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Gathering and Compressing information

A lot of what we call “fun” seems to be based on fairly simple principles. Ok, so there’s still a fair bit of complexity there. But after I read this interview with AI designer Jurgen Schmidhuber and watched his excellent presentation at this year’s singularity summit I’ve started to view a surprising number of things I do through a different lens. There’s all sorts of deep and strange ideas in that interview, but the one that stuck with me the longest is the notion that much of what we consider deeply and fundamentally human is reducible to our brains rewarding us for gathering and efficiently compressing information.

I’ve been aware for a while that many video games I play, particularly RPGs, are little more than cheap hacks of the dopamine system my brain has evolved to encourage me to do things. It’s just gambling without the high monetary cost, or cigarettes without the lung cancer.

I’ve also known that a lot of our behavior is explained by evolutionary psychology for a while too.

But Schmidhuber is making an even more bizarre claim, and making it in a very compelling way.Essentialy, he’s saying that many of our drives are based simply on gathering and compressing information. Compression here means something a little different from what your computer does when it compresses a .zip or .rar file, but its the same basic idea; removing unnecessary information to make a given thing fit in a smaller box. Computers do it by finding redundant sequences of bits and representing them in more efficient ways, and humans do it by making connections and forming “understanding”. There’s a diverse array of examples of this discussed in the interview. Music is appealing to us because we can recognize novel patterns that are somewhat, but not too familiar to us, and music that is either too formulaic or too discordant is unappealing. Art is interesting because we can find compressible visual or cultural themes. Dancing is much the same as music; repetitive yet novel sequences that initially seem bizarre and random but show deep patterns. We laugh at jokes because we make interesting and surprising connections between various semantic pieces. The list goes on, and Schmidhuber makes the case for the truth of this better than I can so if you don’t understand, go check out that video. You can find exceptions and complications that culture and emotions have introduced to all of these things, but it really is remarkable how often that basic principle of novel compression shows up.

Schmidhubers theory has interesting implications for what it means to be the complex biological robots we call homo sapiens. What is the first objection people raise when the question of machines being “conscious” or “intelligent” comes up? It’s usually something along the lines of “Well they might be fancy calculators, but they’ll never [be creative, appreciate beauty, laugh at our jokes, etc]“. There’s all sorts of things wrong with that argument, which I’ll probably have to write a separate post on sometime. Suffice to say even if you believe those things are deeply weird and complicated, you have no reason to doubt a sufficiently powerful and well programmed computer would be able to do them (unless you believe the brain runs on magic). If, however, many of those precious deeply complex human characteristics are really fairly simple processes, what does it imply about us? As sympathetic as I am to the notion that we are just complicated computers of one type or another, I was somewhat skeptical at first. But ever since I read through that interview, I’m noticing more and more often how true it is.

I’ll leave this as an exercise to the reader; now that you’ve been exposed to this idea, start looking at your daily activities through the lens of information compression. I think you’ll be surprised at how often it fits. Not so high and mighty now eh Mr deeply mysterious human?

Schmidhuber makes a compelling argument for this. Music is appealing to us because we can recognize novel patterns that are somewhat, but not too familiar to us, and music that is either too formulaic or too discordant is unappealing.
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