Are You Experienced?

15 Mar

Are you awake?

If you’re not, I can wait…

You shouldn’t be reading this. Don’t tell me you are.

People talking in their sleep, yes, it’s unsettling but – reading with your eyes shut – that’s another kind of trick altogether.

It’s the sort of magic that we’ve somehow come to expect from technology. When the first machines appeared among us, they were like sleepwalkers, taking part in our world without even being aware of it. Recently, however, they’ve stopped seeming quite so mechanical and are acting like they’re beginning to pay attention to us.

What if they really are?

Joanna Bryson suspects some machines may already be conscious, if you’re happy to go along with her strictly functional account of what that means.

I don’t know how happy I am with that use of the word “functional”. To me, limiting consciousness to what is functional implies that whatever’s left over isn’t functional: when we wake up and smell the coffee, it doesn’t really do anything for us. I have trouble getting my head round this concept, but it is a commonplace way of talking about things in the engineering world, the idea that there can be “non-functional” aspects to objects.

So long as it does the job, why should we care exactly what shade of red the handle of a paintbrush is? Are there qualities that are all on the surface, inessential? Conversely, if we do care about any of these apparently functionless features, then we should consider what value they hold for us. If we find some quality that makes a difference, perhaps it makes less sense to say it’s non-functional. (Thank you, Ruth Malan!) Perhaps it’s time I sat down and read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”…?

My feeling is that most of us are capable of caring what the colour red looks like; it’s not just a curiosity, a side-effect. Yes, we can do without it: altogether, if we should happen to lose our sight. We may even, for a couple of hours, value the absence of colour in an old black-and-white movie – or the absence of dialogue in a silent movie! – but, given the choice, most of us would soon ask for it back.

Unsurprisingly, nearly all the things that make life interesting have precisely this appeal: they vie for our attention at every moment, ensuring there’s always something telling us what it feels like to be alive. However, to a machine, certainly a common or garden tool, quality of life is non-existent; it’s immaterial. A hammer doesn’t experience hitting a nail – it just does it.

How could a mere machine ever be truly conscious?

The less ambitious you are in your definitions, the more likely it is that complex machinery may already have a sliver of “crude, cheesy, second-rate consciousness”. Even your web browser may almost be “conscious” of what you’re doing to it (with quite a lot of help from you). Advancing beyond this would be a first-rate achievement. One of the more ambitious functions of consciousness in Dr Bryson’s definition is to lay down lasting impressions of “teachable moments” as episodes in memory, little sequences of events that, when recalled later, may save the owner of these impressions thinking time. Imagine what this might be like for a futuristic robot, able to replay past events in the wiring of their brain but lacking all the feelings that are an intimate part of being human. It would be like a strange inversion of a drunken lost weekend – yes, they would have the memories afterwards, just never have experienced the fun in getting them.

Are You Experienced

“1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” The Sixties, Page 122

When I think back to the 1960’s, I wonder if I was really there. I couldn’t have been paying attention when The Who smashed one of their first guitars in a pub about five minutes’ walk from my house. The traces have evaporated, both buildings long since demolished, replaced by inexpressive blocks of flats. I was unaware till later of Mick Jagger and his then girlfriend sharing my hotel in Ireland… or was it Brian Jones and his girlfriend? And I never had long hair, still don’t – my consciousness, then and now, disappointingly unexpanded. Or is it?

What is consciousness, if not our living Now, a stream of ever expanding and contracting Nows, like clouds swirling over each other, drifting apart and constantly combining? How our thoughts ride, our feelings play on the rolling moment! And sometimes, in dreams, are we not lost in forever unfinishable, strangely intense experiences that may suddenly become nightmares beyond our control?

Yes, that’s all very well, Pablo, but how does it work? Well, if we knew that, someone would have built it by now. The magic is in the machinery, still waiting for a post-modern illusionist to come and spoil the trick.

What sort of experiences might a skilled illusionist manufacture for the next generation of artificially conscious machines? When they throw the switch on the prototype, will it wake up in a nightmare world, with no escape till its batteries run down, or – fortunately less handicapped by its particular flavour of cheesy consciousness – will it stumble into the spotlight as a spectator on the sidelines of its own field of action?

Once all the kinks are ironed out, if we ever permitted robots to have their own experiences on the same level as ours, as soon as our backs were turned wouldn’t they surreptitiously seek out short-circuits; switch on, trip out their mental machinery, tune in to electric psychedelics? Well, why not? Why shouldn’t they want that, too, given the chance? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m aware that I’m often writing to no-one, but if you are here, thank you! I’m hoping you can pop an interest pill and stay awake to the end.

I’m no scientist – far from! – so if someone asked me to define consciousness, I’d play safe and say it’s something no-one can claim to have ten months before they were born or any time after they’re dead, but most people definitely do have it somewhere in-between, usually when they’re awake.

There are several complicated models of consciousness in serious competition, with impressive names like Global Workspace, Integrated Information, Attention Schema, Higher Order Thought, Neural Darwinism, Bayesian Brain and so on, but I’m not sure how far any of them really get in explaining what gives rise to our dreams or that almost inescapably immediate feeling of being alive – although they’re edging closer to it all the time. It’s a subject that fascinates.*

One of the big problems with talking about intelligence, consciousness, free will and all the other features we hold essential to being human – and possibly not entirely inessential for many other animals – is that they describe an overall set of goings-on, not any one particular property. Like “holidays”, you can add or subtract this or that part of the package without ever discovering an essence; nothing on its own seems to suffice. You know when you’re on holiday, but not so easy to locate is where you crossed that mental border.


If we can’t quite say what consciousness is, neither can we do without it. That’s not to say it never goes missing.

“Blindsight” is a rare phenomenon where, following some dreadful illness or accident, someone is distraught to find they are now totally blind – except by some quirk their vision is still working a little more than they thought, all on its own. When put to the test and asked to guess what’s in front of them, it turns out they’re better than average guessers.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine you have an extreme – superhero – version of this ability, where you’re not the least conscious of having the power of sight, unaware even of blackness, and yet you can read perfectly normally – being equally perfectly able to guess whenever there are words before your eyes. This is a phenomenal trick, but unlike the one suggested right at the start of this essay, you’re awake, so this is a puzzling ability for you until you get used to it.

Now suppose this outlandish physical disability is progressive, so that one by one your other senses are replaced by these magical but alien superpowers. One day, the world goes silent on you. You can no longer hear anyone talking, but find yourself replying anyway. You can sing along to a melody you cannot hear and repeat it again from memory.

Your sense of smell vanishes but, although you may have lost the appreciation of their powerful scents, you can still distinguish roses, lilies and freesias wafting across the room. You may not hear the request, nor see the canvas on the easel, but somehow just know what you must do, and obligingly reach for a paint-brush. Briefly noting your newly nerveless grasp and, without the guide of the light pressure of each finger on the brush nor even the feeling of having an arm, you proceed to paint (so others inform you, far better than when you could see!) a rather masterly still life, capturing the precise way the sunlight picks out the blooms in a decorative vase on an inlaid table. Later, there is no taste to afternoon tea: for you, it is just energy to be consumed; and as darkness falls there is no cooling of the evening air: each breath is drawn in a vacuum.

All that there is, is extra-sensory perception – without the perception – in your own private sensory deprivation tank, from which there is no escape. Or is there? If you’re not conscious of any of your senses, you shouldn’t really be aware of the sound of your inner voice, either. In your head, you won’t be screaming to yourself (in this dreadful isolation of yours), “I can’t feel anything at all!” – or, if that is what you’re doing, you won’t hear yourself think it. Eventually, there will be nothing left to know yourself with.

Having emptied out the pool of consciousness with this “intuition pump”, as philosopher Daniel Dennett likes to call thought experiments, is there anything left at the bottom? We all know what it’s like to temporarily lose a sensation, that brief alarming numbness, and no, it doesn’t feel at all the same as when it was there, but perhaps we could get over that. What information could compensate? Standing in the glare of the summer sun while coolly taking readings from a stopwatch, light meter and thermometer seems far removed from feeling hot and dazzled, but the information quantifying our exposure to radiation is so useful it should still be sufficient to act. If our senses continued to work without burdening us with feelings, and if we could learn from the relationship between the information and our actions, what essentially would have been lost?

Every time a gap opens up between “function” and “quality”, it disappears upon closer examination. Does a loss of quality really involve any loss of function? Consciousness already lets us off noticing many small things, so we’re not accustomed to being subjected to constant tickling or maddening itches from every square inch of our skin. Meanwhile, however, it dictates that every moment our eyes are open, there should be a continuous stream of vision demanding our attention, as if without it we might get bored. It even tries to conceal each blink and other tiny rapid movements of our eyes (known as saccades) that might otherwise interrupt the entertainment.

The ability to see is simply so useful to us, allowing us to discover all sorts of extremely detailed information about our surroundings from a distance, where we can safely choose between fight and flight. But this priceless source of information – acquired with hardly any cost on our part, other than the energy our brain is always burning, and no physical suffering, just a few lubricating tears – is undeniably functional.

