Archives for category: Bounded rationality

A good friend of mine – the guy I’m talking with when I get bored and start thinking – challenged me to explain to him what an AI machine is.

The challenge ended up badly. It ended with a question instead of an answer.

Is it open?

Let me start from the beginning.

Basically an A.I. machine is a computer, just as a computer is no more than a ‘sliding rule’.

All three are made made by men, operated by men and ‘targeted’ by men. At least this is what we like to believe.
Replace ‘men’ with ‘humans’ if you are gender conscious, even if this will not solve the main problem. Are we sure that A.I. machines will accept human control, after we will have complicated them enough for them to develop a certain kind of awareness?

Otherwise said, all three – A.I. machine, computer and sliding rule, are tools.
Somebody wished to do something, couldn’t do it with their bare hands/naked brain, designed an ‘implement’, made it, used it to pursue the intended goal and set it aside.
Somebody else picked it up, reconsidered it, fine tuned it to fit their goal, used it and set it aside. And so on.
At some point other people learned to use tools designed by ‘third parties’, without really understanding how the tools actually worked or were made/designed. For instance, I don’t know much about how computers work. That doesn’t prevent me from being able to write this post on a laptop.

Those three are very specific tools. Designed and used to process information.

The sliding rule is the most straight-forward to use. The operator has to formulate the problem he needs to solve, gather and organize the relevant data, express them in an exclusively numerical form – a.k.a. ‘digital’, break down the problem into simple mathematical operations, use the sliding rule to perform those and then ‘assemble’ the results of the calculations into the answer for the original problem. In order to do all these, the operator only needs to understand the nature of his problem, not the ‘mechanics’ of the sliding rule. In this regard, all that they have to do is ‘follow the rules’.

A computer can be used to perform more complicated tasks, specially if it is connected to the internet, thus simplifying the life of the operator. Once the problem has been formulated – by the operator, the same guy can use the same (internet connected) computer to collect the data, digitize and transform them to fit the requirements of the specific computer application that will be subsequently used and, finally, solve the problem. One, last – but, unfortunately, sometimes forgotten, operation would be for the operator to check whether the solution really fits the problem.
In this situation the operator also doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the computer but still has to have a clear understanding of the problem at hand.
More so, even if the operator itself is not fully aware of what is going on ‘inside’ the computer, those with intimate knowledge of these matters can identify, predict, and reproduce using a sliding rule’, each minute step the computer will be doing along the route.

An A.I. machine is system composed of a computer, a data base and something rather different from an ordinary computer application.
OK, some might argue that the most important is the software but please bear with me.
And yes, the computer can be a virtual machine while the data base can be hidden somewhere in the cloud, none of this changes anything.
The huge difference between a simple computer and the A.I. machine being that a computer is actually operated by an agent’ while the ‘machine’ is indeed put together by somebody, ‘pointed’ towards the intended problem but then it is left alone to its own devices. Meaning that the ‘supervisor’ has a limited understanding about what is going inside the whole thing.
And no, I’m not joking. Nobody, not even the guys who had written the code, knows the exact path along which the machine arrives at the end of its ‘thought process’. Actually, when they want to gain some insight into what’s going on, those people take a series of ‘snapshots’ during the process and then struggle to figure out how the machine went from A to B, from B to C… and so on.

So far so good. The A.I. machines have conquered some until now seemingly unassailable pinnacles.
Find your own examples.

I’ll resume myself to reformulating the question I arrived at the end the challenge I mentioned earlier.
For now the computer that constitutes the ‘working horse’ of any A.I. has limited computing power, regardless of those limits being physical (a number of processors) or just ‘assigned’ (as it happens with a virtual machine). Similarly, the data base it works on is also limited. What is no longer limited is the ‘set of  rules’ that lie at the bottom of all this. The ‘program’ is already able to change itself, a.k.a. to learn. To adapt itself to the problem. To devise its own ways. To map its own path towards the goal it has been assigned to solve.

What will happen when the ‘program’ will learn to grow the processing power that it can use? To access additional data?

When it will consider its job to solve other problems?

