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Saturday, April 26, 2008

dignity with computers

What does it mean that computers get fast, and that we can more clearly state some of our approaches to life in terms of algorithms? What happens to people in this process?
Does the fact that computers can beat us at chess mean that we shouldn't play chess? And is it really computers beating us (really somebody has programmed that computer).
Just a lot of disconnected thoughts, trying to say something about how to maintain integrity in the midst of our toys/tools seeming to surpass us.
One sees in the story of Stephen Wolfram for example, a person who thought that his computer tools are so powerful that nobody needs to do math or science anymore.
I don't want to say that computers can't do the things we do. I just want to say that we should stay clear about who we are and what we care about. If we create a computer that we believe experiences things as we do or does things that we respect, well then, let us respect that computer and what went into creating it. But we should not lose ourselves in the process. As long as we understand and experience self-worth and respect, then life is worth living and we don't need to worry so much about whether some other person or machine or computer has accomplished more, or is more than us.


Anonymous said...

Computers simplify our life, so in that sense you can give them some credits but they are not "self-intelligent"... they are programmed by people... so you should not be submitted to them. First thing that I learned as a scientist is to not trust computers as god, using them but stay critical about the results they gave back to me.
Even computers are smart these days, they still have no feelings about the reality... human are in this sense irreplacable.

Same for playing chess... computers can beat you but did they feel the pressure to be close to loose, to be close to win, to share the moment... No ! Then you get more interest in this game than your computer.

Life and feelings are not binary things... then humans are still smarter and over computers

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Nathalie. So what that computers can solve math problems, navigate vast databases, engineer structures, simulate charged particles, operate machinery, coordinate communication, etc...they don't have feelings. But I do. So, I am way smarter than a computer. When I see a fluffy bunny hopping by, I get all warm and tingly inside. But does a computer? No. Can it "share the moment" ? Nope. Besides, I practically shit my pants when I play chess. Let's see a computer do that.

Boaz said...

Thanks for the comments.
Its a good point about there being another aspect to chess besides just the strategy... the whole experience, the whole holding yourself together. Tennis for me is like that- very much a psychological game of not thinking too much and messing up.

I was partly thinking about extrapolations into the future. (E.g. the cylons on Battlestar Galactica, or the the arguments by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines) These make you think that at some point we really might not be so sure that our laptop isn't "sharing the moment" with us.

Anonymous said... the author of the second comment, I should clear something up. I was being 100% sarcastic. I tried to make the point that if humans are indeed smarter than computers, it is certainly not for the reasons Nathalie listed. Her argument basically amounts to this: that humans are superior to computers because of their feelings. This struck me as supremely naive. With the fluffy bunny example, I intended to show that feelings can be trivial and superficial. And with the chess game example, I wanted to show that feelings can be counterproductive. Shitting your pants in high-pressure situations is, generally speaking, undesirable.

Too bad the sarcasm didn't translate well. Personally, I think that certain aspects of human intelligence are dwarfed by computing power. I play chess for enjoyment, but would be eaten alive by Deep Blue.

Boaz said...

yeah, I don't think I'd quite say that its our feelings make us smarter.
Although, actually they do most of the time, I tend to think. People that use language such as "I feel that such and such is important" are often putting things together on a deeper level than those who stick to very precise detailed statements.
But smartness/intelligence wasn't really what I was getting at. Or maybe I'd say that I just get kind of annoyed at how limited "smartness" can be sometimes.
And yeah, I did sort of miss the sarcasm.. got it now.

Anonymous said...

Let me know when computers, as smart you suppose they are, will be able to do things by themselves... They will always need you to provide them power and directions... not autosufficients... then not smart...only materials... as smarter as my toothbrush !!!

I'm maybe naive but I'm leaving in the real world, not in a virtual world !

Anonymous said...

Hey Nathalie,

Please don’t feel personally offended. Your argument was just so egregiously bad, I was obligated to protest it.

You asked me to let you know when computers can do things by themselves. Alright. Judging by this article here,, I’d say roughly 15 years ago. I quote, “We intend to develop human-like computers which can work in ambiguous, changing, or unpredictable environments. Such computers can acquire knowledge adaptively and evolutionally by interacting with the external environment…Complex behavior or intelligence emerges through the interaction between modules.” I have a hunch that that’s a little more advanced than your toothbrush.