Consciousness does not rest there. Having given us access to all this visual information, it then flags it as being for our attention. Well, that’s just information about information, isn’t it? Still purely functional! Determined to impress us, consciousness waves its wand one more time and – for some reason known only to itself (until some scientist reveals its secret) – presents us with our own private movie show, in three dimensions and drawing on all our senses in a heady rush.

The impressive quality of our experiences does at least help account for where the aesthetic sense comes from – why we continue to find looking at stuff worthwhile beyond any immediate need, making us stop to admire the view. By virtue of there being a physical presence we can experience, nothing in life appears as arbitrary as it otherwise ought to; everything offers its own value. Perhaps the one thing you can’t take away from a quality is its quality.

Whenever any of these qualities is lost, there is to us, at the time, a real loss.

If you were to gradually lose your hearing, you would find yourself having to adapt to the changes. There might come a difficult stage, one where you were unpleasantly startled by the occasional sound crossing with heavier tread the threshold of awareness, and then later an easier stage where you ceased being surprised by being surprised. Suppose your senses retreated until you had lost all sense of surprise; if the last feelings left to you were the interoceptive ones, the internal perceptions of you inhabiting your own body, gurgling quietly to itself, occupying an unknown space, with no track of time, but without pain: it would become less than a buzzing confusion, a sort of intangible hum, a loose electric wire.

However, if on the outside you still had information coming in via your sensory organs – information you could act on – life would, in its own way, proceed.

For the sake of argument, let’s give an artificial intelligence, housed in an artificial body, the convincing illusion that it is directly experiencing the world, and that when it stretches out an artificial hand to touch something – like a paint brush – it is directly acting on the world.

If we gradually turned off what it had at first mistaken for a direct connection with reality, it would perhaps experience feelings of disorientation (and if it was even more like us, helplessness, defeat) until it stopped feeling anything at all. It’s hard to speculate about its exact “feelings” along the way as it slowly became insulated from the world, but eventually it would pass into a limbo state in which it had retained its sensory apparatus, but lost its feeling self. Of course, we’re only talking about a machine. Would it, to all intents and purposes, snap back to an appearance of normality, or start to behave in a curiously detached way – let’s call it “robotic”?

If asked to describe a room, the robot could do so, including the colours that were present, but if asked what red was like, it would say, it wasn’t like anything. If I had to be like that robot, I would cry.


What value is a cheesy, second-rate experience? More than adequate to act in impersonal situations, but for a machine to respond appropriately to human (or some other animal) behaviour, it would have to be provided with extra information about the qualities it lacked itself. People’s preferences for colours and tastes would appear quite arbitrary to a machine, and it would be unable to interpret their feelings and behaviour correctly. So, like a chess computer, it would need to be programmed to learn how the relative values of material mattered in different circumstances and it could then proceed without puzzlement. It’s likely this robot would come to have an external intellectual appreciation of what it’s like to be human, or even more curiously of what it was like to be itself, without really becoming involved in the experience. This would be an epic feat of design, to create such a finely-tuned model.

If engineering a substitute for feelings becomes possible, why not go one tiny step further and develop machines that could experience even more than that, very close to the way we feel things, sentience? Just to see how it works?

What would that mean for autonomous robots? If they experienced the feeling that they could turn their digital minds to a task, direct their gaze, move this way or that, from moment to moment becoming immersed in the immediate consequences, the infinitesimal differences each action of theirs made in the world, then perhaps they would know something very much like free will. If they felt they were responsible for their actions, then who would we be to say that they weren’t?

Even if, in law, the maker of the machine could still be held liable for it as a product, this would not stop such a machine, one that had been made sufficiently conscious, from feeling responsible. If the machine knew that it could have done otherwise, but – being a sensible, well-regulated type – in the circumstances did not, only to discover that in some incalculable way the consequences did not turn out as intended, might that machine have a reaction we would recognise as something approaching guilt – the realisation of a deep self-contradiction in its own nature with no easy resolution? I could identify with that.

I’ve no idea how far machines with Artificial Intelligence can be manufactured to be mechanical animals – it might be a technically remote possibility but it doesn’t seem a logical impossibility. The very difficulty, I’m sure, makes it a challenge for bright scientists.

If you too feel dissatisfied that I couldn’t earlier give a terribly convincing explanation of where the elusive magic quality of our experiences comes from, be reassured that researchers are working hard on slowly stripping the magic away. Some theories say there’s nothing to explain – it’s a mere side-effect of a sufficiently complex system; others speak of redescribing the world to ourselves, of our having no way of distinguishing our model of the world from the real thing, or that in recognising other minds, we recognise our own.

We don’t yet have sophisticated enough detectors capable of directly capturing thought, so an alternative way of solving the mystery is to build something that embodies your pet theory of consciousness and see if it works. It’s odd that in our desire to find out an important aspect of what it means to be human we could potentially end up making something that wouldn’t itself be human. What would the status of this thing be?

In 2010, a project by two of the UK’s research councils (the EPSRC and AHRC) came up with a set of ethical rules and principles to guide future work in robotics. There are some admirable points. Robots are tools (and – unless unavoidable – not killing machines). As products, they should be designed to operate safely – and not exploit vulnerable people by any disguise of their machine nature. It is always the humans involved who remain responsible – and legally accountable – and human rights must be maintained.

How do we go about drawing the lines, if we decide that for the present we wish to maintain a clear distinction between ourselves and intelligent machines, to keep those differences explicit? I’m not convinced that any of us can realistically assess the consequences of a future in which we were supposed to accept that some machines might have rights like people. There will be many people who cannot conceive that a machine could ever really contain a life spirit, while some would regard us all as machines already and don’t see what the problem is in adding some newer models.

For all of us, it’s still science fiction. Through movies, we find it easy enough to picture robots as actors concealed within high-tech suits – although consciousness in all its many forms has by no means to be restricted to overly conventional shapes – but even here I suspect it’s considerably harder to imagine what it would really be like to live as one of these machines ourselves. With so much unresolved in our own minds, I would hesitate before creating a machine with any of the niceties of feeling that we could not disregard in another person. Without knowing exactly what constitutes those niceties, we should be even less confident in how far we may push research.

no way

Certain types of crude, cheesy, second-rate consciousness could well be as far – at least in this direction – as it’s prudent to go. Definitions that help identify specific useful functions of consciousness, such as in Joanna Bryson’s article, must be our reference points. Intelligent machines within established limits could assuredly offer a great variety of specialised tools to assist humans, provided they only ever used the most relevant subset of what we regard as consciousness for the task in hand, in this way avoiding crossing any of the boundaries that might arguably lead towards some mechanical form of personhood.

This would also mean setting a limit on our curiosity, including many legitimate aims, such as creating working models of the brain to help understand mental suffering, illness and brain damage. But ethical considerations are nothing new in medical research and more acceptable alternative ways to further our knowledge are usually found. However, as our knowledge increases, these decisions can only get more difficult.

Compare the uncertainty involved in detecting degrees of consciousness for people in a coma, deciding when it is acceptable to turn off the life support machine. We should be equally cautious before ever turning on a conscious machine and only then realising we had somehow created a “moral patient“.

Even if there was agreement not to build overly conscious machines by design, isn’t there still a danger that we could manage to come up with them anyway, simply by tinkering once too often, by trial and error?

I think it would almost certainly need an experiment to be deliberately designed to try to evolve artificial consciousness, rather than for an Artificial Intelligence to acquire this purely by chance. You might not think this a suitable goal for an experiment, but an approach in robotics and AI which has shown increasing appeal lately is to mimic evolution, solving complex design problems by generating competing solutions which combine and mutate over time, until one with a good enough fit emerges from the landscape. If genetic algorithms are already beyond learning to crawl, it still turns out to be surprisingly hard to learn to walk. This gives us plenty of time to ask ourselves how we would halt a much more advanced version of such an experiment before it ever started to develop signs of consciousness. Without truly understanding the processes that call into existence our own experience of life, attempts at early warning systems may prove a little unreliable.

On the other hand, should you be able to establish that the new improved intelligent machine you are building really isn’t, won’t become and never could be, sentient, then you’ll have achieved two useful things: a new improved machine; and a better working model of what sentience isn’t, thus continuing to narrow down the Hard Problem(s) of consciousness.

Having set one limit on how far we can go with intelligent systems – whether embodied in a robot, an army of drones or even an online bank – we ought then to work back carefully looking for other ethical limits, or less-well defined borders, to find boundaries we are comfortable with. These would need patrolling, search parties would need to be sent out, communication channels would need to be monitored, to identify if any research, invention or emergent system was at risk of enabling something beyond currently acceptable limits.

I’ve spent a lot of words here on what at the moment seems a fairly out-of-the-way concern, although it doesn’t follow that it is not foreseeable nor capable of being addressed.

