Sunday, February 26, 2006

How making a work of art is like hill-climbing in AI

I was at a meeting of Working Title Playwrights, a playwright club I am associated with in Atlanta, and the group was giving some playwright comments about the play we'd just heard. One of the comments suggested major changes to the play. Evan said that the comment referred to a different play-- that incorporating the comment would destroy what the play was and be a completely different play. I found this idea interesting. As we make comments we need to decide whether our comment is a suggested change to the current play, or so radical a change that it's something else entirely.

While I was working on Medea: The Fury, my co-author Xiao Gong Ji asked me if it was pulitzer-prize winning material. I said no. Xiao thought that the Jason and Medea story was just fine as the basis of a pulitzer-prize-winning play, and suggested we think about how to change our play so that it was deserving of a pulitzer. I found the idea disturbing but also inspiring.

I just wanted to draw a parallel between thinking about improving a work of art as you develop it and the notion of hill-climbing in AI (See for a technical description). Basically it means that you are trying to get as high up as you can, but you can only see a few feet in front of you. So you walk upwards. The only problem is that when you can't go up any more (because you're at the top of a hill) you can not tell by this method whether or not you're at the top of the highest hill. You might be stuck at the top of a smaller hill. This is called a local maximum.

One can think of a local maximum like the best version of a particular work of art. That is, if you improve a painting or a script as much as possible, then the local maximum will be the best that it can be, while still being what it is.

I'll try to make it clearer with an example. Medea: The Fury is a play I'm pretty proud of, but I'm sure it can be improved. For example, changing every word so that the play is identical to Romeo and Juliet would make it a better play, because R&J is a better play than Medea: The Fury. See something wrong with this? I'm at another maximum, not Medea's maximum.

In hill-climbing, you sometimes have to go downhill before you can go uphill again, up another hill which might be higher. So it is with art. You sometimes have to make the painting or play or piece of music worse before it gets even better. These are choices I make constantly with my art, and there seems to be no easy way to make these decisions.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Just in time for my aging body, viagra may help Crohn's Disease

Thanks to Tember for sending this on... Turns out Crohn's disease might be caused by a weak immune system. And viagra might help.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Yes-men, Naysayers, and Innovation in Science

Leaders get severely critisized for surrounding themselves with yes-men. People who never hear about why their ideas suck can put a lot of energy into bad ideas. I have always felt that one should always be open to critiques. Well, my opinion is changing, basically, because nay-sayers are even worse.

This idea first struck me from the concept of brainstorming. Good brainstorming requires that, for the duration of the brainstorming, there is no negativity, no filtering of ideas. Joking around and absurd ideas are welcome. It's about getting a quantity of ideas. For a great book about innovation and brainstorming, I recommend "The Art of Innovation" by Thomas Kelley.

Then I read about Steve Jobs at Apple in this article in Time (Canadian Edition, October 24, 2005, written by Lev Grossman.)

"Call it the Parable of the Concept Car. “Here’s what you find at a lot of companies,” he [Jobs] says, kicking back in a conference room at Apple’s gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod. “You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

“What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

When Jobs took up his present position at Apple in 1997, that’s the situation he found. He and Jonathan Ive, head of design, came up with the original iMac, a candy-colored computer merged with a cathode-ray tube that, at the time, looked like nothing anybody had seen outside of a Jetsons cartoon. “Sure enough,” Jobs recalls, “when we took it to the engineers, they said, ‘Oh.’ And they came up with 38 reasons. And I said, ‘No, no, we’re doing this.’ And they said, ‘Well, why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done.’ And so they kind of begrudgingly did it. But then it was a big hit.”"

Word. This reminds me of Montica Pes's brilliant directing. She's be trying to get something to work-- some part of the set, some dance, and there would be people around trying to tell her why it could not be done. Often I was one of those people. She would throw these people out of the room, until it was finally done. I never got thrown out, but I should have. I might have figured things out quicker. I've been a terrible nay-sayer in my time, both in the arts and in science, and I want to stop.

I think there is great potential for the application of brainstorming and this Jobs-like attitude in science. When there is some phenomena that needs be understood, brainstorm about how it might work. I mean really brainstorm, for like 20 minutes, trying to get a diversity of ideas, with nobody allowed to say "well in the JPLMC 2002 it was found that blah blah blah so that can't be right..." In cognitive science all theories are wrong so far, so just shut up for a while.

New theories always look bad when they first appear. Or at least, that's the attitude I'm taking. As the same Time article says: "What Jobs has accepted—the truth that he’s willing to face and others cower from—is that new things don’t want to be born. Innovation causes problems, and it’s much easier simply to avoid it. In fact, it’s downright tempting. Other guys may give in to that temptation but not Jobs."

The goal is to explore a theory until you see what's good about it. Don't knock it down with the first reason you can think of to do so. I know from personaly experience that there is a great temptation to do that. When I was in California last week my friend's boyfriend Evan, who was an engineer who makes medical equipment, asked me if I wanted to hear his theory of consciousness. For those of you who are not cognitive scientists, this kind of question makes us roll our eyes, at least inside. Everyone thinks they're in a great position to come up with answers to the mysteries of mind. But I had this new attitude. I am going to listen to this guy, and really try to find out what's good about the theory.

