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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Nincompoopic Neurons, Global Brains and the Potential Sociological Applications of Adaptive Stochastic Resonance

My immediately previous blog post, on the apparently in-large-part nincompoopic nature of the emerging global brain

attracted so many comments (largely on various mailing lists I posted the blog URL to), that I figured I'd post a brief response here, expanding on some of the ideas in the responses and connecting them with some ideas from dynamical systems theory.

Most of the feedback I got was in the general vein of a blog post I wrote a couple months earlier, entitled "On Becoming a Neuron":

The theme of "Becoming a Neuron" was how dependent we are, these days, on the global communication network and the emerging human group mind.

The theme of "The Global Nincompoop Awakens" was how many of the communications between the "human neurons" comprising the global brain seem completely idiotic in nature.

Reading through the comments on the Global Nincompoop post, I was struck by the theme of Bart Kosko' book Noise

(a somewhat erratic book, but containing some very interesting ideas). Among other topics he reviews the way the brain's self-organizing cognitive dynamics depend on the high level of noise present in the brain, introducing the general notion of "adaptive stochastic resonance", according to which

Noise can amplify a faint signal in some feedback nonlinear systems even though too much noise can swamp the signal. This implies that a system’s optimal noise level need not be zero

(Google or Wikipedia "adaptive stochastic resonance" for a load of technical papers on the topic, by Kosko and others).

An interesting illustration of this phenomenon is the following figure from Kosko's paper

This picture shows nicely how, in the context of the human perceptual system, adding noise can help make patterns more perceptible.

(What's happening in the picture is that he's adding noise to the pixels in the picture, then applying a threshold rule to decide which pixels are black enough to display. Without enough noise, not enough pixels meet the threshold; with too much noise, too many pixels randomly meet the threshold. But it's worth letting a bunch of pixels randomly meet the threshold, in order to cause ENOUGH pixels to meet the threshold. So to optimize perception by a threshold-based system, you want to have an amount of noise lying in a certain interval -- not too little nor too much.)

Now, Kosko verges on insinuating that this kind of exploitation of noise is somehow a NECESSARY property of intelligent systems, which I doubt. However, it seems plausible that he's right about its role in the human brain and human perception/cognition.

Semi-relatedly, I recall reading somewhere that motion-sensing neurons in the brain are, on average, off by around 80 degrees in their assessment of the direction of motion of a percept at a certain point in the visual field. But we can still assess the direction of motion of an object fairly accurately, because our brains perform averaging, and the noisy data gets washed out in the average.

In other words, brains contain a lot of noise, and they contain mechanisms for working around this fact (e.g. averaging) and creatively exploiting it (e.g. adaptive stochastic resonance).

Now, it's not too surprising if the emerging Global Brain of humanity is more like a brain than like a well-engineered computer program. In other words: most of what goes on in the global brain, like most of what goes on in the human brain, is likely to be noise ... and there are likely to be mechanisms for both working around the noise, and exploiting it.

This brings up the interesting question of what techniques may exist in sociological dynamics for exploiting noise.

How might adaptive stochastic resonance, for example, play a role in sociodynamics? Could it be that the random noise of nincompoopic social interactions serve to make significant sociodynamic patterns stand out more clearly to our minds, thus actually enhancing the ability of the Global Brain to recognize patterns in itself?

I wonder how one would make an experiment to demonstrate or refute this? It would of course be difficult due to the massive number of confounding factors in any social system, and the difficulty of defining things like pattern and noise in the social domain as precisely as is possible in a domain like image processing (where of course these terms are still susceptible to a variety of interpretations).

And surely this simple idea -- obtained by extrapolating Kosko's image-processing example to the sociological domain -- is not the only possible way that social systems could profitably exploit their intrinsic noisiness.

But still, it's an intriguing train of thought....

(P.S. The question of whether this kind of chaotic, noisy, self-organizing system is remotely the best way to carry out creative computation is a whole other question, of course. My own strong suspicion is that human brains are incredibly inefficient at using their computational power, compared to other sorts of intelligent systems that will exist in the future; and the Global Brain likely shares this inefficiency, for similar reasons. However, this inefficiency is partially compensated for in both cases by biological systems' (neurons' and humans') prodigious capability for replication....)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Global Nincompoop Awakens

On a recent business trip to New York, I found myself sitting for a couple hours in a Starbucks in the midst of the campus of New York University (which is not a walled campus, but rather a collection of buildings strewn semi-haphazardly across a few blocks of Greenwich Village).

While sitting there typing into my laptop, I couldn't help being distracted by the conversations of the students around me. I attended NYU in the mid-80's (doing a bit of graduate study there on the way to my PhD), and I was curious to see how the zeitgest of the student body had changed.

Admittedly, this was a highly nonrepresentative sample, as I was observing only students who chose to hang out in Starbucks. (Most likely all the math and CS grad students were doing as I'd done during my time at NYU, and hanging out in the Courant Institute building, which was a lot quieter than any cafe' ...). And, the population of Starbucks seemed about 65% female, for whatever reason.

The first thing that struck me was the everpresence of technology. The students around me were constantly texting each other -- there was a lot of texting going on between people sitting in different parts of the Starbucks, or people waiting in line and other people sitting down, etc.

And, there was a lot of talk about Facebook. Pretty much anytime someone unfamiliar (to any of the conversation participants) was mentioned in conversation the question was asked "Are they on Facebook?" Of course, plenty of the students had laptops there and could write on each others Facebook walls while texting each other and slipping in the occasional voice phone call or email as well.

All in all I found the density and rapidity of information interchange extremely impressive. The whole social community of the Starbucks started to look like a multi-bodied meta-mind, with information zipping back and forth everywhere by various media. All the individuals comprising parts of the mind were obviously extremely well-attuned to the various component media and able to multiprocess very effectively, e.g. writing on someone's Facebook wall and then texting someone else while holding on an F2F conversation, all while holding a book in their lap and allegedly sort-of studying.

Exciting! The only problem was: The contents of what was being communicated was so amazingly trivial and petty it started to make me feel physically ill.

Pretty much all the electronic back-and-forth was about which guys were cute and might be interested in going to which party with which girls; or, how pathetic it was that a certain group of girls had "outgrown" a certain other group via being accepted into a certain sorority and developing a fuller and more mature appreciation for the compulsive consumption of alcohol ... and so forth.

Which led me to the following thought: Wow! With all our incredible communications technologies, we are creating a global brain! But 99.99% of this global brain's thoughts are going to be completely trite and idiotic.

Are we, perhaps, creating a global moron or at least a global nincompoop?

If taken seriously, this notion becomes a bit frightening.

Let's suppose that, at some point, the global communication network itself achieves some kind of spontaneous, self-organizing sentience.

(Yeah, this is a science-fictional hypothesis, and I don't think it's extremely likely to happen, but it's interesting to think about.)

Won't the contents of its mind somehow reflect the contents of the information being passed around the global communications network?

Say: porn, spam e-mails, endless chit-chat about whose buns are cuter, and so forth?

Won't the emergent global mind of the Internet thus inevitably be a shallow-minded, perverted and ridiculous dipshit?

Is this what we really want for the largest, most powerful mind on the planet?

What happens when this Global Moron asserts its powers over us? Will we all find our thoughts and behaviors subtly or forcibly directed by the Internet Overmind?? -- whose psyche is primarily directed by the contents of the Internet traffic from which it evolved ... which is primarily constituted of ... well... yecchh...

(OK .. fine ... this post is a joke... OR IS IT???)