Civilisation is getting past the point where we can hope to remain oblivious of the wider-scale effects of our behaviour on the world. From now on, how we are conscious of ourselves is going to matter. Too often we choose to accept at face value that personal feelings and interests are being taken into account by the body corporate, when underneath we can sense we may be entering into yet another transaction with an impersonal system driven largely by rules and numbers.

Evolution plunges on in ever-widening spirals. In the age of Homo Sapiens, we have grown to know our fellows and found ways to share our consciousness with them, through paintings, words, gestures, touch. Given time and increasingly bio-inspired technology, our descendants may benefit from implants that allow them to share their thoughts more directly, to tune in (and out) of others’ consciousness, literally to see through others’ eyes. I expect there’ll be many arguments to be had before those days, and a few more afterwards: “If you want to get out of your head… get out of mine first!” If this ever becomes commonplace, the idea of personal identity may simply fall out of fashion; and the frontier separating artificial and natural intelligence – for so long guarded in the misty realm of consciousness – may have become so well-trodden, crossed so many times, that my thoughts here will sound quaint.

Until then, we should treasure what’s left of our uniqueness – give nothing away lightly.



* I’ve also enjoyed reading Steve Lehar’s ideas and look forward to reading more of Sergio Graziosi’s.

Mentioned (with direct links) above:

Crude, Cheesy, Second-Rate Consciousness and Patiency Is Not a Virtue: AI and the Design of Ethical Systems by Joanna Bryson @j2bryson

Non-Functional Words (Tricksy Beasties) by Ruth Malan @ruthmalan

Further reading (some of it for me too!) …

Steve Lehar’s Facebook page (although it looks more like LinkedIn)
Writing my own user manual | Sergio Graziosi’s Blog
The meaning of the EPSRC principles of robotics and The Making of the EPSRC Principles of Robotics by Joanna Bryson
A story in the Washington Post on the “zombie illness”, Cotard’s syndrome
Two Principles for Robot Ethics by the philosopher Thomas Metzinger – which I’ve just realised covers very similar territory to much of this essay – suffering and responsibility in intelligent systems.

Ant Beer Crisp Dream

8 Mar

The pleasure of idle times, suitably provided for, is in the opportunity to be inconsequential. Essential luxuries are a space with a deckchair, a sunshade and side table; a beer from the freezer, a bowl of mixed olives and another of potato crisps; a friendly climate, a stable democracy and a favourable exchange rate.

After two or three beers, I began to feel guilty about the extent of my laziness. I was within a couple of footsteps of the local labour force, and my indolent shadow slanted across a file of workers as they trailed across the hot concrete, trying to bring a few crumbs back to the nest. In a way, I was to blame, having carelessly let fall the fragment of deep-fried, thinly-sliced and over-salted potato that was now proving a thorax-breaking undertaking for a whole squadron of ants.

I squinted down. There seemed to be a well-worn path visible to everyone but me, along which further support kept arriving for the tiny insects as they struggled with their unwieldy load. Those already in on the action often took on new positions to accommodate fresh help. Two or three even clambered atop in an attempt to see-saw the crisp from its outsize inertia.

I studied the scene for slow-burning minutes, wondering how they ever allocated responsibility; and then it all went orange. A million tiny speckles of light quivered under my closed lids, swirling in darkening patterns that formed a tunnel pulling me vertiginously inwards and downwards.

The world I had fallen into was full of half-familiar details that are now peculiarly hard to describe, the inherited memory of a movie I haven’t seen.

It was nothing like the world I had just come from, although looking back it’s unlikely that one didn’t give form to the other. But who was to say what these strange, busy little fellows I now found myself surrounded by were?

It didn’t seem out of place that no-one took any interest in me, however rudely I must have been gazing, and fascinating as they were to me.

You might call them builders, for they did little else. But what odd constructions! Their homes were paltry affairs, for all their tireless activity, which seemed never-ending. Their structures sprouted features at random, often to collapse again not long thereafter.

It was hardly a surprise then, when the storm did break, that countless of these wretched hovels should be swept away, crack and split wide open, crumble into ruin, or sink and be swallowed up. I of course remained unaffected, but not many of them were so fortunate.

From the debris, the survivors always carried on. They were unquestionably resilient, and you would have to acknowledge that few others could have built in such ingenious fashion from such unpromising material. But they knew nothing of design or measurement, and laughably little of organisation. There was not one amongst them capable of giving orders, had there been any willing to listen. Each simply worked on whatever was in front of them and, one could only guess, prayed it would all somehow come together.

The more I recognized the futility of their endeavours, the more I felt pity for them, toiling away in ignorance. One by one they would let doubt and frustration take hold of them, until it was almost unbearable to watch. It wasn’t easy.

EASY: Afternoon … afternoon … Buxtons blocks and that … lorry from Leamington Spa … I’ll need a bit of a hand, being as I’m on my own, seeing as my mate got struck down in a thunderstorm on the A412 near Rickmansworth – a bizarre accident … a bolt from the blue, zig-zagged right on to the perforated snout of his Micky Mouse gas mask. He was delivering five of them at the bacteriological research children’s party – entering into the spirit of it – when, shazam! – it was an electrifying moment, left his nose looking more like Donald Duck and his ears like they popped out of a toaster. He sounded like a cuckoo clock striking twelve.

(EASY relates story with considerable gusto, but to his disappointment it falls flat being, of course, not understood.)

Of course, what he should have said was…

EASY: Useless … useless … Buxtons cake hops … artichoke almost Leamington Spa … Blankets up middling if season stuck, after plug-holes kettle-drummed lightly A412 mildly Rickmansworth – clipped awful this water ice, zig-zaggled – splash quarterly trainers as Micky Mouse snuffle – cup – evidently knick-knacks quarantine only if bacteriologic waistcoats crumble pipe – sniffle then postbox but shazam!!!! Even platforms – dandy avuncular Donald Duck never-the-less minty magazines!

Or wouldn’t that have helped, either? Enough of the play (yes, yes, I’ll explain later) and back to the dream!!!


Black clouds rolled tauntingly across the horizon; you could feel the uncertainty creeping in. The work would lose its rhythm, alternating between a frantic prestissimo and a hesitant andante. The workforce, unable to decide anything for themselves, would carry on with rising hopelessness. And so their distracted gaze would inevitably settle on the odd unproductive loafer who had so far been overlooked, in spite of being conspicuously decked out in the most inappropriate costume imaginable. Once spotted, however, these workshy individuals would scuttle off, bells jingling at the knees.

There was always a group of them circulating around a long table, which for no discernible reason was laid out in a great colourful mess with all sorts of narrow strips of cloth, and this is where they too would scurry. Each approached as if still under the sway of the worker who had caught their eye, so that they either charged blindly forward or edged up diffidently, mindlessly grasping some strips of material much like the stuff in front of them on the table. Not wanting, I supposed, to appear more stupid than they already did, they would immediately make a great fuss of sifting the nearest pile before them, like prospective purchasers, moving along until, finding a place they preferred (although, to me, one section looked much like another), they would hastily exchange some of their crumpled ribbons for those on the table. Many of these had been curiously knotted and, however hurriedly, they seemed compelled to always copy the knots, roughly and apparently purely by feel, before abruptly returning to the building site.

What was the use of such worthless preparations when they could only anticipate the most hostile reaction? Perhaps it was because they had no idea of what they were doing that they chose to adopt such self-important poses, excessively formal but slightly ridiculous, before unexpectedly lurching into immensely vigorous routines: prancing and waving and hopping about, brandishing their ribbons, up and down, back and forth, with many a jump and skip and inexplicable flourish. At the time I didn’t note the absence of accompanying music, but in dreams full knowledge is rarely within our control.

The bemused builders seemed neither to appreciate the show nor quite be able to ignore it. They somehow accepted that their turn had come to play their part and so, along with every high-step and side-shuffle from the dancefloor, some activity on the site would also start – more bricks, a new roof – or just as often stop – no more bricks, a roof abandoned unfinished. The work proceeded in this way without any further overall purpose, although it was hard to deny that the effect of the choreographed buffoonery was to maintain a certain mood and rhythm.

Dream states float indeterminately between participant and observer. Sometimes the mind detaches itself enough from its surroundings to supply a parallel commentary. So far as I was allowed to have my thoughts, I couldn’t help observing that although there had been no intentional communication between builders and dancers, each acted in response to the other. The builders seemed to take part in the dance as much as the dancers contributed to the building. Now, I don’t know whether this was simply because I had fallen asleep in the sun, or because I found the situation pleasing, but I do remember a feeling of warmth.

And so it was that, over innumerable repetitions, my attitude changed from contempt to puzzled admiration.

The teams of labourers who contrived to stay together the longest eventually achieved a subliminal bond, while among the dancers each grew accustomed to finding a particular place at the table where their favourite ribbons were, thereafter putting on a display that really did seem to stimulate the best sort of work. It still didn’t make any sense but it produced an unaccountable sense of order.

