Machine Math?

Calculators are an often used example in the philosophy of mind.  Sometimes they’re used analogously, to show how computational algorithms can be implemented in a variety of mediums (say, the very different circuitries of the calculator and the human brain).  Other times, they’re used metaphorically, as objects that we can attribute intentional states: the calculator ‘knows’ how to add and ‘believes’ that 2+2=4.  But how appropriate are comparisons between calculators and humans?  Is it a matter of implementing the same (or nearly the same) algorithm?  Or is the comparison a mere metaphor?   Stanislas Dehaene is the champion of the surprising view that neither of these (caricatured) approaches can be right: calculation is neither a matter of merely attributing intentional states, nor do humans and calculators implement algorithms in the same way.

(Apologies if this topic seems old hat to any – if you are a person already familiar with Dehaene, ‘cultural re-mapping’, number sensing, and the like, the payoff to re-reading this extremely cool and interesting stuff about human mathematical capabilities, is some very exciting and interesting new advances in brain localization and machine-learning)

Dehaene’s view is that our mathematical abilities result from the mixture of two evolved mechanisms, and, importantly, a sprinkling of language.  The first of these evolved mechanisms is a capacity to distinguish a certain amount of discrete quantities, or numerosity: the ability to tell apart one, two, three, and maybe four and five.  Then, there is the capacity to distinguish differences in quantity: that six is bigger than one, or that twenty is less than sixty.  Both of these abilities can be found in animals, and, yes, human children.  And it’s easy to understand why such mechanisms might persist over time*:  as an organism, it is very handy to have a capacity to determine between alternatives; whether option (a) was better than (b) because more nutrients, or less competition, or what have you. Continue reading “Machine Math?”

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Virtual Worlds: A Social Experiment of Real Value

Ludlow's dual life
Ludlow's dual life

Yesterday, Peter Ludlow opened the second week of the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference with a riveting presentation on virtual communities, cultures and governance. This year’s conference is titled ‘Breaking Down Barriers.’ Accordingly, Ludlow takes us into the virtual world of Second Life and provides a glimpse of how individuals, from a standpoint of anonymity, nonetheless construct communities, cultures, and even forms of governance that resolve inevitable conflicts.

Second Life is the height of embedded social networking. It is a platform where people can assume any identity they wish by constructing a highly customizable avatar. The content of the virtual world is also completely user designed. Players construct objects, buildings, business establishments, and much more. Each player travels through the virtual world as his avatar, and can engage with, modify, and construct, various objects, and most importantly can interact with the avatars of other players.

These interactions create various communities. Ludlow defines a virtual community as a group of individuals spatially separated but engaged in a broad range of shared social activities through non-face-to-face forms of communication. A community might form around a virtual night-club; regularly meeting at the same spot and intensively interacting. Or, a community might form around a business venture, for example, constructing a new virtual night-club. The opportunities for interaction within Second Life are plenty. And, as in the real world, these interactions provide the basis for enduring relationships, friendships, alliances, but also enmities.

Continue reading “Virtual Worlds: A Social Experiment of Real Value”

Genes, memes, and…

First there were genes. Then there were memes. But is there a third kind of replicator? In this week’s New Scientist meme theorist Susan Blackmore boldly proposes, “[w]e’re close. We’re right on the cusp.”

A replicator is an entity that makes hi-fidelity copies of itself. Genes do this and it is due to the different extents to which genes enable their hosts to survive that we get biological evolution. The origin and continued existence of life and intelligence was famously explained by this process one hundred and fifty years ago. Meme theorists propose that the same process underlies cultural evolution, where (on some accounts) the replicator of that process is the so-called ‘meme.’

In her article Blackmore warns us that “electronically processed binary information” is coming to exhibit the same characteristics as genes and memes, and so is coming to be a new kind of replicator. As a selection process this may not be so unlikely: a form of selection on the servers that sustain the internet…why not? But Blackmore goes much further: “The temptation is to think that since we designed search engines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a new replicator is involved we must think again.”

For Blackmore’s article follow this link.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small The levels of selection debate: philosophical issues
By Samir Okasha, University of Bristol
(Vol. 1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass