14 July 2011

The Singularity is Far? - from BoingBoing

Interesting post today on BoingBoing: The Singularity is Far: A Neuroscientists View by David J. Linden.  He starts by stating some of Ray Kurzweil's more "ambitious" predictions (regarding nanobots cruising through the brain creating virtual reality - sometime in the late 2020s), and then looks at some reasons why he thinks Kurzweil has gone too far.
However, Kurzweil then argues that our understanding of biology—and of neurobiology in particular—is also on an exponential trajectory, driven by enabling technologies. The unstated but crucial foundation of Kurzweil's scenario requires that at some point in the 2020s, a miracle will occur: If we keep accumulating data about the brain at an exponential rate (its connection maps, its activity patterns, etc.), then the long-standing mysteries of development, consciousness, perception, decision, and action will necessarily be revealed. Our understanding of brain function and our ability to measure the relevant parameters of individual brains (aided by technologies like brain nanobots) will consequently increase in an exponential manner to allow for brain-uploading to computers in the year 2039.
That's where I get off the bus.
I contend that our understanding of biological processes remains on a stubbornly linear trajectory. In my view the central problem here is that Kurzweil is conflating biological data collection with biological insight.
Linden concludes:
Don't get me wrong. I do believe that the fundamental and long-standing mysteries of the brain will ultimately be solved. I don't hold with those pessimists who claim that we can never understand our minds by using our brains. I also share Kurzweil's belief that technological advancement will be central to unlocking the enduring mysteries of brain function. But while I see an exponential trajectory in the amount of neurobiological data collected to date, the ploddingly linear increase in our understanding of neural function means that an idea like mind-uploading to machines being usefully deployed by the 2020s or even the 2030s seems overly optimistic.

My take on it is that we will of course continue to learn more about both the brain and the mind, and we will gain new levels of understanding of the physical workings of mental processes.  Does that constitute "solving the mysteries"? - I tend to think there will always be many mysteries.  Anyway, worth a quick read.

10 July 2011

Expanding 'consciousness' with new technology

Here's an interesting story - "Specs that see right through you" by Sally Adee in New Scientist magazine, posted July 5, 2011 - on some recent technologies that are geared toward picking up more accurate information from ourselves and other people, and making it consciously available.  As with most feedback loops, the new information can change the resulting behavior.  Here's one experimental finding, involving monitoring of group interactions:

To capture these signals and depict them visually, Pentland worked with MIT doctoral students Daniel Olguín Olguín, Benjamin Waber and Taemie Kim to develop a small electronic badge that hangs around the neck. Its audio sensors record how aggressive the wearer is being, the pitch, volume and clip of their voice, and other factors. They called it the "jerk-o-meter". The information it gathers can be sent wirelessly to a smartphone or any other device that can display it graphically.
It didn't take the group long to notice that they had stumbled onto a potent technology. For a start, it helped people realise when they were being either obnoxious or unduly self-effacing. "Some people are just not good at being objective judges of their own social interactions," Kim says. But it isn't just individual behaviour that changes when people wear these devices.
In a 10-day experiment in 2008, Japanese and American college students were given the task of building a complex contraption while wearing the next generation of jerk-o-meter - which by that time had been more diplomatically renamed a "sociometric badge". As well as audio, their badge measured proximity to other people.

At the end of the first day they were shown a diagram that represented three things: speaking frequency, speaking time, and who they interacted with. Each person was indicated by a dot, which ballooned for loquacious individuals and withered for quiet ones. Their tendency for monologues versus dialogue was represented by red for Hamlets and white for conversationalists. Their interactions were tracked by lines between them: thick if two participants were engaged in frequent conversation and hair-thin if they barely spoke.
"We were visualising the social spaces between people," Kim says. The results were immediately telling. Take the case of "A", whose massive red dot dominated the first day. Having seen this, A appeared to do some soul-searching, because on the second day his dot had shrivelled to a faint white. By the end of the experiment, all the dots had gravitated towards more or less the same size and colour. Simply being able to see their role in a group made people behave differently, and caused the group dynamics to become more even. The entire group's emotional intelligence had increased (Physica A, vol 378, p 59).

04 July 2011

Strangers to Ourselves - Timothy D. Wilson (2002)

I recently finished the book "Strangers to Ourselves" (2002) by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology.  The subtitle is 'Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious" - and the book is essentially a look into those mental processes which we aren't directly aware of.  He makes a point of diverging from Freud - "the modern view of the adaptive unconscious is that a lot of the interesting stuff about the human mind  judgments, feelings, motives - occur outside of awareness for reasons of efficiency, and not because of represssion."  I found the book to be a pretty good general overview of modern thinking about unconscious mental capabilities and patterns, how to make conscious use of them, and even perhaps guide them in new directions.

A few points of interest. While we refer to the unconscious, which makes sense in referring to that which our conscious awareness does not include, as an organism we are clearly "aware" of much that goes on around us even if that awareness does not extend to our consciousness.  One simple example of this that Wilson notes is at parties, while speaking with one group of people, we may suddenly become aware of another conversation if our name is mentioned.  And in some ways our goal is to make that which requires conscious attention fade into the unconscious background - that is in essence what learning is all about.  Once we've mastered something, we no longer consciously work at it, and in fact we can befuddle ourselves by thinking too carefully about tasks which we can already do on "auto-pilot".

Page 51: Wilson makes this claim: "Nor can the adaptive unconscious muse about the past and integrate it into a coherent self-narrative."  If one takes "musing" to be only available to the conscious mind, then I guess this is almost a tautology, but I think it's very possible that the unconscious does indeed process memories and thoughts to alter our own conscious conception of the past.

There are some interesting observations about introspection and self-narrative. He discusses the difficulties of fully knowing the reasons why we might act or have certain preferences, and the potential dangers of trying to be too analytical about it.  "Because people have too much faith in their explanations, they come to believe that their feelings match the reasons they list." (p. 168). We seem to have a deep need for stories that we can tell ourselves to explain our own behaviors, but we can mislead ourselves when creating those stories by committing to what we are able to consciously list out as reasons.  "Introspection should not be viewed as a process whereby people open the door to a hidden room, giving them direct access to something they could not see before.  The trick is to allow the feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one's theories and expectations." (p. 173)

"On what basis can we say that one self-story is healthier than another? Self-stories should be accurate, I believe, in a simple sense: they should capture the nature of the person's nonconscious goals, feelings and temperaments." (p. 181)

In the end Wilson settles for a pretty simple formula for self-improvement.  As he says, "It is not easy to know what our nonconscious states are, much less to change them." (p. 211)  By deliberately taking actions that are part of the desired behavior, we take steps toward making those actions more automatic, more deeply embedded into the foundations of our adaptive unconscious.