Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The anthropomorphism of computers

There are 2 commonly held myths associated with AI (Artificial Intelligence) that are being propagated through popular science, whether intentionally or not: that computers will inevitably become sentient and that brains work similarly to computers.

The first of these I dealt with indirectly in a post last month, when I reviewed Colin McGinn’s book, The Mysterious Flame. McGinn points out that there is no correlation between intelligence and sentience, as sentience evolved early. There is a strongly held belief, amongst many scientists and philosophers, that AI will eventually overtake human intelligence and at some point become sentient. Even if the first statement is true (depending on how one defines intelligence) the second part has no evidential basis. If computers were going to become sentient on the basis that they ‘think’ then they would already be sentient. Computers don’t really think, by the way, it’s just a metaphor. The important point (as McGinn points out) is that there is no evidence in the biological world that sentience increases with intelligence, so there is no reason to believe that it will even occur with computers if it hasn’t already.

This is not to say that AI or Von Neumann machines could not be Darwinianly successful, but it still wouldn’t make them necessarily sentient. After all, plants are hugely Darwinianly successful but are not sentient.

In the last issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 87, November/December 2011), the theme was ‘Brains & Minds’ and it’s probably the best one I’ve read since I subscribed to it. Namit Arora (based in San Francisco and creator of Shunya) wrote a very good article, titled The Minds of Machines, where he tackles this issue by referencing Heidegger, though I won’t dwell on that aspect of it. Most relevant to this topic, he quotes Hubert L. Dreyfuss and Stuart E. Dreyfus from Making a Mind vs Modelling the Brain:

“If [a simulated neural network] is to learn from its own ‘experiences’ to make associations that are human-like rather than be taught to make associations which have been specified by its trainer, it must also share our sense of appropriateness or outputs, and this means it must share our needs, and emotions, and have a human-like body with the same physical movements, abilities and possible injuries.”

In other words, we would need to build a comprehensive model of a human being complete with its emotional, cognitive and sensory abilities. In various ways this is what we attempt to do. We anthropomorphise its capabilities and then we interpret them anthropomorphically. No where is this more apparent than with computer-generated art.

Last week’s issue of New Scientist (14 January 2012) discusses in detail the success that computers have had with ‘creating’ art; in particular, The Painting Fool, the brain child of computer scientist, Simon Colton.

If we deliberately build computers and software systems to mimic human activities and abilities, we should not be surprised that they sometimes pass the Turing test with flying colours. According to Catherine de Lange, who wrote the article in New Scientist, the artistic Turing test has well and truly been passed both in visual art and music.

One must remember that visual art started by us copying nature (refer my post on The dawn of the human mind, Oct. 2011) so we now have robots copying us and quite successfully. The Painting Fool does create its own art, apparently, but it takes its ‘inspiration’ (i.e. cues) from social networks, like Facebook for example.

The most significant point of all this is that computers can create art but they are emotionally blind to its consequences. No one mentioned this point in the New Scientist article.

Below is a letter I wrote to New Scientist. It’s rather succinct as they have a 250 word limit.


As computers become better at simulating human cognition there is an increasing tendency to believe that brains and computers work in the same way, but they don’t.

Art is one of the things that separates us from other species because we can project our imaginations externally, be it visually, musically or in stories. Imagination is the ability to think about something that’s not in the here and now – what philosophers call intentionality – it can be in the past or the future, or another place, or it can be completely fictional. Computers can’t do this. Computers have something akin to semantic memory but nothing similar to episodic memory, which requires imagination.

Art triggers a response from us because it has an emotional content that we respond to. With computer art we respond to an emotional content that the computer never feels. So any artistic merit is what we put into it, because we anthropomorphise the computer’s creation.

Artistic creation does occur largely in our subconscious, but there is one state where we all experience this directly and that is in dreams. Computers don’t dream so the analogy breaks down.

So computers produce art with no emotional input and we appraise it based on our own emotional response. Computers may be able to create art but they can’t appreciate it, which is why if feels so wrong.

Postscript: People forget that it requires imagination to appreciate art as well as to create it. Computers can do one without the other, which is anomalous, even absurd.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Battle for ideals is the battle for the future

The opposition to gay marriage, especially as espoused by the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict in particular, is a symptom of a deeper problem: ignorance over enlightenment; prejudice over reason.

