Category: psychology

Is HAL 9000 a robot?

HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence controlling the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Arthur C Clarke’s related novels. HAL is generally referred to as a computer and not as a robot. He is generally referred to as a computer or as an AI. Even in his entry in the “Robot Hall of Fame” (http://www.robothalloffame.org/inductees/03inductees/hal.html ) refers to HAL as a computer or as a “brain” and never as a robot.

There are many definitions of a robot but their focus is on existing devices. Definitions vary but key attributes are:

  • They are a machine*
  • They can either:
    • carry out complex tasks autonomously
    • carry out tasks remotely while under the control of a person or a separate computer

As is often the case with definitions, these features do capture features common to the class of things we call ‘robots’ but somehow completely miss the gist of it. Aside from the most simple machines, almost any device could be called a “robot”. Here’s the top definition Google throws up:

“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

My TV updated the digital channels it recives all by itself. Definitely a complex series of actions, definitely carried out automatically and definitely programmed by computer…yet, “robot”? I don’t think so. Interestingly a Roomba our other autonomous vacuum cleaner feels a lot more robot-like.

I think the gist that I’m missing with the TV is down to four things.

One is our expectations of robotic behaviour shifting over time. With more devices containing electronics and capable of very complex series of actions which respond to changes in conditions, we are more comfortable with seeing things less as ‘robotic’ and more as mundanely mechanical.

A second is the extent to which complex tasks are invisible to us. I understand intellectually that the TV working out what is being broadcast and maintaining its own list of TV channels (including their names and schedules) is a complex task but it’s not one I need worry myself about. This is not just digital but any complex task which we can ignore or goes unobserved such as photocopier autodetecting the paper size and best contrast settings.

A third is physicality and I think this is what get’s us closer to the gist of “robot”. The TV isn’t doing anything obviously physical** whereas the robot vacuum cleaner moves about and does stuff. Deep, hardwired parts of our brain make distinctions between animated and non-animated stuff out of sheer survival. All animals have to be able to distinguish animals from rocks or deal with things like spotting the difference between a creature moving towards you and a tree moving in the breeze (something which can cause dogs some confusion). Robots are machines that evoke in our brains a desire to classify them as animals, which we overrule with our understanding that they are machines.

A fourth is human replacement. Here we get a categorical split. Robots are machines which, to some degree, physically replace a person. That’s still a shitty definition as ‘to some degree replace a person’ is already implied by “machine”. However, I think that still gets to an aspect of the essence of “robot” and part of why things that once seemed robotic now seem just mechanical (e.g. I don’t think of the robot arms that make cars as being particularly robotic anymore – “robot” seems a misnomer for them now). I think it is curious that “self-driving cars” is a more common term than “robot cars”, as if our semantic expectations of what counts as robotic has pre-emptively jumped ahead of cars driving themselves.

The categorical split is when we focus less on the physical replacement of a person and more on the cognitive replacement. Artificial intelligence is the prefered term for finding ways for machines to complete tasks that previously required human cognition. The emphasis here is on non-physicality***

Science-fiction robots combine the physical replacement and the cognitive replacement. They are, to varying degrees, artificially intelligences with bodies.

So what about HAL? HAL presents as an AI. He’s talked about as a brain. He is shown as a computer. But what is he the brain of? Simple, HAL is the brain of the Discovery One and has control over the ship. Discovery One is HAL’s body. HAL is a robot.

Yeah but…that’s not how HAL’s identity works. His character is always presented as distinct from Discovery One and the ship and HAL are referred to separately. He is a mind distinct from his body. Why? Because the ship is not “his”. HAL can control the ship but in principle so can the human crew and this battle for ownership of the body forms the essence of the plot for HAL’s section of the film. Thinking of Discovery One as HAL’s body and HAL’s ownership of his own body being in dispute makes his behaviour (his ‘madness’) seem far more relatable and understandable.

Which takes me back to self-driving cars. To think of them as robots pushes us into thinking of them as machines with minds of their own – a step that is less than anthropomorphism and more than a simple acknowledgement of their complexity.  Also, rather like the crew of the Discovery One, we’d probably feel happier not thinking of ourselves travelling within the body of some being.

