Archive for July, 2016

artistIs computer art the same as human art? This piece argues that there is no real distinction; I don’t agree about that, but I sort of agree that in some respects the difference may not matter as much as it seems to. Oliver Roeder seems to end up by arguing that since humans write the programs, all computer art is ultimately human art too. Surely that isn’t quite right; you wouldn’t credit a team that wrote architectural design software with authorship of all the buildings it was used to create.

It is clearly true that we can design software tools that artists may use for their own creative purposes – who now, after all, creates graphic work with an airbrush? It’s also true that a lot of supposedly creative software is actually rather limited; it really only distorts or reshuffles standard elements or patterns within very limited parameters. I had to smile when I found that Roeder’s first example was a programme generating jazz improvisation; surely the most forgiving musical genre, or as someone ruder once put it, the form of music from which even the concept of a wrong note has been eliminated. But let’s not be nasty to jazz; there have also been successful programs that generated melodies like early Mozart by recombining typically Mozartian motifs; they worked quite well but at best they inevitably resembled the composer on a really bad day when he was ten years old.

Surely though, there are (or if not there soon will be, what with all the exciting progress we’re seeing) programs which do a much more sophisticated job of imitating human creativity, ones that generate from scratch genuinely interesting new forms in whatever medium they are designed for? What about those – are their products to be regarded as art? Myself I think not, for two reasons. First, art requires intentionality and computers don’t do intentionality. Art is essentially tied up with meanings and intentions, or with being about something. I should make it clear that I don’t by any means have in mind the naive idea that all art must have a meaning, in the sense of having some moral or message; but in a much looser sense art conveys, evokes or yes, represents. Even the most abstract forms of visual art or music flow from willed and significant acts by their creator.

Second, there is a creator; art is generated by a person. A person, as I’ve argued before, is a one-off real physical phenomenon in the world; a computer program, by contrast, is a sort of Platonic abstraction like a piece of maths; exactly specified and in some sense eternal. This phenomenon of particularity is reflected in the individual status of works of art, sometimes puzzling to rational folk; a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa is not valued as highly as La Gioconda herself, even though it provides exactly the same visual experience (actually a better one in the case of the copy, since you don’t have to fight the herds of tourists in the Louvre and peer through bullet-proof glass). You might argue that a work of computer art might be the product, not of a program in the abstract, but of a particular run of that program on a particular computer (itself necessarily only approximating the ideal of a Turing machine), and so the analogy with human creators can be preserved; but in my view simply being an instance of a program is not enough; the operation of the human brain is bound up in its detailed particularity in a way a program can never be.

Now those considerations, if you accept them, might make you question my initial optimism; perhaps these two objections mean that computers will never in fact produce anything better than shallow, sterile permutations? I don’t think that’s true. I draw an analogy here with Nature. The natural world produces a torrent of forms that are artistically interesting or inspiring, and it does so without needing intentionality or a creator (theists, my apologies, but work with me if you can). I don’t see why a computer program couldn’t generate products that were similarly worthy of our attention. They wouldn’t be art, but in a sense it doesn’t matter: we don’t despise a sunset because nobody made it, and we need not undervalue computer “art” either. (Interesting to reflect in passing that nature often seems to use the same kind of repetition we see in computer-generated fractal art to produce elegant complexity from essentially simple procedures.)

The relationship between art and nature is of course a long one. Artists have often borrowed natural forms, and different ages have seen whatever most suited their temperament in the natural world, whether a harmonious mathematical regularity or the tortured spirituality of the sublime and the terrible. I think it is quite conceivable that computer “art” (we need a new word – what about “creanda”?) might eventually come to play a similar role. Perhaps people will go out of their way to witness remarkable creanda in much the way they visit the Grand Canyon, and perhaps those inspiring and evocative items will play an inspiring and fertilising role for human creativity, without anyone ever mistaking the creanda for art.

upload angelA digital afterlife is likely to be available one day, according to Michael Graziano, albeit not for some time; his piece re-examines the possibility of uploading consciousness, and your own personality, into a computer. I think he does a good job of briefly sketching the formidable difficulties involved in scanning your brain, and scanning so precisely that your individual selfhood could be captured. In fact, he does it so well that I don’t really understand where his ultimate optimism comes from.

To my way of thinking, ‘scan and build’ isn’t even the most promising way of duplicating your brain. One more plausible way would be some kind of future bio-engineering where your brain just grows and divides, rather in the way that single cells do. A neater way would be some sort of hyper-path through space that split you along the fourth spatial dimension and returned both slices to our normal plane. Neither of these options is exactly a feasible working project, but to me they seem closer to being practical than a total scan. Of course neither of them offers the prospect of an afterlife the way scanning does, so they’re not really relevant for Graziano here. He seems to think we don’t need to go down to an atom by atom scan, but I’m not sure why not. Granted, the loss of one atom in the middle of my brain would not destroy my identity, but not scanning to an atomic level generally seems a scarily approximate and slapdash approach to me given the relevance of certain key molecules in the neural process –  something Graziano fully recognises.