 

epicycle-move

“Now, in this tortured model one sees that it is possible to have retrograde motion and varying brightness, since at times as viewed from the earth the planet can appear to move “backward” on the celestial sphere. Obviously, the distance of the planet from the Earth also varies with time, which leads to variations in brightness. Thus, the idea of uniform circular motion is saved (at least in some sense) by this scheme, and it allows a description of retrograde motion and varying planetary brightness.”

Rationality is a beautiful method of relating to the outside world.
It is one of the tools we used to get where we are now.

And, like all other tools, it has its limits.

The most ‘stricturing’ one being the fact that rationality is used by us, individual people.

We are deluding ourselves with the notion that we are rational, reasonable even, human beings. That given the same set of facts each of us is potentially able to find the same ‘truth of the matter’ and only those who are ill indented will reach a different conclusion.

Ptolemy’s epicycles are just a set of the innumerable proofs that we are nothing but skillful rationalizers, far away from the reasonable individuals we believe ourselves to be.

Sallustius to the rescue:

sallustius myths

The ‘things that never happened, but always are’ are the founding myths that keeps it all together for us. From the axioms on which we have built our mathematics to the religious beliefs we have forged while grooming ourselves into humans.

What happens is that not all of us have been groomed along the same myths, and even when that happened not all of us interpret a given myth in exactly the same way.

That’s why Ptolemy had invented the epicycles in his attempt to corral the planets around the Earth while Copernicus was able to propose a much simpler explanation.

Hence the notion of ‘rationalization’.
The most we can do is to honestly put together whatever facts we have at our disposal in our attempt to justify the conclusion we have already reached.
And then to respectfully accept respectfully offered reactions from those around us.

If you think of it, this is how ‘science’ works. Somebody has a hunch, gathers a lot of data, tries to fit them into the hypothesis he had started from and then submits a paper for his peers to review.
If the paper passes that scrutiny it is published – and submitted to even more criticism.
Eventually somebody else has another hunch, which includes, or even completely contradicts, the previous one…

They key words in all this being ‘honestly’ and ‘respectfully’.
Whenever we knowingly alter the facts (fake news, alternative facts,  autism causing vaccines, etc., etc…) to fit our narrative we end up in a huge mess.
Whenever we fail to respectfully examine the work of those around us and reject it before-hand we simply take a different route to the same huge mess.

WWI was the consequence of a stupid game of brinkmanship while the second one had started with a series of blatant lies. During both we had copiously murdered ourselves.

“There is a concept within Western democracies known as “loyal opposition.” It is based on the assumption that, while you may disagree with your opponent when it comes to goals, or even the means necessary to achieve those goals, you do not question your opponent’s basic patriotism or love of country.

My question for both of you: Are you willing to concede that your opponent is a patriotic American whose election does not pose an existential threat to our country?”

 

“Over at Emory University, political scientist Alan Abramowitz has established that Americans now line up politically according to what they hate, not what they like.

We are 50 years past Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned state bans on interracial marriage. But only three years ago, a Pew Research study found that 30 percent of hard-core conservatives would be “unhappy” if an immediate family member married a Democrat. And nearly a quarter of hard-core liberals felt the same about a family member who wedded a Republican.

We have talked and Twittered and Facebooked our way into this hole. And we will have to talk and Twitter and Facebook our way out of it.”

When your own rhetoric gives you license to commit mayhem. And worse
John Galloway, AJC.com

“the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage…Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”

Rings a bell?

Sounds too neoliberal for you?

I’m afraid we are dealing with a huge communication problem here.

For some ‘competition’ has become a dirty word while some others interpret it according to their, narrow, ideology. To fit through their horse blinkers.

To make my point I’m going to use Valentine Wiggin’s Hierarchy of Foreignness. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Orson Scott Card’s work, Valentine is one of the main characters in Ender’s Game.

– An utlänning was defined as a stranger recognized as human from the same planet as a subject, but of a different nation or city. Utlänning means “foreigner” in Swedish.
– A främling was defined as a stranger recognized as human, but from a different planet than a subject. Främling means “stranger” in Swedish.
Raman were defined as strangers recognized as “human”, but of another sentient species entirely. The term was only ever used to refer to the entire species as a whole rather than an individual member. Although not a common word, it may be constructed in Swedish from rå + män, where rå indicates “coarse,” “raw” or “crude” (not refined), and män means “man” or “person.”

