The Structure of Human Knowledge

Games and knowledge (The Structure of Human Knowledge as Game II)

Why are games consisting of knowledge tests so popular? In 2004 it was calculated that Trivial Pursuit had sold around 88 million copies worldwide, and game shows like Jeopardy and the 64000 dollar question have become international hits. At their core, these games are surprisingly simple. They are about what you know, about if you can answer questions (or find questions for answers in the case of Jeopardy). So why are they so engaging? Why are they so popular? Why do we find knowing something so satisfying? When we study human knowledge as a game, it is worthwhile also to explore why we enjoy playing games that build on knowledge so much. There is a subtle dominance built into these games – the one who knows more wins – and to win is oddly satisfying, even though there likely is a significant element of randomness in what questions come up. (It is easy to construct paths through the questions in TP that you can answer effortlessly, and equally easy to construct the opposite – an impossible path for you to get through – the design conundrum here becomes one of what the ideal difficulty is. One way to think about this would be to think about how long the average path to win should be for someone playing the game on their own). So, maybe it is that simple: we enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes with knowing more than others. We revere the expert who has spent a…

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Philosophy, The Fake News Notes, Uncategorized

Real and unreal news (Notes on attention, fake news and noise #7)

What is the opposite of fake news? Is it real news? What, then, would that mean? It seems important to ask that question, since our fight against fake news also needs to be a fight _for_ something. But this quickly becomes an uncomfortable discussion, as evidenced by how people attack the question. When we discuss what the opposite of fake news is we often end up defending facts – and we inevitably end up quoting senator Moynihan, smugly saying that everyone has a right to their opinions, but not to their facts. This is naturally right, but it ducks the key question of what a fact is, and if it can exist on its own. Let’s offer an alternative view that is more problematic. In this view we argue that facts can only exist in relationship to each-other. They are intrinsically connected in a web of knowledge and probability, and this web exists in a set of ontological premises that we call reality. Fake news – we could then argue – can exist only because we have lost our sense of a shared reality. We hint at this when we speak of “a baseline of facts” or similar phrases (this phrase was how Obama referred to the challenge when interviewed by David Letterman recently), but we stop shy off admitting that we ultimately are caught up in a discussion about fractured reality. Our inability to share a reality creates the cracks, the fissures and fragments in which truth disappears. This…

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The Structure of Human Knowledge

Towards a glass bead game (The Structure of Human Knowledge as Game I)

Herman Hesse’s glass bead game is an intriguing intellectual thought experiment. He describes it in detail in his eponymous last novel: “Under the shifting hegemony of now this, now that science or art, the Game of games had developed into a kind of universal language through which the players could express values and set these in relation to one another. Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical and mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement. A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations.” The idea of a the unity of human knowledge, the thin threads that spread across different domains, the ability to connect seemingly disparate intellectual accomplishments — can it work? What does it mean for it to work? On…

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Commentary, Man / Machine, The man / machine series

Simone Weil’s principles for automation (Man / Machine VI)

Philosopher and writer Simone Weil laid out a few principles on automation in her fascinating and often difficult book Need for Roots. Her view as positive, and she noted that among workers in factories the happiest ones seemed to be the ones that worked with machines. She had strict views on the design of these machines however, and her views can be summarized in three general principles. First, these tools of automation need to be safe. Safety comes first, and should also be weighed when thinking about what to automate first – the idea that automation can be used to protect workers is an obvious, but sometimes neglected one. Second, the tools of automation need to be general purpose. This is an interesting principle, and one that is not immediately obvious. Weil felt that this was important – when it came to factories – because they could then be repurposed for new social needs, and respond to changing social circumstances – most pressingly, and in her time acute, war. Third, the machine needs to be designed so that it is used and operated by man. The idea that you would substitute man by machine she found ridiculous for several reasons, but not least because we need to work to finds purpose and meaning, and any design that eliminates us from the process of work would be socially detrimental. All Weil’s principles are applicable and up for debate in our time. I think the safety principle is fairly accepted, but we…

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Man / Machine, The man / machine series

Justice, markets, dance – on computational and biological time (Man / Machine V)