If we’re talking about actual personal identity I don’t think it really matters though, because the objection I consider strongest applies even to perfect copies. In thought experiments we can do anything, so let’s just specify that by pure chance there’s another brain nearby that is in every minute detail the same as mine. It still isn’t me, for the banal commonsensical reason that copies are not the original. Leibniz’s Law tells us that if B has exactly the same properties as A, then it is A: but among the properties of a brain are its physical location, so a brain over there is not the same as one in my skull (so in fact I cheated by saying the second brain was the same in every detail but nevertheless ‘nearby’).

Now most philosophers would say that Leibniz is far too strong a criterion of identity when it comes to persons. There have been hundreds of years of discussion of personal identity, and people generally espouse much looser criteria for a person than they would for a stone – from identity of memories to various kinds of physical, functional, or psychological continuity. After all, people are constantly changing: I am not perfectly identical in physical terms to the person who was sitting here an hour ago, but I am still that person. Graziano evidently holds that personal identity must reside in functional or informational qualities of the kind that could well be transferred into a digital form, and he speaks disparagingly of ‘mystical’ theories that see problems with the transfer of consciousness. I don’t know about that; if anyone is hanging on to residual spiritual thinking, isn’t it the people who think we can be ‘taken out of’ our bodies and live forever? The least mystical stance is surely the one that says I am a physical object, and with some allowance for change and my complex properties, my identity works the same as that of any other physical object. I’m a one-off, particular thing and copies would just be copies.

What if we only want a twin, or a conscious being somewhat like me? That might still be an attractive option after all. OK, it’s not immortality but I think without being rampant egotists most of us probably feel the world could stand a few more people like ourselves around, and we might like to have a twin continuing our good work once we’re gone.

That less demanding goal changes things. If that’s all we’re going for, then yes, we don’t need to reproduce a real brain with atomic fidelity. We’re talking about a digital simulation, and as we know, simulations do not reproduce all the features of the thing being simulated – only those that are relevant for the current purpose. There is obviously some problem about saying what the relevant properties are when it comes to consciousness; but if passing the Turing Test is any kind of standard then delivering good outputs for conversational inputs is a fair guide and that looks like the kind of thing where informational and functional properties are very much to the fore.

The problem, I think, is again with particularity. Conscious experience is a one-off thing while data structures are abstract and generic. If I have a particular experience of a beautiful sunset, and then (thought experiments again) I have an entirely identical one a year later, they are not the same experience, even though the content is exactly the same. Data about a sunset, on the other hand, is the same data whenever I read or display it.

We said that a simulation needs to reproduce the relevant aspects of the the thing simulated; but in a brain simulation the processes are only represented symbolically, while one of the crucial aspects we need for real experience is particular reality.

Maybe though, we go one level further; instead of simulating the firing of neurons and the functional operation of the brain, we actually extract the program being run by those neurons and then transfer that. Here there are new difficulties; scanning the physical structure of the brain is one thing; working out its function and content is another thing altogether; we must not confuse information about the brain with the information in the brain. Also, of course, extracting the program assumes that the brain is running a program in the first place and not doing something altogether less scrutable and explicit.

Interestingly, Graziano goes on to touch on some practical issues; in particular he wonders how the resources to maintain all the servers are going to be found when we’re all living in computers. He suspects that as always, the rich might end up privileged.

This seems a strange failure of his technical optimism. Aren’t computers going to go on getting more powerful, and cheaper? Surely the machines of the twenty-second century will laugh at this kind of challenge (perhaps literally). If there is a capacity problem, moreover, we can all be made intermittent; if I get stopped for a thousand years and then resume, I won’t even notice. Chances are that my simulation will be able to run at blistering speed, far faster than real time, so I can probably experience a thousand years of life in a few computed minutes. If we get quantum computers, all of us will be able to have indefinitely long lives with no trouble at all, even if our simulated lives include having digital children or generating millions of digital alternates of ourselves, thereby adding to the population. Graziano, optimism kicking back in, suggests that we can grow  in understanding and come to see our fleshly life as a mere larval stage before we enter on our true existence. Maybe, or perhaps we’ll find that human minds, after ten billion years (maybe less) exhaust their potential and ultimately settle into a final state; in which case we can just get the computers to calculate that and then we’ll all be finalised, like solved problems. Won’t that be great?

I think that speculations of this kind eventually expose the contrast between the abstraction of data and the reality of an actual life, and dramatise the fact, perhaps regrettable, perhaps not, that you can’t translate one into the other.


amoebaAre there units of thought? An interesting conversation here between Asifa Majid and Jon Sutton. There are a number of interesting points, but the one that I found most thought-provoking was the reference to searching for those tantalising units. I think I had been lazily assuming that any such search had been abandoned long ago – if not quite with the search for perpetual motion and the universal solvent, then at least a while back.