There are people who would love to freeze our societies, freeze politics and freeze cultural norms. This is why they are called conservatives. Ironically, it’s conservatives, or their policies, that are creating more change than anything else. A belief in infinite economic growth, the limited role of women in society and the denial of human-affected climate change will create more change in the 21st Century than anyone wants to see, and none for the better. An overpopulated planet depleted of resources, with an increase in the global wealth gap, rising sea levels, increased frequency of droughts and floods and the depletion of species are all being driven by conservative political policies.

The one symptom of human nature that holds all these positions together is denial, including the Pope’s message. They also, in various ways, defy what scientific endeavours are trying to tell us.

In Australia, the debate over climate change has become one of public opinion versus science. There seems to be a belief that we can vote for or against climate change as if it’s a political position rather than a natural phenomenon. The arguments against climate change in this country are that the scientists are all involved in a conspiracy, so they can hold onto their jobs, and all we have to do is tell them to produce the data we want to see and climate change will go away.

Yes, a touch sarcastic, but that’s the prevailing attitude. At a rally held on Parliament House lawns last year, someone with a megaphone stood up and told the CSIRO (Australia’s most esteemed scientific organization) to “Stop writing crap” on climate change, as if the person making the exhortation would actually be able to tell the difference.

If science could be overturned by popular opinion, Einstein’s theories of relativity would be consigned to the rubbish bin, quantum mechanics would be pure fantasy and evolution would never have happened. It would also mean that there would be no transistors or computers or mobile phones (without quantum mechanics) or GPS (without relativity) and virus mutations would be untrackable (without evolution).

Many of the things that modern society take for granted are dependent on science that most people don’t understand, even vaguely. Yet when scientists start making predictions that people don’t want to hear, they are suddenly ‘writing crap’. People think I’m being alarmist, yet in 2010 New Scientist listed 9 ecological criteria that affect the future of our planet, only one of which has been curtailed, the ozone hole (refer my post Mar. 2010).

Unfortunately, the only people who even know about this are nerds like me, and, as for politicians, they don’t want to know. Politicians in democratic societies can’t afford to tell anyone bad news because they get dumped at the next election. Consequently, as we’ve recently witnessed in Europe, politicians only deliver bad news after everyone has already been affected by it, and they can no longer pretend it isn’t happening. The same thing will happen with climate change. They’ve already put any action off till 2020: The Durban Agreement, reported in New Scientist (17 December 2011, pp.8-9); because they know no one will notice anything between now and then, even though the scientists are telling us we have to take action now.

What has climate change to do with the Pope’s anti-gay rhetoric? They are both examples of polarised politics, a symptom of our age: the political tension created by trying to hang onto the past and resist the future. There are those who can see the future and know we need to adapt to it and there are those who live in the past and think the future can be avoided by freezing our culture.

According to the Pope: "This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself,"

There is politics within the Catholic Church and not everyone who is part of the Church shares the Pope’s views, but it’s only conservative members who are promoted through its hierarchy, as the news item behind the link demonstrates.

According to the item: ‘The Roman Catholic Church, which has some 1.3 billion members worldwide, teaches that while homosexual tendencies are not sinful, homosexual acts are, and that children should grow up in a traditional family with a mother and a father.’

And herein lies the legerdemain: the Catholic Church is not against gays per se but only against gay marriage. However, this argument doesn’t stick. As Australian philosopher, Raymond Gaita, pointed out in a Q&A panel last year, the aversion to gay marriage is the direct consequence of an unstated aversion to homosexual acts. They can’t say they are against homosexuality but they can say they are against gay marriage. And science has played a major role in bringing gays and lesbians out of the closet. We no longer consider homosexuality to be a psychiatric illness, as people did 50 years ago, and it’s no longer considered a criminal offence. Sexual orientation is something you are born with – it’s not a lifestyle choice - but anti-gay advocates will tell you otherwise because they can’t understand why everyone else isn’t just like them.

The Catholic Church is more than a religious institution, it’s a global political entity. It still argues for the lack of birth control and thinks oral contraception was one of the worst inventions of all time. Not just because it undermines one of its more perverse inculcations, but because it’s what gave impetus to modern feminism and gave women the sexual independence and freedom that had previously been the sole providence of men.

And this too has an effect on our future, because it’s only through the emancipation and education of women, worldwide, that we will ever achieve zero population growth. This is arguably the most important issue of our century, and the most significant for our planet’s future.

There is an ideological battle going on in the West between conservative and liberal political forces, yet nature will dictate the outcome because nature has no political affiliations and nature has no preference for the human race. Science studies nature and is our best predictor of future events. But politicians, and the public at large, have little interest in science – it’s only our economic fate that concerns us. Such short-sightedness may well be our species’ undoing.