Escher Circuits: visual computation programs

Paul Raven @ 30-03-2010

Here’s a proper science fictional “what-if?”, via the ever-reliable MetaFilter, where the brilliant slug-line “software for your wetware” was applied: is it possible to exploit the biological computation power of our visual apparatus to deal with tasks that we find difficult at a cognitive level? Or, to put it another way: can we set up the brain to act like a processor that uses complex visual stimuli as a form of program?

Or, even more simply: can we make diagrams that, when looked at, produce a certain computational output in our minds?

Yeah, I know, it sounds a bit crazy… but Mark Changizi sure comes across like he knows what he’s doing.

The broad strategy is to visually represent a computer program in such a way that, when one looks at the visual representation, one’s visual system naturally responds by carrying out the computation and generating a perception that encodes the appropriate output to the computation. That is, there would be a special kind of image that amounts to “visual software,” software our “visual hardware” (or brain) computes, and computes in such a way that the output can be “read off” the elicited perception.

Ideally, we would be able to glance at a complex visual stimulus—the program with inputs—and our visual system would automatically and effortlessly generate a perception that would inform us of the ouput of the computation. Visual stimuli like this would not only amount to a novel and useful visual notation, but would actually trick our visual systems into doing our work for us.

And the visual stimuli he’s on about [image borrowed from linked article]?

XOR gate Escher circuit

Well, that elicited a few cognitions from my brain… though I’m not sure that any of those cognitions are particularly useful.


Interpreting facts as failure: the neuroscience of science

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2010

There’s a fascinating essay at Wired UK about a guy called Kevin Dunbar, who studies the science of science. The philosophy and theory of science – the seven-step method you had drilled into you at school, for instance – is very elegant, but it doesn’t reflect the way that real science gets done, and it doesn’t take into account our innate propensity to misinterpret anomalous results, so Dunbar went out and researched the way real researchers research. The results are an interesting mix of the obvious and the counterintuitive:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Well worth a read, especially in light of the aspersions cast on science by the climate change debate. Individual scientists may make mistakes, but science as a system – as a communal project, as an evolving body of knowledge – turns those failures into new theories. [image by Horia Varlan]


The Edge Question 2010: how is the internet changing the way you think?

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2010

Just in case you’ve not encountered it before, the Edge Foundation runs an annual open-question session wherein they pick a current topic and pitch it to some of the more interesting and adventurous thinkers of the world.

This year’s question was, simply enough, “How is the internet changing the way you think?”, and the resulting answers – from characters as diverse as Brian Eno, Freeman Dyson and Howard Rheingold – range from concerned through to cautiously optimistic and back again.

This year sees one of my favourite science fiction authors among the respondants; those of you already acquainted with Rudy Rucker’s writing won’t be surprised to see that his vision of the near-future has more than a hint of the psychedelic communal utopia about it:

At this point, it looks like there aren’t going to be any incredibly concise aha-type AI programs for emulating how we think. The good news is that this doesn’t matter. Given enough data, a computer network can fake intelligence. And—radical notion—maybe that’s what our wetware brains are doing, too. Faking it with search and emergence. Searching a huge data base for patterns.

The seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing the world has been accomplished by ordinary people. This results from the happy miracle that the internet is that it’s unmoderated and cheap to use. Practically anyone can post information onto the web, whether as comments, photos, or full-blown web pages. We’re like worker ants in a global colony, dragging little chunks of data this way and that. We do it for free; it’s something we like to do.

Given the choice of fictional futures to inhabit, I’m inclined to think the ones born of Rucker’s mind would be the most fun… 🙂

If you’ve got some time to kill, I recommend browsing through all the Edge question answers; even if you disagree with all of them, I’ll be surprised if you don’t find some serious food for thought (not to mention ideas for stories).


Old dogs and new tricks: web use good for the elderly brain

Paul Raven @ 23-10-2009

A silver surferYounger readers (or those with spousal units prone to nagging about excessive time spent in front of a computer) may wish to arm themselves with the news that internet use appears to restore and strengthen brain function, particularly in the elderly. In other words, surfing the web is keeping your brain young and fit. [via The End Of Cyberspace; image by mhofstrand]

For the research, 24 neurologically normal adults, aged 55 to 78, were asked to surf the Internet while hooked up to an MRI machine. Before the study began, half the participants had used the Internet daily, and the other half had little experience with it.

After an initial MRI scan, the participants were instructed to do Internet searches for an hour on each of seven days in the next two weeks. They then returned to the clinic for more brain scans.

“At baseline, those with prior Internet experience showed a much greater extent of brain activation,” Small said.

After at-home practice, however, those who had just been introduced to the Internet were catching up to those who were old hands, the study found.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the theory that the structure of the web means we only ever get exposed to ideas that we already find agreeable, but I remain unconvinced of that notion, anyway. A brief glance at history shows that people were always perfectly capable of ignoring information that they found unpalatable, long before the internet (or even the printing press) existed…

But while you’re advising grandma to fire up Firefox, be sure to remind her that it’s an aid to learning, not a replacement for it. Recent research shows that we learn much more quickly if we take a chance to answer incorrectly before looking up the correct response… so try guessing before you Google it, in other words.


Smarter than the new Apple mouse

Paul Raven @ 21-10-2009

ratSteve Jobs and company may have radically re-engineered the mouse, but a team of researchers from the States and China have been busy re-engineering the rat, culminating in the quaintly-named Hobbie-J, a rodent who owes her preternatural smarts to the over-expression of a particular gene associated with brain-cell communication speed. [image by stark23x]

Scientists found that Hobbie-J consistently outperformed the normal Long Evans rat even in more complex situations that require association, such as working their way through a water maze after most of the designated directional cues and the landing point were removed. “It’s like taking Michael Jordan and making him a super Michael Jordan,” Deheng Wang, MCG graduate student and the paper’s first author, says of the large black and white rats already recognized for their superior intellect.

That’s one of the best quotes I’ve read in a science article in ages; it’s like something Don King would say. And if you’re now worrying about hordes of intellectual rodents escaping their cages and taking over the world, relax – Hobbie-J isn’t going to be inventing a death-ray any time soon.

… even a super rat has its limits. For example with one test, the rats had to learn to alternate between right and left paths to get a chocolate reward. Both did well when they only had to wait a minute to repeat the task, after three minutes only Hobbie-J could remember and after five minutes, they both forgot. “We can never turn it into a mathematician. They are rats, after all,” Dr. Tsien says, noting that when it comes to truly complex thinking and memory, the size of the brain really does matter.

More interestingly, though, this sort of meddling is a proof-of-concept. What might similar tweaking achieve in animals whose cognitive ability already approaches that of our own? Perhaps a radical group of animal rights activists might boost the brain-power of some primate tribes in order to justify parity in their treatment under law. In other words, maybe animal uplift isn’t as ridiculous an idea as it might initially appear…


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