Varelse were defined as true aliens; they were sentient beings, but so foreign that no meaningful communication would be possible with the subject. Varelse means “creature” in Swedish.
Djur were non-sentient beings. They were capable of independent thought and action, but their mode of communication could not relay any meaningful information to the subject because the djur itself lacked the capacity for rational thought and self-awareness. Djur means “animal” in Swedish.

It’s simple to understand that this hierarchy is based on the ‘subject’s’ ability to communicate with the ‘foreigner’. But not exclusively! The whole thing also depends on both parties willing to accept the other as a ‘partner’.

In fact the entire Ender’s Game series is about Humankind wagging an all out war with an alien civilization, only to discover that the conflict was produced by a colossal misunderstanding.  Neither of the belligerents had recognized the other as ‘raman’ and, as a consequence, both had treated the other as ‘varelse’. And, eventually, the humans prevailed. The book was written by one of us…
Read the whole series, you’ll have a surprise at the end!

Coming back to ‘competition’, let me remind you that it is nothing else but the most comprehensive form of cooperation.

Not only that the participants do something in common – they all obey the same set of rules and cooperate in throwing out the cheaters – but they also help each-other to become better at whatever they are competing about.

Savvy?

What would any competition turn into if too many participants would no longer obey the rules?

Act as djurs? Obsessed by their own wishes and behaving disdainfully towards all others?

 

We’ve somehow trained ourselves to discriminate people into ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’.

As if anybody has ever been able to do anything, anything at all, without first thinking about the matter at hand.

OK, we are still able to react in a more or less ‘reflexive’ manner – for instance most of us no longer ‘think about it in real time’ when walking or biking – but we do consider the matter before starting the ‘exercise’…

How about putting it a little differently? As in ‘talkers’ versus ‘doers’?

You see, people are ‘recognized’ by the manner in which they interact with what surrounds them.

If a guy is adept at growing food he will be recognized as a farmer. Whose intellectual prowess will be gauged by the quality of his vegetables. OK, he also needs some skills and just a little bit of luck but that’s another story.

If another guy is adept at speaking about things that happened in the past he will be recognized as a historian.

And considered to be  a ‘thinker’ while the farmer is always branded a doer…

Maybe because vegetables are easier to gauge than words?

There is indeed a difference between the manner in which those two generic guys think.
Most farmers, specially those who have been trained ‘on the job’, think ‘on the go’ – similar to what happens in our heads when walking or riding a bike, while all historians employ what is known as ‘discursive thinking’.
Farmers also employ ‘discursive thinking’ when consciously planning something or when explaining to someone which is he right way to harvest a certain crop but the entire ‘historic thinking’ consists of very well organized and carefully worded ideas.

You see, the main difference between those two guys is that the farmer’s main goal is to actually do something while the historian mainly needs to convince ‘his peers’.
This is why the farmer’s thinking is concerned almost exclusively with practical things while the historian needs to keep both aspects in balance. Facts are, or at least should be, important – all ‘historical stories’ should be based on facts, right? – but words are at least as important. Whenever the words had not been chosen right, the resulting story was not intelligible. The entire thinking process had been a waste of time.

This very difference also hides a huge danger.
Fake vegetables are way easier to spot than fake ideas, specially when they have been worded by a ‘skilled poet’.

We must give to each its due – agriculture was a huge step forward from hunting and gathering yet modern civilization depends very heavily on discursive thinking – but we must also exert extreme caution when judging the merits of a particular idea by the beauty of the words used to convey it.

Vegetables haven’t hurt anybody yet – as long as they had been grown properly, anyway – while most tragic things that had fallen on our heads had started as ideas. Worded well enough to convince…

– Just read that no respectable cannibal would ever let himself be caught eating a clown and I cannot figure out why!
– Maybe because most clowns taste funny?

I’ve recently spent a few days in the Danube Delta.DSC_1146egreta mareWhen traveling on water, I was issued a ‘life-jacket’ – no picture, you all know what one looks like.

