August 9, 2014
As I’m sure many of you are aware, the United States has been investing billions of dollars in R&D projects related to brain simulation. One of them is taking place at IBM. They’ve just released their latest neurosynaptic chip. It’s completely different from a traditional computer chip.
They process information using a hierarchy of “neurons”, following the same sorts of pattern recognition techniques I was mentioning the other day. Traditional processors aren’t very efficient at hierarchical pattern recognition, so we’re building chips which process information in the same way the brain does.
This is all part of the new cognitive computing revolution. Right now, we’ve living in an era where computers need to be programmed. They don’t have any real intelligence. Using a central processor, software written by a programmer moves data around like a mindless secretary. That’s all changing. These new computers will not be programmed. They will be aware of their environment and self-learning. They will simply interact with you and learn what you want from them. This is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
IBM’s goal is to create a giant cloud of these new synaptic computers. Their goal is to build a stackable array of these chips, and create a cognitive computer as powerful as the human brain within a one liter volume. How long before they reach human levels of performance? Right now a single chip can emulate about 46 billion synaptic operations per second. To compare this to our brain, we do about 100 trillion synaptic operations per second.
Outside of physics, I can’t think of anything more interesting than this stuff. Unlike theorizing and philosophizing about the mind, we’re now actually building them. I plan to follow these developments closely. In twenty to thirty years, I’ll sit next to my computer, which will probably just be a thin sheet of glass on my desk, and I’ll have conversation with it, just like I would any of you. It will be wired into this giant synaptic-cloud-brain which will have read every scientific document, every history book, and will have watched every video that’s available online. Unlike search engines today, my computer will actually understand what I say to it, and understand what it reads online. It will think just like me and my interactions with it will be very natural. It will know everything and, at my command, be able to dynamically prepare a presentation on any topic I ask. What a dream!
August 8, 2014
Just the other day, something rather amazing happened to me. It really took me by surprise.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve sort of been trying to meet new people over the past, I don’t know, six months or so. For too many years, I’ve been a shut-in recluse, and I knew that needed to change. So I started doing things I don’t normally do. I’ve actually met all kinds of people.
But throughout all of that, I met a new friend. She’s a just a tad younger than me, and very thoughtful. It’s not romantic at all. She’s actually engaged to marry a very nice guy, who I’ve met several times as well. They’re both great. I was hanging out with her the other day, and for whatever reason, I told her that over the years I’ve given myself to daydreaming too much, and she pressed for details. I laughed and said, “Alright.”
I told her how I’d been running eight miles every day that week when I normally only run four. I was determined to keep it up for an entire week, even if it killed me, but I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I was getting so tired and my body was giving out. After four days of doing it, I ended up eating an entire baked chicken and then passed out for fourteen hours. My body was going crazy.
I told her how it was such a challenge for me and I had a silly daydream that once I finished my last lap that Friday evening, a news crew would run up to me exclaiming, “Ladies and gentleman, this man has run eight miles every day this entire week! Absolutely incredible! How are you feeling right now?” Then they’d stick microphones and cameras in my face and I’d reply, “I’m so tired, but exhilarated. I can’t believe it. I actually did it. I’m so proud of myself.” Just as I finished, a crowd of cute girls would surround me, cheering, while others would open champagne and throw confetti in the air. As the crowd sprayed me with champagne, another person would dump a Gatorade cooler on me, and I’d just sort of put my arms in the air and think, “Life is good.”
She listened and laughed, “You should do it. Go the whole week!” Then I told her, “Just two more days. I can do this!” I didn’t think anything of it. It’s just me in my own little world, being silly.
So Friday came and I’m at the track. I’m pretty tired but keep reminding myself that this is the day. Nobody’s around. It’s just me, the trees, and the few squirrels who were running across the green lawn. I’m in a Zen state, at one with the track. The breeze is blowing. It’s not too hot to run. I chug down some water in preparation and start stretching my legs.
I gently lift myself up and down off the track using my toes, and make my way to the starting line. I can feel the rubber beneath me through my running shoes. I place my hands on the track and bend over, just like I did back in school when I ran track. My thoughts run over and over, “Eight miles. Thirty-two laps. It’s not so bad. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. Whew. Ok. Here we go. Let’s do this! I got this!” Then I take off at a nice, brisk pace.
First six or seven laps? No problem. Ten laps come, I’m feeling it, but I’m still good. Fifteen laps. Twenty laps! My goodness, I’m feeling it. Can I go on? I can’t give up now! I press forward.
Then I got to lap twenty-six. The sun’s setting and I’d been out there a while. I’m pretty well exhausted, just trying to make it through the final few laps. All of the sudden a car pulls up and in the distance I see my friend entering the gate. What is she doing here? No matter! I had to finish. That’s all that mattered. I was going to run thirty-two laps, and nothing was going to stop that.
