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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Teaching Dolphins Lojban ... Giving Dolphins Prosthetic Hands

A follow-up to my prior posts on cetacean intelligence...

I thought a bit about innovative ways we might be able to communicate better with our cetacean planet-mates...

1. Teach Dolphins Lojban

A couple decades ago, efforts were made to teach dolphins simple English, without dramatic success. Discussions were also had regarding creation of some sort of species-independent interlingua, which humans and dolphins could use to communicate with each other.

It occurred to me that using Lojban for that interlingua could make sense. Potentially, one could create special Lojbanic vocabulary for the shared human/dolphin environment. Lojban grammar is simple and unambiguous, and certainly has less species-specificity than any human natural language.

Also, one could create a form of Lojban "phonology" that generally follows the sound-production patterns habitually by dolphins, and speak to dolphins in this "Delphic Lojban" alongside the usual "human Lojban."

The biggest disadvantage of this approach is that it requires some human cetaceologists to learn Lojban.... But this cost seems worth paying, as the odds of success seem much higher than with human natural languages.

Note that there is no straightforward way to make a "phonologically Delphic" version of English. But because Lojban syntax is just a linearization of logical relationships, one could make a Delphic version of Lojban by translating those same logical relationships into sound in a wholly different way than is done in the human version of Lojban.

2. Give Dolphins Prosthetic Hands

Inside a dolphin's flippers, are bones that look like they should correspond to claws or fingers.

What if we created prosthetic fingers and thumbs for dolphins, and connected them to these bones ... and also connected them to the dolphin nervous system?

Admittedly, these modified dolphins would suffer impaired swimming ability, though one would hope the degree of this phenomenon could be palliated via appropriate design. (For instance, perhaps the fingers could be made retractable, so the dolphin could retract them when it wanted to swim, and extend them when it wanted to manipulate objects.)

This would be a highly experimental adventure in Brain-Computer Interfacing. But, as BCI research advances in the context of human-enhancement applications, I see no reason why it shouldn't advance in the context of dolphin-enhancement applications in parallel.

My thinking is that much of which distinguishes human intelligence from cetacean intelligence is our focus on complex manipulation of tools, and building things (including advanced phenomena like tools that make tools, etc.). If a dolphin brain self-reorganized to adapt to its prosthetic fingers, then the dolphin would have the capability to use tools in a more humanlike way.

Since the cetaceans' evolutionary progenitors had claws of some sort, there may be some vestigial neural wiring in the dolphin brain that will ease the self-reorganization that the dolphin brain needs to go through to make use of the prosthetic fingers.

Another possibility would be to build in the capability for human operators to periodically "take over" the dolphin fingers using remote control. This would serve to show the dolphin what to do with the fingers, both on the conscious reflective level, and on the level of unconscious habituation.

Of course discussions of what to build with the fingers, and how to use tools, could be carried out using Lojban (human or Delphic) ;-D


Ahhh ... all the really fascinating research that would get funded if I happened to receive a billion-dollar inheritance from some long-lost uncle ;-p

Why AGI Researchers Should Care about Cetaceans

This is just a brief follow-up to my last post, and a prelude to the one that will follow, which is already brewing in my brain....

In case some of y'all are wondering why I ... whose main intellectual obsession is the creation of AGI systems with general intelligence at the human level and beyond ... have suddenly started ranting about cetacean intelligence, I suppose I should be more explicit about my research-related motivation for digging into the topic

Of course there's a personal motivation -- I love nonhuman animals ... at the moment as well as some humans I share my house with a parrot, 2 dogs and 5 bunnies; and there have been friends of a lot of other species in my life at various times.... In fact the parrot named Abaca might be classified as my best friend over the last few months ;-) ....

I've encountered wild dolphins up close in the shallows of the Indian Ocean when I lived in Western Australia 13-15 years ago, and was certainly struck by the experience, as brief and superficial as it was. I definitely wanted more (and would have sought out more if I hadn't left Western Oz to move to New York and start an AI company)

But what I want to focus on here is my intellectual motivation for, as an AGI researcher, finding cetacean intelligence important.

How often do I hear, among AGI researchers, words to the effect of "Of course we need to model our AGI systems on the human brain and mind, since after all it's the only example we have of a highly generally intelligent system."

I tend to resist this line of thinking ... I think we understand enough about the general mathematics and computer science of cognition that we can understand general intelligence in a manner going beyond the human-specific. My own AI work is an amalgam of aspects directly inspired by human intelligence, and aspects inspired by a broader understanding of intelligence.

But still, there is some point to the common observation that we only know one example of a highly generally intelligent system: the human brain.

But is it actually true?

What if the subset of cetacean intelligence researchers who believe cetaceans have general intelligence comparable to, or greater than, human intelligence ... are actually correct? (Which is my suspicion.)