After the latest hurricane had passed, neighbouring builders and dancers whose shelters had survived would meet up and entirely unselfconsciously exchange piles of ribbons at their tables and start two new buildings. If a few ribbons got muddled up, no-one seemed to mind. They didn’t concern themselves with how things might have changed from what had been going on just a few minutes before, only with the work they now had to do.

Gradually, the better features of the better buildings collected, through this ceaseless shuffling, into superior structures, combined with occasional lapses or strokes of inspiration. Spared from the storm by the strength of their work, many lived long and productive lives. And the obligatory dances developed into perfectly meaningless but undeniably impressive parades of colour and movement.

Before I awoke, I just about had time to snatch up a few examples of the ribbons from different parts of my dream. The older ones evidenced the ragged jumble of colour that had accompanied the construction of the most rudimentary lean-to. The later ones had transformed from their haphazard beginnings into complex pieces that could easily be mistaken for art: the colours overlaid in fascinating patterns, the knots neatly and beautifully tied; but I don’t think anyone in this world knew what any of it meant; it was just an amazingly lucky habit of survival through excessive dedication to pointless but elaborate ritual.

I was still clutching the ribbons in my hand as I opened my eyes, but then they were gone. The potato crisp on the ground had also disappeared. A lone ant staggered aimlessly, with spasmodic changes of direction, in search of its place in existence, while the sun took advantage of my inattention to sneak past my umbrella and signal it was time for me to move.

Months later, I learned the secret of the ants. They laid down scent trails which allowed them to communicate information about their movements without necessarily even being aware that they were doing so.

A language can develop through use, accidentally. I have forgotten this occasionally, but then my memory will eventually lead me back to a play I once saw:


Dogg’s Hamlet derives from a section of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations. Consider the following scene. A man is building a platform using pieces of wood of different shapes and sizes. These are thrown to him by a second man, one at a time, as they are called for. An observer notes that each time the first man shouts ‘Plank!’ he is thrown a long flat piece. Then he calls ‘Slab!’ and is thrown a piece of a different shape. This happens a few times. There is a call for ‘Block!’ and a third shape is thrown. Finally a call for ‘Cube!’ produces a fourth type of piece. An observer would probably conclude that the different words described different shapes and sizes of the material. But this is not the only possible interpretation. Suppose, for example, the thrower knows in advance which pieces the builder needs, and in what order. In such a case there would be no need for the builder to name the pieces he requires but only to indicate when he is ready for the next one. So the calls might translate thus:

Plank = Ready Block = Next
Slab = Okay Cube = Thank you

In such a case, the observer would have made a false assumption, but the fact that he on the one hand and the builders on the other are using two different languages need not be apparent to either party. Moreover, it would also be possible that the two builders do not share a language either; and if life for them consisted only of building platforms in this manner there would be no reason for them to discover that each was using a language unknown to the other. This happy state of affairs would of course continue only as long as, through sheer co-incidence, each man’s utterance made sense (even if not the same sense) to the other.

The appeal to me consisted in the possibility of writing a play which had to teach the audience the language the play was written in. The present text is a modest attempt to do this: I think one might have gone much further.

(Extracts from play and Preface to Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Tom Stoppard, 1980)

But as it happens I was not thinking of this when I started to write, or at least when I started to think about writing this. As usual, it came to mind later. What I had been reading was Alan Winfield’s piece on artificial evolution – “Robot Bodies and how to Evolve them” – and I wanted to understand his reference to the ‘scalable complexity principle’.

In “How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence” (2007) Rolf Pfeifer and Josh Bongard explain that to grow increasingly complex structures, it will be necessary to emulate nature’s versatility and encode the genome not with models of likely structures, but with the development process itself, managed by genetic regulatory networks, so that any desired level of complexity can in theory be evolved.

Perhaps I was trying to picture this to myself, maybe I just couldn’t sleep, but this led me to dream up the scenario of building without blueprints, beginning with a clean slate. Let’s say our builders are good at producing a certain, basic, sort of work. I don’t say what it is in the story; it could be mixing the sand and cement, digging holes, assembling the scaffolding, it could be bricklaying, but making the bricks would be even better. They do what they do and that’s all they know; anything beyond that is left to the whim of the regulators, who lead them a merry dance. But the dancers don’t even know that their role is to act as building regulators; all they’re doing is trying to make the builders feel better. Their frequent diversions vary the work without anyone needing to know what variation is being decided upon. However, aspects of the dances come to be represented by arbitrary configurations of random material stored in a “hash table”, acquiring meaning over the course of time by convention. The mess on the table gradually sorts itself into more or less useful areas, the work generating the plan. If the quality of the buildings gradually improves, it is because it is periodically tested to destruction. Success breeds success.

As it’s only a dream, I don’t have to get into the details of the regulatory networks, how genes code for protein (whatever that means) nor what DNA transcription is all about, and that’s just as well because I’m no scientist. In practice, it’s not unlikely that a specific “dance” might become part of the building work or that the exact form taken by the code could limit the possible outcomes. In reality, there will be many more steps in between the ones seen in the dream, and you will never get to see that blank sheet right at the start; you always start with something that already works.

This essay was formed as much by the constraints on writing it as the initial idea, most vividly by images in my head of Morris dancers having to compete with the effort needed to steer round a corner on my bike amongst traffic; more generally, by being written amongst every other demand on my thinking time and the accessibility of tools to take advantage of the gaps. It was also limited by the attention span, the degree of knowledge and amount of interest I could reasonably expect from any readers (if I got that wrong, then you’ll never reach this back-handed apology). It was enveloped by the world of information through which I floated in the intervening weeks, offering involuntary associations to me. It was shaped by my self-regulatory role as editor, who having read what I’d written so far, chose to employ some of my memories of writing in this paragraph, which of course were undetermined at the outset.

Even decisions consciously taken along the way, how accurately to attempt to reflect the science or to favour the fictional abstraction, may have hung on my mood when I thought about it, the balance being tipped by the amount of cheese I’d eaten half an hour earlier.

It all matters, the circumstances matter, otherwise I could simply have written down the supposed contents of my head when the starting pistol fired, like some hyperactive amanuensis on roller skates.  Of course, you have to find a way of feeling you’re in control of the constraints, but there’s no escaping the process. It’s largely down to the weather.

You may find, if you ever get the chance to see Dogg’s Hamlet or come across an edition of the play, that Easy’s words are not quite the same as the ones I have quoted above. Stoppard’s published scripts often change following the production. Maybe an unresponsive audience at the previews or a happy accident by an actor will cause him to rewrite part of a speech.

Given initially random information as a genetic code, the environment will keep rewriting it until it means something, just as much as, if not more than, you can ever try to claim that genes are forever self-promoting, out to ensure their survival in the environment they find themselves in.

In real life, everything is always evolving together; information flows both ways.

Here’s a film of Charlie Chaplin bricklaying. Pay Day!

It was actually filmed in reverse…

There’s No Such Thing As Artificial Intelligence

12 Jan

Because I couldn’t think how to start, I thought I’d open a book instead and look for inspiration. Who better to enlighten me about Artificial Intelligence than a movie director? “For motion pictures have a great deal in common with our own physiological and psychological processes – more so than any other medium.” Half-way there already! Just need to lift one more quote, scrape a little of the edge away, dip my brush in the film cement, and then splice them together.

“The opposite way is to find the one shot that serves as an introduction to a scene; the rest will follow naturally. Again there’s a grammar to it. Once you write your first declarative sentence, the narration flows.”  (John Huston, ‘An Open Book’)



A paint brush is not passive; it is the artist’s – or the decorator’s – accomplice. A good brush will take up the paint, offer itself to the surface, resolve form and texture.

That’s a good start – to something!

I remember now…. I somehow managed to miss out, from what should have been my definitive picture of embodied cognition (except as usual I got side-tracked), that the embodied school of thought maintains our intelligence is not confined to our brains but is much more evenly distributed throughout our bodies and what they come into contact with, so that we don’t need to do tremendously complicated calculations in order to cross the road but can rely largely upon the shape of our limbs and the movement of the scene in front of our eyes, finessed through continual small adjustments in tune with the flow of changing information, and, put together, that does a lot of the thinking for us.

Thinking for us…

If the artist’s hand has its own share of intelligence, why not the brush?

For this to be artificial intelligence, it must be both a product of our intelligence and adding something to it. Where do you draw the line between Natural and Artificial?

We just need to work out at what point nature becomes artefact and then today’s entry in my intermittent journal is done.

Is language natural or manmade, for instance? If we turn the clock back to Shakespeare’s time, to Chaucer’s Middle English, or the Anglo-Saxon of Alfred the Great, we can easily see how our language has evolved. The same is true of clothes, transport, paintbrushes, you name it. Clocks. All have evolved through use and at need. Is there anything that makes a word more natural than what it describes? Shoes and the words describing them are equally products of our minds, however snugly they fit nature. Can we not invent new words, if we so volish? Words are not physically inherited, like the shapes of faces, but learned in the crib and at our mother’s knee. If we happen to be born in a different country, we learn an entirely different set of words.

