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.


2 Responses to “Chances with Wolves (31/10/2011 11:15 PM)”

  1. drew stephenson July 4, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

    reminds me of the comment about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from science. Does it matter how it works if it does?

    • pabloredux July 4, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

      I’ll have to see how I replied in 2011. I think a lot of people may secretly prefer a sufficiently advanced form of conjuring that’s indistinguishable from magic?

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