Monday, June 29, 2015

The undone

The other day I was home alone working on my house when I stopped to make myself lunch.  I almost never sit down to eat when it's only me; I'll just get back to doing whatever I was doing, wolfing down whatever I have slapped together as quickly as possible. I have a right to eat this way. I see sitting down to eat as a social occasion, which makes sitting down by myself to eat an absurdity. As my friend Scott Merlino once pointed out to me, men do not dine alone, they feed.

Anyway, at some point during this period the UPS truck showed up with a delivery and I went out to sign for it. Later, back at work, I suddenly remembered something: I had not finished my lunch. I thought briefly about where I had been when the truck had pulled up, and returned to find one last bite of the sandwich sitting on my miter saw. I blew off the saw dust, popped it in my mouth, and got on with my day.

Later still, back at work again my mind drifted to this question: Why did I recall with such clarity that I had not finished my sandwich?  Why did I recall it at all?  It came like a message from God. God can not be bothered to remind me where I put my coffee cup, or the measurement I had made just before the phone rang. What's so important about the last bite of my sandwich?

Here is the answer that occurred to me: I had accepted making and eating my lunch as a project, a task to be completed. Whenever we do this, the mind opens up an account, a mental line of credit, which will not be closed until it has been paid off. During the period in which the task is incomplete, there will be a nagging feeling of something owed, something left undone.

Toward the end of Philosophy 180 this spring my students and I were thinking a lot about the role of emotion in rational cognition. It's a great topic, not the least because the more you think about it the more you realize how little we understand what an emotion even is. In thinking about the sandwich question it occurred to me that the nagging feeling of the undone as well as the satisfying feeling of accomplishing a task could be emotions evolved specifically to facilitate task-oriented behavior.

I like to think about how my dog sees the world. I think it is right to describe him as engaging in goal directed behavior, like running off strangers or begging for a biscuit. He can't assign himself a task, though. If we are interrupted from playing fetch by the UPS man, the goal simply becomes to run him off the place. When the truck drives away, he will lie down feeling satisfied. But he will not hear a voice saying: You did not finish your fetch.

Imagine if our ability to recollect whether we have finished a task were no better than our recollection of other information, like the name of the person you just met or DeMorgan's rules or the capital of Delaware. Did you finish yesterday's homework? Hmmm... I can't remember. Dude....what?

Clearly this ability to set ourselves tasks, long and short term, and bring them to fruition is something very distinctive about human beings and we rightly count it as a virtue to be cultivated and admired in individuals. Indeed those who fail to develop this ability to a high degree will simply fail to thrive in this world. But this ability seems to come at a price, a dark and dangerous liability.

You are probably familiar with the idea of sunk costs. A sunk cost is just something you have spent, that can not be recovered. It can be money, time, effort, or anything else of value. In the context of a self-appointed task, it is extremely difficult to recognize sunk costs. Scores of intelligent, highly capable people have done incalculable harm through an inability to recognize them.  Everyone has said this to herself at one point or another: I have worked so hard, have come so far, invested so much, I simply can not quit now.  This is the voice of the undone.

Why is it so difficult to ignore sunk costs? Why can't we just do what is rational, which is to consider our present condition without reference to the path that got us here, and decide the best course of action from this point forward? Part of the answer is that it is very difficult for us to be objective in such circumstances. Are we changing course now because the cause is lost, or do we simply lack the courage of our convictions?  It is often not easy to know.  When we accuse ourselves or others of letting sunk costs influence our reasoning, we often do so only on the basis of another arch bias, hindsight.

But the answer I like best is provided by the Meaning Maintenance Model of human motivation, which posits that humans are essentially meaning makers, and that our decisions and actions are best understood as attempts to create and preserve meaning in our lives.  What 'meaning' actually means in this context is not at all settled, but we can at least say that it is always relative to a representational framework, one of the most common being a narrative or story.

When we say that pursuing lost causes and justifying sunk costs is irrational, we do so with respect to another framework, namely the framework of probability and expected utility. But if humans really have a fundamental need for their lives to make a kind of narrative sense, then this is too simple. From this perspective, the undone is an abomination, a story that simply

G. Randolph Mayes
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Building self aware machines

The public mood toward the prospect of artificial intelligence is dark. Increasingly, people fear the results of creating an intelligence whose abilities will far exceed our own, and who pursues goals that are not compatible with our own. I think resistance is a mistake (and futile) and I think we should be actively striving toward the construction of artificial intelligence.