Are there social institutions that work better if they are biologically bounded? What would this even mean? Here is what I am thinking about: what if, say, a market is a great way of discovering knowledge, coordinating prices and solving complex problems – but only if it consists solely of human beings and is conducted at biological speeds? What if, when we add tools and automate these markets, we also lose their balance? What if we end up destroying the equilibrium that makes them optimized social institutions? While initially this sounds preposterous, the question is worth examining. Let’s examine the opposite hypothesis – that markets work at all speeds, wholly automated and without any human intervention. Why would this be more likely, than for there to be certain limitations on the way the market is conducted? Is dance still dance if it is performed in ultra-high speeds by robots only? Or do we think dance is a biologically bounded institution? It would be remarkable if we found that there are a series of things that only work in biological time, but break down in computational time. It would force us to re-examine our basic assumptions about automation and computerization, but it would not force us to abandon them. What we would need to do is more complex. We would have to answer the question of what is to computers as markets are to humans. We would have to build new, revamped institutions that exist in computational time and we would…

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Man / Machine, The man / machine series

A note on the ethics of entropy (Man / Machine IV)

In a comment on Luciano Floridi’s The Ethics of Information Martin Falment Fultot writes (Philosophy and Computers Spring 2016 Vol 15 no 2): “Another difficulty for Floridi’s theory of information as constituting the fundamental value comes from the sheer existence of the unilateral arrow of thermodynamic processes. The second law of thermodynamics implies that when there is a potential gradient between two systems, A and B, such that A has a higher level of order, then in time, order will be degraded until A and B are in equilibrium. The typical example is that of heat flowing inevitably from a hotter body (a source) towards a colder body (a sink), thereby dissipating free energy, i.e., reducing the overall amount of order. From the globally encompassing perspective of macroethics, this appears to be problematic since having information on planet Earth comes at the price of degrading the Sun’s own informational state. Moreover, as I will show in the next sections, the increase in Earth’s information entails an ever faster rate of solar informational degradation. The problem for Floridi’s theory of ethics is that this implies that the Earth and all its inhabitants as informational entities are actually doing the work of Evil, defined ontologically as the increase in entropy. The Sun embodies more free energy than the Earth; therefore, it should have more value. Protecting the Sun’s integrity against the entropic action of the Earth should be the norm.” At the heart of this problem, he argues, is that Floridi defines…

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Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy of Questions, The man / machine series

On not knowing (Man / Machine III)

Humans are not great at answering questions with “I don’t know”. They often seek to provide answers even where they know that they do not know. Yet still, one of the hallmarks of careful thinking is to acknowledge when we do not know something – and when we cannot say anything meaningful about an issue. This socratic wisdom – knowing that we do not know – becomes a key challenge as we design systems with artificial intelligence components in them. One way to deal with this is to say that it is actually easier with machines. They can give a numeric statement of their confidence in a clustering of data, for example, so why is this an issue at all? I think this argument misses something important about what it is that we are doing when we say that we do not know. We are not simply stating that a certain question has no answers above a confidence level, we can actually be saying several different things at once. We can be saying… …that we believe that the question is wrong, or that the concepts in the question are ill-thought through. …that we have no data or too little data to form a conclusion, but that we believe more data will solve the problem. …that there is no reliable data or methods of ascertaining if something is true or not. …that we have not thought it worthwhile to find out or that we have not been able to find out…

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Fake news, Reading Notes, The Fake News Notes

Hannah Arendt on politics and truth – and fake news? (Notes on attention, fake news and noise #6)

Any analysis of fake news would be incomplete without a reading of Hannah Arendts magnificent essay Truth and Politics from 1967. Arendt, in this essay, examines carefully the relationship between truth and politics, and makes a few observations that remind us of why the issue of “fake news” is neither new nor uniquely digital. It is but an aspect of that greater challenge of how we reconcile truth and politics. Arendt anchors the entire discussion solidly not only in a broader context, but she reminds us that this is a tension that has been with civilization since Socrates. “Fake news” is nothing else than yet another challenge that meets us in the gap between dialectic and rhetoric, and Socrates would be surprised and dismayed to find us thinking we had discovered a new phenomenon. The issue of truth in politics is one that has always been at the heart of our civilization and our democratic tradition. Arendt notes this almost brutally in the beginning of her essay: “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s and the demagogue’s but also of the stateman’s trade.” (p 223) It is interesting to think about how we read Arendt here. Today, as politics is under attack and we suffer from an increase of…

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Artificial Intelligence, Man / Machine, The man / machine series

Intelligence, life, consciousness, soul (Man / Machine II)

