Monday, November 10, 2014

Bird Song & Machine Talk



- I'm famous, you know.
- I don't recognize you.
- I'm the poorest person in Beverly Hills. I'm the Pope Of The Poor, quote unquote, front page story in the Times. Come to my house, I'll show you the paper.
- And I thought I was the poorest person in Beverly Hills. Where do you live?
- Above Whole Foods. The only federally subsidized low income retirement housing in Beverly Hills.
- How much do you pay?
- 200 dollars. Actually less.
- Why are you the Pope Of The Poor?
- I give classes in improvisation, I do videos: interviews, documentaries...
- About what?
- Being old and poor in Beverly Hills. Come to my house. I'll show you.
- Will they let me in?
- Why not?
- I'm not old.
- Are you saying I'm old?
- How old are you?
- 74. Do you think that's old?
- I was at an conference last night at UCLA where the name most mentioned was that of a 84 year old.
- Who?
- Noam Chomsky. Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, retired.
- Is he married? Is he rich?
- Not married. Probably rich.
- How do you know?
- His wife died recently.
- So he's probably still active. He can marry again.
- You can ask him yourself. He answers email from everyone.
- Write down his name.
- I'll say it slowly. N-o-a-m C-h-o-m-s-k-y. Memory needs to be exercised. You don't want to get senile.
- You're not funny.
- Why does the Pope Of The Poor in Beverly Hills want to marry a rich man?
- Why else? She's poor.
- Well, Pope Of The Beverly Hills Poor, after living 74 years aren't you tired of all this Beverly Hills talk about money? Of the endless calculations of what you have to do to get money, of who you have to know, of how you have to sell yourself? Aren't you tired of everyone sitting alone in their houses calculating? Do you know what I do when I'm alone?
- Are you married?
- I had a Hungarian wife a couple years. I still could be married. I'm not sure.
- That's impossible.
- It's possible. If you were married to a Hungarian you'd understand.
- I was married to a Hungarian.
- Really? What happened to him?
- I divorced him. He was obsessed with pornography.
- That's not what I do alone. Though some might say there's a similarity. Every morning I cause about a million messages to appear on computer and phone screens across the world when there owners log into their social media accounts. It takes about 15 minutes, about 100 messages sent to about 10,000 social media accounts. What comes back to me are statistics saying about 1,000 times people have clicked on the message links and been taken to one story or another I've written. Something is happening with all this language, all these machines put into action, but I don't think it is communicating. Do you ever go to the UCLA campus?
- Sometimes. What about it?
- The conference I attended was both on device art - artwork that incorporates machines - and on the work of the federally funded big time UCLA team researching bird songs. According to its director they are within one month of proving birds use a language like our own.
- Bird language research, art machines: what's the connection? Besides they cost a lot of money.
- Maybe that is the connection. I don't know what the people at the conference said, I came late and didn't get around to asking what they were getting at. My guess is something like, if we are to successfully integrate machines, computers included, into our lives, for good not bad, we need to know what computers can do and what we can do, where the beginnings of one end and the other begins. We don't want computers degrading us by making us like them, and we don't want our limitations as living beings stop us from taking advantage of the strengths of a computer. Anyway, the most popular device art sitting on a shelf waiting to be put on by us guests was an apparatus you could put on your head, covering your eyes, that projected sound focused in a single direction. If you were close to someone wearing the device you could feel a wave of vibration move over your face as the wearer blindly swiveled his head in your direction. You'd feel something like birds feel when they use the same high frequency sound for echo location. I think the statistics I get back out of the my message sending are such an echo location.
- Is anyone really reading?
- Maybe, but again this bird like call and response activity I'm executing is not what I'd call communication.
- What would you call it?
- Thinking with language. Language is used for thinking before it is used for communication.
- Everyone in my building talks to themselves.
- I believe you. Every morning I send out messages like a bird greeting the morning with song. I'm operating a device, the internet. I play with it. As if language were a machine I play with language. In return there's this echo of statistics sweeping over me. It feels good. There are people out there, I'm sending out messages, I know messages are going out there, their echo comes back to me as part of the morning. I greet the morning like the bird sings its song. But messages don't change the world.
- Why do you want to change the world?
- That's what human being do.
- No one can change the world.
- The world can be changed but messages can't do it. Something else can.
- What?
- Practices. Practices that are of a kind that help words be understood. Practices that transform thinking into communication.
- You need to practice your messaging. I don't understand you.