Then in fact there's another example available -- and we're just not taking the trouble to study it as carefully and thoroughly as we should.

In my immediately previous blog post I gave some links into the cetacean intelligence literature, and some speculations as to what I think the broad nature of cetacean intelligence might possibly be.

In my next blog post I'll discuss some cutting-edge approaches that we might take over the next couple decades to more thoroughly understand cetacean intelligence.

I'm not suggesting that resources be taken from AGI and redirected to cetacean cognitive science: I think that both areas are distressingly underfunded.

In the case that we create AGI programs with superhuman general intelligence before we understand cetacean minds, I think we might still have something to learn from the minds of dolphins. Because cetacean minds may possess a quite different form of intelligence than either us or our AGI creations. And it's hard to tell what may be learned by studying some advanced, fundamentally different incarnation of intelligence.

There could possibly be interesting implications for the study of AGI ethics here, for instance. Cetacea are certainly not optimally ethical creatures ... they're capable of violence just like most other mammals ... but based on what we can understand today, it seems their social organization may have fewer egregious ethical issues than ours. As one example, they seem to have achieved a large-scale, global social organization without warfare. (Evidence of the global nature of their social organization is tentative, but provided by observations such as the way repeated phrases in whale "song" tend to arise in one part of the globe, then spread through whales in all the world's oceans, then die out after a time, replaced by others.)

I'm certainly not suggesting that study of cetacean society will magically provide the answer to the AGI ethics problem, or the problem of generally understanding general intelligence, etc. However, I think it would be very interesting to understand how a fundamentally different sort of general intelligence works, and how it has approached the society/ethics problem, as an additional body of evidence to utilize as we shape the minds of the future.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cetacean consciousness...

I've been reading many of the writings of John Lilly lately, and also poring through the literature on cetacean intelligence ... and I have to say it's fascinating stuff ....

I'm fascinated by Lilly's cetacean intelligence/communication work, his isolation tank work, even his obsessive (and, apparently, excessive) experiments with ketamine injection leading to long conversations with various hallucinated (?) extraterrestrials ;-)

(I read his stuff a couple decades ago but I've been through a lot of experiences since, and I can read it with different eyes now. I remember how inspirational his book "Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer" was for me, when I read it at age 13 or 15 or whatever.)

Anyway ... plenty of scientists by now have followed up Lilly's intuitions about the deep intelligence of dolphins and other cetaceans. A bunch of research papers by various scientists (not under the influence of ketamine ;-) are here:

For some relevant books by people less fringe-y than Lilly, but still quite insightful, see e.g.
but I've found no up-to-date comprehensive review book, so you really gotta read the journal literature and various books to understand what's known so far...

As of now there is no definitive scientific proof that cetaceans are extraordinarily intelligent ... though there's pretty solid proof that they're at least as clever as great apes, I would say (though different in mentality) ...

However, my qualitative impression from reviewing all the evidence is that they are, in some senses, dramatically more intelligent than great apes

I will write something systematic on this topic at some point, when I get more time and have read the literature more thoroughly (obviously this is just a background interest for me, so my reading is going pretty slowly...)

What got me musing about this topic right now was thinking about how the naive physics of our everyday world has impacted human intelligence, and what this might mean for engineering and educating AGI.

Last month Allan Combs and I wrote a paper for the NASA CONTACT workshop, discussing how the radically different environments of extraterrestrials might impact their mind-states and varieties of intelligence:

(we'll academic-ize this and publish it somewhere, in time).

And this is also related to a paper I wrote a couple months back, musing about how the lack of fluids, powders, fabrics and other such substances in virtual worlds may impact their utility as homes for humanlike artificial minds:

(In that paper I also explored how it might be possible to enhance virtual worlds to largely remedy this shortcoming, using a special physics-engine technique I called "bead physics".)

In writing that NASA paper, I started wondering how it would impact a mind to evolve in an environment dominated by fluids rather than solids.

My speculation was that, in such a mind, notions of causing and building would be replaced by notions of flowing and shaping .... which would lead to all sorts of other differences.

Gino Yu then pointed out to me these fascinating speculations on the potential subjective experiences of cetaceans:

All this has spurred me to some of my own entertaining speculations (synthesizing various speculations of Lilly and others) ... to wit:

... what if (as Lilly speculated) the everyday states of mind of cetaceans are more like the states of mind that humans get into while on psychedelic drugs, than they are like our everyday consciousness?

After all, these creatures are breathing deeply and rhythmically ... they're floating in liquid ... generally they're living the sort of physical life that would put humans in a deep semi-meditative state ...

What if their big neocortices are devoted essentially to collaboratively composing and improvising music for each other to listen to?

... but perhaps something more advanced and subtle than human music, reflecting intricate patterns of social interaction, and holistic observations about the state of the underwater ecosystem, and emergences between these social and ecosystem patterns...