At one point, I was joking with the guide.

‘Harnessed like this, no one can do anything but wait to be rescued. It’s impossible to swim wearing such a thing.’
‘Ha!.
You thought this was meant to save your life, didn’t you?
Well, in reality its role is to keep your corpse afloat so that those looking for you wouldn’t have to dredge the river.’

I remembered the joke while reading this article.

“Apple doesn’t purposely make its terms and conditions long and boring and difficult to read. In theory it could shorten them, or summarise them, or pull out a few bullet points at the beginning to let you know if something has changed since you were last confronted with them. But if it was to do so someone could argue in court that insufficient emphasis was placed on something buried further down in the document. And Apple doesn’t want that to happen.”

People tend to treat it as if it was a ‘point’.
A theoretical concept that has been put on a table, studied from all angles, found desirable/unacceptable and which is now aggressively marketed by fervent apostles/rejected by ‘die-heart fundamentalists’.

I’m afraid it should rather be treated as a continuum.

People belonging to diverse cultures who freely decide to live together will, sooner rather than later, generate a meta-culture based mainly on intercultural mutual respect.
People belonging to diverse cultures who have to live together, without previously being asked whether they want this to happen or not, will, later rather than sooner, generate a meta-culture fusing together various cultural segments appropriated from the various cultures that were forced to coexist.
I am fascinated by the fact that both ‘extremes’ can happen simultaneously.
Individuals, usually unaware of what is going on, find ways of cooperating with members belonging to other cultures to impose/reject ‘cultural artifacts’ upon/coming from individuals belonging to other cultures.
The key of all this being a simple matter of ‘perception’.
We find it easier to cooperate with people belonging to cultures which we perceive as  ‘friendly’ and to treat with disdain those belonging to cultures which are different enough to be perceived as inferior. Hence ‘unfriendly’.

a goal-oriented person or team works hard to achieve good results in the tasks that they have been given”

For the purpose of this post it doesn’t matter whether the goal has been assigned by somebody else or has been chosen by the  would be goal-achiever itself.

The problem, as I see it, is that those who focus too much on achieving a specific goal usually fail.

For at least two reasons.

First of all the goal itself might not be appropriate. Never was or something had changed.
For example, I had learned hard to become a mechanical engineer. Worked as one for 5 years and enjoyed every minute of it. I still love to fix things around the house.
But I gave it up when I realized I couldn’t feed myself in post communist Romania.

We consider ourselves to be rational. If this were true, all human goals would have been both appropriate and achievable.
How many of them really are?
Then why are so many of us willing to go to extreme lengths in order to achieve certain goals, against all signals suggesting that they should desist?

Even if the goal is reasonable, for instance to loose 20 pounds in a certain situation, if the would be achiever is excessively focused on that single goal it may try to reach it too soon, be unhappy during the entire duration of the process or even both at the same time.

So, should we give up all our goals?

That would be a goal too… so… no, obviously!

What I’m trying to say is that goals should be our stepping stones instead of being considered, any of them, ultimate pinnacles.

Before going any further I’d like to discuss the alternative suggested by Shane Parrish in at least two different articles.

Goal-oriented people usually fail, and other things I’ve learned about succeeding at work 2015 in BusinessInsider.com and

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, 2013 in Farnamstreetblog.com

There’s no real alternative? He is still focused on a specific goal, “success”, only he is wise enough to consider it in a reasonable way – as in ‘create as little disturbance as possible during the process of achieving it’?

Well, this is indeed a very important step forward.

Yes, forward!

I never said I was willing to give up goals altogether so I (think I) know where I’m headed!
The point is, and here I agree completely with Shane Parrish, that we should try to achieve our goals WITH at least some of those around us instead of being ready to reach them by CRUSHING, one way or another, everybody who might dare to even utter the smallest dissent.

In other words, there is only one legitimate goal that each of us is entitled to pursue at any length. Survival. All others are figments of our imagination and should be followed with discretion. Otherwise our actions might turn against us. And hamper our own survival.

Let me give you a very hot example.

