Book Review: Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson

Are our machines tools or extensions of our minds?

instax-2017-01-05 Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better is positioned as a counter argument to the handwringing over the digital world. It’s journalistic report of how humans augmented by computing devices and digital networks become smarter and more capable. It’s time to recognize that the human memory supplemented by data stores, algorithmic machine intelligence, and instant global connectivity fundamentally change who we are.

Our minds have long been long been extended by the unique human technologies of speech and culture. While we begin with a strong subjective sensation that our minds are contained in our heads , constrained physically by our bodies and sitting right behind our eyes, several philosophers like Andy Clark and David Chalmers have proposed that the functions we call “mind” actually operate not only in the brain but also via objects in the physical world. Our memories are not limited to what we can pull out of long term memory, they are also preserved in the photos of our scrapbooks and the writing of our diaries. Acting as our thoughts, pen marks on paper can extend our thinking through time and space.

Thompson more or less catalogs the way computers augment our thinking, but interestingly includes how machines facilitate social interaction. If you’re willing to entertain the idea that the extended mind can include cultural and shared knowledge, then a deeply connected information society has created a very powerful engine for collaborative thought. Thompson starts off his section on blogging with a discussion of the very real phenomenon of writing as a way of thinking, of learning about the world by verbalizing it.

But once there’s an audience, one is no longer talking to oneself, but are in a relationship with others that changes how you go about writing, but also can provide the feedback that improves the value of the thoughts themselves. Certainly the fact that a couple of dozen people around the world regularly read ODB changes how I write, needing to be sure I provide enough quick background on these philosophical positions or at least links to help any new or occasional reader.

The Power of Imagination

Art is the creation of something new in the world. Successful creation is a powerful feeling.

The art may be words that tell a story or ink on paper that renders an image of the world captured by camera sensor. Maybe music as an arrangement of sounds. These creations are of the world, but just abstracted enough to transcend the noise and confusion of original experience. Man-made, they are focused and seem true.

Maybe art is just a way of making our imaginings seem more true, making them look real. The truth in an image or in music can feel true in a way that is more pure than the complicated, uncertain world we’re forced to live in. This is the mental simulation of the world we call imagination.

The power of imagination allows us to inhabit simple worlds of our own creation. If imagination helps envision a better version of ourselves or our circumstances, then it serves to provide goals to move toward. Or a safe place to live while it all blows over.

Imagination brings alternatives to decisions that enable futures to be tested before actually choosing them. We can create these futures because we have the ability to simulate potential worlds in our minds.

Yet imagination most often allows us to ignore the world as it is. What’s the value of imagining an alternate reality if the world treats us otherwise. then It’s only pretending. It’s like putting on on a different version of the world like dressing up in costume. If the mask covers our eyes, it blinds us.

My New MacBook Pro

To The Point

As we continue to load greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and race toward certain destruction, I’m pleased to have a new 13″ Macbook Pro with Touch Bar. I offer some personal thoughts.

I have no doubt that this is the best available notebook computer for my needs right now. I depend on Apple’s culture, one that works to provide a user experience by combining hardware and software. The screen is incredibly bright, high resolution and has extended color range that surpass anything else I can buy. As a portable device it is light, provides great battery life and performs what I need to do fast enough that it never gets in the way. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I’m not waiting for my computer to complete a task, the process is seamless.

For now, the tools I use require a Mac. There's Eastgate's Tinderbox, Devonthink Pro, R Studio, and Mendeley (my reference manager of choice even though I’m forced to use Endnote with collaborators). I was sorry to see Aperture go, but Lightroom won that war and Adobe has prospered. I don't use Pages and the suite, because Office 365 is fully interoperable across Windows, MacOS and iOS. The iPad acts as a more portable, more personal extension for selected activities, but can’t provide the seamless workflow yet.

This isn’t my first Mac of course. In fact, I collected recordings from neurons deep in the brain for my PhD in 1980 with an Apple IIe using an analog to digital expansion card. I bought a 512K Mac as a Neurology resident and used it to write my first grants. These were expensive and not mainstream choices at the time, but they provided an experience that was worth it. I stayed with the Mac through my academic career, even buying a Mac clone for my lab at one point.

