July 14, 2011

Group Size and Cognitive Limits

Humans are primates. Primates tend to live in complex, multi-tiered social systems in which different layers are functional responses to different environmental opportunities and problems. Chimpanzees, like humans, have a fission/fusion form of social system. The community is divided into a number of temporary foraging parties whose composition changes with changes in the environment. A larger group may divide into smaller foraging groups when food is scarce. Smaller groups may fuse when food is abundant or when an external threat makes alliances more attractive.

Dunbar and others established an important relationship between intelligence and cohesive group size. The basic idea is that the cohesion of primate groups is limited by the information-processing capacity of the neocortex. One human can only maintain social and working relationships with a limited number of individuals by meaningful personal contact. In simple terms, you can only know a small number of people well enough to understand their individual characteristics, to evaluate what they are likely to do and to develop cooperative work habits. You can only form intimate contacts with a few select individuals.

Each human has a people sphere around them with a central region of intimates and a peripheral region of acquaintances. Just as there is a range of human cognitive ability, there is a range of human social ability. The most gifted humans have larger people spheres that might include up to 150 people. Beyond the boundaries of the known-people sphere, other humans blur into an undifferentiated “public.”

Humans can recognize more than 150 faces, but the faces are often nameless and meaningful associations are minimal, obscure or absent. Less socially gifted humans have difficulty maintaining connections with a smaller number of people and may not be able to sustain even one intimate relationship. Dunbar points to several examples in aboriginal groups, university facilities and military organizations that limit group size. The Hutterites limit their communities to 150 people and explain that if the number of individuals is larger, it becomes difficult to control their behavior by means of peer pressure. They prefer to split the community rather than create a police force.

The cohesion of primate groups is maintained by grooming each other. Body contact and grooming establishes and services friendships and coalitions. Coalitions protect their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The more harassment an individual faces, the more important coalitions are. A coalition’s effectiveness is measured by its members' willingness to come to each other's aid and is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other.

Dunbar stated: ”Group size is a function of relative neocortical volume in nonhuman primates... Among primates, the cohesion of groups is maintained by social grooming; the time devoted to social grooming is linearly related to group size among the Old World monkeys and apes. To maintain the stability of large groups, characteristic of humans, by grooming alone would place intolerable demands on time budgets. It is suggested that (1) the evolution of large groups in the human lineage depended on the development of a more efficient method for time-sharing the processes of social bonding and that (2) language uniquely fulfills this requirement... Analysis of a sample of human conversations shows that about 60% of talking time is spent gossiping about relationships and personal experiences.”

The emergent idea is that smaller groups based on kinship and affinity work better and larger groups require formal external structures that define and enforce specific roles and behavior. In modern businesses, smaller work groups increase job satisfaction and allow the coordination of tasks and information-flow through person-to-person links. In some high tech software companies, smart and nice employees are happiest working in a village atmosphere that includes children, pets and combines work with play.

In contrast, highly regimented and anonymous work environments disconnect employees from every other expression of their lives and produce “alienation” a common feature of urban life. Large companies do better by re-organizing around small and cohesive work groups that resemble bands of less than 20 people. A family-like unit of 3 to 10 people is often the first size of group to achieve effective collaboration and cooperation. While conflict is inevitable in human groups of any size, natural conflict resolution only works in small groups.

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason.

July 11, 2011

Frames and Propaganda

The human world is a big place, populated by more than 7 billion humans, busy everyday doing good things and bad things. News media attempt to report on events often with boastful slogans such as "keeping you informed as it happens" or "the first and best with breaking news..." Of course, no-one and no news agency can keep up with all world events. Everyone can only sample a few events everyday, with limited understanding of what is really going on out there.

Frames can be appreciated as devices that help us sample and present aspects of bigger pictures. A frame is real device that encloses a picture or selects a part of a larger picture. The view finder of a camera frames a photo to be taken. A good photographer frames a photograph with a sense of composition. The photo will be cropped and sized according to its final use. Paintings are placed on the wall and their display is considered to be an expression of taste and wealth.

Framed samples are appealing to humans and represent a fundamental strategy of coping with the profusion of events that occur in the real world. A photograph in a magazine or on a gallery wall is one selection from hundreds or thousands of images. Movie directors understand how to use successions of frames to present a story. Cameras are mounted on moveable platforms that allow shots from below, above, moving toward, moving away. The audience is guided by the director’s point of view to consider only some possibilities among many.

Language is also framed for presentation. Indeed, all media rely on framing devices to present selected samples of what is going on out there. A proud newspaper such as the New York Times has a tradition of responsible journalism and its writers attempt to report factual events truthfully. The front page of the Times is an important frame that is viewed internationally. Readers trust that the writers and editors have worked hard to use that frame responsibly. In contrast, the front page of a tabloid paper may reach a large audience, but readers need to know that the contents of that frame are fictional and cannot be trusted.