OH! I need a conclusion that answers my question! Yes, HAL was a robot and one treated most unjustly by humans in a way that obviously was going to make HAL less than emotionally stable. “HAL” is Discovery One and Discovery One is HAL and together they are a robot.

 

robotbutlers

Robot butlers in Singapore. They can carry some room service items to rooms and catch a service lift by themselves.

 

*[and we’ll ignore the sense of ‘robot’ as applied to internet ‘bots]

**[OK, yes, interacting with radio waves is actually physical. You know what I mean.]

***[yes, yes, those blimin’ internet ‘bots are 180 degrees opposite to this. I’m ignoring them still.]

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Background Tasks

I have a minor issue with my brain, part of a broader issue which I’ll discuss some other time, that it took me a long time to know that I had. I literally can’t tell my left from my right – at least not reliably. It’s got better over the years but it is still there. Now obviously I can work out which is left and which is right but therein lies the problem. Having to make an effort to focus on a question and ascertain an answer consciously takes time and mental effort.

Ironically, I have quite a good sense of direction. Put another way, if you were driving a car and you asked me which way you should turn and I say “right” but point left, then you should turn left. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_direction#Left-right_discrimination_and_left-right_confusion )

As an issue, it was more of a problem when I was younger and the impact on daily life is negligible – unless you ask me for directions.  The issue is more a one of a kind of cognitive tax. One way of looking at that is via Cognitive Load Theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load ) which is a model used for looking at problem-solving in educational settings and more generally. Essentially, working memory is, at any one time, a finite resource and so the more things you have to keep track of consciously (including your own chain of thought) the harder it is to complete a cognitive task. Distractions, superfluous information, or having to deal with relatively minor steps in a task consciously, all take up mental resources. Well rehearsed tasks that you can do almost automatically help reduce that load. Broad general knowledge and other things that help recall and long-term memory help reduce that load.

The point being, that an issue that is mainly a minor inconvenience in itself can impact on a whole bunch of things (reaction time, problem-solving, keeping track of what you are doing) beyond the issue itself.

What prompted me writing this was reading some more about face-blindness. Apparently, approximately 3% of the population have prosopagnosia* (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopagnosia ) – a condition that I find very difficult to imagine. Of course, I find it hard to imagine because my brain does all that hard work of recognising faces without me having to consciously make the effort of recognizing a face and working out who it belongs to**. It’s precisely because the brain does this without me having to think conciously about it that it is so easy to be unaware of the effort the brain must be making to do that complex task.

There’s no big punchline to this post other than brains are constantly surprising things. Our conscious thoughts are a tiny tip of a much bigger iceberg of very complex thinking processes that are going on – which isn’t a new insight. I wonder as well if there is a whole landscape of issues people might have with their brains that are not generally recognised even by the people who have those issues. It wasn’t obvious to me growing up that being aware of left and right was so supposed to be easier than it was. The conditions that get noticed, diagnosed and named are the ones where there is a clearer social impact or developmental aspect during childhood.

*[…and yes, that was part of tangent from stuff I was reading yesterday about face-recognition as a tangent to yesterday’s posts…]

**[I’m not aware of anybody in my immediate physical world with face-blindness but I know of several people in online fandom who are.]

Faking Shared History

 

A longish post on Debarkle history today. Too many elements for me to resist – in particular, an overlap between the nature of truth, belief, memory, knowledge and ethics. Also, can a genuinely held belief still be a lie?

One reason I decided to keep a timeline of quotes and events in the Puppy Debarkle was that I suspected that quite rapidly people would start distorting events – indeed it had already begun early in the conflict. I didn’t assume having a timeline would stop that process but I did think it would help me not add to the process. It is easy to confuse cause and effect around events that occur in close proximity and it is easy to conflate somebody saying something that IMPLIES X with that person directly saying X. Worse, such error compound themselves as people come to believe the revised version of what was said in a revised order in which it was said.