As a mature product now, the Mac is on a long product cycle. The current technology improvements are incremental and still involve tradeoffs between speed and battery life. This new notebook is not much different from the last, but overall improved. Good enough for me and those using Macs in science, art and photography. If you need more power for simulation and AI research, you tend to move back to centralized big iron available on the network easily enough if you’re working in that environment. The last time I had to run long simulations in R, I offloaded it to a Mac Mini I use as a server.

The truth is, I’ve felt funny as Apple has become the default choice among my peers for mobile, tablet and notebook. In academic settings, most of the computers at the conference table are Macs. It seems no longer cool, just smart. Maybe I’ll even admit to a little comfort from the price rise as Apple has moved to Retina screens across all the notebooks. These are great tools and worth a bit extra to ensure their continued development.

Polluting the Environment of Mind

“Fake news”, false stories on the Internet, are generally just a byproduct of web commerce. Sites make money through advertising and the measure of exposure is purely the number of views. Anything that provokes a click is rewarded in this attention economy.

If we understand a little bit of what we’re doing, maybe it will help us to find our way out of the maze of hallucinations that we have created around ourselves.
Gregory Bateson Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Fake news is like environmental pollution. Like particulate matter from a coal plant or trash dumped into the sea, produced with no real thought of consequences. After all, the information environment, like the sea or sky seems really big. Large enough to absorb the pollution released by industrial processes.

This of course an illusion. The atmosphere is big but not infinite. A planet of hairspray can destroy the ozone layer with chlorofluorocarbons. Burning all that fossil fuel can increase the level of greenhouse gases like CO2, melting arctic ice.

Its not surprising that once there’s enough fake news to create some truth dead zones, there are effects in the wider data environment, choking off real journalism and affecting the climate, cultural and political in this case.

Gregory Bateson described this relationship between what’s “out there” and the structure of our thoughts. His theory of an ecology of mind is based on the model of belief being an ecosystem, based on an interaction between what’s in the brain of an individual and the information, the ideas, that the individual is exposed to. You can’t separate the organism from its ecological niche

Falsehood is poison to a healthy ecology based on trust and acceptance. Bateson would tell you that, like any complex system, this ecology will eventual reach a new state that may be quite different from what came before. I see the beauty of the stark desert landscape, but prefer the verdant diversity of the Eastern Forest.

Lack of Authority

It's hard to believe how little we trust what we read in this age of the internet.

The US election of 2016 demonstrated just how profoundly our relationship to authority has changed. We're exposed to conflicting opinions from the online media. We hear facts followed by denial and statement of the opposite as true. Everyone lies, apparently. There's no way to make sense of this online world in the way one makes sense of a tree or a dog or a computer.

Perhaps relying on confirmation bias, we are forced to interpret events without resort to reasoned argument or weight of evidence. We have to fall back on what we already believe. You have to pick a side. Faced with a deafening roar of comments on Twitter, cable news, news websites, we shape what we hear to be create a stable, consistent worldview.

Welcome to a world of narrative where the truth is simply the story we believe. And pragmatically, it seems not to matter much. Believe what you will, since we mostly yield no power in the world.

So what am I to make of this nice new MacBook Pro that I'm using right now? Is it really evidence of Apple's incompetence or their desire to marginalize or milk the Mac during its dying days? Again, believe what you will, but I've got some work to do.

Our Capablilities

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“In the course of biological evolution the brain’s innate capacities for representing the world came to be considerably enlarged, from the immediate physical and biological environment to an almost unlimited domain of social and cultural interactions.”
Jean-Claude Changeux
The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge

We scientists are an optimistic bunch. We actually believe the reality out there beyond our perception is an orderly, understandable place. We learn by systematically manipulating the world.

Science is limited to that which is observed. We only talk about truth that can be measured, summarized and reported. I still feel the spiritual and the sublime. Maybe those emotions are deepened by an ever greater appreciation for just how remarkable this world is and how marvelous the people in it. We can all stand in awe in a huge underground cavern, carved from the seemingly impenetrable rock. Understanding the process, geology and patterns makes it all the more amazing and more worthy of my gratitude.

In writing about brain and mind, the amazing facilities of awareness, agency, will and aspiration are never far away as inspiration for the endeavor. But as manifestations of brain, I appreciate them in their own right, much as I appreciate the cavern’s majesty in its own right, informed by some limited, incomplete knowledge of how it got there. But make no mistake about it: Life is a miraculous physical event and needs no extra “vital force”.