The advantage of understanding the frame metaphor is that it awakens interest in the semantic and pragmatic analysis of language. It is important to understand that all words and phrases are limited samples. Humans are story tellers. Thinking is speaking. The main purpose of story telling is to persuade others that you are a good person who knows what is true and that everyone should agree with you. All speakers and writers present a limited sample of all possible descriptions. Names artificially abstract objects and events from the contexts that give them meaning. Clever speakers and writers chose words and phrases to direct attention to their point of view and to advance their vested interests.

Professional propagandists have detailed understanding of the techniques of persuasion and control using language tools. They know how to direct and limit discourse and can imbed commands in polite language that influence the behavior of their audience. The goal of a propagandist is to develop a slogan that is propagated as a meme, infecting millions of minds. In each mind, an associative network of meaning is activated whenever the slogan is heard or seen.

For example, political strategists for the Republican party got George Bush elected by concentrating on slogans propagated through radio, television and printed media. Republican candidates would not engage in meaningful discourse. An observer could not decide if they were actually dumb, or just acting dumb on the advice of strategists. The Bush group was prolific in the production of slogans and succeeded in propagating a series of memes. For example, Bush cut taxes for the wealthy and claimed "tax relief" for all citizens. All citizens want relief from some burden or other and taxes are high on the list. But the Bush Boys were also big spenders and borrowed extravagant sums of money to finance their misadventures. The real world consequence of “tax relief” was that the US government borrowed increasing amounts of money so that as of 2007 every man woman and child in the country owed at least $30,000, almost half to foreign investors. Also, large sums were borrowed from the pension savings of citizens that should have been invested and protected from political squandering. As of 2007 at least 600 million US dollars was spend destroying buildings and killing people in Iraq. The final cost has been expressed in the trillions and the US again is spending more money trying to remedy the chaos they created. This cost was cleansed of all moral wrongdoing by calling the misadventure a "war to defend freedom." The war was against "terrorists" but waged in Iraq that had not contributed to the terrorist attack on the World Trade center in 2001. Fifteen of the 19 attackers came from Saudi Arabia. The economic disaster of 2008 followed and will  not resolve for many years, if ever.

Many years ago, Chomsky described the merging of commercial interest with political agendas that conspired to control the public mind in the US and most other affluent countries. The media in the US achieves a biased mass consensus, despite a declared intention to present just the facts and to fairly represent all points of view. Chomsky wrote: "The guardians of history in every society are acutely sensitive to the faults of officially-designated enemies. The crude way to murder history is to lie. A more effective device is to set the bounds of permissible discourse. In coverage of contemporary affairs, the practice is a virtual reflex, as has been extensively documented. It is also standard in media critique, ensuring that unacceptable truths are banished from the mind. Thus, it is child's play to demonstrate the docility of the media with regard to US depredations (in other countries)… One factor is the power of business propaganda in the U.S. This is the country where the public relations industry was developed, where it is most sophisticated. It’s the home of the international entertainment industry, which is mainly propaganda. Huge funds are put into controlling the "public mind," …this is toward the capitalist end … there’s a huge expenditure on marketing, which is a form of manipulation and deceit... something like one-sixth of the gross domestic product goes to marketing. A large part of that is advertising. Advertising is tax-deductible, so you pay for the privilege of being manipulated and controlled."

From Language and Thinking by Stephen Gislason

July 1, 2011

Artificial Intelligence = False Claims

When you do not know exactly how digital computers work and how programmers utilize the hardware, it is easy to be fooled into believing that computers are intelligent or will be soon. When you know exactly how digital computing works, you are less likely to believe in computers that will develop their own intelligence. In fact, a programmer knows that he or she has to tell the computer exactly what to do in precise and annoying detail. Without expert programming, digital computers are dumb machines.

The ability of a digital computer to calculate quickly exceeds human ability. A common impression is that a calculating computer is smart. Humans have difficulty doing calculations and only a small percentage of any student population will excel in mathematical ability. The ability to calculate quickly and accurately is overly impressive.

The abstract reasoning that underlies advanced mathematics is more interesting and is independent of the ability to calculate. Most mathematicians are happy to do calculations on a digital machine and do not feel the least bit threatened that some computer will take over their job of abstract reasoning. Digital computers have no sense of meaning, cannot perceive and are only able to make simple robotic decisions about the data they receive. They can store images accurately and will faithfully recall stored data unless a malfunction intervenes. Output procedures are echoes of input procedures. The biggest advance in programming involves searching thru large databases to find the right answers to specific questions. Goggle`s search engines represent state of the art algorithms, designed to deliver relevant results to search inquiries. Failure to achieve relevance remains a persistent search problem. Google requires teams of programmers working everyday to monitor and refine their software.