I may, though, have been mixing up two or more distinct ideas here. In looking for the units of thought we might be assuming that there is some ultimate set of simplest thought items, a kind of periodic table, with all thoughts necessarily built out of combinations of these elements. This sort of thinking has a bit of a history in connection with language. People (I think Leibniz was one) used to hope that if one took all the words in the dictionary and defined them in terms of other words, you would eventually get down to the basic set of ideas, the ‘primitives’ which were really fundamental. So you might start with library, define it as ‘book building’, define building as ‘enterable structure’, define structure as ‘thing made of parts’ and feel that maybe with ‘thing’, ‘made’, and ‘parts’ you were getting close to some primitives. You weren’t really, though. You could move on to define ‘made’ as ‘assembled or created’, ‘assembled’ as ‘brought or fixed together’… Sooner or later your definitions become circular and as you will have noticed, alternative meanings and distinctions keep slipping through the net of your definitions.

The idea was seductive, however; linked with the idea that there was a real ‘Adamitic’ language which truly captured the essence of things and of which all real languages were corruptions, generated at the fall of the Tower of Babel. It is still possible to argue that there must be some fundamental underpinning of this kind, some kind of breaking down to a set of common elements, or languages would not all be mutually translatable. Masjid gestures towards another idea of this kind in speaking of ‘mentalese’, the hypothetical language in which all our brains basically work, translating into real world languages for purposes of communication. Mentalese is a large and controversial subject which I can’t do justice to here; my own view is that the underpinnings of language, whether common or unique to each individual, are not likely to be another language.

Could there in fact be untranslatable languages? We’ve never found one; although capturing the nuances of another language is notoriously difficult, we’ve never come across a language that couldn’t be matched up with ‘good enough’ equivalents in English. Could it be that alien beings somewhere use a language that just carves the world up in ways that can’t be rendered across into normal Earth languages? I think not, but it’s not because there is any universal set of units of thought underneath all languages and all thoughts. Rather, it is first because all languages address the same reality, which guarantees a certain commonality, and second because language is infinitely flexible and extensible. If we encountered an entirely new phenomenon tomorrow, we should not have any real difficulty in describing it – or at least, it wouldn’t be the constraints of language that made things difficult. Equally we might have difficulty working out the unfamiliar concepts of an alien language, but surely we should be able to devise and borrow whatever words we needed (at this point I can feel Wittgenstein’s ghost breathing impatiently down my neck and insisting that we could not understand a lion, never mind an alien, but I’m going to ignore him for now).

So perhaps the search for the units of thought is not to be understood as a search for any kind of periodic table, but something much more flexible. Masjid refers to George Miller’s famous suggestion that short term memory can accommodate only seven items, plus or minus two depending on circumstances. This idea that there is a limit to how many items of a ‘one-dimensional’ set we can accommodate is appealingly tidy and intuitive, but it obviously works best with simple items; single tones or single digits. Even when we go so far as to make the numbers a little larger questions arise as to whether ‘102’ is one, two, or three items, and it only gets worse as we try to deal with complex entities. If one of the items in memory is ‘the first World War’ is it really one item which we can then decode into many or an inherently complex item?

So perhaps it’s more like asking how many arms an amoeba has. There is, in fact, no fixed set of arms, but for a given size of amoeba there may well be a limit on many pseudopodia it can extend at any one time. That feels more like it, though we should have to accept that the answer might be a bit vague; it’s not always clear whether a particular bit of amoeba counts as one, two, or no pseudopodia.

Or put it another way: how many images can a digital screen show? If we insist on a set of basic items we can break it down to pixel values; but the number of things whose picture can be displayed is large and amorphous. Perhaps it’s the same with the brain; we can analyse it down to the firing of neurons if we want, but the number of thoughts those neurons underpin is a much larger and woollier business (in spite of the awkward fact that the number of different images a digital screen can display is in fact finite – yet another thorny issue I’m going to glide past).

And surely the flexibility of an amoeba is going a bit too far, isn’t it? Masjid points out some evidence that our choice of thought items is not altogether unconstrained. Different languages have different numbers of colours, but there is a clear order of preference; if two languages have the same number of colour words, there’s an excellent chance that they will name more or less the same colours. Different languages address the human forelimb differently, some using words that include the hand while others insist that the two main halves are spoken of separately, never the arm as a whole. Yet no languages seem to define a body part composed of the thumb and first half of the forearm.

Clearly there are two things going on here; one is that our own sensory apparatus predisposes us to see things in certain ways – not insurmountable ones that would prevent us understanding aliens with different biases, but universal among humans. Second, and perhaps stranger, reality itself seems to have some inherent or salient forms that it is most convenient for us to recognise. Some of these look to be physical –  a forearm just makes more sense than a ‘thumb plus some arm’; others are mathematical or even logical. The hunt for items of thought loosely defined by our sensory or mental apparatus is an interesting and impeccably psychological one; the second kind of constraint looks to raise tough issues of philosophy. Either way I was quite wrong to have thought the hunt was over or abandoned.