This would be a type of intelligence not focused on building tools or solving puzzles in the humanlike sense....

As with human intelligence, the main spur for the evolution of such intelligence would be social. Once the composition/improvisation of this kind of communicative/depictive music became a critical aspect of membership in cetacean society, then there would be evolutionary force to compose/improvise more and more appealing music....

In this hypothesis, the crux of dolphin communication might not be one-to-one conversation, but rather multi-player musical improvisation, with both spatial and temporal aspects. Dyadic conversation with practical import might occur, yet have vastly less complexity and subtlety than other aspects of the musical communication...

One interesting thing about this speculation is that, if it were true, it would mean that probing cetacean intelligence using concepts and methods developed for studying human intelligence, could push the researcher in badly wrong directions.

By analogy, imagine that a species whose main focus of intelligence was collaborative spatiotemporal music improvisation, tried to judge and explore human intelligence. Most humans would be judged as hopelessly moronic ... and then a few gifted musicians might be viewed as moderately intelligent. Due to the other species focusing on collaborative spatiotemporal music improvisation, they would miss what is really the crux of human intelligence: our dyadic linguistic communication, and our tool-building.

John Lilly wanted to probe cetacean communication with computer tech, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Computers are a lot better now, so someone could take a much better shot at it. But rather little research seems to be going on at the intersection of advanced AI pattern analysis and cetacean communication, at the moment. Too bad.

More ambitiously, one can envision creating an AI that shared both a humanlike body, and a dolphin-like body, and letting it exist in both worlds.

Lilly did make a good point, that we should probably take some of the $ we are spending on looking for alien lifeforms in space, and devote some of it instead to trying to communicate with these alien intelligences that apparently exist in our oceans. If we can't even communicate with the other intelligences on our own planet, cracking the codes of the minds and languages of beings on alien planets may not be realistic yet (though, of course, there is massive uncertainty in all these domains...).

There is some inordinately silly stuff written about cetacean intelligence -- I read one book on the theme that "Jesus was a dolphin"!! And Lilly certainly complicated his message about cetacean intelligence by mixing it up with some of his other messages, for instance about extraterrestrials whom he felt he contacted while in isolation tanks and on ketamine. But all that is really beside the point. When you look at the scope of existing qualitative evidence about cetacean intelligence, the picture is striking....

Whether the speculations I've made above are on-point or not, I'm convinced there is something very interesting going on in cetacean minds and societies -- which we are not putting nearly enough effort into understanding.

Instead, we are still killing them and making them into steaks.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Female mad scientists and creative nihilism (thoughts on Sofia Kovalevskaya)

I've been thinking of making the protagonist of my next novel a female "mad scientist", but I wasn't sure how to write the character, so I started searching history for a good model.

I found damn few female mad scientists in recorded history.

The closest I found was the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovaleveskaya, whose name I knew from the Cauchy-Kovalevsky Theorem in partial differential equations. I hadn't known much about her before, so I did some reading and found she fit the bill pretty well:

  • World-class mathematician
  • Spent some time inventing weird new electrical machinery
  • Accomplished novelist
  • Also wrote plays and poetry
  • Participated in the Paris Commune, and generally schemed for revolutionary overthrow of governments
  • Helped her husband lose piles of money during a several year period devoted to "clever" real estate and financial speculation

A woman after my own heart -- wish I'd known her! She was also the first woman ever to get a math PhD (she lived in the mid-1800's).

Her biography is also full of nice tidbits, like

  • She first got passionate about advanced math when her attic happened to get wallpapered with lecture notes from a calculus class her father had taken years before. So she learned about limits and such from reading unordered pages of mathematical text pasted to a wall!
  • To study advanced math, she had to leave Russia (due to sexist regulations), and to do that she had to get married ... so she entered into a "fake marriage" with a platonic male friend with the sole purpose of escaping Russia to get to university in Western Europe (although, many years later, the fake marriage turned real...)

Her childhood memoir "A Russian Childhood" is a wonderful book and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Russian literature.

This biography is also worth reading for the story it tells -- although the biographer's radical-feminist antimasculism is annoying, and appears to radically falsify Kovalevskaya's relationship with her husband, among other things

There's also a historical novel about her life, which I haven't read

Her novella "Nihilist Girl" has some greatness about it too, but feels first-draft-ish, like it needed a final edit to really become a work of art.

But the main thing I wanted to write about today was the revised idea of "nihilism" I got from reading "Nihilist Girl" and these other materials....

I've generally thought of "nihilism" as meaning "believing in nothing" ... or at least the attitude of Turgenev's character Bazarov, that nothing really matters much including one's own life....