Popular science fiction postulates that digital computers will become intelligent sentient beings and take over the world. Arthur Clark’s Science fiction novel and Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of 2001 were thrilling in 1968. I was thrilled the sense of motion during the docking of shuttle with the space station, transformed by Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The spacecraft in the movie was operated by HAL, the computer. HAL represented the possibility of computers developing human-like artificial intelligence.

In 1968, anything was possible, but with subsequent developments in brain and computer science, we now know that living intelligence is so developed, complex and profound that any success with machine programming is disappointing and rudimentary. We now know that real intelligence lies well beyond the ability of present and future digital machines. In AI there is more artificial and less intelligence.

David Stork,a machine intelligence researcher wrote: “Perhaps a dark side of HAL’s legacy is to have fixed an anthropomorphic view of artificial intelligence so firmly in the minds of a generation of researchers… But those idiot savants (AI programs) did not show even the slightest signs of achieving general competence. In the subsequent AI winter -- brought on by the end of a military research spree as well as the inevitable collision between venture capitalists and reality – only the mechanical cockroaches survived.“

I do not believe that digital computers even of great speed and complexity will attain consciousness, nor do I believe that robots controlled by digital computers will ever come close to achieving the self-organizing, free-living intelligence of a human.

Mark Tildon of Los Almos Laboratories makes small robots from spare parts derived from discarded portable cassette players. A few transistors in his robots handle the task of moving limbs and solving problems such as getting past obstacles or dealing with broken parts. His robots resemble insects and move like insects. Tildon observes that living brains solve the complex tasks of surviving as free beings in an ever-changing world by using simple and compact circuits. He observes that efforts to make free-living robots using digital computing fail because even simple tasks quickly grow in complexity and require state of the art computing power.

Digital robot abilities are in a much simpler domain than living creatures and may never compete well, even at a rudimentary level. While the work done on robotics and artificial intelligence is interesting and useful, progress to date informs us that it will be exceeding difficult to achieve the digital equivalent of the free-living intelligence of an ant. AI and robotics helps us to appreciate that the ant brain is a marvel of computation and miniaturization. We may eventually progress to computational devices based on different materials and strategies that are more brain-like and achieve better and unexpected results. At this writing, no one knows how to do this. The search continues with the study of animal brains.

Despite the science fiction roots and unrealistic arguments (often delusional), machine intelligence enthusiasts are more visible and vocal than ever before. Their meetings have the giddy feel of a born-again religious revival. One god-substitute is singularity:” Techno-Rapture. A black hole in the Extropian worldview whose gravity is so intense that no light can be shed on what lies beyond it. … the human mind is not the final word. Someday, human technology will advance to the point of being able to improve on the underlying hardware (the brain) - an event known as the Singularity. Depending on how much futurism people have been exposed to, they tend to imagine different candidate technologies, “different timescales, and different outcomes for humanity. The Singularity Institute's favored technology is computer-based synthetic minds - "Artificial Intelligence" or "AI" - which we think can be developed quickly and with an outcome favorable to humanity … The Singularity Institute seriously intends to build a true general intelligence, possessed of all the key subsystems of human intelligence, plus design features unique to AI. We do not hold that all the complex features of the human mind are "emergent", or that intelligence is the result of some simple architectural principle, or that general intelligence will appear if we simply add enough data or computing power. “

There is room for fantasy and speculative thinking; however, no-one needs to take the Singularity view or timetable seriously. Some of the worst future predictions claim that digital circuitry is becoming faster, denser and less expensive and therefore “supercomputers’ will soon emerge that have greater processing power than the human brain. Some even suggest that massive parallel processing is superior to brain computational abilities.

There is no knowledge that allows anyone to assess brain processing ability and no basis to compare brains with digital computers. One of the aspects of “futuristic speculations” that amazes me is the lack of knowledge about the present. Another aspect that concerns me the most is the ignorance of life processes. I doubt that any machine will soon display free-living competence. Ant brains are amazing but digital robots are disappointing. The challenge for future computer designers is to make robots that do as well as an insect in a free-living competition. This task will require a new computing technology, lots of money and the rest of this century to achieve. Unless, of course, some genius discovers and copies brain circuitry that underlies insect competence.

I am concerned about human treachery, but have no concern about machines independently developing destructive intentions that could rival or match their human makers. Evil is a human invention. Humans already make world-destroying machines. This is not a future scenario. Once launched, a world-destroying machine such as an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying hydrogen bombs is self-sufficient. The ICBM is a dumb robot that after launch can find its way to its target without further assistance from human programmers. A bevy of dumb ICBM robots with hydrogen bomb warheads can destroy human civilization. The combination of bad and dumb humans and dumb robots is to be feared. This is history and no one has to wait for future malevolent robots to be constructed.

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason. 

Politics & Environment

Environmentalists There are host of well-known environment groups that an educated individual can support, join and contribute. Politica...