She goes and sits in the front row of the bleachers, not too far from the track. I ran by, waved, and she smiled and waved back. In a very tired voice, gasping for air, I said, “I can’t stop. I’m so clos….” I didn’t have enough air. She seemed to understand and I kept at it.
Finally I was down to the last three laps, two laps, and then the final lap! By that time it was hard to say what was keeping me up. When you’re at the track, all alone, you wonder why you’re pressing yourself so hard. But this time I had a spectator and I knew I couldn’t quit. I kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing. I trudged around the final turn and made it to the last one hundred meter stretch. I normally have a policy of finishing hard but not this time. I just wanted to finish. I had to finish. That’s all that mattered. I just had to go the distance. It wasn’t about victory. This was for me.
Then I crossed it. Thirty-two laps. I had run eight miles for seven days straight. Impressed? You should be!
After crossing the finish, I put my hands over my head, gasping for air, and then walked in circles. Realizing I’d finished, my friend stands up, approaches me, and then threw confetti in the air. As I struggled to catch my breath, exhausted and bent over, I looked up at her and was greeted with a gentle smile as she said, “Congratulations.” Then she did a little cheer.
I went and sat down in the bleachers, drinking some water with confetti stuck to my sweaty forehead. I’m someone who can space out. I sort of looked over at her and then looked off into the distance while blankly staring off into the distance. I don’t think I was thinking about anything, I was just exhausted.
Once I sort of came back from wherever I was, I looked over at her, smiled, and said, “Thanks.” What a nice person! It’s the nicest thing anyone has done for me in a long time. I was just in shock.
August 6, 2014
One of my favorite websites, Closer To Truth, has just underwent a major revision. There you can find several television episodes, as well as indepth interviews from some of the world’s deepest thinkers.
So what sorts of things will you find? Some topics explored include the following:
– What are the fundamental building blocks of reality?
– What are the limits of physics and physical theory? Are there things which can’t be explained by our theories of the physical world?
– What is time and space?
– Is time real or is it an illusion?
– Can a person time-travel?
– What is quantum physics?
– Why is quantum gravity so important?
– What is complexity, emergence, and self-organization?
– Is mathematics eternal?
– Is information the foundation of reality?
– Do we live in a simulation?
– How big is the cosmos?
– Did the universe have a beginning or has it always existed?
– What does the expanding universe mean?
– How significant is an expanding universe?
– Are there multiple universes?
– How did matter form in the early universe?
– Why are black holes so interesting?
– What does a fine-tuned universe mean?
– Is life and mind inevitable in the universe?
– What is the far future of the universe?
– Are science and religion at war?
– Can science explain God?
– Should science even discuss religion?
– Can science provide ultimate answers?
– What is the ultimate reality?
– What are the ultimate questions of nature?
– Are the laws of nature always constant?
– Does cosmology provide meaning?
– What is causation?
– Why is there anything at all?
– What is the mind-body problem?
– Can all mind operations be explained by computation and brain operations?
– What do brains do?
– How do brains malfunction?
– How are brains conscious?
– What is self-awareness and memory?
– Is consciousness an illusion?
– Is consciousness fundamental and irreducible?
– Is consciousness unified?
– Is consciousness emergent, and if so, from what?
– Is consciousness rooted in quantum computation?
– What are altered states of consciousness?
– What is enlightenment?
– Why do we sleep and have dreams?
– Does consciousness lead to God?
– Must the universe contain consciousness?
– What things are conscious?
– What is truth?
– What is the “self”? What is the “I”?
– What makes personal identity continue?
– Is death final?
– Is there an afterlife?
– What would immortality feel like?
– Do people have souls?
– Can science explain beauty and aesthetics?
– How do belief systems work?
– How do belief systems affect believers?
– What is free will? Is it an illusion? Do we have it?
– What are the problems of free will?
– What is synchronicity? Does it exist?
– What is God? Do any of our ideas about God make sense?
– Why should a person believe in God?
– Can many religions all be true?
– Does philosophy inform religion?
– What is evil? Can there be morality without God?
August 4, 2014
Back when I was a teenager, I remember first reading Plato’s works. I was completely puzzled trying to figure out how abstract thinking worked. Take our ability to think of general concepts. We know that women and men are both human beings and that all human beings have arms, legs, mouths, and noses. It’s effortless for us. It happens automatically within a few milliseconds and feels instantaneous.
Or think about something else. Say I was a mad scientist and took you down to my lab. I had built a brain scanning machine and I was going to strap you down and steal your memories. How would I do it? How does your brain store your memories? What format are they in? How are they organized? Believe it or not, I pretty much know the answer! But back when I was a teenager, I had no idea how this worked.
