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Friday, November 10, 2006

Virtual Brilliance, Virtual Idiocy

Last night, at the offices of the Electric Sheep Company (a company devoted to creating "virtual Real Estate" in multi-participant online simulation worlds such as Second LIfe), I saw Sibley Verbeck give a lovely presentation on the state of the art in these proto-Metaverse technologies.

These days, more than 10K people are online in Second Life at any given moment, it seems. A million subscribers, half of them active. People are talking about the potential for using Second Life for business presentations, as a kind of super-pumped-up 3D avatar-infused WebEx. And of course the possibility for other cool apps not yet dreamed of.

Stirring stuff ... definitely, technology worth paying attention to.

And yet, Sibley's excellent presentation left me wondering the following: Do we really want to perpetuate all the most stupid and irritating features of human society in the metaverse ... such as obsession with fashion and hairstyles!!??

"Virtual MTV Laguna Beach", a non-Second-Life project that Electric Sheep Factory did, is technically impressive yet morally and aesthetically YUCK, from a Ben Goertzel perspective. Virtual So-Cal high school as a post-Singularity metaverse is a kind of transhumanist nightmare.

I remain unclear regarding whether there will really be any **interesting** "killer apps" for metaverse technology (and I don't find gaming or online dating all that interesting ;) before really powerful multisensory VR interfaces come about.

And even then, simulating humanity in virtuo fascinates me far less than going beyond the human body and its restrictions altogether.

But, I do note that we are currently using a 3D sim world to teach our Novamente baby AI system. Once it becomes smarter, perhaps we will release our AI in Second Life and let it learn from the humans there ... about important stuff like how to wear its hair right (grin!)

And I must admit to being excited about the potential of this sort of tech for scientific visualization. Flying your avatar through the folds of a virtual human brain, or a virtual cell full of virtual DNA, would be mighty educational. Not **fundamental** in the sense of strong AI or molecular assemblers or fully immersive VR, but a lot niftier than Virtual Laguna Beach....

-- Ben

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Music as a Force of Nature...

This is just a quick follow-up to the prior post on "Being a Force of Nature" ...

Thinking over the issues I wrote about in that post, I was reminded of a failed attempt I made many years ago to construct a more robust kind of music theory than the ones that currently exist....

(Ray Jackendoff's generative-grammar-based theory of music is a nice attempt in a similar direction to what I was trying to do, but ultimately I think he failed also....)

Existing music theory seems not to address the most important and interesting questions about music: Which melodies and rhythms are the most evocative to humans, in which ways, and why?

To put it crudely, we know how to distinguish (with fairly high accuracy) a horrible melody from an OK-or-better melody based on automated means. And we know how to distinguish (with fairly high accuracy) what sorts of emotions an OK-or-better melody is reasonably likely to evoke, by automated means.

But, we have NO handle whatsoever, scientifically or analytically, on what distinguishes a GREAT melody (or rhythm, though I've thought most about melodies) from a mediocre one.

I spent a fair bit of time looking for patterns of this nature, mostly eyeballing various representations of melodies but also using some automated software scripts. No luck ... and I long ago got to busy to keep thinking about the issue....

What was wrong with this pursuit was, roughly speaking, the same thing that's wrong with thinking about human minds as individual, separate, non-social/cultural entities....

A musical melody is a sequence of notes arranged in time, sure ... but basically it's better thought of as a kind of SOFTWARE PROGRAM intended to be executed within the human acoustic/cognitive/emotional brain.

So, analyzing melodies in terms of their note-sequences and time-delays is sort of like analyzing complex software programs in terms of their patterns of bits. (No, it's not an exact analogy by any means, but you may get the point.... The main weaknesses of the analogy are: notes and delays are higher-level than bits; and, musical melodies are control-sequences for a complex adaptive system, rather than a simpler, more deterministic system like a von Neumann computer.)

In principle one could find note/delay-level patterns to explain what distinguishes good from great music, but one would need a HUGE corpus of examples, and then the patterns would seem verrrry complex and tricky on that level.

