Friday, August 24, 2007

Why Prof. John Searle is Wrong!
In Philosophy we talk about a lot of things like Do we exist? or How do we know that we're alive? At one point, Philosophy and Computer Science met and opened up a whole can of worms. People started asking questions like What is thinking?, Could we tell if our brains really are stuck in a Matrix like in the movie?, and Are we biological machines? The topic that most interested me was Can Machines Ever Think?

The Turing Test
We can't talk about thinking machines without first talking about Alan Turing. Alan Turing was British mathematician often cited as the Father of Computer Science. In fact, the computers we use today are called Turing Machines in computer science lingo. Turing also thought about whether machines would ever think, but before he could do that, he had to answer the question of How can we tell that a machine is thinking? To answer this question, Turing devised a test. Suppose that you had two rooms that you could not look into. In one room there was a person and in another room there was a machine that would try to answer questions like a human would. Then, without know who/what was in each room, another person (the tester) would write some questions on a piece of paper and slide it underneath each door, and whoever/whatever was in the room would try to answer the question in such a way as to seem as human as possible by writing the response on another piece of paper and sliding it back under the door. If the tester was unable to determine which room contained the machine after several rounds of questions then the machine passes the Turing Test and can be deemed intelligent by Turing's standards.

The Chinese Room Argument
John Searle is a Philosophy professor at the Univ. of California, Berkeley who came up with a mental experiment to show that even if you could make a program that would pass the Turing Test, it still couldn't be intelligent because the program is mindlessly following instructions. Searle says that the program would lack intentionality and cognitive states which he believes are requirements to demonstrating intelligence. Here is the original text The argument asks you to pretend that there is a non-Chinese speaker in a closed room. Someone can write a Chinese question, slip it under the door and the guy inside will lookup a bunch of rule books on how to process these symbols into Chinese answers and push them back out under the door.
You can read it yourself, but the main point of the argument is suppose the guy in the room becomes so efficient at processing those rules and producing Chinese answers that to people outside the room, he would appear to be a Chinese speaking person. The Chinese room would then pass the Turing Test, but since the person doesn't understand Chinese and rules by themselves cannot think, we must conclude that Strong AI (or machines that can think at the level that we do) cannot exist.

This, however, is a false conclusion. Whether or not the man inside the room understands Chinese has no bearing on whether the program executed by the man can understand Chinese.

Let me elaborate with a more simple example. Hopefully you still know how to do long multiplication. If you remember, skip to the next paragraph. If you don't remember, you stack the two numbers that you want to multiply on top of one another, then you take the right most digit of the bottom number and multiply that with all the digits of the top number whilst doing the appropriate carry over. This partial product is written below the numbers to be multiplied. Once you're done with the bottom right most digit, you repeat the process with the digit next to it, but write down the partial product offset one digit to the left of the previous partial product. Then when all thats done, you add up all the partial products assuming you consider all the offset digits in the partial products are zero. This sum is the product of the two original numbers... whew!!!

Okay, now you know how to do long multiplication, but do you understand long multiplication? Do you know what the partial products are for or why you got to offset them. Do you know why you have to carry over when multiplying by a single digit? If you can't answer these questions, then you don't understand long multiplication, you only know how to follow the instructions. What if you got really good at following those instructions and were able to do long multiplication in your head, would you be any better at understanding long multiplication? No.

Now here's the pseudo-paradox that Searle wants to convince you of. Let me apply Searle's argument to long multiplication: Suppose you could exhibit the same behavior of someone who understands long multiplication by simply showing that you can compute the answer, but although, you appear to understand long mulitplication, you don't actually understand it, therefore the long multiplication process can never understand long multiplication.

Unfortunately, we know that people are able to do long multiplication without understanding it so this cannot be a paradox. If this is not a paradox, we must conclude that the process does understand long multiplication. Thus, Searle's argument proves nothing.