I never knew how my brain could recognize, categorize, and label objects. Take walking into a kitchen. We always see particular tables, and each table is different from one another, but somehow our mind has some abstract concept of a “table”, and can look at objects in the world around us and say, “Yes, that’s a table.” The same applies to animals. We see beagles, bulldogs, and golden retrievers, but we know they’re all “dogs”. What is a “dog”? How does our brain do it?
Plato used to theorize that there was some ideal “dog” in another invisible dimension and somehow all particular dogs were a copy of that, in some inexplicable way. That never made any sense to me and I doubt it does to anyone else either.
But nowadays we’re making huge breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and we’ve cracked the code for how the brain does it. Using biologically inspired algorithms, AI researchers can now write computer code which is able to do this same sort of abstract thinking. Take Microsoft’s Project Adam for instance. You can go out into your backyard with your smartphone and snap a picture of your dog. Their software can then analyze the image and tell you exactly what type of dog it is, even more accurately than the best human dog experts.
Once I studied how these sorts of algorithms work, I immediately understood what abstract concepts are and how they’re stored in our brains. I don’t know whether to begin with our brains or with the computer algorithms. If you understand one, you immediately understand the other. We’ll begin with our brains.
Basically, abstract thinking takes place within our neocortex which is like a thin layer of neurons which sits on the outer layer of our brains. This is simplifying things a bit, but it consists of layers of neurons wired together into vertical columns. The columns themselves have cross-connections, wiring them to other columns.
It works like this. Let’s just talk about identifying things we’re looking at with our eyes. Light beams make their way into our eyes which then stimulates photo-receptors in our retinas. This creates small electrical signals which are then sent to the “bottom” layers of the neocortex. That’s when a very simple pattern recognition process starts.
Basically the bottom-most neuronal layers identify patterns, then the next layer of neurons “above” those identify patterns within the patterns. The layer “above” that identifies patterns within the pattern’s patterns. And so on. It forms this hierarchy of patterns within patterns within patterns … within patterns.
So let’s talk a little more about Microsoft’s Project Adam. How does it tell the difference between a dog and a cat? Well, all you have to do is show it a bunch of images of cats and tell the software that all those images contain cats. Then you show it a bunch of images of dogs and tell the software that all those images are dogs. The software will build this hierarchy of image patterns within patterns within patterns. Low levels begin with raw sensory data, such as colored pixels. The next level will be patterns of colors, such as a small splotch of black and brown next to one another, or white and brown next to one another, etc. As you go higher up this hierarchy, you’ll come to “tails”, “mid-sections”, “noses”, “eyes”, “floppy ears”, etc. Then at the even higher levels, you’ll find “dog”, “cat”, and “human”.
We’ve been discussing patterns within images, but there are also patterns within sounds. Instead of finding patterns within colored pixels spatially spread out over your retina, your brain also uses the exact same system to identify temporal patterns.
Say you find a cover song by a random person on Youtube and they’re playing their own rendition of a popular Beatles song. How do you know it’s the same song? If it’s really bad, you may not. But if there is a good resemblance, your brain finds temporal patterns, within patterns, within patterns, of sound intensity based on pressure waves which vibrate your ear-drums, which in turn creates similar sorts of electrical signals for your brain.
This is related to language as well. Nouns are consistent high level patterns, such as those discerned from images. Verbs are their temporal patterns over time. You’re linking up the sounds and symbols of the words (themselves high level patterns), to the high level patterns from sensory experience over time.
So what is the ideal table? Does it exist in another dimension? No. The ideal “table” doesn’t look like anything. It’s just a type of information pattern. It’s hard to describe what it is because it doesn’t look like anything, or sound like anything, or exist in any sort of space. It’s just a type of encoded information.
If you’d like to hear about this process in even more detail, I’d recommend watching the neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins explain all of this in the video below. In the tech world, this AI technique is called deep learning. The topic begins at around 10 minutes.
I’ve slightly simplified this discussion a bit though. Our brains are even cooler than this. The information doesn’t just flow upward, it also flows downward. When you study how the neurons are laid out, as your brain is trying to figure out what it’s looking at, it’s also making predictions about what it should see in the future. If there’s a match between what your brain thinks will come next and what does come next, you unconsciously say to yourself, “Ah, I know what this is.” If your brain’s predictions do not match what you experience next, there’s a shift in your attention.
For example, if you’re looking at your pet dog and all of the sudden it stands on its back legs upright and starts talking to you like a human, you’re totally taken back, in shock, and your attention is completely focused on your dog. That’s because it doesn’t match the patterns stored in your brain and we’re wired up to say, “I don’t understand this. This is new. I need to pay attention to it.” It may also generate fear, etc. So it’s more complicated in us humans, but abstract thought and object identification is built on this process.