- Ok. You're the poorest of the poor in Beverly Hills. In Westwood Village there's this tall, always hooded old man, his grey beard a foot long, who at a crawling pace pushes one at a time, in relays, one quarter block at a time, two carts overloaded with black trash bags themselves overloaded with recyclables, paper and plastics cups mostly, never redeemed. They represent to him his treasure, like jewelry for other people represents their wealth. A morning not long ago one cart was on the left of the entrance to Extreme Pizza, he was passed out in its shade, and on the right side of the entrance was his other cart. UCLA students were strolling past unconcerned. I slowed down, asked a student who passed me didn't he think it was a sign of the times that people take an interest in extreme pizza but not in extreme life? What extreme life? he asked me, confused. The old man dying unremarked on the street as hundreds of people go by, I said.
- What did he answer?
- Nothing. He didn't get it. To understand, to sympathize, there has to be shared experience.
- Of dying on the street?
- Of doing things with other people in a way that creates community.
- Helping.
- Helping each other do things together. The doing things together is as important as the helping.
- People don't do things together. I see kids my grandchildren's age in restaurants. They are on a date but they don't look at each other. They push buttons on their phones.
- Say I'm like one of the artists at the conference. I make a device, not to help people communicate, but instead send them to each other to build things with each other. Suppose I advise the world that to save itself it needs to set set up a social media site where each member, after submitting profile information, is greeted going on the site with the question, what do you want to make? A school, a labor union, a political party, a house, a toy? And asked, do you want to find someone to work with you interested in doing the same?
- That's cool. Why don't you do it yourself?
- To take that step I'd need people to step out with, right? And I don't find them and they don't find me.
- You need to have the site first to find them.
- So it seems.
- So you send out one million messages a day, including I assume some about that site?
- Yes.
- And you receive back this wave of bird transmission-like echo of a thousand reflecting clicks. You know there is something out there. You've sung your song to it. But that isn't communication. What is it?
- It's song. Thinking without communication. No one has done anything with me, and no one wants to. I'm singing to the morning. I'm doing echo location, talking to myself, I'm locating my position in the world, I'm reassuring myself something is out there in the world to start my day with, that some possibility awaits.
- Maybe that's what the bird thinks too.
- Maybe. The UCLA language study worked by identifying a thousand different phrases in the song of one species of bird, and then letting the computers do their thing on the data, looking for connections. The result was that some phrases were found to be significantly more commonly followed by some others. Bird language has a hierarchical structure, as Chomsky had argued our language does.
- Chomsky. The rich guy.
- Your future husband. He famously argued that language couldn't be learned just by doing what the UCLA computers are just beginning to do with bird language. There had to be an inborn facility, a language organ, to recognize the structure of language, to tell us where to look for significance. Maybe no one found bird language before this study because no one knew what to look for. We were like babies with no inborn knowledge. UCLA decided to look for what we do with language without having to learn how to do it, and they found what they were looking for.
- What is a language organ?
- A kind of machine that processes information. A word is a kind of habit, and a habit is the operation of a machine. Our habits instruct us: when the world is like that, do this. Habits can influence the development of other habits, their strengths. Habits are invisible machines, and we play with them like the artists at UCLA intend us to play with the devices they make. When we speak we go word by word, each choice influencing the later choices, but unsure of how exactly the sentence will be completed. The words, being habits, "want" to be spoken, and we choose between them as they vie for our attention. If, that is, there is attention, because we can also make a habit out of how we speak, a habit of our choice of words. That's why there can be communicating without thinking, the bird mechanically warning of danger, if that is all it is doing. Just as there may on the contrary be thinking without communicating, which is what I'm doing when I sing to the morning my million messages. I'm starting a conversation, but the response is only an echo, telling me something is going on out there but whatever it is it is not communication.
- Why not?
- People out there in the internet world can't reconstruct the choice between words I've performed, and that is what is necessary for understanding.
- Why can't they?
- Because they are not practicing themselves this choice between habits. Instead of making a web site that sends people to each other to do things, they make a web site to help people meet all on the same page to discuss political and social and work issues. But this is like the bird warning of danger. It is something that's "to be done" according to instructions. A habit. Something mechanical. It is communication without thinking. No artist works the device. The professor was talking about this, actually. Waiting for the lecture portion of the evening to begin a small group had gathered in a circle around him. I stood a little distance away and listened. The uncertainty, he explained, in deciding whether communication involved thinking was brought out by the Turing Test. Would a computer answering questions inside a closed room be able to fool someone outside that it was human? In other words, was there something other than communication involved in being human? In another thought experiment, "The Chinese Room", a man puts himself in the position of the computer in the Turing test. He is given instructions in English for translating one Chinese text to another, an operation that can be done without him knowing Chinese by simply looking at the shape of the characters. To the Chinese speakers outside the room it seems like a question they've asked in Chinese has been correctly answered in Chinese. The implication is that we can't tell from the communications alone whether consciousness is behind them.