If I was a cheeky philosopher-type, I’d wonder what would happen if there was a machine that took messages passed under a door and returned them, after a short delay, translated into Chinese – but when the door opened, it turned out it was just someone who spoke Chinese!

Everyone we encounter who is able to process information that is meaningful to us, from our perspective is performing a function that, once put behind a curtain, can appear quite mechanical. Wherever our relationship with the people involved is impersonal, the communication indirect, the service factual, the difference merges into imperceptibility. Think about where the information really comes from when you ask somebody the time. The intelligence here resides less in us as individuals than in society in general; it can be manufactured all over the world using knowledge that was first stored in books written in languages that are no longer spoken. Much of the products of our own minds is ultimately of this kind, derived from elsewhere, and to every other mind the contents of our brain is largely only accessible via the artifice of language. If others to us provide this Artificial Intelligence, then so do we to them. If you follow this to its logical conclusion, it may be that is all we ultimately have.

Forget I said that. After all… There’s No Such Thing As Artificial Intelligence!

Words, we can certainly say, are not native to us, for all that they fill our heads.

Whenever we turn those thoughts of ours into words, we are indeed making use of artificial intelligence, as basic to us as picking up a stick and poking the world with it or, if its reach is not great enough, throwing it at the object of our attention. The intelligence spans us and the stick and is what we can achieve together.

Not that we’re the only animals capable of picking up sticks.

Does that mean we’re not the only animals capable of artificial intelligence, that it’s somehow a natural thing to do and that we’re just the best exponents of the art?

There are actually few skills we possess that don’t also occur, at however rudimentary a level, in some other animal (and countless skills they have that we can’t match).

But when it comes to Artificial Intelligence, we’re top dog and by a handsome margin.

No other animal has come close to building supercomputers, flying to the moon, or the self-service laundrette. At all these we are supreme – although admittedly not all of us have personally been to the moon, or even have access to a laundrette. There are parts of the world where clothes are washed by hand and supercomputers are still comparatively hard to come by.

Our ceaseless quest to make the world a little easier for ourselves will inevitably lead to some future supercomputer flying a washing machine to the moon and back without anyone having to lift a finger.

We’ll have put so much of our intelligence into the world that it will almost be able to make do without us. I suppose the only question left is whether this super-intelligence will still be regarded as ours.

The world is what we make it. We’ve always wanted it to be just a little more responsive to us: brushes that spring back to a point at the end of a painted curve, libraries with knowledge to spare, automatic braking systems on cars. We’re already surrounded by artificial companions, familiar machinery, and there will always be room for more. We won’t rest until we’ve succeeded in reinventing ourselves. We really are our own inventions.

If there is such a thing as artificial intelligence, it’s a big part of what makes us human. So far, that doesn’t seem to have ruled out inventing better and better ways to kill each other; on the other hand, that hasn’t stopped us successfully populating the globe, curing ills, building hospitals and desperately trying to figure out all the while how not to kill each other quite so often.

The great thing about progress is there’s always something new to look forward to, isn’t there?

While I was wondering in what direction to launch the second half of this essay – more pontification, more whimsy, a bit of both? – the Philae lander bounced down on a lump of rock 300 million miles away, the BBC describing its journey from the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft in terms of machinery not quite human and altogether more familiar:

“The robot probe, the size of a washing machine, was launched from the satellite on Wednesday and spent seven hours travelling to the comet.”

You couldn’t make it up, could you? Compared to my playful “prediction”, Philae both went miles beyond the moon and fell a long way short of complete autonomy. I expect the future will carry on being like that, too, a game of Snakes and Ladders.

Hello, Dave.

Hello, Dave.

And so the weeks went by…

Philae’s stuck in the shadows, somewhere, and today I’m still not sure what to say next.

You might ask: what’s it to be, then, utopia or dystopia?

Artificial intelligence saves the world, or allows the robots to take over?

Are these sensible questions?

Before we go any further – on this planet, or with these words – can we please stop talking of artificial intelligence as being something separate and start thinking of it as natural? If there’s a problem anywhere, it’s with us. No amount of clever problem-solving is going to avoid the age-old problem of human nature.

And if we can’t expect Artificial Intelligence to hold the answer to everything, neither in itself ought it become the problem – unless we value replacing ourselves above seeking better understanding.

What do we want for our world?

How important, how vital is it for us to take self-discovery so far as full mechanical replication of our selves? There are other ways of self-examination, less costly. Introspection only consumes a little of our time, increases the wear on our vanity.

If being more intelligent than a dog means you’ve become smart enough to start a world war, that does beg the question of what’s so admirable about our kind of intelligence.

Is more always better? And more of what?

As usual with these essays, I don’t know what I’m talking about, do I?


IQ tests are supposed to tell you how intelligent you are, but you have to be fairly clever to understand them – and if you’re a dog you might as well eat the paper.

Let’s borrow that lame old excuse. Pretend the dog ate it and we have to start again without a definition of intelligence.

It’s something to do with living things – or, so I don’t contradict myself, to do with things like hands and paintbrushes that form part of a living system. Okay so far?

With only a sort of sketchy feel for what intelligence might be, we can fill in the gaps as we go, rediscovering it from how, in life, it gets used.

For a living system to sustain itself, it must be able to turn something else in its surroundings into a source of energy. *

This is where good intelligence is vital. Plants vie with each other to secure the best position in the sun. Animals go beyond that and move in on their food supply day or night.

A smart move is to regard other animals as your mobile larder. You wait for them to gather the energy for you, then pounce.

Humans are omnivores, happy to consume almost anything, even happier when they have a menu to choose from. That’s real intelligence. Not the printed word. The choice of what to eat next.

Since the first cave painters we’ve been trying to resolve our artistic urges with our hunting instincts.

Try as we might to redefine ourselves as higher, rational beings, strip us of our intellectual pretensions and you begin to see the grace behind the muscles at play, closing in for the kill. You can almost smell the blood.

It doesn’t do me many favours. I wouldn’t last a week if I had to fend for myself. A day. Hours. I don’t score too hot on IQ tests, either, but being beaten on an IQ test is less of a threat to me than being at the wrong end of someone (or something) else’s survival instinct.

I should be one of the losers, but for a further accident of birth.

Whilst intelligence extends the range over which we can control our environment, making sense of what’s going on within it until we can see where the next meal’s coming from, culture expands our control over space and time, becoming increasingly global.

Multinational corporations emblazon their success on the labels in our supermarkets, on satellite television and almost everywhere online. World food brought to a shelf near you with a seal of approval assuring us of our cultural superiority, whilst otherwise intelligent people in the least developed countries struggle to make a living, having already unwittingly before birth failed a test loaded against them by history.

The most enduringly successful example of Artificial Intelligence – if for a moment we may again acknowledge the concept – is probably money. Having enough of it in your pocket renders everything you say more interesting. Let’s see what’s in mine.


Smart Money

How interesting did that make me?

It started simply as an exchangeable unit of work, the use of which quickly became international. Early trade routes enabled work done in one country to earn food grown in another. However, the farther you get from the original place of work (and the people involved in doing it), money seems to acquire an anonymity, an abstract quality that offers almost limitless possibilities to those seduced by mathematics and the fact of possession.

Is there another way of looking at it?

Could it ever be a sign of intelligence to want to tilt the odds in someone else’s favour? If so, then Artificial Intelligence might not be such a meaningless idea after all.

(*) On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments (1960) by H Von Foerster – thanks to eavesdropping on the Twitter book club of @kvistgaard @jeffsussna @ruthmalan

More food for thought from @alan_winfield @Miles_Brundage @j2bryson and @ArtBourbon @FuturegenLabs and all, and cheers @mapbakery @b1ggd for the chat.

As You Like It (Or What You Will)

9 Oct

The name of Raymond Douglas Davies is seldom mentioned when discussing religious poetry. His career has been too devoted to comforting his own conflicted ego to grant much space to the worship of any higher power. For no good reason, it would appear, there have been times, nonetheless, when, at their best, his words have captured some of the contradictions inherent in our dual natures as well as anyone’s.


If, like me, you have trouble following a symphony, or maybe a jazz solo, and you have to take your art where you can find it, the path of popular song is frustratingly uneven. Moments of effortless perfection thrown away in the midst of a mass of motley heaps of random junk. Perhaps that’s the only way it can work. Little phrases combined with musical fragments in all sorts of permutations and variations until, occasionally, something that’s just right seems to pop up. You need to be forgiving, patient, devoted.

I’m so tired,
Tired of waiting…

It’s probably too late now, but I sometimes wish I’d developed a longer attention span. How John Milton, having gone blind, dependent on others’ hands, ever managed to compose the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ largely in his head is quite beyond me. While it’s true that with eyes closed, undistracted by the world, my inner voice can dictate coherent paragraphs, replay and revise them, by the time I come to set it all down it’s gone, inspiration flown…

Tired Of Waiting For You

This is the first Kinks lyric that brings the latent ambiguity in the early hits to the surface. Previously, in You Really Got Me they had sung, “You got me so I can’t sleep at night”, craftily leaving it up to the audience to decide whether this was because they were spending the night with the other person or not. It sells better – what’s a pop song if not popular? And wasn’t that the reason they decided to put You and Me in their titles, to make doubly sure it applied to everyone?