When we ask “Can a machine be conscious?,” we often miss several important distinctions. With regard to the AI project, we need to distinguish at least between qualitative/phenomenal states, exterior self-modeling, interior self-modeling, information processing, attention, sentience, executive top-down control, self-awareness, and so on. Once we make a number of these distinctions, it becomes clear that we have already created systems with some of these capacities.  Others are not far off, and still others present the biggest challenges to the project. Here I will focus just on two, following Drew McDermott: interior and exterior self-modeling.

A cognitive system has a self-model if it has the capacity to represent, acknowledge, or take account of itself as an object in the world with other objects. Exterior self-modeling requires treating the self solely as a physical, spatial-temporal object among other objects. So you can easily spatially locate yourself in the room, you have a representation of where you are in relation to your mother’s house, or perhaps to the Eiffel Tower. You can also easily locate yourself temporally. You represent Napoleon as an 18th century French Emperor, and you are aware that the segment of time that you occupy is later than the segment of time that he occupied. Children swinging from one bar to another on the playground are employing an exterior self-model, as is a ground squirrel running back to its burrow.

Exterior self-modeling is relatively easy to build into an artificial system compared to many other tasks that face the AI project. Your phone is technologically advanced enough to put itself in a location in space in relationship to other objects with its GPS system. I built a CNC machine in my garage (Computer Numeric Controlled cutting system) that I ”zero” out when I start it up. I designate a location in a three dimensional coordinate system as (0, 0, 0) for the X, Y, and Z axes, then the machine keeps track of where it is in relation to that point as it cuts. When it’s finished, it returns to (0, 0, 0). The system knows where it is in space, at least in the very small segment of space that it is capable of representing (About 36” x 24” x 5”).

Interior self-modeling is the capacity of a system to represent itself as an information processing, epistemic, representational agent. That is, a system has an interior self-model if it represents the state of its own informational, cognitive capacities. Loosely, it is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. It is a system that is able to locate the state of its own information about the world within a range of possible states. When you recognize that watching too much Fox News might be contributing to your being negative about President Obama, you are employing an interior self-model. When you resolve to not make a decision about which car to buy until you’ve done some more research, or when you wait until after the debates to decide which candidate to vote for, you are exercising your interior self-model. You have located yourself as a thinking, believing, judging agent within a range of possible information states. Making decisions requires information. Making good decisions requires being able to assess how much information you have, how good it is, and how much more (or less) you need or how much better you need it to be in order to decide within the tolerances of your margins of error.

So in order to endow an artificial cognitive system with an interior self-model, we must build it to model itself as an information system similar to how we’d build it to model itself in space and time. Hypothetically, a system can have no information, or it can have all of the information. And the information it has can be poor quality, with a high likelihood of being false, or it can be high quality, with a high likelihood of being true. Those two dimensions are like a spatial-temporal framework, and the system must be able to locate its own information state within that range of possibilities. Then the system, if we want it to make good decisions, must be able to recognize the difference between the state it is in and the minimally acceptable information state it should be in. Then, ideally, we’d build it with the tools to close that gap.

Imagine a doctor who is presented with a patient with an unfamiliar set of symptoms. Recognizing that she doesn’t have enough information to diagnose the problem, she does a literature search so that she can responsibly address it. Now imagine an artificial system with reliable decisions heuristics that recognizes the adequacy or inadequacy of its information base, and then does a medical literature review that is far more comprehensive, consistent, and discerning than a human doctor can perform. At the first level, our AI system needs to be able to compile and process information that will produce a decision. But at the second level, our AI system must be able to judge its own fitness for making that decision and rectify the information state short coming if there is one. 

The ability to represent itself as an epistemic agent in this fashion is one of the most important and interesting ways to flesh out the notion of  something being “self-aware.” By carefully analyzing other senses of "machine consciousness" we may come to see that there is no single, deeply mysterious and inherently insoluble problem. Rather, there are many different, fascinating questions that can be framed and answered in computational terms and which will yield to computational methods.

Bostrom, Nick.  Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press 2014.

McDermott, Drew. “Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness,” The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, 117-150. Zelazo, Moscovitch, and Thompson, eds. 2007.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, June 8, 2015

Fury Road

   Max:  Here, everyone is broken.
   Furiosa: Out here, everything hurts.
                        ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

I couldn't  wait to see this movie. And then I couldn't wait to see it again. The first viewing was cathartic in all the right ways, but it was a sensory assault. In 3-D it was almost abusive. The second time allowed me to attend to the story, the characters, the art and imagery, the dance of bodies in fight and vehicles in chase. Those Pole Cats are terrifyingly beautiful swinging through the air at high speed (all done live). Now I could enjoy the artistry of this post-apocalyptic adventure. Fury Road has everything the genre demands, explosions, fights, minimal dialogue. But, there’s more.