There is another perspective here that we may want to discuss, and that is if the dichotomy we are examining is maybe a false, or at least, less interesting one. What if we find that both man and machine can belong to a broader class of things that we may want to call “alive”? Rather than ask if something is nature or technology we may want to just ask if it lives. The question of what life is and when it began is of course not an easy one, but if we work with simple definitions we may want to agree that something lives if it has a metabolism and the ability to reproduce. That, then, could cover both machines and humans. Humans – obviously – machines less obviously, but still solidly. When we discuss artificial intelligence, our focus is on the question of if something can be said to have human-level intelligence. But what if we were to argue that nothing can be human-kind intelligent without also being alive? Without suffering under the same limitations and evolutionary pressures as we do? Does this seem an arbitrary limitation? Perhaps, but it is no less arbitrary than the idea that intelligence is exhibited only through problem solving methods such as playing chess or go. Can something be, I would ask, intelligent and not alive? In this simple question there is something fundamental captured. And if we say yes – then would it not seem awkward to imagine a robot to be…

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Fake news, The Fake News Notes, Uncategorized

Notes on attention, fake news and noise #5: Are We Victims of Algorithms? On Akrasia and Technology.

Are we victims of algorithms? When we click on click bait and content that is low quality – how much of the responsibility of that click is on us and how much on the provider of the content? The way we answer that question maybe connected to an ancient debate in philosophy about Akrasia or weakness of will. Why, philosophy asks, do we do things that are not good for us? Plato’s Socrates has a rather unforgiving answer: we do those things that are not good for us because we lack knowledge. Knowledge, he argues, is virtue. If we just know what is right we will act in the right way. When we click the low quality entertainment content and waste our time it is because we do not know better. Clearly, then, the answer from a platonic standpoint is to ensure that we enlighten each-other. We need a version of digital literacy that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff, that helps us know better. In fact, arguably, weakness of will did not exist for Socrates (hence why he is so forbidding, perhaps) but was merely ignorance. Once you know, you will act right. Aristotle disagreed and his view was we may hold opinions that are short term and wrong and be affected by them, and hence do things that re not good for us. This view, later developed and adumbrated by Davidson, suggests that decisions are often made without the agent considering all possible things that…

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Man / Machine, Philosophy, The man / machine series, Writing

Man / Machine I: conceptual remarks.

How does man relate to machine? There is a series of questions here that I find fascinating and not a little difficult. I think the relationship between these two concepts also are determinative for a large set of issues that we are debating today, and so we would do well to examine this language game here. There are, of course, many possibilities. Let’s look at a few. First, there is the worn out “man is a lesser machine”-theme. The idea here is that machine is a perfect man, and that we should be careful with building machines that can replace us. Or that we should strive ourselves to become machines in order to survive. In this language game machine is perfection, eternity and efficiency, man is imperfection, ephemeral and inefficient. The gleaming steel and ultra-rational machine is a better version of biological man. It is curious to me that this is the conceptual picture that seems strongest right now. We worry about machines taking over, machines taking our jobs and machines turning us all into paper clips (or at least Nick Bostrom does). Because we see them as our superiors in every regard. In many versions of this conceptual landscape evolution is also a sloppy and inefficient process, creating meat machines with many flaws and short comings — and machines are the end point. They are evolution mastered, and instead of being products of evolution machines produce it as they see fit. Nature is haphazard and technology is deliberate. Any…

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Fake news, Philosophy, Technology, The Fake News Notes, Writing

Notes on attention, fake news and noise #4: Jacques Ellul and the rise of polyphonic propaganda part 1

Jacques Ellul is arguably one of the earlier and most consistent technology critics we have. His texts are due for a revival in a time when technology criticism is in demand, and even techno-optimists like myself would probably welcome that, because even if he is fierce and often caustic, he is interesting and thoughtful. Ellul had a lot to say about technology in books like The Technological Society and The Technological Bluff, but he also discussed the effects of technology on social information and news. In his bleak little work Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York 1965(1962)) he examines how propaganda draws on technology and how the propaganda apparatus shapes views and opinions in a society. There are many salient points in the book, and quotes that are worth debating. That said, Ellul is not an easy read or an uncontroversial thinker. Here is how he connects propaganda and democracy, arguing that state propaganda is necessary to maintain democracy: “I have tried to show elsewhere that propaganda has also become a necessity for the internal life of a democracy. Nowadays the State is forced to define an official truth. This is a change of extreme seriousness. Even when the State is not motivated to do this for reasons of actions or prestige, it is led to it when fulfilling its mission of disseminating information. We have seen how the growth of information inevitably leads to the need for propaganda. This is truer in a democratic system than in…

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