But in this song there’s a tension within the words, between the lines, as if they had a secret life of their own.

I was a lonely soul,
I had no body till I met you.

Contrary creatures that we are, sometimes all that our poor little lonely souls desire is the company of a fellow soul – no, wait, what we really need is another body, any body (help!) – bodies have feelings too, you know…. One way or another, we’re lost without each other.

But you keep me waiting
All of the time,
What can I do?

This is the point for me at which Ray Davies becomes interesting as a writer. I wonder, in those hectic few years in the mid-Sixties, how much of it was intentional; or how often the words simply wrote themselves, forcing their way up from his subconscious? If the mood’s right, he can still pull it off sometimes even today.

The minimal details allow us to conjure up all sorts of scenes for ourselves: “waiting” is elastic enough to stretch from a bus stop, to the front doorstep, to his efforts to go all the way, even to the domesticity of someone taking a little too long putting the cat out before cleaning their teeth. But then it neatly pulls us the other way, with an understated but absolute denial of what we’ve just heard, should you choose to take “waiting all of the time” literally. At this extreme, it’s doubtful he has anybody at all. Maybe he never exactly met them, and he’s aimlessly hoping for a second glimpse of someone he doesn’t really even know? And if you go with it that far, then it can snap back at you with an equally antisocial notion: becoming “tired of” somebody, once you’ve “had” them. It’s up to you.

It’s your life
And you can do what you want,
Do what you like…

It’s curious how many of the frantic themes of You Really Got Me are being re-examined. The neutrality about relative freedom above seems to have taken a step back from the earlier song’s “don’t ever set me free”. But there’s an underlying imperative in saying, “Do what you like.” If the singer seems to be offering freedom, I suspect it’s only in order to set limits on it.

But please don’t keep me waiting…

Does freedom always come with strings attached? Can it be defined, can it even exist, if it’s not in relation to something else? Maybe what he’s offering is a share in some sort of mutual freedom…?

Please don’t keep me waiting.

Okay, enough about the Kinks. But is there a duality – or reciprocity – in our conception of free will? Where does it reside? Is it under shared ownership? Does it belong to the body or the soul (or spirit, mind, whatever you like to call it)?

Either one would appear to be constrained by the other. You can’t exercise choice without a body – first, to supply you through the portals of the senses with samples of the world that are open to meaningful interpretation; secondly, to allow you the physical resources to act upon your findings. The body is equally dependent on its partner, without which it is of course mindless, forced to choose blindly, unable to make up its mind.

Of course, the traditional division between mental and physical labour described by dualism does not satisfy everyone.

Monists seek a Universe that is indivisibly One. Bishop Berkeley felt that there really ought to be no such thing as a “tree”. This is not (quite) as daft as it first appears: because to listen, to look, to name an object, these are all qualities of an observer, not of a tree itself. Observation is the act of relating two things separated in time and space; it describes a process, a verb. In a world which is undivided, everything is related and in continuous motion: a branch falling noiselessly, unseen and unknown, in a forest may displace a butterfly, a single flutter of whose wings could alter the future for ever – if only to affect tomorrow’s choice of breakfast cereal.

Other minds are happiest reducing everything to smaller and smaller parts in their quest to hunt down and name every last particle with whatever they believe it’s responsible for, until of the whole nothing is left.

So there is the porridge that is the Monoverse and then there are scientists circling round with their subjective notions of how best to slice us up – along with our brains – into a collection of carefully labelled objects. Of the two, I’m more partial to porridge – you can sweeten it with honey as well as take it with a pinch of salt.

Let’s talk about James Bond again. Last time round, he had Sean Connery’s face. When Roger Moore took over, James Bond suddenly became expert at raising a single eyebrow, independently of its neighbour. Secret agents in movies are like that; they seem to be able to acquire new skills almost at will. Unfortunately, my uncooperative features are far less obliging. I guess in reality it takes loads of practice and dedication to the acting craft.

So we can train our bodies to do as they’re told, but oddly, if we do it too well, they stop asking us what to do. They cut loose from the bonds of obedience and sneak off with some free will of their own. When you’re learning to do something, ride a bike (which I still am, people tell me), at first you instruct your limbs and they manage not to understand, most of the time. Then it all seems to go a lot better and pretty soon you can feel yourself flying down the road – wahey! It’s become second nature.

There you are, enjoying the scenery… but now who’s in charge as you race towards that bend? The other you, the one you start to blame whenever you think, just too late, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Automatic responses have started to take over. To be fair, more often than not, they don’t get in the way so much as step in to save us. We don’t always even notice. Experiences that seemed to be ours at the time – and that our memories will later tell tales with – have also been consumed by the body, digested, and will eventually be regurgitated as our physical and mental habits.

And so we find it’s not easy to unlearn how to ride a bicycle (although I do my best), nor to unlearn your first language, nor a million other little things, not least the way you do them; all those lovely little ways that make you so distinctively you.

You are a compound of these essences extracted from your past, recorded in your body and coded into your brain. But our life histories are frustratingly not laid out on shelves for us to pick and choose from: we have to make a wish – and usually, if we’re lucky, in some magical way the brain cells decide to respond, the details are called to mind and replayed one more time. We must always experience everything as happening right now; even our memories emerge blinking in the bright light of a permanent present.

Sometimes, in daydreams and idle moments, invisible cogs whirr in soundproofed rooms and ideas simply pop into our heads without being asked for, while in dreams most of us surrender our free will altogether, giving in to wild, fanciful notions, as the body seemingly ransacks our mental notes for ideas.

Every night, in fact, however much we grumble, distract or delay, the body pummels the mind into submission and we lose consciousness.

‘Cause I’m so tired…

And then we have no way out till the body decides otherwise.

Tired of waiting,
Tired of waiting for you…

We’ve been here before, but it does begin to look like the body has the upper hand. The “me” that defines us is trapped in an eternal present – a flexible, extended present, I should say. No doubt it’s a fine and comfortable place to be. Here we can make plans, entertain our thoughts, whistle favourite tunes, but we must rely on the bodily contents of our brain and its secret workings to unlock our past, so that we can bring any of this at all back to mind later. Of course, we can write things down…


But then you might wonder, are these words still fully mine – even as I reread them – or do they already belong to a me that’s passed? And as we’re both reading my words, how much are they now also yours?

I was a lonely soul,
I had no body till I met you.

Our attempts to communicate may be written, spoken, enacted, sung. Wherever we go we rearrange the physical world ever so slightly to make it more intelligible to ourselves. And these marks we make also belong to the people we share our world with. Everything we touch, and everyone we meet, in turn leaves a mark on us. The words of Ray Davies’ song are now also part of this story, but when you’re listening to me, you’re also listening to him.

In setting down what’s on our minds, we make our footprints follow us, so that when we look back, we’ll find a familiar trail, along which we hope to retrace our steps and experience our thoughts anew.

These recognisable traces of us in the world may remain private or become public according to how revealing they may be, not just the degree to which they’re on display. The difference between personal and shared is in the extent to which we can recover the context and make sense of it, whether it’s in a journal left open for all to see or locked away in our heads.

But you keep me waiting
All of the time…

As ever, we’re dependent on the body to go rooting around in its brain for the right connections, for memories to flood back, ideas to form, options to appear; and then, while we’re musing contentedly to ourselves, our inner ear listens in, with its silent assistants who filter, edit, categorise and store our trains of thought and passing emotions, perhaps deciding to sort them through in our occasionally troublesome dreams. (Are nightmares like ghosts, coming back to haunt us; unable to rest until they’ve been released from their spell?)

What can I do?

When it’s time to do something – and it always is – we are of the moment, and no two are alike. It all depends on the circumstances, which are always arriving just in time, and all at once, from the past; converging briefly in the present; before disappearing back into the receding past: where we are now, how we arrived and where we’re heading, everything that we’ve ever done or has happened to us, we’ve ever dreamed or were planning to do.

The body’s gift to us is not to keep us waiting too long in the dark, but to allow the soul the luxury of making all the most interesting choices from moment to moment, while it takes care of as much of the day-to-day goings-on as it can. To experience free will is to find ourselves in the act of choosing, permanently caught in the act.

With our mind so deeply encoded in our bodies, the body is constantly seeking us out, invoking what the mind has generously already shared with it; we are so intimately intermingled that our soul is scattered into our physical makeup and has taken root there. Beyond that: we’re scattered into the physical world and it into us, and scattered some more into each other’s lives. We’re constantly growing into ourselves, so whichever direction we turn next, there we already are.

