An essay came by my Twitter feed recently that I cannot share enough–oversharing, though, is sure to lead to a loss in followers, so I opt instead to reply with an essay of my own.
Also, I am testing out a new script that I have written that, if I like how writing this post goes, you should expect to see continued use of in the future.
The Empty Brain
Dr. Robert Epstein writes about the modern paradigm of treating the human brain like a computer. He begins straight away by arguing that images, songs, and memories not and never have been [[etched into our brains|BK]].
[[BK: Information is not stored away or retrieved or processed, although those words do work perfectly well for describing how a machine works. [[If we were just like machines|AJ]], wouldn’t memories be a lot more complete and precise?]]
[[AJ: Well, we still could be machines, only made of unreliable parts though. Even modern machines have flaws, which makes sure that there is a market for research into reliable computing. There’s that maxim about backing up your data for a reason, after all.]]
Nowadays, any IT professional can draw a picture pointing out [[exactly where that cat video you downloaded is stored|BK]] in nice and simple ones and zeros, but that does nothing to change the fact that the human brain is mysterious, pink, squishy goo.
[[BK: Downloaded media is typically stored on a hard drive or solid state drive, depending on the device, although exactly where and how it is arranged on the drive depends heavily on the operating system installed and the video encoding used, but those are still details [[that could be worked out|AJ]] given enough time.]]
[[AJ: Now, I know that drawing this picture is only hypothetical, but it’d be a helluva lot easier to do [[by writing some code|BK]] to scan the hard drive and spit out a doodle for us to the monitor. It doesn’t change the triviality of the task at all, but it does let us get on with our impatient lives quicker.]]
[[BK: However, this is exactly the train of thought that makes this analogy “sticky,” that we can replace tedious, hard, uncertain, or otherwise uncomfortable work with the instructions for that tedious, hard, uncertain, and otherwise uncomfortable work. Literally, this is a case of “easier said than done.”]]
For the past 2,000 years, Epstein traces, humans have tried out a handful of different explanations of our consciousness–we were clay given a soul, humours flowing in balance, gears and springs and other elements of automata arranged into complex machines, chemistry and electricity making up machines atomic in size, and, today, the prevalence of computing and computational lingo making it easy to assert, [[the result of calculations|AJ]].
[[AJ: Right. Like in the Matrix. No, that movie assumed that life is a calculation, not our perceptions of it as the model we’re talking about assumes.]]
When Epstein challenged his peers to give an explanation of human rational behavior, [[it could not be done|BK]] without referring to the “information processing” analogy.
[[BK: A liberal arts perspective makes it easy to imagine non-technical definitions of what it means to be human–e.g., Love, Honor, the Pursuit of Happiness. Of course, these are less rigor and more poetry. Nonetheless, something to keep in mind, as STEM researchers, is that there are plenty of people–entire disciplines–that can operate under these non-rigorous definitions and be none the worse.]]
Athough thinking about ourselves as machines is useful in some scenarios (since it masks away the unending amount of detail), an inability to reason about ourselves in some other way can be [[dangerous|BK]]. This is because (i) the computational model of man is not exactly true, given that there are provable facts that it does not explain and (ii) it is so tempting to accept now that money is being thrown at research that is, from the start, inherently flawed.
[[BK: There is a more important danger than money lost though, one that Epstein concludes with. We all experience life differently, from different angles, with different backgrounds, and other differences that all continue to culminate and compound each second. Because of this, the “pink goo” of our brains are stimulated and changed in different ways, causing us to “process” information in different ways, leading to more differences in how we perceive or understand the life experiences that further cause our brain tissues to change–not only is [[the same song heard differently by each person listening|AJ]], but the same goes for literally everything. This is compactly known as the Uniqueness Problem.]]
[[AJ: It’s almost like just saying that we are machines makes life easier. As robots, we can stop arguing about uniqueness or conflicting ideals, since everyone can be held to the same, universal standards.]]
So what do we do? We continue to use the brain-as-computer analogy [[where appropriate|BK]], but also “get over it”. We accept that it is simply not, nor ever will be, an accurate representation of mankind.
[[BK: In a text that I frequently go back to in this blog, Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon reasoned that man is a simple machine that only searches for optimal solutions in an abstract space, operating on and according to the environment in which it finds itself. However, he also reasoned that memory itself is part of that environment and not part of the core machine. Therefore, the complexity and seeming randomness of human behavior can be written off as not inherent to ourselves, but to the world that we are trying to navigate. This thought experiment, however, was never taken to be literal, something that throughout the years has appeared to happen, but instead was given only to help explain the “bounded rationality” to which we’ve been cursed as imperfect beings. We must keep in the front of our minds the assumptions made in our reasoning and to separate the models of reality we use to make decisions from the Truth of that reality itself.]]
Simply put, analogy is a device.