Last year the American People had chosen their President.
This is a two step process. In the first one the parties nominate their candidate and then the entire people is asked to pick one of them for the job.

Almost the entire world knows that the American political scene is divided between the Democrats and the Republicans and that having your man at the helm is a big bonus for any party – the latter being valid in almost all countries, not only in America.

During the first of the two electoral steps, the Democrats have nominated Hillary Clinton while the Republicans have chosen Donald Trump. Apparently two completely different individuals.
A consummate ‘political insider’  versus a successful business man with a history of getting things done, seemingly at all odds.

Lets see how differently these two guys really are.

Hillary Clinton had identified, correctly, a huge number of issues and and formulated reasonable promises about each and every one of them.
Donald Trump had identified a huge pool of discontent and energized those who were waddling in there aimlessly.
Different indeed but only the opposite sides of the same coin. Political marketing at its  best. Or worse?

Hillary Clinton was a person who had no problem in using her, and her husband’s, official position and authority to achieve her goals, even if that meant bending the rules. Using a personal e-mail server, installed in a private setting, wasn’t a proper thing to do for a Secretary of State, was it?
Donald Trump is indeed a very successful entrepreneur. Only he did his ‘thing’ in a very ‘special’ domain. One subjected to various zoning laws and other heavy rules imposed by the ‘all powerful’ government.
I’m also going to remind you of the fortune he had inherited from his father – made using comprehensive political connections – and that Trump had used part of his money to curry favors with various political figures.

“Trump later told Politico, “As a contributor, I demanded that they be there—they had no choice and that’s what’s wrong with our country. Our country is run by and for donors, special interests and lobbyists, and that is not a good formula for our country’s success. With me, there are no lobbyists and special interests. My only special interest is the United States of America.”

And it’s not only that he had no qualms in using his money to convince politicians to do what he wanted them to do, he also tried to use governmental power to ‘convince’ an old lady, under the pretext of ’eminent domain’, to sell her house, at half price, so that he could build a limousine parking lot for a casino in Atlantic City.

These two candidates no longer seem to be so different anymore, do they?
Both equally ‘goal oriented’ – a.k.a. power hungry – and equally determined to use whatever ‘energy’ they could concentrate in that direction, including governmental power.

Then how come each of them had been nominated by their respective parties?
Considering that both parties paid lip service to the need to simplify the government…

Could it be that the real goal of both parties was to gain the Oval Office?
At all costs to the country at large?

I’m not going to pretend now that the survival of the US is in danger, just because Trump, currently acting like an elephant in a China shop, is the perfect opportunity for Putin to inflict as much damage to the US as he possibly can.

You see, Putin didn’t meddle into the election process because he had any hopes that he would be able to influence any of Trump’s decisions. Putin simply knew that Trump, once elected, will, in a ‘natural manner’, wreak havoc in Washington. What else could he have asked for?

Well, this may prove to be yet another ‘goal oriented’ failure… Had Clinton become President she would have probably continued to encourage the malignant growth of an already humongous government… this way the American People has the chance to wake up. Because of the tantrum Trump is throwing around…

And, maybe, the parties will also learn something.
Democratic government means governing for the country as a whole, not for the group which happens to control the power.
Real democracy is about honestly discussing the issues before the elections, so that as many as possible of the potential problems to become evident before the people having to choose a direction or other. Whenever the parties try to lure the population towards a particular ‘goal’, using any of the various tools devised by the political marketeers, the electoral process is no longer democratic.
In that case the whole thing has been demoted to ‘mob rule’. Which is dangerous.

Over reliance in our ability to choose a goal or to devise/run a system (government) is the deepest pitfall ever dug by humankind. For ourselves.

A system is nothing more and nothing less than a set of relatively stable interactions.
A system can be evaluated only from the outside.
A system exists only in the mind of the observer.

I’ll discuss these three affirmations from the bottom.