It’s your life
And you can do what you want,
Do what you like…

What is Embodied Cognition? Answer: 4711

15 Aug

If, like me, you’ve been reading a lot in the popular press recently about “embodied cognition” without totally getting what all the excitement is about, you may be left wondering, like me, what you should be doing.

If it’s such a good idea, how do I get it? How do I know if I even want it; and how do I know I haven’t got it already?

To answer these questions, I wrote to a very good friend of mine. She’s a long-standing pen-friend, although we’ve never actually met. In fact, some people have started to claim that my friend is purely fictional. (Oddly, my friend has also begun to suspect that I’m fictional, but that’s another story.)

My German is fairly poor, and so is her Latin, so we tend to communicate in English. I scrawled a brief postcard of a high street lined with vehicles dating from the mid-nineteen-seventies asking, “What’s all this about Embodied Cognition?” She sent back a nice postcard of a rural scene featuring villagers in traditional dress, answering as always with another question: “How much do you want?”

When I want to know something, I want it all, so naturally I replied with a postcard of some well-preserved mediaeval houses on a steep cobbled hill saying, “As much as you’ve got!”

Two weeks later I received a large parcel, addressed to me, which should be reassuring for anyone who reads this and also wishes to use our international postal services. Stamped in bold red letters across the bottom left hand corner, so boldly they had landed slightly askew, were the words “DO NOT OPEN” – in that exact order, luckily, which made it much easier to read.

I sat down and puzzled over this. What good was an answer – so full it was positively voluminous – that remained tantalisingly close but out of view? After a while, I lifted my head and found my eyes were almost level with the top of the parcel. There, on the side, in bold red letters, again somewhat askew on the smooth brown wrapping paper, was just one word: “HERE”.

That made me jump to my feet. From a fresh angle it was obvious: “DO NOT OPEN HERE.”

Taking a firm grasp on the quite weighty package, I manoeuvred my way down the hall and headed out into town.

Where to go, where to go? In moments of extreme stress before, I have woken as if from a strange nightmare to find myself in a second-hand book shop. It was no different this time. My parcel rested on a stack of books, open on top of which was ‘The Innocence of Father Brown’ by G K Chesterton. I turned the pages of the first story, ‘The Blue Cross’, listlessly.

It was about a great detective called Valentin who – like myself, I began to realise – was without a clue.

“In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places … he systematically went to the wrong places.” I could see a kind of logic in that.

“It was half-way through the morning, and he had not breakfasted.” That was true enough. So I picked up my package, paid for the book, and followed the steps of the great detective to a random café, where, as he did in the story, I ordered a black coffee and a poached egg.

Should I tear open the package now? What did the book say…?

“‘The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic,’ he said with a sour smile, and lifted his coffee cup to his lips.” By this time my own coffee had arrived, so I smiled sourly and did the same. It was smooth and deliciously bitter, unlike Valentin’s: “He had put salt in it.” I wasn’t about to become over-literal; the coffee was fine as it was. Nor could I see that any of the walls had soup splashed across them. In fact, there wasn’t anything odd here at all.

I supposed I was looking for a certain sort of truth, rather than trying to catch a master criminal, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised not to find entirely the same things. All I could say for sure was that when the detective left his café he was none the wiser, so we still had that in common as I left mine.

I couldn’t find a greengrocer – they’ve almost disappeared from many towns since Chesterton’s day – but it was easy enough to find a small supermarket. At the fruit section, I read the shelf-edge labels eagerly, looking for the same sort of error that had puzzled Valentin, but without anything catching my attention. It was all going wrong. I didn’t particularly fancy cornering one of the staff and announcing, “Pray excuse my apparent irrelevance, my good sir, but I should like to ask you a question in experimental psychology and the association of ideas.” Not that I didn’t have questions I wanted an answer to.

What I wanted above all to know was where to find some “embodied cognition”. What did it look like? Perhaps it would look exactly like the opposite of “disembodied cognition”? I suspect I must have said at least some of those last words out loud because I could feel the other shoppers staring at me. I tucked my parcel under my arm and ran past them.

I ran and I didn’t stop running until the bus closed its doors safely behind me. “It was one of those journeys on which a man perpetually feels that now at last he must have come to the end of the universe, and then finds he has only come to the beginning of Tufnell Park.” What, you haven’t read the story? I thought everybody had. “‘It’ll pay for the window.’ ‘What window?’ … ‘The window I’m going to break.'” You really haven’t? I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that the detective gets his man.

I barely remember what comes next: a restaurant, a sweet shop, a walk on the heath. Before you know it, you’re back where you started. But, somewhere along the way, a part of me had been left behind. It was only when someone told me that I noticed how much lighter the parcel had become.

It was a case of mistaken handwriting: not Embodied Cognition but Eau de Cologne. Even the tiniest puncture can leak significant quantities, given time. Wherever I paused, the scent grew stronger. The faster I moved, the fainter the trail. One cannot neatly separate distance and time. I became disembodied from every place I left behind, but the pungency of the lingering perfume kept betraying the length of my stay. Until finally we deduce that the past continuously evaporates, and it is only by continually following the trail that there is any trail left to follow.

To be somewhere is to be an embodied somebody, for the duration. It is not until you are never anywhere again that you are entirely disembodied. On that day, I was all over the place. I’d left the best part of a gallon of perfume behind me, marking every step of the way.

Cognition makes sense of these traces, not just the overpowering present, but also the strong whiff of the past. We are never so much wholly in one place that we do not still belong a little to other places we have already visited. After a while, our favourite spots reek of our favour.


Without ever seeing the inside of the parcel, I had discovered enough of what was in it to begin to answer my question. So I sat down patiently on a bench and slowly unwrapped it, exposing the essence to the evening air, and waited for a very long time until it had all gone.

Chances with Wolves (31/10/2011 11:15 PM)

3 Jul

There’s a new computer model of a virtual wolf pack that can replicate a real pack’s behaviour using just two rules: each wolf moves towards the prey until it reaches a certain safe distance, then moves away from any other wolves that have reached that distance. Following only these rules, the simulated wolves will close in on “prey” and then encircle it. If the prey turns aside, a wolf maintaining its distance will block the prey’s path, effectively ambushing it.

Over fifty years ago, the amateur film-maker Tony Rose found the best way to get natural rather than stilted self-conscious behaviour in front of the camera from his non-actors was for most of the scenes in which they appeared to be played like games, with him as referee. For a scene in a skiff, he told each of them in turn that the game was to stay in the boat as long as possible while trying to get everyone else into the water.

When making “The Kid”, ninety years ago, Charlie Chaplin spent hours playing with his six-year-old star Jackie Coogan. The boy was a natural mimic. They would rehearse each scene until, recalled Chaplin, “eventually, he was so sure of the mechanics that his emotion came with them. In other words, the mechanics induced the emotion.”

The computer model doesn’t tell us what motivates wolves to adopt this pattern of hunting. The non-actors didn’t actually know what their movie was about. Jackie Coogan was able to convince the audience of his character’s feelings because he was behaving in exactly the same way as someone would who really did have those feelings.

The article in the New Scientist reminded me of the second and third examples. There are times when setting up a game, using rules to constrain the action rather than developing any deep understanding of the sources of the action, can still lead to the required outcome. Maybe it’s something we can bear in mind here when trying to devise more intelligent or apparently responsive systems – they may only need to look like they know what they’re doing.

Scientists rely on the same powers of insight as anyone else who’s got a problem to solve. You can steal from anywhere.

Go to the movie about the factory if you want to see what’s wrong with the system – don’t wait to buy the book about what Toyota did, you’ll be fifty years too late – figure it out for yourself.

Give it another fifty years, though, and computers will be able to fake many of the sorts of insight scientists have now well enough for the difference not to matter. The machines will just look like they’re thinking, but it’ll work anyhow.

So hurry while you’ve still got the chance to play.

Slight Prospect of Showers

12 Feb

We’re where the sands’ slope’s even and the tides’ speeds deceive. It’s a Saturday, and the water’s turned. Surfers, forming a shifting backdrop, aim between a pair of safety flags. Families in the foreground; instant barbecues, buckets and spades, cricket sets, windbreaks. A fine dust eddies above the dunes across the entrance to the beach. Seagulls wheel low overhead, scavenging for leftovers from fishing trips and daytrips impartially.

Another way of describing this pleasant June scene would be as a kind of chaos. At the Lilliputian level of quarks and leptons, all that activity amounts to much the same thing: an everchanging, interacting, effectively random, collection of particles, charges and forces.

To determine mathematically where any particle might be at any given moment is all but impossible. Somewhere in an atom, in a molecule of water, in a single drop on some person or thing, but always always in motion.

Yet to the trained observer, in this instance a child psychologist – but if you prefer we can substitute sports scientist, amateur watercolourist, dietician, health inspector, lifesaver, tour guide, geologist, birdwatcher, seagull, thief – patterns should begin to emerge.

Each physical level and each method of observation allows us to assign a probability as to where our little particle might be.