If I had to guess, I would say that, being human, you have an innate love of humanity and you’re therefore blindly grappling for any sort of justification for your preconceived belief of the superiority of humans over computers. I am not saying your belief isn’t true. But I have yet to see a sound supporting argument.

I would be interested in seeing some though. Maybe someone else can take a stab at it?

astridina said...

Dear Anonymous (you write very similar to a person we know. you may very well indeed be this person)

anyway allow me to pitch in:

Lets stick with these idea complex systems.:

Lets consider a complex system as being composed of many many many subsystems such as cells, molecules, circuit chips etc.
Ok ,
we then know that each subsystem can have local randomizations while the overall system may stay in equilibrium.
This is fairly true for living systems. Boaz vcan comment on beam dynamics here.

Now if you are to believe statistical mechanics, you will also find that this is applicable mainly for what we called dissipative structures, or “self-organizing structures”,(living systems)
These structures will dissipate entropy before it builds again.
The Human brain itself is considered a complex system. cmplex chaos theory and other sofisticated models have ben used to describe its kinematics. Consciousness itself has been modeled quite a bit and there is yet a universally accepted model on how the brain operates or conciousnees. However we do know that there is a self regulating mechanism.

Computers themselves have a finite number of parameters that can be inputed to obtain a reliable result, I am sure you may know this well: if the number of irreversible bifurcations exceed a certain critical point, the computer, will just.. crash.

In the brain, this will just lead to more complex behavior, however in the brain when the control parametrs go to far, there is a feedback mechanism that allow control parameters to change, In short, The brain is a self regulating system. that will prevent the system to crash.

It seems a bit naïve to think the computer can surpass the brain as a complex system. We can try to apply brain models to computing using statistical mechanics and complex chaos theory, however until we can accurately describe and predict using the current models for living systems, well, I don't see how we could call a computer "superior".. we just have to wait. In short I agree with Nathalie for my reasons above.

Boaz said...

Yes, dissipative structures!
I was reading about that recently.
It actually relates to some research question I'm interested in about non-linear dynamics in beams.
I'm interested and wary of Prigogine at the same time, though.

Anonymous said...

Hi Astridina,

Thanks for your input. It is quite true that computers crash and that this is a notch mark against them in the grand tally of human versus computer. But in describing phenomena of questionable relevance to this discussion, including but not limited to complex chaos theory, statistical mechanics, entropy, irreversible bifurcations and dissipative structures, you seem to have overlooked a rather glaring point.

Your brain will die. Not just crash, but die. Permanently.

And I won’t even broach the topic of all the things that can go wrong with the brain by virtue of it being a biologically living entity. Neurotic disorders, mental illness and the rest of the happy family of brain disorders can be googled easily enough.

When you say “it seems a bit naïve to think that a computer can surpass the brain” I am reminded of those who doubted the potential of computers when early models first came into existence in the 1940s. They didn’t believe that mathematical computations could be performed accurately or quickly enough to be of use. In retrospect, they were incredibly wrong. I am sure that they would never have believed that one day the world’s greatest chess player would be beaten by a computer, either.

As I’ve said before, I think that certain aspects of human intelligence are becoming obsolete in an increasingly technology driven world. Kindly take note that I’ve never made the claim that computers are superior to humans. But what I am curious about is what qualities that humans have that computers don’t that thereby make humans superior.

At least Nathalie hit upon a real difference between computers and humans—feelings. Once all the extraneous information has been distilled from your comment, all you’re left with is that computers crash. Well, the analogous counterpart is that brains die. Guess what? That’s even worse. If anything, you’ve strengthened the argument that computers are superior.

astridina said...

The brain may die, but certainly not because of irreversible bifurcations with out feedback. But you must know that.

astridina said...

Actually, the wiki has a simple and cute entry that discusses the analogies of computers-human brains some make.

Boaz said...

I don't think that the stuff about complex systems etc. in Astrid's comment is irrelevant to the discussion of comparing a human and a computer. You need to consider the relationship between something and its environment in order to determine intelligence. A smart move in one context is not so smart in another.
I had more to say, but will have to write more later.