A correct, useful music theory would need to combine the language of notes and delays and such with the language of emotional and cognitive responses. The kind of question involved is: in a given emotional/cognitive context, which specific note/delay patterns/combinations provide which kinds of shifts to the emotional/cognitive context.

However, we currently lack a good language for describing emotional/cognitive contexts.... Which makes the development of this kind of music theory pretty difficult.

So in what sense is music a force of nature? A piece of music comes out of the cultural/psychological/emotional transpersonal matrix, and has meaning and pattern mainly in combination with this matrix, as a sequence of control instructions for the human brains that form components of this matrix...

(I am reminded of Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS, in which a composer creates music that is specifically designed to act on human brains in a certain way, designed to bring them to certain spiritual realizations. Before ever reading Dick, in my late teens, I had a fantasy of composing a musical melody that was so wonderfully recursively revelatory -- in some kind of Escher-meets-Jimi-Hendrix-and-Bach sort of way -- that it would wake up the listener's mind to understand the true nature of the universe. Alas, I've been fiddling at the piano keyboard for years, and haven't come up with it yet....)

Anyway, this is far from the most important thing I could be thinking about! Compared to artificial general intelligence, music is not so deep and fascinating ... ultimately it's mostly a way of fiddling with the particularities of our human mental system, which is not so gripping as the possibility of going beyond these particularities in the right sort of way....

But yet, in spite of its relative cosmic unimportance, I can't really stay away from music for too long! The KORG keyboard sitting behind me tempts ... and many of my best ideas have come to me in the absence/presence that fills my mind while I'm improvising in those quasi-Middle-Eastern scales that I find so seductive (and my daughter, Scheherazade, says she's so sick of hearing, in spite of her Middle-Eastern name ;-)

OK... back to work! ...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Being a Force of Nature...

Reading the book

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society
by Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers

led me inevitably to thoughts about the useful (but sometimes counterproductive) illusions of self and free will.

The authors argue that one path to achieving great things and great happiness is to let go of the illusion of autonomy and individual will, and in the words of George Bernard Shaw "be a force of nature," allowing oneself to serve as a tool of the universe, of larger forces that exist all around and within oneself, and ultimately are a critical part of one's own self-definition (whether one always realizes this or not).

The Shaw quote says:

"
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose you consider a mighty one, the being a force of nature, rather than a feverish, selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
"

A related quote from Martin Buber says of the "truly free" man, that he:

"
... intervenes no more, but at the same time, he does not let things merely happen. He listens to what is emerging from himself, to the course of being in the world; not in order to be supported by it, but in order to bring it to reality as it desires.
"

There is an interesting dilemma at the heart of this kind of wisdom, which is what I want to write about today.

A part of me rebels strongly against all this rhetoric about avoiding individual will and being a force of nature. After all, nature sucks in many ways -- nature "wants" me and my wife and kids and all the rest of you humans to die. What the natural and cultural world around me desires is in large measure repellent to me. I don't want to "get a haircut and get a real job" just because that's what the near-consensus of the world around me is ... and nor do I want to submit to death and disease. Nor do I want to listen to everything that nature has put inside me: anger, irrationality and the whole lot of it.... Nature has given me some great gifts and some nasty stuff as well.

Many of the things that are important to me are -- at least at first glance -- all about me exercising my individual will against what nature and society want me to do. Working to end the plague of involuntary death. Working to create superhuman minds. Composing music in scales few enjoy listening to; writing stories with narrative structures so peculiar only the really open-minded can appreciate them. Not devoting my life entirely or even primarily to the pursuits of money, TV-viewing, and propagating my genome.