He said something like "Thoughts that are unformed are unconscious. You are only conscious of fully-formed thoughts." Now, when he said this, immediately there were critiques jumping to mind. What do you mean, "fully-formed?" What about activities that become unconscious (automaticity), like driving? It seems implausible that the executive that determines what becomes conscious or not has to evaluate every thought. What is the function of consciousness in this theory?

All that stuff came to mind. And, being a cognitive scientist and a normally competitive alpha male, I could have showed off and brought them up, probably ending the conversation and possibly impressing this guy with my expertise. It was tempting. But I forced myself not only to not air these objections, but to not think about them until I heard more.

I asked questions to try to get an idea of what he was really talking about, and it kind of paid off. I don't believe his theory of consciousness, but I actually do have a new way of thinking about it if I want to use it. The idea of consciousness as the result of a relevancy filter is something I'd never thought of before.

I'm thinking of enforcing this in my lab meetings when I get my lab this fall. The other part of it is training my students and postdocs (and perhaps faculty colleagues) to not be naysayers. I will do this by asking them to keep critiques to themselves, and to just jot notes when they think of objections. Perhaps I will even ask people to leave the meeting, or if someone never gets better, remove them from the laboratory, as Jobs has had to do:

"Here’s the end of his parable, the story of what happened after Jobs got the iMac launched. “The people around here—some of them left,” he remembers. “Actually, some of them I got rid of. But most of them said, ‘Oh, my God, now I get it.’ We’ve been doing this now for seven years, and everybody here gets it. And if they don’t, they’re gone.”"

The idea is to create a culture of innovation in the science laboratory. People need to be enculturated, and if they can't be, they have to leave.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Book Found in Airport

I like finding books people leave in airports. I figure they're done reading it, and they don't want to carry it, so they leave it for someone else to read, just sitting on a seat at a gate.

On my way back to Ontario from California, I saw someone had left a book. I quickly recognized it as book meant to recruit Christians. Some Christian had left it, hoping someone without a book would find it and possibly become Christian.

Those who know me will be able to guess what I did with the book, with great delight.

My Crew

I'm about to take an faculty position at a university. I will have some graduate students, which will constitute my "laboratory," or just "lab."

I've been trying to think of a name for my lab, and having trouble. At my most whimsical, I think of calling my lab a "crew." I wonder how much trouble that would get me into.

Any suggestions for my lab name? (If you add a comment, if you don't put your name I won't know who you are.)

The Future of Human Evolution

People like to talk about how humans will evolve in the future. There is a whole section of the book "After Man," a speculation about the future of evolution, that deals with human beings. This is really silly.

The reason it's silly is because the future of humankind will not be determined through evolution through natural selection, or even sexual selection in the classic sense. Genetic engineering will overtake natural evolution in a generation or two. After that, our genes will be determined by our choices of how to manipulate them.

Will we still be evolving through natural selection? Of course, that can't be stopped. But looking at evolutionary forces to predict our future is like looking at how rainfall degrades skyscrapers in LA to determine what the cityscape will look like in year 2500. Sure, rain erodes skyscrapers a little, but those buildings are torn down and replaced with new ones before those effects have any effect. Our genes will be like those skyscrapers very soon.

Unless there is some disaster that reverts us to a pre-technological society, I think it's safe to ignore evolutionary forces in predicting humankind's future.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Knowing the Consciousness of a thing

People tend to have a mystical notion of consciousness, but let's get real-- consciousness is a psychological phenomenon like memory retrieval or planning. People like to talk to me about whether or not computers can be conscious. I think that someday they will, if they're not already to some degree, but the problem is we understand so little about what consciousness really is.

We don't know to what degree we are conscious, or of what exactly. Are you conscious of what someone says while you're engrossed in a TV show, and 10 seconds later you answer the question? Who knows? Are dogs conscious? Chickens? I'm sure you have an opinion, but I know it's not based on anything scientific, because scientists don't know what consciousness is well enough to say.

But let's assume that whether some being is conscious of some process is an empirical matter. That means there is some objective way, in principle, to determine if a being is conscious of something. This is reasonable, unless you're a mystic-- it's some high-level brain activity.

If this is true, the the consciousness of a particular AI program is also an empirical issue. Because let's be fair. Whatever methods we use to determine consciousness in a mink are those methods which should be used on computer programs or systems. This brings to mind the question of what those empirical methods are. The truth is we don't know. There are ideas out there, but there's nowhere near agreement on this. However the lack of empirical method does not mean that it is not an empirical issue. Whether a given computer program or system is conscious or not is a matter of fact, not of definition. Or at least it's primarily a matter of fact, just as the fact that I am tall is a matter of fact, and only in some sense a matter of definition. My height is objective. I think the degree of consciousness will be like height.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pugs online

Sometimes when I want a break from work, I look up videos of pugs on the internet and watch them. I'm not going to post the links here, but I did want to report on some of the great pug names I've come across.

Howard Pugpants.
Franny Cake.