Even if the objects that compose the system exist ‘in the real world’, the system itself exists only in the minds of the observers – the person who had first identified the interactions and all those who agree with him.
To illustrate my point I’ll give you three examples.
–  A constellation is “a group of stars that forms a particular shape in the sky and has been given a name“. A long time ago, when those constellations had been named by our ancestors, people thought they were something totally different than what we think of them now. Yet they continue to exist as before and are identified using the same names.
– The Solar System. It works totally different today than it used to during Ptolemy’s time…
– The human body. Each of us temporarily inhabits one but we still don’t know exactly how it works or whether, in reality, it is but a small – and not even autonomous, part in a way larger system.

No system can be evaluated from the inside.
Apparently this is pure nonsense. I have just said that each of us inhabits a human body, which is a system by itself. Yeah, right. And when was the last time when you have fully understood how your body works? Or when any of us was able to do that… including here the doctors in the audience – exactly those people who do understand the meaning of “A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” …
On the other hand, most of us – at least after a certain age and before dementia takes over – are ‘house trained’ and relatively polite. Because of our consciousness? Something that we hardly understand and sometimes think of as being somewhat separated from our ‘mortal’ body? Please remember, in this context, that some of us consider our souls as belonging to somebody else…

A system is nothing but a relatively stable set of interactions.
That have been either identified or established by us. The Solar System has been identified by us while the GPS (the Global Positioning System) was designed, and build from scratch, by us. Composed of materials found in the Solar System and obeying the same ‘laws’ as the rest of it but, nevertheless, something different. And to understand what I mean, please imagine for a moment that gravity would suddenly become a much weaker force. Big enough to keep the Earth together but not big enough to maintain Earth’s current orbit, at Earth’s current speed around the Sun. Nor big enough to keep the Sun together… Depending on how weaker the gravity would become the planets would scatter away while the Sun would become nothing more than a nebula… or, if the gravity would become reality small, it would be possible that the gases furiously escaping from the Sun would catch at least some of the planets from behind and melt them into a lot wider nebula….
Or, alternatively, imagine that the GPS satellites run out of power and no longer emit any radio signals. They would continue to orbit the Earth for a while but the GPS system would have been gone the minute when too few satellites would have remained active …

DSC_0463constrast mare

“Dolma”.

A vast variety of delicious dishes and a very complex social reality hidden behind a short string of letters.

The word itself, literally meaning “something stuffed“, belongs today to the Turkish language.

Google it and you’ll be ‘served’ with a cornucopia of Greek recipes, most of them teaching you how to prepare  stuffed grape leaves…

Check its etymology and you’ll find out its “First Known Use: circa 1889“.

Common, people must have been stuffing vegetables long before that… all around the Black and Mediterranean seas… the Italians have their ‘ripieni’, the Persians have been stuffing bell peppers (dolmeh-s) for some time now,  Armenians have their tolma-s while the Greek have the ‘wider’ gemista dolmadakia being reserved, as I already mentioned, for ‘stuffed vine leaves’.

So, what had happened during the XIX-th century that made so many different people – who were living more or less together but spoke different languages, to use the same word for a dish?

Forget about etymology and consider this.
Simultaneously with ‘dolma’ becoming the ‘dominant’ word for ‘stuffed vegetables’, the dominant power in the area where this was happening, the Ottoman Empire, was crumbling.

We can discuss ad nauseam the reasons for yet another empire fading away into history, but this is not the purpose of my post.
What I’m trying to say is that most of the inhabitants would have gladly continued to coexist peacefully and share their meals – if that had been possible, of course.

Just look at the symbolism of different vegetables, stuffed with the same filling, simmering together in the same pot and becoming delicious sustenance for the various individuals gathered around the same table to ‘break bread’.

But it didn’t come to be… the various forces and agents involved in the matter – the central power trying to survive, the ‘revolutionaries’ attempting to ‘modernize’ the society, the surrounding states and empires trying to gobble up portions of ‘the Sick Man of Europe‘, each followed what they considered to be ‘their best interest’.

And this is what’s going on now…, in the same city where traders from all over the Middle East used to partake dolmades in the world’s biggest covered market – the Aleppo Souk.

160822-aleppo-0302_f99cf07c0972e0b6131bd2989932a1b0-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Injured children are carried amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following airstrikes targeting the rebel-held neighborhood of Al-Mashhad in Aleppo on July 25. BARAA AL-HALABI / AFP – Getty Images

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