This is a fractured world, bodily and psychically. We find two competing philosophies, that understanding of reality by which we make sense of our world. There is the dualism of Joe’s warrior-cult, expressed best in the War Boy creed, “I live. I die. I live again.” There’s the witnessing of a warrior’s meritorious death in battle, being taken to the gates of Valhalla (by Joe, himself, for those not “mediocre”), and of being reborn, “shiny and chrome.”

There’s also the non-dualism of Furiosa’s unsentimental realism, her willingness to risk everything to return home, to find redemption in this life for the unstated horrors she has committed, and of the Free Women’s matrilineal earth-centered pragmatism, where the value of living is in being with others, clean water, fertile soil, and where the dead are held close in name and memory. There is no next life. The film doesn’t decide this ultimate question for us, though. Even as Joe’s mythology shatters in the wreckage of flesh and steel, one of the freed women is praying, “to anyone who’s listening.”

Commentators have claimed this is a feminist film, or that it should really be called Furiosa rather than Mad Max. The feminist in me (well, it’s really all of me) agrees. But most of these commentators are selling it short. This is a real feminist movie, and they don't seem to know why.

If all it takes for a film to be feminist these days is for there to be a woman lead who can throw a punch and drive a truck, who isn’t a mere plot device, or isn’t there to fall in love or in bed with the leading man, then, yawn, ok, this is a feminist movie. But that’s not saying much. A genuinely feminist movie is more than not demeaning or minimizing. It is one that takes women seriously – with our strengths and weaknesses, as equals, complex, capable and vulnerable (as we all are), as worth knowing, trusting, and joining. And that's what Fury Road does so brilliantly. Here we see women, portrayed complexly, richly, and honestly. It’s still so rare. It's as refreshing as it is riveting.

Here, everyone has a price, a place, a function, and with it a value. Absent these, you’re rabble fighting for drops of precious water. In this post-apocalyptic hell, where every life-giving resource is either scarce, toxic, or gone, the human body becomes the principal resource: as meat, as breeders, as perpetually pregnant women milked for “mother’s milk," as those caged and tapped as living blood bags, and as those War Boys who are “cannon fodder.” It’s not just the women in this movie who have no bodily autonomy, without means for bodily integrity, who are exploited and abused. Everyone is. Even Joe is trapped by the mythology he creates, as his body literally rots from nuclear contamination and as he fails repeatedly to produce “perfect” sons.

There is a deeply humanist principle on offer in this movie. It’s in all the great stories and in any of the laws worth preserving. It justifies their escape. It’s what they each would die in pursuit of. It’s in our dread they will fail and our weeping for those who don’t make it. This principle reminds us that each and every one of us is valuable to her- and himself, and that we must treat each other accordingly. It tells us that people are not only not food, they are not property. This is a humanist message. It is a message which is carried by the women, and adopted by the men who help them. It’s written on the walls of their captivity, demonstrated by their willingness to share what little they have, to risk themselves for the vulnerable and like-minded, and in their rejection of war. It’s in the satchel of seeds, “heirlooms, the real thing,” which Giddy Mary protects like her life, their lives – our lives – depend on it.

We want their vision of the world to replace the one they flee, we need them to succeed and Joe to fail, because we fucked it up for them… “Who killed the world?” they ask several times. Well, we did, clearly. Whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally, we killed it. Our misdeeds gave birth to the world where one’s choices are Gas Town, Bullet Farm, or Citadel… or being feral in the wild. We created their hell. We need that humanist message to get through, for those carrying it to be successful, for them not to falter, or die along the way. We fucked up. 

There’s so much this film makes us ask:
Why does Furiosa seek redemption? We know what haunts Max, but have few clues about what haunts her. Likely, it’s bad. She’s the only woman, an Imperator, in Joe’s hyper-masculinized war machine. That achievement would have been costly. 
What was “The Green Place”? How did it last so long, and then disappear? 
Why are there so many War Pups but no girls… anywhere?
… and, so much it asks of us:
What is the moral cost of our sources of milk and meat?

Is it inevitable that we send our young to war?

Why are we not terrified at the loss of our green places?
What value do we place on others – on those who grow and produce our food, teach our children… keep our gas flowing?

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State