If you showed Project Adam a fake video of a talking dog standing up on its legs, since it has no emotion, all it would do is say, “new pattern”, and create new nodes in this hierarchy of patterns. But with us, our object identification process is directly tied into emotional centers which trigger a more complex response.
So as the mad scientist, if I was wanting to read your mind, it’d be very difficult. It’s not like the information is stored in the same way in each person. It’s totally different in each brain based on what you’ve experienced. The pattern hierarchies are all laid out differently.
In short though, your memories are temporal sequences of hierarchical patterns. It’s not like there’s a movie-clip I could access and playback with perfect clarity. The brain also discards most of the raw sensory information we experience. So that’s going to be a problem.
For fun, I could ask you to think about your wedding, and once I found out where the high-level patterns were stored, I could trace down your tree and try to produce a movie of you walking down the isle. Maybe, I’m not sure. If I had sophisticated enough equipment and you’re willing to let me cut your skull open, I’d be more than willing to give it a try! *giddy grin* Then again, it may be better just to search your attic for the DVD or VHS tape!
One of my biggest interests in this subject is trying to understand what numbers are. I feel quite certain they’re rooted in this same process. The number one is some sort of high level pattern in our sensory hierarchy. The same with two, three, four, five, and maybe six. We intuitively understand small numbers because they actually exist within this hierarchy in our mind. I’ve seen two glasses on a table, two books on my desk, and two buttons on a computer mouse. There’s some common pattern within all of them which we’d label “2”.
Higher numbers are probably just symbols linked to logical rules for manipulating them. We don’t have any intuitive sense of the difference between a billion and a trillion stars. It’s too much for our minds to comprehend. In other words, imagine the resolution an image would need to distinctly contain a billion separate objects. There’s not enough pixels on the back of our retina to contain such an image no matter how tiny you made each object individually. You could try to link the word symbol “a billion stars” to lots of tiny dots flying by in some temporal sequence, possibly. Or maybe you could say something like, “Imagine dropping a thousand pennies in a jar each day. Each penny will be a star.” Then the person goes and does that for a single day, one thousand pennies. “How long would we have do this process before we’d counted a billion stars? It would take you over 2,700 years to count that many stars!” Little tricks like that help to grasp numbers, but you really have to think hard to come up with those things. It’s tricky to have any intuitive sense of large numbers.
Bertrand Russell struggled to define numbers in his Principles of Mathematics. I’m not really sure if this conception of numbers is correct though. Still, I’m pretty sure you could show Project Adam lots of different pictures with just a single object in them and then tell it, “1”. Then do the same for images with two objects in them, etc. I think you could get it to grasp the first few numbers. There’s scientific evidence that animals understand the first few numbers. For example, if an animal is trying to escape a group of predators, and the predators run into a cave and then exit, one by one, the animal seems to know when they’re all gone. If there were three predators but only two have left the cave, the animal knows to remain hidden. It must have some basic conception of number.
August 3, 2014
PBS produced a documentary on the war in Iraq, chronicling its beginnings up to the present, and what a nightmare! There have been hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, several thousand American troops have been lost, we’ve spent over two trillion dollars, and everything we fought for is now unraveling as ISIS rolls in and takes over. It’s been a total waste. Nothing has changed, the world is angry at us, and we’re buried in debt. Even worse, this new ISIS group is bad news. They’re well funded, well armed, and very dangerous. They’re far scarier than Bin Laden ever was.
It’s even worse knowing it was all doomed from the start. There really isn’t any need for me to get into it. Just watch it all for yourself.
Before the war began, all of the generals were telling President Bush, “Why are we doing this? This war is a bad idea.” But the president had filled his administration with neoconservatives like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and they they had been busy devising plans for the middle-east since the 1960s. They found themselves a gullible cowboy who’d listen to them, and so off we went, and once we got involved, there was no easy way out.
It was clear that nobody knew what they were doing. Those appointed to run things had little knowledge of the region, Iraqi culture, or their people. Those who did weren’t listened to, or even worse, they were kicked out. There were constant changes in leadership and a severe lack of intelligence. The Bush administration kept asking, “Why can’t we wrap things up?”, not even realizing what they had started.
As for President Obama, he’s wanted nothing to do with Iraq ever since entering office. He wanted to pull out immediately but had to honor an agreement set in place by the Bush administration just before Bush’s second term ended. Obama’s cabinet broke contact with the fledgling Iraqi government and he gutted a lot of the resources dedicated to managing the war. This left the Iraqi prime minister on his own and he’s frightened. He’s been consolidating power, eliminating political opposition, and restructuring the government. This has led to violence, corruption, and a large portion of the population being disenfranchised. Protests have been breaking out everywhere. It could be argued that Obama’s inattentiveness to everything going on has led to ISIS and their buildup. With these new jihadist radicals running around, it looks like we’re being pulled back in. They’re dangerous but we’re broke. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.