All posts by Mark H

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About Mark H

Information technologist, knowledge management expert, and writer. Academic background in knowledge management, social and natural sciences, information technologies, learning, educational technologies, and philosophy. Married with one adult child who's married and has a teenage daughter.

Computer metaphor not accurate for brain’s embodied cognition

It’s common for brain functions to be described in terms of digital computing, but this metaphor does not hold up in brain research. Unlike computers, in which hardware and software are separate, organic brains’ structures embody memories and brain functions. Form and function are entangled.

Rather than finding brains to work like computers, we are beginning to design computers–artificial intelligence systems–to work more like brains. 

https://www.wired.com/story/tech-metaphors-are-holding-back-brain-research/ 

Should AI agents’ voice interactions be more like our own? What effects should we anticipate?

An article at Wired.com considers the pros and cons of making the voice interactions of AI assistants more humanlike.

The assumption that more human-like speech from AIs is naturally better may prove as incorrect as the belief that the desktop metaphor was the best way to make humans more proficient in using computers. When designing the interfaces between humans and machines, should we minimize the demands placed on users to learn more about the system they’re interacting with? That seems to have been Alan Kay’s assumption when he designed the first desktop interface back in 1970.

Problems arise when the interaction metaphor diverges too far from the reality of how the underlying system is organized and works. In a personal example, someone dear to me grew up helping her mother–an office manager for several businesses. Dear one was thoroughly familiar with physical desktops, paper documents and forms, file folders, and filing cabinets. As I explained how to create, save, and retrieve information on a 1990 Mac, she quickly overcame her initial fear. “Oh, it’s just like in the real world!” (Chalk one for Alan Kay? Not so fast.) I knew better than to tell her the truth at that point. Dear one’s Mac honeymoon crashed a few days later when, to her horror and confusion, she discovered a file cabinet inside a folder. A few years later, there was another metaphor collapse when she clicked on a string of underlined text in a document and was forcibly and instantly transported to a strange destination.

Having come to terms with computers through the command-line interface, I found the desktop metaphor annoying and unnecessary. Hyperlinking, however–that’s another matter altogether–an innovation that multiplied the value I found in computing.

On the other end of the complexity spectrum would be machine-level code. There would be no general computing today if we all had to speak to computers in their own fundamental language of ones and zeros. That hasn’t stopped some hard-core computer geeks from advocating extreme positions on appropriate interaction modes, as reflected in this quote from a 1984 edition of InfoWorld:

“There isn’t any software! Only different internal states of hardware. It’s all hardware! It’s a shame programmers don’t grok that better.”

Interaction designers operate on the metaphor end of the spectrum by necessity. The human brain organizes concepts by semantic association. But sometimes a different metaphor makes all the difference. And sometimes, to be truly proficient when interacting with automation systems, we have to invest the effort to understand less simplistic metaphors.

The article referenced in the beginning of this post mentions that humans are manually coding “speech synthesis markup tags” to cause synthesized voices of AI systems to sound more natural. (Note that this creates an appearance that the AI understands the user’s intent and emotional state, though this more natural intelligence is illusory.) Intuitively, this sounds appropriate. The down side, as the article points out, is that colloquial AI speech limits human-machine interactions to the sort of vagueness inherent in informal speech. It also trains humans to be less articulate. The result may be interactions that fail to clearly communicate what either party actually means.

I suspect a colloquial mode could be more effective in certain kinds of interactions: when attempting to deceive a human into thinking she’s speaking with another human; virtual talk therapy; when translating from one language to another in situations where idioms, inflections, pauses, tonality, and other linguistic nuances affect meaning and emotion; etc.

In conclusion, operating systems, applications, and AIs are not humans. To improve our effectiveness in using more complex automation systems, we will have to meet them farther along the complexity continuum–still far from machine code, but at points of complexity that require much more of us as users.

Mathematical field of topology reveals importance of ‘holes in brain’

New Scientist article: Applying the mathematical field of topology to brain science suggests gaps in densely connected brain regions serve essential cognitive functions. Newly discovered densely connected neural groups are characterized by a gap in the center, with one edge of the ring (cycle) being very thin. It’s speculated that this architecture evolved to enable the brain to better time and sequence the integration of information from different functional areas into a coherent pattern.

Aspects of the findings appear to support Edelman’s and Tononi’s (2000, p. 83) theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS, aka neural Darwinism).


Edelman, G.M. and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Basic Books.

Please recommend sources on the evolution of political impulses and thinking

In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).

Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:

Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)

This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.

Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:

Edward’s recommendations

Mark’s recommendations

Mass and activity of brain structures correlate with political perspectives

Brain imaging research indicates some aspects of individual political orientation correlate significantly with the mass and activity of particular brain structures including the right amygdala and the insula. This correlation may derive in part from genetics, but is also influenced by environment and behavior.

“there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.”

Thanks to member, Edward, for recommending this article: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans 

In a similar vein, Bob Altemeyer conducted and reported on some seminal social science research and theory on political dispositions. See http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/. Note the free book link on the left.

 

Politicians use ‘salient availability’ bias to manipulate constituents and journalists

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/cognitive-bias-president-trump-understands-better/ 

“When something is memorable, it tends to be the thing you think of first, and then it has an outsize influence on your understanding of the world. After the movie Jaws came out, a generation of people was afraid to swim in the sea—not because shark attacks were more likely but because all those movie viewers could more readily imagine them.”