Thursday, July 30, 2009

A view of human communication

Through time, humans have developed a good variety of ways with which to communicate. A common thought I hear expressed is that the development of the Gutenberg movable type printing press was the innovation that gave rise to the explosion of intelligence leading to the industrial revolution and so on. While this position is dubious, what cannot be denied is that communication is critical to any functioning society - it would be very difficult to convince ones contemporaries of the viability of a shared work system were one unable to do more than point and grunt. What we can see from this is that within every system of communication there are a number of channels on which we express; were the grunts all too similar and hands dexterous only to the extent that would allow semi-random pointing, there's little hope of meaningful communication. Just the same, were a creature fully capable to communicate yet separated in all manners from any kin, no communication could take place.

Not too long ago the idea of being thousands of miles away from another person yet able to communicate across that distance was inconceivable; clearly even the loudest shout wouldn't come close. Perhaps it was and remains from lingering awe that we have failed to recognize the layers involved in communication. In this modern age, we have the following commonly used means of communication:

SMS text messaging
voip videophone
printed language (books, periodicals, etc.)

The one of particular interest is SMS messaging, the text messages received on cell phones. SMS is interesting because it has so few channels of communication that the resulting communication can only be described as clumsy. What characterizes SMS? SMS consists of very short strings of letters that rarely even qualify as sentences. Words are shortened, abbreviated, and generally butchered as a result of the inefficiency of input. Continuing, SMS lacks any characteristic lettering, that is, every letter is the same no matter who it comes from. Though we might be able to tell an individual by syntactical arrangement and the like, we are otherwise robbed of a significant contributing channel of communication. SMS is essentially so barren that anything as complex as emotion most often fails to be communicated accurately, with a sad and frustrating result of being all too occasionally completely misinterpreted. This is an important thing to note! The simple misinterpretation of an otherwise well-intentioned message can really ruin ones night, if not more. From this we can see that twitter too must be awful, even worse than SMS, simply because there is a limit imposed on the length of any attempt at communication (where with SMS any person with the constitution can write messages of unlimited length). This is a good reason not to use twitter to try to convey complicated information.

Moving on, we can jump right to handwritten messages. As eluded to, handwritten messages contain more information from the start with the characteristics of individualized writing, which may also change over time and mood. With these messages there is a new and interesting condition which is of questionable impact, that is the time in which you must wait to send and receive correspondance. It is logical that the content of a message will change if one knows any correspondance will take months to be received and responded to, as opposed to minutes.

With telephone conversations we have the benefit of a flood of information: pitch, emphasis, rate, external sounds, and so forth. Yet the telephone can be viewed as a special degenerate case of the communication afforded by voip, itself degenerate from face to face real and direct contact. In person you get whole body movement, perfect resolution (eyesight dependent of course), scent, and other sensational (that is, of the senses) experience otherwise currently impossible via digital transmission.

Can communication go beyond face to face?

What an intriguing question, I'm happy to say yes! And with some confidence to boot. Headed to market right now is a device called the epoc, from a company called Emotive. The epoc is a consumer electroencephalograph (more commonly referred to as EEG, but would you believe me if I said I spelled it right the first time?) with a computer interface. Given the high number of electrodes on the device, it is capable of doing a number of astounding things, including gauging a person's general emotional state as interpreted by discrete recognizable brain waves associated with mood, as has been explored and established over the decades since EEG measurement was first discovered. Don't get distracted yet, the important point is this: two people wearing epocs and engaged in conversation will have the ability to watch the general emotional impact of their words on the other person in real time. Imagine being able to ascertain that what you are saying is upsetting your partner (despite them verbally assuring the opposite, as does happen). With this device the degree of easily understandable communication extends beyond that which would be the capability of normal people in face to face contact. This is not to say of course that there are some number of people who are simply adept at reading emotions from body language, but I hardly think that this could be any recognizably large minority of people.

What I like to imagine is a program that allows a person to control the number and level of communication channels, because as it is we are forced to use the channels as they are given to us on a per program/call/meeting basis. I imagine too that there are some combinations of communicative channels that extend themselves to particular degrees of communication - for instance semi-anonymous Internet messaging has the peculiar affect of diminishing social inhibitions. Some other combination may make everything said get interpreted as very kind, wise, or otherwise acceptable, which would be a fantastic installation for every political organization known. Of course the choice is critical, it doesn't seem ideal to have maximal communication, at least on a personal privacy level: indeed, the majority of people would rather not communicate their nude image to whichever stranger encountered throughout the day, thus the silly garments (and deodorant, makeup, etc.) we use to close channels of communication (but probably also to hide our shame of being animals). Just the same, it would be rather unpleasing and unaligned with our social conventions were any person able to know the full content of any other mind with abandon. The thought, however, of a world without secrets is a fascinating one.

Anyway, there you have it. Consider carefully the medium of communication you choose for any important information transmission (in other words, stop text messaging, it's most likely doing more harm than good).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

On On Intelligence

I recently finished Jeff Hawkins' (creator of the PalmPilot) book On Intelligence. The book is intended to expose the mechanism of intelligence through the wise and oft ignored neurophysiology of the neocortex. Most intelligence research has ignored the structure of the cortex, an odd move considering our perception of such as the seat of the remarkable intelligent behavior in humans. Similarly unsatisfactory, the majority of neurophysiology (the study of the cellular structure of the neural system) has ignored intelligence, focusing mostly on mapping connections and occasionally trying to describe the mechanism for reflex and instinctual behavior.

I myself had intended to research the anatomy of the brain in hopes to gain some insight to the workings of intelligence. It is a great fortune, having eschewed neuroscience in favor of the advanced mathematics of machine learning, to be the beneficiary of Hawkings' 25 years of neurophysiological study. In the book he outlines, to some but not all detail, the so called Memory-Prediction Framework. The quick essential components are two:

1st, the structure of information in our world is hierarchical by nature, in a way that can be represented as a tree data structure. For instance, if we were to talk about music, we could talk about many components that make up music. At the bottom of the hierarchy we have tones that represent notes, which is the precise thing that enters our ears. As we move up the chain, we get chords, phrases, songs, albums and so forth. Every other sense can be described in the same way -- at the bottom you have raw data, and as the data moves up the chain it becomes more and more abstract. Hawkins posits that the structure of the brain mirrors this hierarchy, an argument he makes based on the structure of the brain itself.

2nd, the brain operates in all areas with a single common algorithm. An algorithm is like a list of instructions required to complete a task. This is an interesting and immediately reasonable position. The brain is composed of somewhere between 100-200 billion specialized brain cells (neurons), each with around 1000 points of connection. This gives about 50 trillion connections, an astronomical number. But that is nothing compared to the number of possible ways to connect those, which is (((1*10^14)-1)! / ((5*10^13)!*((5*10^13)-1)!). If you don't know your combinatorics, that number is insanely large, so large that calculating it would require a lot of very special computer code. The estimated number of atoms in the universe is around 1*10^83, 1 with 83 zeroes. 150! is about 5.7*10^262. In order to make this calculation we'd need to take (1*10^14)!. It's unfathomable, trust me. The point is, there is no possible way that DNA can contain information for specific connections. The result of that is that yes, the brain must have a common algorithm, one that works the same no matter how the connections come in or from where. It is certainly possible that some connections are made in different ways than others through the use of different signalling chemicals, but the number of different ways is limited and even still a connection might come from this neuron or that, there is no way to specify otherwise.

The result of these foundational aspects is a neural network, which have been around for a long time. Ironic, as Hawkins' doesn't have much good to say for neural networks in the start of the book. This might be for a lack of study in the field, as he mentions (paraphrasing) "No one really knows why neural networks became popular again in the 90's" which isn't true. I don't know an awful lot about neural networks, but I know that there is a consensus that they became popular again because a way to handle XOR was introduced by one of the authors of the paper years prior that showed they couldn't handle XOR (either Minsky or Pappert, I can't remember which). Though it is a neural network, it's a very special kind of neural network.

All told, I suggest anyone interested in intelligence as a mechanism read this book. The ideas might turn out to be wrong, but in the mean time they are interesting and apparently apt; there have been many times since finishing that I have seen in people behaviors that fit cleanly into the model.

There is always so much to be said, never enough time with which to say. So until time comes to afford saying again...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction

Imagine there existed a very special and undeniably fantastic machine, one that could possibly solve all of our environmental issues. A hundred to a handful, these miraculous machines could be transported by the thousands to any location with virtually no energy cost. Once prepared (and the preparation is nothing, even unknowingly dropping one may sufficeth), the cogs of the machine would set themselves into motion, unfolding from its capsule, expanding to the exact specifications allowed implicitly surroundings, fueled by the very greenhouse gases which so worry us presently.

The machine would require zero maintenance, it would be able to repair itself. Since it pulls energy from its surroundings, no lines would need to be run, no fleet of technicians would be required to assure continuing functionality.

I hope I'm not getting too far out there, but imagine also that these machines could pull from the air (thus purifying it) our modern environmental ills and transform them into edible, indeed highly nutritional bits of sustenance. So deep in fantasy we are, we may as well engineer these machines to also produce more, better machines. The machines could be so efficient that their newly produced versions needn't be transported by humans at all, but by animals (who happily reside within and are sustained by the machines) tricked into carrying them to new suitable areas. Were the machine population to explode, the results would only be clean air and plentiful food.

The successful creation of such a machine would unquestionably be the greatest feat of mankind thus far and would probably remain such for a long time. Unfortunately we will never be able to take that claim, not for lack of possibility but because it has already been done by the invisible force that also happened to make us--nature. You've probably already guessed that these miraculous machines are called Trees (and more generally plants), but please don't let your self-satisfaction for discovering that which I obfuscated override the content of my facade. Trees may not be able to solve All of our problems (using their wood as a fuel source releases all the CO2 they capture over their lifetime, which is rather counterproductive), but they could solve a Lot of our problems. The campaign to stop deforestation and recognize the truly miraculous essence of trees is an old and sadly frail one, something I hope changes soon and fast. Hopefully with this new perspective I have attempted to offer you you can see why existing trees must be protected and new trees must be planted (lots and lots of them)--that we lack the technical competence to create such a powerful and profound green-machine, and that we are beyond fortunate to have been given so many. That we might cut them down so that millions of items of junk mail (and memos, fliers, etc.) can be sent directly to the junkyard is a Tragedy. Before the saw was conceived, moving a large tree was equivalent to moving a mountain... now we have the technology to move real mountains yet we still cut down trees. Can't we at least move them before we consider cutting them down? Perhaps we need to start hanging signs on every tree that says

This tree is working hard to ensure that Earth will remain habitable for mankind (yes, that means you and your children) and all life (yes, there are other living things about, and they would rather like to stick around too). Please do not disturb unless massive extinction is desired.

PS - money is not an acceptable motive for disruption of future Earth habitability.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Story

This is an updated version of a certain special short story I wrote 6/27/2005.

Every so often, a car passes, the headlights prominent. It's five in the morning, the air is saturated with darkness, the deep menacing kind that seems to be Earth's way of letting us know she can get angry too. The tires of the truck make haste through newly formed pools of rain, all blending into a mirrored black fluid metal mass, sending a volley onto the sidewalk, making it even to the window from which I am so intently staring through. I know it's them, beyond any reasonable doubt. I would know it even if I was staring into my steaming cup of coffee--the hate and fear could be heard screaming in the splash against the windowpane, transmitted all the way from those heated leather seats.