Sep 18 2008

Moving Things With my Mind

I used to think I could move things with my mind. I could postulate parking spots into existence. I walked beneath streetlights and they would suddenly go out, victims of my weird and powerful energy. I was taught to believe this. I was taught that I could anything, and I excelled in everything I tried. The world is a wondrous place when nothing is impossible.

Then there was a moment, or perhaps a period of my life, when I lost this. I shed the mysticism I had been raised in; I raged at its flaws and threw it out entirely. It bound me too much and I had to get rid of it. I no longer believed that I could will the world into existence. I realized that I had no idea how often streetlights mysteriously went out when I was not standing under them.

I remember a night shivering in my apartment like the newly sober.
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Aug 10 2008

Weak AI Will Win

Depending on who you ask, machines taking over the world is either a good thing for humanity or a bad thing. The traditional SciFi script has advanced intelligences replicating through all the networks of the galaxy and having high-bandwidth intellectual conversations about things like the fundamental nature of physics and whether biological life deserves to continue to exist, since it’s such an out-dated evolutionary stage and all. But in his new novel Daemon, and in his talk last night at the Long Now Foundation‘s lecture series, Daniel Suarez argues that it’s not hyper-intelligence at all that we need to be wary of: humanity can lose control of the situation well before the appearance of consciousness on the internet. We’re already delegating our decision making to the machines, specifically the lowly “bots” we use now for a variety of practical online tasks.

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Aug 06 2008

The Singularity is Not Near

Blah blah blah singularity blah blah machine AI blah blah the world will undergo a paradigm shift, it’s coming, all bow down before the mighty new technologies that will change humanity forever. The problem I have with talk of the technological singularity is not that it doesn’t make sense, and not that I don’t believe that technological advancement is indeed rapid, accelerating, and world-changing, but that we have somehow invented a symbol of vast but actually rather vague significance. I don’t think the “singularity” is a useful idea. I think it’s a buzzword to some, and a religion to others.

For what makes Futurology (capitalization mine) really, actually different than a belief that something momentous will happen in 2012, when the Mayan calendar wraps around? Not a lot, as far as I can tell. And now it turns out that two religious scholars have concluded exactly the same thing, in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Contemporary Religion:

Futurology-as-religion has charismatic leaders, authoritative texts, mystique, and a fairly complete vision of salvation. Futurology is, in effect, a new religious movement (NRM).

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Aug 02 2008

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part III

Everybody thinks they know how their mind works, but they don’t. You can ask someone why they like their boyfriend, or why they chose a job, or whether a book changed their opinion of global warming, and they’ll think about it for a moment and happily give you an answer. But they’re making it up.

The experiments were done ages ago, and the research is still going, continuing to tease apart actual cause and psychological effect. We know now that what people tell us about their own mental processes is quite thoroughly inaccurate. We all believe that we have this magic thing called “introspection” that lets us see what is going on in our own minds, but in reality we don’t. It’s a fictional superpower.

The research on this point is really quite good. It’s not even a new finding, having been understood for at least the last fifty years. And yet this simple but important fact has never quite managed to make it into popular culture.

Perhaps no one wants to believe it.

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Jul 24 2008

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part II

In a fit of recursion, I am going to begin my discussion of the scientific understanding of the mind by bringing up a piece of psychology research into how people perceive neuro-imaging. This not only gives a taste of what different types of research can be like, but reveals something rather disturbing: merely adding a brain scan image or two makes people more likely to rate an article as scientifically sound. This gets us into questions of what is and isn’t a good reason to believe any particular research conclusion, which is ultimately what I want to talk about in this series of articles.

At the present time there are basically two technologies that can give us some idea of the activity of a working brain: positron-emission topography (PET) and functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). They both have important limitations in terms of resolution, what they actually measure, and many other things besides, but they’re also pretty amazing technologies. They produce detailed 3D maps of the “activity” of a whole brain, which are often represented like this:

A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) image

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Jul 22 2008

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part I

I’ve been reading the literature on neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, psychology and such for a long time now, and the temptation to write about what’s new is overwhelming. There are so many exciting things being learned, and equally there are so many subtle problems of how we can know anything at all about the subjective world. But before I can bombard you with chewy words like “affect” and “epistemology,” I need to explain why any of this matters. It matters because people matter.

It is a difficult and ancient fact that we as conscious beings don’t live in the real world. There are boundaries to what we know and what we can know. I am right now sitting on a couch in my house in Oakland, California. Across the ocean, there is a woman sitting on the floor of her Tokyo apartment. I have never met her, but she is just as much a part of the world as I am. Not my world though. There seem to be boundaries to the things I perceive. Figuring out those boundaries and how things get into and out of them is the process of figuring out me, and everyone else too.

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