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.
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?
Hello internets, outernets, and anyone who happens to find their way here!
After a few abortive attempts last year I’ve finally decided to start my own blog. The name is a Lojban word (of course) for wild new ideas, which, in case you plan on shouting it from the rooftops, is pronounced “sheesh kehm neen seeho”. The publication and dissemination of interesting new thoughts and ideas will be one of the primary goals of this blog, but since the internet is already chock full of that sort of thing, I have some other aims as well. First and foremost, I need a place to put all my thoughts, comments, rants, and ramblings that don’t belong or fit on either Facebook, Twitter, or Newser. I find that the way I view the world and the things I think can change dramatically over time, so it’d be really nice to have a record of what the Will of 2010 on thought about various topics. Although that’s sort of a solipsistic goal, I’m making this public in the vain hope of attracting some interesting commentary and discussion. So feel free to post some kind of comment, whether it’s a well-reasoned and thoughtful response or just a rickroll/goatse link in disguise.
I’d also like to establish an online presence for and collection of the set of memes (called a ‘memeplex‘ apparently) that reside in my mind. To that end, some of the topics you will find me blogging about here are: economics, transhumanism, ethics/morality, maybe a bit of politics, computers and emerging technology, Lojban, artificial intelligence, whole brain emulation, science and naturalism, anti-aging and immortality, strange links, lolcats, and other wonders of the WWW, the singularity (if it ever happens), and possibly the occasional “hey I’m on vacation look at mah pictures” post.
So welcome one and all. It’s a bit ugly ’round here right now, but I’ll update the theme soon I hope. Please add me to your google reader queue and stop by occasionally, or just leave me to ramble alone at the vast uncaring wasteland of the internet. Your call.