Sunday, September 20, 2009

Grocery Paradoxes

The other day I was in a local Asian market here in Lafayette, and I came across this jar of seeds:

Are they really pumpkin seeds, and the picture is wrong? Or are they watermelon seeds, and the text is wrong? Or do they come from a strange land where watermelons are called "pumpkins"?

Dunno. I would have had to buy them to find out. They were copiously coated with some kind of red gunk. No thanks.

And then I noticed this in my local Albertson's:

The label for the aisle is "catsup":

But you know how many of the actual bottles of the stuff were named "catsup"? Absolutely zero.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Literature as a Source of Knowledge

Jason Rosenhouse has an interesting post about whether or not fiction is a valid way of knowing something about the world.

Ultimately I agree with him (except for his ranking of Star Trek captains). Yes, literature contains truths about the human condition and about the world in general. Otherwise it would have a lot less value. But it also often contains falsehoods, or overgeneralizations.

Literature (and narrative media in general) can be extremely useful to help elucidate, proselytize, or reinforce existing beliefs. But I don't think it functions as a primary source of knowledge. A metaphor can help reinforce some aspects of how the world works. For example, one could tell a story about how white blood cells are the knights of the realm, ever vigilant in capturing and slaying unwanted intruders. Many things about the metaphor may ring true, and align well with the actual state of affairs. But we can't know how the immune system works from such stories. That takes painstaking investigation of the phenomenon itself.

Something in a work of fiction might "ring true", but there's no way to validate it within the framework of the story itself. You'd be surprised how many people overseas think that every American owns a gun from watching our movies. If I gleaned universal truths from Judd Apatow films, I'd live in a world where fat, unemployed stoner shlubs hooked up with super-hot TV personalities and lived happily ever after. How do I know the world does not work this way? By comparing the vision of the story with the actual state of affairs.

So I think it makes the most sense to view literature, and really all art, as a way of reframing truths to make them more interesting, accessible, etc., but ultimately not as a source of truth.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Noel Sharkey on AI

I just came across this interview with Noel Sharkey (who I'd never heard of before I just came across this interview). Some of it is valid, but he says some pretty silly things.

Case in point, I thought this particular answer was the silliest:

Are we close to building a machine that can meaningfully be described as sentient?

I'm an empirical kind of guy, and there is just no evidence of an artificial toehold in sentience. It is often forgotten that the idea of mind or brain as computational is merely an assumption, not a truth. When I point this out to "believers" in the computational theory of mind, some of their arguments are almost religious. They say, "What else could there be? Do you think mind is supernatural?" But accepting mind as a physical entity does not tell us what kind of physical entity it is. It could be a physical system that cannot be recreated by a computer.

Okay, the computational theory of mind is not "merely an assumption". It is built on evidence, like any good theory. And it's not "religious" to ask for an alternative theory if someone says a particular theory is crap. If this guy doesn't think that the brain receives input from the environment and performs information processing on that input, then what is his alternative hypothesis?

And I'm not sure what he's talking about in that last sentence, either. Any physical system can be simulated computationally. The fidelity of the simulation is limited by the complexity of the model system and the computational resources available. If what we're interested in is the algorithm executed by the simulated hardware, we should be able to recreate the algorithms processed by the brain. In other words, no, a simulated rainstorm can't make you wet, but a simulated abacus can perform calculations just like a physical one, and a simulated chess player can kick your ass at chess. I don't know of a reasonable theoretical argument for why the function of the brain can't be emulated with a computer.

A reasonable answer to the question would have been: "Probably not, although there are no theoretical roadblocks to prevent it as an eventuality."