- Did the professor think birds were conscious?
- He said no one, including him, has been able to solve the Turing test. I told him I could.
- You can? You really are an egomaniac. You should seek treatment.
- I'm getting the treatment now.
- Whatever.
- I said that computers have programmers who made them, but computers don't have the same kind of connection to their makers that a human being does to the past self that made his present self.
- What past self?
- A self with different habits of speaking. At this point in my exposition the professor turned away and went back to talking with the others.
- He didn't know what you were talking about. I don't either.
- Computers don't have direct access to their programmer. However they can, and computers used for research already do, learn to program themselves. On the basis of the new results of their latest experiments they construct new hypotheses and reprogram themselves to investigate them. Got it?
- Pretend I do.
- Now human beings have something like a programmer. We call it the unconscious. I was taken as a guest to a self improvement seminar the night before the UCLA event. Gurus of these cults make a good living helping people dredge out of their past what they "don't know they don't know". That is, something from the past they don't know about that is stopping them from learning what they need to know to get what they want in the present.
- A mental block. Repressed trauma. Among my other lives I was a psychotherapist.
- Like you were married to a Hungarian.
- I'm telling you the truth.
- Guests and members in attendance were offered three autobiographical cases, the testimonials of three satisfied paying customers. The first told how she'd stopped loving her father, he was dying then, and she'd wanted a new start with him. The second wanted to move back to LA from Sacramento, had looked but couldn't find a good job here like the one he had there as a corporate lawyer. The third wanted to know if it was right for him to risk his six figure paying dream job in the music industry to work on a start-up without pay which would give him the life he had before his dream job became routine. The cult leader goes at their vanities, their pride and confidence from doing the same things in response to the same circumstances, shows the first her block was fear of disapproval of her father, shows the second it was unwillingness to lower himself to going door to door looking for jobs, shows the last it was his forgetting his love of risk. One person finds his old habits of love, another finds his old love of risk, another finds old willingness to play. One puts pride aside and really talks with her father, just in time before he died. One takes himself less seriously and goes door to door looking for the right L.A. job, and finds it. One takes a chance on the start-up and becomes a millionaire. Each with the help of the cult leader strengthens abandoned, disused habits of their old selves. The computer doesn't have access to a separate past. It reprograms itself out of the elements already part of its operation, like the invented machine an artist creates is made out of any available part. Whereas the cult members, instead of reprogramming themselves with new ideas of what to try, hypotheses which are build out of experience already incorporated in their "operation", instead of this they return to an old path, revive a branch on the hierarchical tree of habits that had become a dead end. I realized, talking to the professor, there might be a way to test for this happening. What question will the computer and human answer differently?*
- How should I know?
- Let's go back to the cult. Tens of millions of relatively wealthy and well connected people have paid to take courses from whichever business or spiritual guru is in fashion. Why isn't the world a better place? Why don't the program graduates at least make the part of the world immediately around them into a better place?
- Maybe they do. They treat their friends and family better.
- The daughter expresses her love to her father before he dies, the lawyer gets the L.A. job, the six figure music executive does the start-up and a year later sells it for millions: they've made their lives better, but not the world better.
- So?
- Imagine a computer could be programmed with a fictional past that could mimic the reprogramming that the cult provides for its members. But there would not be a real block, a real wall separating the conscious present and unconscious past. That block represents the two worlds we live in: the machine like computational present, and the dark world of our habits in abeyance that has the potential to drive us towards an unknown future. We don't aim to recover our ability to express words of love to a father before his dies, we aim to love. We don't aim overcome our rigidity to get a job, but to play and recover clarity of sight. We don't aim to take risk for its own sake but to know the importance of recovery from everyday life back to a beautiful life. We move from dark to light, find the disused habits that hide in the dark of our past and letting them free move toward the brilliant light in the future. We find community when in our search for the light our habits of life align with the habits of life with others doing the same. We respond to the world together. We live at ease together and in appreciation of those who've we've spoken well with, we are at peace when we manage with our habits to say something, see something, do something we like, think is beautiful, judge to be true. The Extreme Pizza students: they live completely in the reprogramming world. The unconscious is not dark and the conscious is not bright. All is defined. They don't know what it is like, don't know when they see it, to struggle across the barrier, to draw out from the dark of themselves a future world that attracts with its brilliance but is unknown to them. They've never done it. They think the guy dying on the street is practicing a life style: a reprogramming of life we call a style of life. They don't understand that guy went behind the barrier and couldn't get back. He couldn't make a community. Invisible in the dark place he's in, he receives no help getting out. At best he's offered cult reprogramming, choice of a new life style that will keep him in the light of day.