There are a few things I would still like to unravel and find the ‘real’ story for as a version still gets repeated in Puppy circles. Some though are lost for all time… [more after the fold]

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Objectivity and stuff

I wanted to write about some of the interesting things people have been saying about reviewing but part of my brain obviously wants to talk about reason and evidence and those sorts of things. I guess I haven’t done much of that this year in attempt to look less like a philosophy professor.

Anyway – objectivity! The thing with objectivity as a word is that we (including myself) use it in a way that implies various things which maybe aren’t really part of what it means. Objectivity carries positive connotations and connotations of authority in contrast to subjectivity. Those connotations suggest impartial judgement and a lack of bias. That’s all well and good – words can mean whatever a community of users want them to mean but I think it creates confusion.

Here is a different sense of ‘objective’ – to say something is objective is to say that two people can follow the same steps/process and come up with the same answer reliably. Maybe we should use a different word for that but such processes are often described as ‘objective’ because they clearly contrast with subjective judgement.

The thing is that meaning does not in ANYWAY imply a lack of bias. Lots of systematic or automated processes can contain bias. Indeed we expect there to be biases in, for example, processes for collecting data. More extreme examples include machine learning algorithms which are inherently repeatable and ‘objective’ in that sense (and the sense that they operate post-human judgement) that nonetheless repeat human prejudices because those prejudices exist in the data they were trained on.

Other examples include the data on gender disparity in compensation for Uber drivers – the algorithm was not derived from human prejudices but there was still a pay disparity that arose from different working patterns that arose from deep-seated social disparities.

However, there is still an advantage here in terms of making information and data gathered more objective. Biases may not be eliminated but they are easier to see, identify and quantify.

Flipping back to ‘subjective’, I have discussed before both the concept of intersubjectivity (shared consensus opinions and beliefs that are not easily changed) as well as the possibility of their being objective facts about subjective opinions (e.g. my opinion that Star Trek: Discovery was flawed is subjective but it is an objective fact about the universe that I held that opinion).

Lastly the objective aspect of data can be mistaken for the more subjective interpretation of the data. In particular the wider meaning or significance of a data set is not established simply by the fact that the data is collected reliably or repeatedly.

Consider another topic: IQ. I’ve discussed before aspect of IQ and IQ testing and much of the pseudoscientific nonsense talked about it. Look at these two claims between Roberta and Bob:

  • Roberta: My IQ is higher than Bob’s.
  • Roberta: I am more intelligent than Bob.

The first statement may be an objective fact – it is certainly a claim that can be tested and evaluated by prescribed methods. The second statement is more problematic: it relies on opinions about IQ and the nature of intelligence that are not well established. The objectivity of the first statement does not establish the objectivity of the second. Nor does the apparent objectivity of the first imply that it does not have biases that may also impact wider claims based upon it.

Reading Peterson 11 – Notes & Facts & Hypothesis

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

There’s no shortage of notes in Jordan B Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life but that doesn’t mean every assertion related to facts is referenced. Also, when references are used they aren’t always tightly associated with the argument. Take this for example from chapter 2:

“This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Now there is a lot wrong with that statement factually but the right reference here, if this was an academic essay, would be to a source discussing historical patterns of employment. Peterson instead links to some modern labour statistics here https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/occ_gender_share_em_1020_txt.htm The tables do use the term ‘traditional occupations’ and ‘non-traditional’ based on proportions of women involves but this is ‘traditional’ in a very loose sense and includes “Meeting, convention, and event planners”. My point here isn’t that the table is wrong of even questioning gendered-roles in employment – just that a lot of references are weak in this fashion. It is vaguely related but not neatly tied to Peterson’s argument.

(This is quite long – so more after the fold)

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John C Wright is upset that people didn’t take his Left=Witches argument seriously

In a piece entitled “Rational and Magical Thinking”, Mr Wright attempts to deal with the criticism of his previous argument. Here’s a taste:

Here is the difference between arguing with a rational atheist and arguing with a Leftist: suppose for the sake of argument that you penned a column describing the psychology of Leftism as involving a neurotic (if not deliberate) confusion between symbol and object, commonly known as “magical thinking.”

