language fiction Credit: ilcartello

Engineering New Language

[excerpt from London Literary Review]

…It can be argued that the entirety of human civilization has developed purely because of our ability to create those fictions which allow us to co-operate. The idea of an all powerful god, the ideas of nationhood and culture, the concepts of money and capitalism.

These fictions are powerful but ultimately limited. They can be ignored. Tuned out. We can all recognize the difference between our own first-person experience and what we are told by others.

While religion or capitalism may appear seductive they are both abstract concepts, both lack any direct sensory component. We may believe we are part of a nation or cultural group but we can’t smell a country or taste culture.

language fiction Credit: ilcartello

The more our language has developed — broadened in vocabulary, branched into different tongues, deepened in meaning — the more persuasive and powerful these fictions have become but still language has limits.

What happens then when our communication is linked more deeply into our brain? When it is on a par with our other senses? Plugged directly into our first-person experience? Maybe even more primary to our existence than our sense of sight or of taste?

Is it not likely that the forms of fiction we will develop in such circumstances will run deeper even still? If the immediacy of these intercortical communications is on a par with immediacy with our sense of touch or taste will we not believe them more — even if they are deceptions?

A bridge to new language

This is not to say that we will be hoodwinked or deceived in some way — at least no more than mankind was hoodwinked with the development of language.

Language has deepened our understanding of the natural world, doubtlessly, but it has also allowed us to create rich and deep fictions which in some cases allow people to manipulate whole populations. Is it not likely similar themes will play out with any new form of communication?

The rats in the Duke experiment already exhibited some signs of emergent behaviour. Since both rats got a reward each time the decoder chose correctly, the encoder rat started to try and aid its partner in the US by adjusting its movements to create a clearer signal.

Over the course of the experiment the Brazilian rat refined its movements making clearer, smoother presses on the lever. In this case, the system was set up to favour collaboration but what would the result be if only one rat could receive a reward each time? Would the Brazilian rat try to obfuscate its mental signal?

When it comes to human social interactions there are of course a far wider range of options than simply ‘left’ or ‘right’ lever. Some people will blurt out whatever is in their head while others show icy restraint, some people speak plainly while others always rely on irony, some people invariably tell the truth while others lie incessantly.

Would intracortical microstimulation make these variations less pronounced or more? Would an additional sensory input lead to fewer lies or more?

Before the first written language, human cooperation was limited but so too was organised religion or nationwide warfare. Certainly written language has done little to reduce the amount of fiction in the world.

It begs the question — what forms of language will this lead us to?…

 

Read the full article at London Literary Review

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One truly serious philosophical problem

(originally published on 33rd Square www.33rdsquare.com/2017/03/machine-learning-one-truly-serious.html)

Machine learning is in the news again this week as it was announced that systems can now surpass humans at identifying those at risk of taking their own life.

Following a seemingly endless series of breakthroughs in recent years the news may seem like just one more thing that computers can now do better than humans but is there a deeper existential significance to the fact that AI now knows more about the likelihood someone might end their life than we do?

In his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus, calls suicide the “one truly serious philosophical problem” and yet, even as suicide rates are rising in many Western societies, it seems we are stubbornly……continue reading on Medium.