February 17, 2007
One of the privileges of having cogitated our way to the top of the food chain is that we now have the luxury to cogitate on how we got to the top. Or whether other critters cogitate like us. Or not. We make rats scurry around mazes to help us understand how we think. Pigeons get OCD trying to resolve whether we make decisions before we form preferences or after. The Drosophila fly used to be a fly; now it’s basically a test tube with wings. Monkeys are always complaining that the only reason they exist is because Steve Pinker needs to write books on languages. And Mr. Toad of Toad Hall would sue for libel were he to read Lettvin et. al.’s classic description of frog life:
"The frog does not seem to see or, at any rate, is not concerned with the detail of stationary parts of the world around him. He will starve to death surrounded by food if it is not moving. His choice of food is determined only by size and movement….His sex life is conducted by sound and touch. His choice of paths in escaping enemies does not seem to be governed by anything more devious than leaping to where it is darker. Since he is equally at home in water and on land, why should it matter where he lights after jumping or what particular direction he takes? He does remember a moving thing providing it stays within his field of vision and he is not distracted."
I couldn’t have described my teen years better. But seriously, animal research does throw light on the oddest things. Fish, for instance.
Apparently, fish can figure out that if fish A can outfight fish B, and fish B can outfight fish C, then very likely, A will be able to outfight C. This kind of reasoning is called transitive inference. It works for some relationships ("taller than", "older than", "darker than", etc.) and doesn’t work for others ("married to", "son of", "is a friend of," "loves," etc.).
Piaget had studied transitive inference in children and found that age 7 marked a turning point; kids under 7 could not, in general, figure out that if stick A was longer than stick B was longer than stick C, then stick A was longer than stick C. There were two immediate criticisms of Piaget’s work. The first was that if he’d used pizza slices instead of sticks, the results would’ve been very different. The second, more valid complaint, was that his sample was flawed. He’d used humans, and every self-respecting Skinnerian knew that one didn’t learn about humans from experiments on humans. Especially, the French variety! What was Piaget trying to do? Put the rats and pigeons out of business?
So the other species were signed up, per usual, to study the problem for us. And over the decades, just as the Skinnerians had foreseen, primates, rats and birds all showed they too could get transitive inference. Of course, the problem had to be phrased right, that is, it had to be relevant to the lives of the species involved. Given this, it could be shown that the ability to do transitive inference wasn’t unique to humans. But what about fish? Were they "in da club," as 50 Cents phrased it?
Yes, says Logan Grosenick, in a recent Nature paper. He and his colleagues, Tricia Clement and Russell Fernald, set up an elegant experiment in which they showed Astatotilapia burtoni fish acting as if they’d made a transitive inference. D. Balasubramanian has a great article in the Hindu on this experiment, and so I’ll skip the details. But briefly, the idea is this. Normally, dominance hierarchies in the highly territorial A. burtoni are determined by who wins the fights. Grosenick and his team set up a series of staged fights between A. burtoni fish. These fights were witnessed by "bystander fish," also from the same species. The outcomes of the fights were known to the researchers, but not to the bystander fish. Suppose a bystander fish watched fish A beat fish B, which in turn beat fish C. Then the researchers found that the bystander fish would treat fish A as dominant over C even though it had never witnessed an actual fight between A and C. In other words, as Grosenick explains:
"We were able to create an artificial dominance hierarchy for the bystander fish."
It’s a clever experiment, and it took a lot of work. It’s good, solid research. I have my doubts about their conclusions though. I think the experiment demonstrates an "as if" ability, not the ability itself. These fish act as if they do transitive inference, but that doesn’t mean they do it. It’s an important difference.
For example, every time we cross a street, we act as if we’re solving complex dynamical problems. In actual fact, we do nothing of the kind. We use thumb rules, quick non-quantitative reasoning, and do clever little things like ignoring information that doesn’t have to do with crossing streets. We don’t know the details yet, but I’d bet it’s not an exercise in non-holonomic control systems. Similarly, I don’t think transitive inference is needed for the bystander fish to figure out that it’s best to stay away from the dominant fish A. If the fish are not using transitive inference, then what are they using?
February 11, 2007
iPod. iPhone. iYawn. It’s embarrassing. Have we lost track of the future to such an extent that a bloody phone is enough to get us running in excited circles? Is this what the future has boiled down to? A few pathetic comm devices? Cars that continue to look like sports shoes? Makeup that’s monsoon resistant? Travel tech in which waiting to go somewhere takes longer than actually getting there? Is this the bloody future that we stayed awake for? Where do we go for a refund?
Clearly, it’s time we got back to inventing the future. Once, the Americans could be trusted to pump out the future that lies under our collective feet. But after watching Jobs and Gates and Bush do their annual Turkey dance, I think it’s time we outsourced the drilling. So here’s a list of my requirements to the Nnamdi’s, Wei Lei’s, Renato’s, Laxmi’s and Ibrahims of the world. No need to gift-wrap, but I’ll need a quote on the shipping please.
Keep in mind I’ve left out most of the really practical stuff like being able to live in geometries of my choosing (Kobayashi-Kresling, of course; then I could unfold like a flower), or to write software the way we write plays (suck on that, Gates) or eliminating aspects of quantum mechanics (way too many Bosons) or on-demand corporeality (it’s such a drag being meat all the time). I’ve even given up on flying cars and food pills and paper underwear. No, this list is mostly Popular-Mechanics stuff, only more ambitious. It’s just a few dot-crashes away.