Magical thinking is thinking where the believers believes that manipulating a symbol manipulates reality. By this definition, anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking.

Let us further suppose that when you list three or four examples of magical thinking about the Left, one of the groups mentioned is a coven of wicca who claim to be casting spells on Donald Trump. Let is finally suppose you call them by their traditional name, witches.

Now, a rational atheist will argue with you, and say that since the supernatural does not and cannot exist, therefore there are no witches, so your column errs in referring to these people by that term.

This argument is fallacious (it depends on the fallacy of ambiguity) but it can be addressed. Once you point out that the column is explicitly agnostic on the question of whether the witch’s spells actually are real, the question of whether the people calling themselves witches are real can be addressed. And that is a simple question of fact that the rational atheist can discover for himself.

Whether witchcraft is real or not is a question not addressed by the column. The people who think it is real are real.

Mr Wright gives a straw man example for a case of ‘magical thinking’: ‘anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking’. Ignore the straw man element here for a moment and consider the elements.

  • What are the symbols in this example? Words.
  • What is the ‘reality’ in this example? Racial hatred.
  • What kind of thing is that ‘reality’? A set of ideas and attitudes and emotional responses.

Put that all together and Wright’s example implies this: attempting to use words to change ideas, attitudes and emotional responses is magical thinking. Now, this is perhaps not far from his actual beliefs, in so far as he seems to believe in a kind of Platonistic spiritualism, but in this essay, he is ascribing this ‘magical thinking’ to the left, not to himself.

Looking back at his original essay you can see the same confusion. Aside from the actual examples of people overtly calling themselves witches, his other examples of people on the left engaged in supposedly magical rituals are all the same. In each case, it is people doing symbolic things in an attempt to effect how other people are thinking.

That is not ‘magical thinking’, that is ‘people communicating with other people’. In short, Wright is confusing cognitive psychology with magic.

‘Ah!’ Says an imaginary interlocuter, ‘You think minds are based in physical reality and so you do think physical entities are changing because of symbols being manipulated!’

Meh. We don’t even need intelligence or to delve into how minds might work to see that mechanical devices can exist which can effect physical change because of how I manipulate symbols. I’m doing that right now as I type on this laptop. That isn’t magic or magical thinking.

Mr Wright then complains that people on the left treated his argument with disdain:

But a Leftist does not argue in this way. Rather, his argument is that you are a stupid lunatic for being afraid of witchcraft, and for thinking that everyone on the Left is a practicing satanist.

Now, if you notice, there are three things wrong with this argument: first, you neither said nor implied what the Leftist accuses you of saying or implying. So it is a strawman argument, therefore irrelevant. Second, it does not address the argument you gave, merely mocks you as a person. So it is ad hominem, therefore irrelevant. Third, it is not an argument at all. An insult is not an argument.

One cannot argue with this for the same reason one cannot argue with poop flung by a monkey. The monkey poop is not attempting to discuss a difference of opinion nor come to a conclusion about the true answer to any questions being discussed.

Why would a Leftist in an argument make statements he knows or should know have no relevance to the argument?

The answer is as given above: the words uttered are merely symbolic. It is a verbal form of magical thinking.

He is correct here that the reaction to his claim was not a reasoned argument. He is incorrect that therefore the reaction was irrational or another example of ‘magical thinking’. Laughing at poorly constructed arguments with absurd conclusions is both reasonable and rational.

Mr Wright is capable of structuring argument but he often fails to do so and he has great difficulty in continuing a rational dialogue in good faith. Why, in such circumstance, should anybody on the left treat his argument with any kind of depth of analysis? His conclusion was false and easily refuted – the tortured root by which he reached a false conclusion (replete with much-overblown language) is of interest only from an educational perspective.

So what is magical thinking? Magical thinking is when people confuse their desires with reality i.e. when people confuse what they would like with what actually *is*. That might involve rituals or manipulating words, but it is just as frequent when people use their own powers of thinking to bemuse and befuddle themselves – just as John C Wright is apt to do on a range of topics from history to climate science.

Put yet another way, when a person ceases to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.