Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A word from a few cognitive scientists

The American Scientist has a couple of pieces featuring Douglas Hofstader, author of the 1980 Pulitzer prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, and a leading thinker in the cognitive sciences. The first is a review by Margaret Boden of his latest book I Am a Strange Loop. This strange loop is a metaphor for how he sees the mind as an emergent property of the brain. Rather than attribute intentionality and consciousness to the composition of neurochemicals, Hofstader focuses on the the unique activity and interaction of these chemicals (as well as ourselves) that gives rise to what we clumsily refer to as 'minds.' He also elucidates, in a tragic example from his own life, how the mind is formed by loops, or interactivity, that suggests it is far more complicated than the image of mere psychological imprints we think of when pondering the functionality of our minds.

The second piece is an interview with Greg Ross on his new book, his old book, and his views on the latest in the cognitive science community. Though he makes a point of not wading into the popular science fiction depths that is certain on the the idea of biology and technology soon merging into a singularity, he does keep a lighthearted eye on it.

Ray Kurzweil says 2029 is the year that a computer will pass the Turing test (converse well enough to pass as human), and he has a big bet on it for $1,000 with (Lotus Software founder Mitch Kapor), who says it won't pass. Kurzweil is committed to this viewpoint, but that's only the beginning. He says within 10 or 15 years after that, a thousand dollars will buy you computational power that will be equivalent to all of humanity. What does it mean to talk about $1,000 when humanity has been superseded and the whole idea of humans is already down the drain?

But as things develop, who knows? Ray Kurzweil and others are predicting that there's a tidal wave coming. But they say it's bliss—it's not bad, it's good, at least if you're surfing it in the right way. If you own the right kind of surfboard, it'll be fun.


Author of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker has a terrific piece on our history with violence. I remember reading some time ago that despite our wars and homicides, humans' interspecies killing rate fared remarkably well next to other animals. According to the numbers, we are remarkably gentle toward each other. Though common opinion appears to suggest the exact opposite, a quick glance at our evolutionary history, with a greater scrutiny of our preceding centuries, decades, and years, indicates human morality would look like the same kind of hockey stick bar graph we see when looking at things like our rapid population growth. Pinker expands on the possible reasons behind this misperception:

The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it's because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it's an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it's the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

* In a related piece, law professor Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy looks at our future morality in his post Assessing our Moral Beliefs in Light of Predicted Future Moral "Progress." As always with the Volokh Conspiracy, the best learnin' can be found in the comments where various law professors and other really smart people duke it out.


From Ola Endre Reitstøen's multimedia archive, i found several week's worth of audio files from Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and my favorite cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. Thanks Ola!

I'll be back in a month.

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