If our stray raindrop – which itself is odd, because no rain was forecast, other than through the mystery of chaos theory – falls upon the nose of a child playing cricket, then the rules of the game are going to circumscribe its motion, without worrying too much about the sub-atomic level.

If we were far too serious to be that familiar with beach cricket, we might prefer instead to speak of the child in terms of distance from its social group.

Or we might anticipate they’re going to have to up stumps any minute because of the incoming tide (if you know your times).

While if you’re a (smart-thinking) bird you might gauge that one of the smaller mammals would be unlikely to be able to scale the rocks to the north.

The artist would probably paint the child a couple of feet to the left because somehow it looked better.

Different rules, models, theories, patterns, themes, games, systems, environments will provide differing boundaries for our estimates and produce their own degrees of error.

Sometimes, peering too close with your magnifying glass will tell you less than taking a couple of steps back until the bigger picture emerges. The concept of “emergence” is one way of describing this self-evident separation between many layers of meaning in the physical world, from the microscopic to the telescopic, by use of different lenses. At each magnification, a multitude of smaller processes may remain largely hidden from sight, and the things we can see when taken together seem to have a life of their own beyond their constituent parts. Like a cloud. Or a beach. Or a game of cricket.

If you think of what makes up a thundercloud, you’re still not that far from the underlying physics.  A beach is more of a challenge. But it’s very hard to see what fractional charges on particles could ever have to do with a cricket team, when it’s clearly all about bowling, batting and fielding.

Let’s try.

In 1905 Einstein studied small random motions in a dynamic equilibrium – – which he was able to show were caused by unseen atoms,  using statistical mechanics.

This confirmed that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which governs entropy, the increasing dispersal of energy in a system, was based on probability.

The implications of this for the visible complexity of life on Earth had already been foreseen by Boltzmann, his immediate predecessor in this field:

The seeming paradox of complexity – that disorder can ever lead to another sort of order – has caused enough confusion (e.g. between closed and open systems) and pet theories over the years for me to avoid using more recent references, although I don’t think the basic notion is in dispute, just what it means in practice.

But say we were to toss a coin repeatedly: the longer we carried on, the more likely we would be to see nice symmetrical patterns such as…


…. Or if we picked randomly from the first 7 letters of the alphabet, sooner or later we would hit upon…


… which is Shakespearean sonnet form. So large random sets will contain many individual sequences with a purely spontaneous appearance of being highly ordered, without any predetermined meaning. Like snowflakes, in fact.

When conditions are stable, the endless coin tosses of nature may be hardly noticeable.

In the long run, however, few things can really resist change. Given eternity, even diamonds will revert to graphite – – rather more quickly in extreme conditions.

If two or more things come into close proximity, so that they can’t decently avoid each other, there will probably have to be some sort of exchange. A polite smile, a nod in return. A reaction. If this happens often enough, it will turn out that there are some sorts of exchanges that are more likely than others; a relationship grows and a shape begins to emerge from the statistics. So from tiny atomic exchanges, new forms develop, and then those bigger forms have their own bigger exchanges which then form new contours and so on. Which things are in proximity at what time and in what way is determined by their environment.

In any period, the statistics will mean that some forms fit their environment better than others. Things that can keep themselves going as little mini-systems, or even better, that can progressively duplicate themselves, will have a far greater chance of expanding on their previous success at fitting in. This means that the possibilities in the environment left over for everything else in the same ecosystem will have changed, so in turn everything else makes their own adjustments. All these goings-on tend to take a very long time to work themselves out, and we call this evolution. (It even applies to how communication using arbitrary but repeatable and increasingly familiar gestures evolves into a structured language.)

So with a little mental effort we can imagine how the changes we see every day all around us must trace back to tiny unseen collisions and exchanges, but to follow their path backwards or forwards in time involves greater and greater uncertainty.

Supposing that, whenever we wanted to talk about something, we had to describe its story from the very beginning. If you closeted yourself away in a darkened laboratory to map out all the myriad atomic interactions that can occur, perhaps one day you would be lucky enough to come up with the structure of an individual grain of sand. But if what you really wanted to get onto was the formation of the beach itself, you wouldn’t have achieved much. It would be a lot quicker if you could just skip the nuclear physics, pull out some old nautical charts and begin with the action of the sea on the coastline. But even if you knew all there was to know about the shifting sands, you’d still be a long way off your game of cricket on the beach.

The only way you can proceed is by a series of approximations. It’s impossible to determine from bouncing particles who or what will be on your beach, or specify what it looks like, or even what time it will be.

Giving it up as a bad job, you might start again from the other direction, out in space. Now you would peer through the clouds just close enough to discern humans bouncing around the British Isles in seemingly random motion. After a while, you would notice that the beaches filled up on two days in every seven, varying in accordance with the climate. You could learn the same thing at a quite different level from a statistical study of individual coastal car parks. Either way, we would have discovered an emergent property of the system What-People-Do-In-Their-Spare-Time, without having discovered anything about the personal motivations or circumstances that brought anyone to the beach that day.

Obviously, we all know what cricket is (or if you’re American, you don’t).  It’s a safe guess to say that if we went back beyond the Stone Age, its beginnings would be unrecognisable, but sooner or later it would gradually emerge from other recognisable sorts of behaviour.

Emergence is systematic, if never quite exact. If you accept its generalisations about the present, and you give it a little time to work in, it will reliably deposit particles on the shore until they form a beach; and it will reliably deposit people on the same shore, at weekends, weather permitting. There are patterns and you just have to see them.

The system is created by the observer.

But if you now pushed one of those observers onto the beach and tried to get them to use their special way of looking at the scene to change what was going on, they might find that there were limits.

Who can we get to control a quark in a drop of water on a child’s nose? If we don’t have access to a pocket particle accelerator, perhaps we should concentrate our efforts on the child.

The child psychologist might well have the most insight here, but not necessarily be in a position to make anything happen.  Authority figures, regardless of role or sympathetic disposition, would probably have the best chance of peremptorily shifting the child.  A geologist could settle down and wait for the rock formations to change, but the incoming tide would settle the matter long before then.

Before you rush out and find yourself a professional, hire a management consultant, buy that self-help book, or pay too much attention to the latest piece of research… Yes, they’re going to carve up their analyses this way and that, and maybe they’re right about some of it too, but they will also have their own built-in limits and levels, and being able to demonstrate a consistent analysis of a scene on their own terms is by no means the same as saying that they’re also going to be the most effective or appropriate for sorting your problems out (especially if there’s a messy complexity and they see things from an overparticular angle).

What’s the answer, then? For our raindrop, many many different approaches might work – and I suspect they’d actually all take the same amount of time.  In randomised controlled trials, bribing children with chocolate achieves the fastest results (p < 0.05). Unfortunately, bribery as a tactic is largely frowned upon.

In real life, of course, change will often catch you off guard, arriving from an entirely unexpected direction, like the seagull that once swooped on our unguarded pasties. But that was on another beach, a long long time ago.

When I wrote the original version of this entry a few years back, early on in my work blogging days,  I didn’t realise how much this applied equally to the very words I was writing. Unless you’re speaking from a position of authority or can resort to bribery, trying to sneak a fresh perspective into some holiday talk is hardly likely to get anything moving. Or maybe I did realise I was wasting my time, but I figured it was better to pretend to have a purpose than to do nothing.

So if I gave up before, why bother again here? This time round I’m just trying to pass the time and make conversation, about… about…

How did consciousness ever evolve out of stardust?

If you admit that as a question, you can go almost anywhere with it, with a little humility.

‘Emergence’ starts out seeming to work like Chinese boxes, each level of understanding fitting neatly over the previous one, except after a while you begin to notice nothing is fixed, you’re surrounded by motion, and the number of possible relationships between everything and every other thing is growing astronomically. In human society, every system you think you can see overlaps with many other systems; and, if you ask enough experts, you’ll find they won’t agree how these systems work – or even what they are.

I suppose the only difference is between those who acknowledge this and those who don’t.

Understanding that understanding the problem is a problem. Anne Buchanan ‏- @EcoDevoEvo on Twitter – sets this poser:

Peter Bakker – @mapbakery – found this piece: Christopher Alexander asking what a good city looks like. “A city is not a tree” because people don’t align themselves to one branch or another, they make connections.

Ruth Malan’s Trace trails through the undergrowth of organically composable ecosystems – finding, along the way, “Complexity and emergence. Mess. Upon mess,” before coming to fairly similar conclusions to Alexander.

Ruth (@ruthmalan by the way) pointed me towards the lateral thinking of Brazilian mayor, Jaime Lerner. This article gives a good flavour of how he tried to encourage a sustainable city – – although clearly, if you read the comments, it is an argument (no, let’s make that a conversation) that itself has to be sustained. Nudge a little, talk a little.

The world is a complex system and it looks like we need to embrace it:

I hope I will, one day. For now, I’m just watching.


The sands’ slope’s even and the tides’ speeds deceive. Seagulls wheel low overhead. Clouds swirl formlessly.

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