Monday, October 06, 2008

Parable of the Researcher and the Tribesman

I run an email discussion list on Artificial General Intelligence, which is often interesting, but lately the discussions there have been more frustrating than fascinating, unfortunately.

One recent email thread has involved an individual repeatedly claiming that I have not presented any argument as to why my designs for AGI could possibly work.

When I point to my published or online works, which do present such arguments, this individual simply says that if my ideas make any sense, I should be able to summarize my arguments nontechnically in a few paragraphs in an email.

Foolishly, I managed to get sufficiently annoyed at this email thread that I posted a somewhat condescending and silly parable to the email list, which I thought I'd record here, just for the heck of it....

What I said was:

In dialogues like this, I feel somewhat like a medical researcher talking to a member of a primitive tribe, trying to explain why he thinks he has a good lead on a potential drug to cure a disease. Imagine a dialogue like this:

  • RESEARCHER: I'm fairly sure that I'll be able to create a drug curing your son's disease within a decade or so
  • TRIBESMAN: Why do you believe that? Have you cured anyone with the drug?
  • RESEARCHER: No, in fact I haven't even created the drug yet
  • TRIBESMAN: Well, do you know exactly how to make the drug?
  • RESEARCHER: No, not exactly. In fact there is bound to be some inventive research involved in making the drug.
  • TRIBESMAN: Well then how the hell can you be so confident it's possible?
  • RESEARCHER: Well I've found a compound that blocks the production of the protein I know to be responsible for causing the disease. This compound has some minor toxic effects in rats, but it's similar in relevant respects to other compounds that have shown toxic effects in rats, and then been minorly modified to yield variant compounds with the same curative impacts without toxic effects
  • TRIBESMAN: So you're saying it's cured the same disease in rats?
  • RESEARCHER: Yes, although it also makes the rats sick ... but if it didn't make them sick, it would cure them. And I'm pretty sure I know how to change it so as to make it not make the rats sick. And then it will cure them.
  • TRIBESMAN: But my son is not a rat. Are you calling my son a rat? You don't seem to understand what a great guy my son is. All the women love him. His winky is twice as long as yours. What does curing a rat have to do with curing my son? And it doesn't even cure the rat. It makes him sick. You just want to make my son sick.
  • RESEARCHER: Look, you don't understand. If you look at all the compounds in that class, you'll see there are all sorts of ways to modify them to avoid these toxic effects.
  • TRIBESMAN: So you're saying I should believe you because you're a big important scientist. But your drug hasn't actually cured anyone. I don't believe it'll possibly work. People come by here all the time trying to sell me drugs and they never work. Those diet pill were supposed to make my wife 100 pounds thinner, but she still looks like a boat.
  • RESEARCHER: I'm not responsible for the quacks who sold you diet pills
  • TRIBESMAN: They had white lab coats just like yours
  • RESEARCHER: Look, read my research papers. Then let's discuss it.
  • TRIBESMAN: I can't read that gobbledygook. Do all the other researchers agree with you?
  • RESEARCHER: Some of them do, some of them don't. But almost all of them who have read my papers carefully think I at least have a serious chance of turning my protein blocker into a cure. Even if they don't think it's the best possible approach.
  • TRIBESMAN: So all the experts don't even agree, and you expect me to take you seriously?
  • RESEARCHER: Whatever. I'll talk to you again when I actually have the cure. Have a nice few years.
  • TRIBESMAN: We won't need your cure by then, Mr. Scientist. We're curing him with leeches already.

That just about sums it up....

The point is, the researchers's confidence comes from his intuitive understanding of a body of knowledge that the tribesman cannot appreciate due to lack of education.

The tribesman says "you haven't cured anyone, therefore you know nothing about the drug" ... but the researcher has a theoretical framework that lets him understand something about the drug's activity even before trying it on people.

Similarly, some of us working on AGI have a theoretical framework that lets us understand something about our AGI systems even before they're complete ... this is what guides our work building the systems. But conveying our arguments to folks without this theoretical framework is, unfortunately, close to impossible.... If I were to write some sort of popular treatment of my AGI work, the first 75% of it would have to consist of a generic explanation of background ideas (which is part of the reason I don't take the time to write such a thing ... it seems like an awful lot of work!!).

Obvious stuff, of course. I'm metaphorically kicking myself for burning half an hour in this sort of absurd email argument tonight ... gotta be more rigorous about conserving my time and attention, there's a lot of work to be done!!!


shikida said...

the tribesman would give up moon landing, since nobody has done this before ;-)

Anonymous said...

Ben, I know how you feel. Intuition is the most incredible thing. I have a hard itme to explain my thoughts to anyone. In the last few years however it has led me down the path to try and understand intuition itself to come to grips with my own work on machine learning. I realized that human decision making has nothing to do with logic or rules. This understanding is based on work of people like Antonio Damasio, Ben Gigerenzer, Marvin Minsky and others. My own experiences and research turned my intuition towards intelligence being a emotional function only, with reasoning being afterthought only. We also need to seperate the motor/sensor loop patterns in the brain as something totally different. So far so good. I was sorry to hear that your work WebMind was stopped. Your concepts have influenced a novel I wrote a few years ago called 'Deity' - available on Amazon (not perfectly edited - sigh). My own work on AI software led me to copy human learning with so-called 'Activity-Mining' by finding patterns in state spaces that are causal to user action, rather than trying to infer logical rules. We are using the technology very successfully commerically for process discovery. Dr. Dorn at Vienna University calls it a breakthrough concept. Would love to hear from you. Max Pucher.