- You think that simply by creating communities we will care about each other?
- No. Community is our means to the end of moving from darkness to light. We don't want community for its own sake. It's nothing to us.**
- It's nothing to you.
- We shouldn't, neither me nor you, insist on any particular state of the world, even community, for its own sake. That's the mistake of seeing the world of classes and divisions, descriptions and definitions.
- You lost me again.
- I'll give you another example. A few years ago a philosopher wrote a book rigorously defining the concept of species and then claiming that our perception naturally worked by identifying species. And so naturally we identify races, nationalities, tribes. Therefore prejudice, fear, hatred, mutual incomprehension were natural between groups. The problem is, a soldier trained to hate his enemy in battle when the war ends can very soon live amicably with his former enemy. Class hatreds are the product of establishing relations between classes, not vice versa. End the class relation, the hatred ends with it. The philosopher didn't make this simple test by thought experiment because he himself lived within class relations that made such testing unnecessary. In that world there is not another world always waiting to show its influence and create an unanticipated world. Rather his goal was to be found entirely within the world of academic relations, the rewards were there in making the proposal itself, guessing it to be satisfactory to conservative leaders looking for philosophic justification for injustice and inequality. The philosopher theorized like the computer reprogramming itself creates a new hypothesis to be tested, like the machine artist creates his machine but without art, the new hypothesis working efficiently with the relations of class already established in the professional career of an academic philosopher.
- Academics make a habit of rearranging then repeating the same words. I should know. My ex-husband was one.
- Future husband too. The philosopher never crosses the barrier between dark and light, never gets out of the world. He speaks for himself, to obtain the rewards of his profession, he doesn't communicate with, is blind to the particular people he actually lives with. Nothing new to us that is in a way already ours will ever come out of nowhere in his kind of life: it is when and if that happens that the problem of the Turing Test is solved. Nothing ever comes out of nowhere for a computer.
- As long as he's rich I'll marry Chomsky.
- See? You remembered his name.
- You can go to hell. You're in love with darkness.
- The way you talk about money: are you sure you aren't in the same position as the philosophy professor? Same words are spoken in the same conditions. All light, no darkness. Sometimes a new hypothesis arises: marry top dog Chomsky. Reprogram. But what about all the other words waiting in the dark with me in hell, the hell everyone experiences when deprived of security? Take a look at this chart I printed from the internet:



Look at all the different economic and social possibilities. The market economy in which we live is one way among many of organizing our social and economic lives. We can also form cooperatives, barter, create our own money, give things away within a reciprocal or central organization or individually, etc.
- Alright then. Some want to make a community, some don't. Don't dictate to me what I should want.
- The rewards of these alternatives are in the movement from dark to light which they allow, not in building any one kind of community. We don't look ahead to a social or economic structure but to a feeling of peace and gratitude to others for allowing us to make this transition. Such feelings are invisible to those trapped in the market. They feel something else, something illusory: a force moving them, like the electricity that sets the computer going. The electrical force they feel has a direction, but it is nothing more than habit being exercised, each repetition producing a greater disposition to be repeated again. The electrical force they feel seems to accumulate a reservoir of power within them, but that force is nothing more than the relief and security of regular results from repeated action in regular circumstances. Those trapped in the market must repeat the same actions with the same people, and with the same kind of people, as only the right kind of people can perform the repetitions reliably. Thus their hatred of the wrong kind of people. In the presence of the wrong people they feel negative energy, loss of force and direction: they realize the weakness of where they start from in an unfinished world. Whereas envisioning life with the right people electrifies them, leads them on looking ahead to the strength they'll have when they get to where they are going, the world of only people like themselves.
- And we definitely don't want that, me included by the way Mr. Philosopher. We have enough of prejudice and hatred.

Further Reading:
How Do You Make A Computer Not Want To Be A Computer?
__________________
* A computer in the Turing Test might conceivably still fake in its responses a discontinuity of behavior between before and after reviving disused habits. But a human being in the Chinese Room, given the task of imitating the reported behavior of passage from before to after, would be acting fully in character as a human being, and the test of the thought experiment passed. Though computers may be able to imitate all human behavior, we know how to describe something human beings can do and computers can't and which is a sign of consciousness.
** Two Kinds Of Mystery