On the other hand, it's worth reflecting on the extent to which the isolation and independence of the individual self is an illusion. We humans are not nearly so independent as modern Western -- and especially American -- culture (explicitly and implicitly) tells us. In fact the whole notion of a mind localized in a single body is not quite correct. As my dear friend Meg Heath incessantly points out, each human mind is an emergent system that involves an individual body, yes, but also a collection of tools beyond the body, and a collection of patterns of interaction and understanding within a whole bunch of minds. In practice, I am not just who I am inside my brain, I am also what I am inside the brains of those who habitually interact with me. I am not just what I do with my hands but also what I do with my computer. I wouldn't be me without my kids, nor without the corpus of mathematical and scientific knowledge and philosophical ideation that I have spent a large bulk of my life absorbing and contributing to.

So, bold and independent individual willfulness is, to an extent, an illusion. Even when we feel that we're acting independently, from the isolation of our own heart and mind, we are actually enacting distributed cultural and natural processes. A nice illustration of this is the frequency with which scientific discoveries -- even revolutionary ones -- are made simultaneously by multiple individuals. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were being willful, independent, deviant thinkers -- yet each of them was also serving as a nodal point for a constellation of forces existing outside himself ... a constellation of forces that was almost inevitably moving toward a certain conclusion, which had to be manifested through someone and happened to be manifested through those two men.

An analogy appears to exist with the representation of knowledge in the human brain. There is a peculiar harmony of localization and distribution in the way the brain represents knowledge. There are, in many cases, individual and highly localized brain regions corresponding to particular bits of knowledge. If you remove that little piece of the brain, the knowledge may go away (though in many but not all cases, it may later be regenerated somewhere else). But yet, that doesn't mean the knowledge is immanent only in that small region. Rather, when the knowledge is accessed or utilized or modified, a wide variety of brain regions may be activated. The localized region serves as a sort of "trigger" mechanism for unlocking a large-scale activation pattern across many parts of the brain. So, the knowledge is both localized and distributed: there are globally distributed patterns that are built so as to often be activated by specific local triggers.

We can look at humans as analogous to neurons, in the above picture. None of us contains that much in and of ourselves, but any one of us may be more or less critical in triggering large-scale activation patterns ... which in turn affect a variety of other individuals in a variety of ways....

So then, the trick in being a "force of nature" is to view yourself NOT as an individual entity with an individual mind contained in an individual body, making individual decisions ... but rather, as a potential trigger for global activity patterns; or, to put it slightly differently, as a node or nexus of a whole bunch of complex global activity patterns, with the capability to influence as well as be influenced.

When we act -- when we feel like "we" are "acting" -- it is just as fair to say that the larger (social, cultural, natural, etc.) matrix of patterns that defines us is acting thru the medium of us.

I feel analytically that what I said in the previous paragraph is true... but what is interesting is how rarely I actually feel that way, in practice, in the course of going about my daily business. Even in cases where it is very obviously the truth -- such as my work on artificial general intelligence. Yes, I have willfully chosen to do this, instead of something else easier or more profitable or more agreeable to others. On the other hand, clearly I am just serving as the tool of a larger constellation of forces -- the movement of science and technology toward AGI has been going on a long time, which is why I have at my disposal the tools to work on AGI; and a general cultural/scientific trend toward legitimization of AGI is beginning, which is why I have been able to recruit others to work on AGI with me, which has been an important ingredient for maintaining my own passion for AGI at such a high level.

How different would it be, I wonder, if in my individual daily (hourly, minutely, secondly) psychology, I much more frequently viewed myself as a node and a trigger rather than an individual. A highly specialized and directed node and trigger, of course -- not one that averages the inputs around me, but one that is highly selective and responds in a very particular way intended to cause particular classes of effects which (among other things) will come back and affect me in specific ways.

In short: Letting go of the illusion of individuality, while retaining the delights of nonconformity.

Easy enough to say and think about; and rather tricky to put into practice on a real-time basis.

Cultures seem to push you either to over-individualism or over-conformity, and finding the middle path as usual is difficult -- and as often, is not really a middle path, in the end, but some sort of "dialectical synthesis" leading beyond the opposition altogether and into a different way of being and becoming....