- An exoskeleton. Walking is too slow, and a car is too fast. A bike is too much hard work. Basically, an exoskeleton would be like a moon suit for Earth, only sexier and easier to take off when you meet the right person.
- Electronic paper that’s often mistaken for ordinary paper. ’nuff said.
- Topological tech. Take a coin. Gesture. Voila. It’s a cylinder. Click. Now it unrolls into a papyrus sheet. Tap. It’s a rigid surface. So on and so forth. I’m reasonable. I’m not asking for a complete implementation of point-set topology. I just want materials that aren’t too committed to a fixed geometry. Down with Platonic solids and their originator.
- Artificial islands. I know there are already a few. But I want hundreds, thousands of them. I want enough to make a genuine market in places possible; a market in futures, so to speak. Let places bid for talent, rather than the other way around. This means of course we’ve to invent a lot more people, since people make places.
- About 50 more years added to the human lifespan. Actually, I want a few thousand. But immortality is secured one second at a time.
- Devices that are clever, not smart. Science is not about generating facts or theories. Science is a technique to generate new techniques. Science is about being able to do more and more. Not doing it per se, mind you, but having the choice to do it. In other words, science is about making us cleverer, not smarter. I want devices that are able to do science.
- A clear understanding of how the brain works. This is a theory request. It’s embarrassing we don’t have a better explanation than "and then it multiplies by zero"! How can stuff that’s mostly liquid think? That’s what I want to know.
- Everything that’s ever been printed made online. And free.
- Sensoriums. See, I like to wear my Internet. But at the moment, it’s basically a pair of goggles. The eye-net, as it should be called (because you’re pretty much toast if you can’t see) should become the ear-net, nose-net, tongue-net and touch-net. Now throw in some AI and add cinnamon to taste. Voila. A sensorium. Did you get my licks on the topic? Here, sniff this.
- A laptop that’s not also a male contraceptive. Seriously, Nnamdi/Wei Lei/Renato/Laxmi/Ibrahim, I know Convergence’s the future and all, but do you think it’s possible to keep the gonads cool en route? The Germans have a word, Mösenstövchen, which refers to the effect of a heated car-seat on a woman’s, um, nether regions. Don’t force them to invent a word for the effect of laptops.
Life begins with a gleam in the eye, mood music, and moisture in all the right places. So do futures. Marvin Gaye’s done his job. Let’s get liquid, people.
February 4, 2007
Just finished watching the debate between Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Reza Aslan (No God But God) on C-SPAN. The topic:
"Does the Bible provide timeless prescriptions for our daily lives? Or does its inclusion of practices such as slavery preclude its ability to act as such a guide? Are Osama bin Laden’s grievances with the United States purely theological, or also social and political? Reza Aslan, author of "No god but God," and Sam Harris, author of "Letter to a Christian Nation," take up these questions in this debate at the Los Angeles Public Library. The event also includes discussion on contemporary trends in Islam– including whether or not Muslims are unique in their religious fervor– and debate over the concept of the Koran as a perfect and immutable document."
Does that sound like a perfect evening or what! Jonathan Kirsch, a bearded, soft-spoken, bear-like dude with a no-nonsense legal letter-pad, kept the men from making any sudden Tysonesque moves. Kirsch’s the author of A History Of The End Of The World. After a book like that, I guess he can handle anything.
The score? Well, Harris won. Reza circled round and round a profoundly oft-misunderstood point about profound transcendent experiences that had profoundly to do with context and interpretation sensitive to people’s transcendent experiences that profoundly need no validation external to the fact of it being a profound transcendent experience.
Okay. That’s unfair. Reza’s a smart guy. He’s articulate to a fault. He was at his best when he dealt in facts. When Harris claimed that the Israel-Palestine conflict was a religious one, it didn’t take Reza long to demonstrate Harris didn’t know what he was talking about. But for the most part, Reza tried to explain away the irrationality of religion via rational arguments. It’s the kind of contortion that’d get even B. K. S. Iyengar’s knickers in a twist.
As I see it, Reza’s main argument was that most rational questions about religion were misconstrued. He claimed that Religion wasn’t about facts, the domain of science, but about "a sacred history." "Sacred history" is a lot like ordinary history except that true/false is replaced with significance/non-significance. For example, to ask whether Moses really parted the Red Sea or whether the god Ganpati really has an elephant’s head is to miss the point. The correct question was to ask what these stories mean for their believers, why they matter. To keep harping on truth, evidence and logic was to be unsophisticated. Profoundly unsophisticated.
I was reminded of a joke in The Recruit. Al Pacino’s explaining– hoarse voice, bloodhound visage and all– to his C.I.A. protege why he decided to betray another three letter agency, namely, the U.S.A:
"There’s this parish priest, goes up to the pope, drops down on his knees, starts weeping, asking forgiveness. ‘Holy Father, Holy Father, what am I to do? What am I to do? I do not believe in God anymore. What am I to do?’ You know what the pope said? ‘Fake it.’ "
Perhaps Reza is in the position of that pope, asking the padre to defend something not because it was true but because it was important.