But after reading Kovalevskaya, I realize that -- in thinking about Russian nihilism from the mid-1800s -- I was largely mistaking the parody for the real thing.

Kovalevskaya's brand of nihilism was significantly more interesting than that of the fictional character Bazarov.

It wasn't about absolutely rejecting everything and judging everything as meaningless and worthless. Rather, it was about rejecting any absolute values. It was about rejecting anything as sacred -- and opening everything up to question.

What was being rejected was a world-view in which there are certain absolute truths, in terms of which everything else must be assessed.

If you get rid of absolute truth, though, then what are you left with? Complete worthlessness and suicide, a la Bazarov? Or maybe not. What Kovalevskaya and her friends were after was something different.

One can think about it in terms of self-organization and strange attractors. Once one gets rid of absolute truth, and admits every single thing as open to question and revision, then one has a self-organizing dynamical system in which each thing gets potentially revised by each other thing. But the outcome of this doesn't need to be a homogeneous evaluation of everything as worthless. The outcome can be some other "strange attractor" in which each thing gets value from each other thing, according to a complex system of interdependencies and interactions.

Kovalevskaya-style nihilism, it seems, wasn't really about rejecting everything as equally worthless, but more about rejecting anything as absolutely valuable ... and letting the process of interactive, adaptive, mutual-value-adjustment spread through everything and lead to a productive evolution of new valuations and forms.

But I don't seem to have been the only one to get confused about nihilism.

Wikipedia says:

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical position that values do not exist but rather are falsely invented. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without meaning, purpose or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another.... The term nihilism is sometimes used synonymously with anomie to denote the general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence that one has when they realize there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.

and Nietzsche wrote in his notebooks (The Will to Power, section 585, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought NOT to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos — at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

Nietzsche posited his own views as dramatically contradictory to nihilism -- and they certainly are wholly contradictory to Bazarov-style nihilism ... Nietzsche was all about creating your own values, rather than accepting any values as absolute, and rather than rejecting all values.

But it seems that Nietzsche was posing nihilism as a "straw man" to an even greater extent than I'd thought before ... and that his general views on trans-nihilist value-creation were not so fundamentally different than those of many of the Russian nihilists of the 1860s.

In Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs wrote "Nothing is true; everything is permitted" -- which on one reading reflects Bazarov-style nihilism ... and which Burroughs borrowed from Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra said:

“Nothing is true, all is permitted”: so said I to myself. Into the coldest water did I plunge with head and heart. Ah, how oft did I stand there naked on that account, like a red crab! –

But if one reads this Burroughs/Nietzsche aphorism as "Nothing is absolutely true; nothing is absolutely impermissible" then one has a Kovalevskaya-style nihilism, in which dogmatism is eliminated in favor of the creative self-organization of new value systems.

Dostoevsky also seems to have put a lot of energy into pillorying a straw-man version of Russian nihilism. Dostoevsky's nihilists are folks like Raskolnikov (the heartless, utilitarian murderer of Crime and Punishment) or Kirilov in The Possessed (a majorly hilarious character who preaches copiously about the worthlessness of existence and then suicides because he considers it the highest act of free will).

Kovalevskaya's "nihilist girl" character is about as far as you can get from Raskolnikov -- an extremely caring person, she marries a political prisoner (a man twice her age in whom she has no romantic interest) to save him from near-certain execution, even though this means her own exile to Siberia ... and generally decides to devote her life to helping Siberian prisoners, as a way of contributing to the common good. She doesn't lack values -- she just rejects having absolute values imposed on her, and wishes to create her own values based on her own intuitions and her engagement with the world.

And the narrator of Nihilist Girl makes a different choice -- she is a mathematician like Kovalevskaya, devoted to the life of science; she plainly states that she would not exile herself to save a political prisoner -- yet she just as plainly shares the same underlying philosophy of "creative nihilism" (my phrase, not Kovalevskaya's).

Dostoevsky courted Sofia Kovalevskaya's big sister Aniuta, as it happened. His story was that he broke off their engagement because she was too nihilistic. Her story (which has more ring of truth) was that she broke up with him, before they were formally engaged, because she didn't want to spend her life taking care of him and wanted more freedom to explore her own interests and passions.

But however the soap opera really went down, both Sofia and Aniuta were too nihilistic for Dostoevsky. The latter believed that only religious belief could save you from destructive nihilism of the form demonstrated by Bazarov, Raskolnikov or Kirilov. He didn't think new value systems could self-organize out of a pool of interacting non-absolutes ... to him value needed to begin with some absolute faith, some absolute assumptions.

All in all, I conclude that nihilism suffered from poor marketing, and an overly subtle and ironic name, which caused its more interesting variants to get forgotten, and its less interesting variants to get repeatedly parodied.

Long live creative nihilism, Kovalevskaya style!

Nothing is true; everything is permitted ;-)