The Urge to Play

Echoes of the View

Children have a strong urge to explore because interacting with the environment is how the world gets put together. These models of reality we build in our brains are preconditioned by genes and development, but then honed to be fully useful once born and out in the world to play.

By playing with others, we build what Changeux called “shared social consciousness”. Living in the same culture, language and symbolic environment allows us to believe we know what others are thinking. Of course I’m usually way off the mark, because I’m thinking it not you, really. And my own shared consciousness is not that well shared, I guess.

All signs and signals get combined into chunks and simpler over time. That’s why you and I now can communicate with a subtle gesture or indirect, indiscreet use of words full of irony and sarcasm.

Play and make believe are safe simulations of life, where roles can be tried on for size and mistakes become jokes. Reward drives behavior. In knowing, in the pleasure of feeling right, in the social standing that results from social achievement are powerful reinforcers. You can see how this works in the very origins of language, in the role of speaking in forming deep personal bonds, in seeking approval. your facial expressions are my behavior cues.

The Necessity of Models

The young scientist who enters a well-equipped laboratory for the first time—–well equipped not only in the physical sense, but also because it has the intellectual atmosphere required for carrying out important research—–has not merely entered a particular set of rooms. His formal training at school and college, the discussions with his first supervisor, his earliest experiences in a research institution, the community of scientists that he has joined by becoming a member of this institution—all these things leave profound and lasting traces in the neural circuits of his brain.
― Jean-Claude Changeux
The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge

What is the difference beteen man and great ape?

The brains of the two species share the basic cortical regions, but somehow man has gained an extra capacity for this symbolic work. Both man and ape can see the lines and patterns that make up letters, but only man can put the letters c-a-t together as a set of arbitrary phonemes of the word cat which triggers an associative avalanche regarding this furry creature, infesting our homes, yet related to lions and tigers. Those shapes signify both orange and black, fancy and stray, all activated within the reader’s brain, entirely absent from the brain of any other creature on earth.

Whether you call this culture, learning or the stabilization of common neural networks across brains, language is a metalevel concept, but entirely subsumed within individual human brains. It is both a pattern of sound or lines– “cat” and an individual pattern of neural activity that is represented differently in each brain. The language and reference to the furry creatures maps across brains, the pattern within the brain is entirely individual.

How could anyone ever “read out” my thoughts? The patterns inside are are arbitrary and private. It would require running through everything I know and looking at the pattern of synaptic and neuronal activity for each stimulus to create a map between the cultural concepts and my private cortical encoding of the meaning and associations.

And that’s just a three letter word.

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
― Gabriel Garcí a Márquez,
Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

Words and Brains

I can choose to look, but once I see I have no more choice.

I have no choice about how I percieve what I see. The meaning is there, unbidden. I see the letter form “f” or the word “fox”. I have no choice but to see a letter or recall that creature to mind.

It’s then quite remarkable that I can choose to think of other animals whose names begin with the letter “f”. I can switch to any letter or any other object category with fluency and the words come to mind, again unbidden. It takes mental effort, this active reflexive thinking. And I have absolutely no understanding of how I do it; my ability to describe how I think up a list of animals is missing as completely as my ability to describe how I know what “fox” means.

Whether you call this ability “language” or as Changeux in The Physiology of Truth would have it at the mechanistic level, “stabilization of common neural networks across brains”, meaning itself is an abstract idea, made real by the activity of brains, needing to be embodied in the flesh. Between brains, language is an arbitrary but common pattern of sounds or ink on paper. Within each brain its own individual pattern of neural activity. Amazing that the word is the same, but patterned differently in each brain; every word that is hear is a unique human experience.

Reflection

Hose and Rings

“What was I thinking?”

How many times must I thoughtlessly blunder in my actions before I wake up and really start thinking about my actions? I sit and plan, mentally rehearse the conversation, plot out the moves and countermoves. But then in the moment I am myself and act the same way I always do, saying the wrong thing, ignoring the warning signs all around.

Self acceptance helps, but feels like an evasion or an excuse. I really want to be better, but after all, I am who I am, the product of so much not in my control. Genes and human biology. Culture, education and my own unique experiences. All of these forces have shaped my reactions. It’s like I decide to do something, but in the doing, my good intentions are forgotten. I act as me, not who I wanted to be.