You're probably saying "Huh? That doesn't make sense" right about now, right? Let me explain how I can compare long multiplication to real human thought.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cult of the Elitist
The other night when I was watching the Colbert Report, he had on the author of the book Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture, Andrew Keen. Usually I like the authors that come on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report but this time I couldn't help getting exceptionally ticked off about this author.
Keen theorizes that because the Internet allows anyone to produce content and anyone to access that content for free, real art is being trivialized. Real artists cant make money so they get wiped out. Objective internet journalism is thrown out the door because of lying, cherry picking facts, and corporate sponsored bloggers. Additionally, pirating over the internet is preventing traditional content creators from making money.
Despite the flaws in his argument, what really annoyed me was that Keen also believes that we need well-educated people to provide us with the content with which to form our culture. Us pig farmers shouldn't be allowed to define our culture. Does Keen suppose that there's a committee out there carefully mitigating the deluge of media that gets into our heads so that minds don't implode and we all de-evolve into a bunch of monkeys, and that the internet is somehow circumventing this process?
Since the beginning of culture, culture has always and will always be built upon the democratization of ideas. Video killed the radio star, not because people were making videos, but because the people were willing to watch it en masse. Thus, the age of video was born. Did our culture die with MTV and America's Funniest Home Video? Some would say yes, but if that were true the internet wouldn't be able to kill a dead culture now, right? Did the automobile kill our horse-drawn carriage culture? Yes, but it didn't destroy our culture. Our culture has always evolved to accommodate the technologies that we embrace. Even today [despite its environmental effects] the American car culture has become one of the defining aspects of life in the US.
To further prove my point, that culture is essentially the democratization of ideas, lets examine the only times when a culture has successfully been killed. Take for example the ancient Mayans and the Incans. Their cultures were not destroyed until the Spanish annihilated the people's of those cultures. When a society is decimated like various the Native American tribes, the ones that are still alive keep their culture going regardless of their social status or education. If they all start running Indian casinos, then casinos will become part of their culture, even at the dismay of their ancestors nonetheless.
Perhaps Keen isn't really saying that the internet is killing our culture. Maybe he's saying that it's killing traditional media. Of course, how are you gonna sell a book entitled How the Internet Killed Traditional Media? Everybody already knows how. No... you'd have to cast a wider net to make book more evocative so somebody will buy it. So let's say that the internet is killing culture, but really write a book about the internet killing traditional media.

BTW, you can buy Keen's book on the culture killing internet from his own very webpage here:

See the Colbert Report interview below:

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Frets on Fire

In the world of Geekdom, there's one phenomenon that's sweeping the nation like the opening of another George Lucas film. The phenomenon is Guitar Hero. A game where even the nerdiest of nerds can play out their rockstar fantasies. The game even includes a controller in the form of a guitar with buttons for frets and a rocking switch that you strum to play the notes. Similar to games like Dance Dance Revolution, you have to hit the right notes as colored markers run down the screen indicating what fret buttons to hold down.

So what's the big deal?
I think everyone is born with an innate desire to be a rocker. Haven't we all seen that rockstar on stage whaling on his guitar with fingers as fast as lightning and then say to yourself, "Damn, I wish I could do that!". The game is allows anyone to experience the joy of hitting that climactic riff without the years of practice needed to learn a real guitar. And unlike a real guitar, you get instant gratification with just a modicum of practice.

Then I realized I had a wife.
Obviously, buying another gadget the size of a guitar that was going to live in the living room isn't an easy sell. I pretty much gave up on my rockstar dreams until one day I saw some YouTube videos of guys playing this Guitar Hero clone called Frets on Fire. The people who made this ingeniously figured out that if you held your keyboard upside-down like a guitar, the F1-F5 keys would be in the perfect position to be used as fret buttons. Plus, the program is open-source (ie free) and you can download a bunch of songs for it and even import the songs from the Guitar Hero game. So now I don't need to keep around a plastic guitar and I can try out hundreds more songs than ever could with the Guitar Hero version. And again,... its free so why not give it a shot.