, it becomes clear that this is not really the case, and their capabilities are actually limited to certain segments of their experience.…

3 Interesting Articles on The Economy

1) The Quiet Coup

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

Decision Education Foundation

On Saturday I attended a fundraiser poker tournament for non-profit organization called DEF (Decision Education Foundation).  As it’s name implies, they are dedicated to helping individuals become better decision makers via the education system.  Their strategy is multifaceted, but their core goal at the moment is to introduce decision making explicitly into the curricula of primary and secondary schools around the country.  To do this, they first educate the educators on the components and process of making good decisions.…

The Nature of Innovation

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.…

Behavioral Economics With Dan Ariely

If you liked this talk (as I do), check out Ariely’s 3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal.…

Sleep as the Default State

Just read an interesting essay* which changed my thinking about the role of sleep.  While nobody can claim to understand exactly why sleep is necessary for mammals, most of the explanations focus on some positive, regenerative benefits that we can’t do without (e.g. maintaining the neuronal circuitry).  Martin Kinsbourne puts forth another benefit, which I’d never thought of:…

Individual vs. Systemic Causation

George Lakoff wrote an interesting piece on yesterday called The Obama Code.  I will focus on one of the sections in particular because it articulates something I’ve suspected for a while, but I’ve never heard anyone else give credence to the notion.  Which is that one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. is that conservatives give more weight to individual, autonomous actors and actions in their view of how the world works, and liberals tend to give more weight to systemic causation and interdependency:…

Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes