Global Workspace theories have been popular ever since Bernard Baars put forward the idea back in the eighties; in ‘Applying global workspace theory to the frame problem’*, Murray Shanahan and Baars suggest that among its other virtues, the global workspace provides a convenient solution to that old bugbear, the frame problem.
What is the frame problem, anyway? Initially, it was a problem that arose when early AI programs were attempting simple tasks like moving blocks around. It became clear that when they moved a block, they not only had to update their database to correct the position of the block, they had to update every other piece of information to say it had not been changed. This led to unexpected demands on memory and processing. In the AI world, this problem never seemed too overwhelming, but philosophers got hold of it and gave it a new twist. Fodor, and in a memorable exposition, Dennett, suggested that there was a fundamental problem here. Humans had the ability to pick out what was relevant and ignore everything else, but there didn’t seem to be any way of giving computers the same capacity. Dennett’s version featured three robots: the first happily pulled a trolley out of a room to save it from a bomb, without noticing that the bomb was on the trolley, and came too; the second attempted to work out all the implications of pulling the trolley out of the room; but there were so many logical implications that it was stuck working through them when the bomb went off. The third was designed to ignore irrelevant implications, but it was still working on the task of identifying all the many irrelevant implications when again the bomb exploded.
Shanahan and Baars explain this background and rightly point out that the original frame problem arose in systems which used formal logic as their only means of drawing conclusions about things, no longer an approach that many people would expect to succeed. They don’t really believe that the case for the insolubility of the problem has been convincingly made. What exactly is the nature of the problem, they ask: is it combinatorial explosion? Or is it just that the number of propositions the AI has to sort through to find the relevant one is very large (and by the way, aren’t there better ways of finding it than searching every item in order?). Neither of those is really all that frightening; we have techniques to deal with them.
I think Shanahan and Baars, understandably enough, under-rate the task a bit here. The set of sentences we’re asking the AI to sort through is not just very large; it’s infinite. One of the absurd deductions Dennett assigns to his robots is that the number of revolutions the wheels of trolley will perform in being pulled out of the room is less than the number of walls in the room. This is clearly just one member of a set of valid deductions which goes on forever; the number of revolutions is also less than the number of walls plus one; it’s less than the number of walls plus two… It may be obvious that these deductions are uninteresting; but what is the algorithm that tells us so? More fundamentally, the superficial problems are proxies for a deeper concern; that the real world isn’t reducible to a set of propositions at all, that, as Borges put it
“it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what thing the universe is.”
There’s no encyclopaedia which can contain all possible facts about any situation. You may have good heuristics and terrific search algorithms, but when you’re up against an uncategorisable domain of infinite extent, you’re surely still going to have problems.
However, the solution proposed by Shanahan and Baars is interesting. Instead of the mind having to search through a large set of sentences, it has a global workspace where things are decided and a series of specialised modules which compete to feed in information (there’s an issue here about how radically different inputs from different modules manage to talk to each other: Shanahan and Baars mention a couple of options and then say rather loftily that the details don’t matter for their current purposes. It’s true that in context we don’t need to know exactly what the solution is – but we do need to be left believing that there is one).
Anyway, the idea is that while the global workspace is going about its business each module is looking out for just one thing. When eventually the bomb-is-coming-too module gets stimulated, it begins sending very vigorously and that information gets into the workspace. Instead of having to identify relevant developments, the workspace is automatically fed with them.
That looks good on the face of it; instead of spending time endlessly sorting through propositions, we’ll just be alerted when it’s necessary. Notice, however, that instead of requiring an indefinitely large amount of time, we now need an indefinitely large number of specialised modules. Moreover, if we really cover all the bases, many of those modules are going to be firing off all the time. So when the bomb-is-coming-too module begins to signal frantically, it will be competing with the number-of-rotations-is-less-than-the-number-of-walls module and all the others, and will be drowned out. If we only want to have relevant modules, or only listen to relevant signals, we’re back with the original problem of determining just what is relevant.
Still, let’s not dismiss the whole thing too glibly. It reminded me to some degree of Edelman’s analogy with the immune system, which in a way really does work like that. The immune system cannot know in advance what antibodies it will need to produce, so instead it produces lots of random variations; then when one gets triggered it is quickly reproduced in large numbers. Perhaps we can imagine that if the global workspace were served by modules which were not pre-defined, but arose randomly out of chance neural linkages, it might work something like that. However, the immune system has the advantage of knowing that it has to react against anything foreign, whereas we need relevant responses for relevant stimuli. I don’t think we have the answer yet.
*Thanks to Lloyd for the reference.