Monday, 30 July 2018

The Unlikely Origins of my current Evolutionary Research

The origins of my current research were anything but planned. Between 1959 and 1962 I studied for a Ph.D. in theoretical organic chemistry (no computers then), and then worked as an information scientist - where I read about how computers might help - but had no access to them. However I came across the ideas of Vannevar Bush in "As we may think" and thought I ought to know more about computers.
In 1965 a casual conversation about salaries led me to decide to switch careers and work with computers. Shell Mex & BP had one of the most advance commercial computer systems inn the UK and my first day's experience dramatically showed me how computer systems can go wrong. As a result I became very interested in the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the stored program computer - and this interest led to my coming up with an unorthodox solution to getting people and computers to "understand" each other.
Details of my experiences at Shell Mex & BP, and of the design study that eventually led to the design of CODIL (a COntext Dependent Information Language) have been documented in a note, "The SMBP Story" that I have written for the archives of the LEO Computer Society. A further note is planned shortly extending the story to describe the later research, supported by the LEO computer pioneers David Caminer and John Pinkerton. It will also mention why the initial project closed following the formation of ICL.
The story also includes much information on what went on inside large commercial computer installations in the mid 1960s

Mind and Conciousness

As a scientist  I feel I must always be open to different ways of looking at my research and as a result I have decided to do the Future Learn Course "Matter and Mind: A Philosophical Understanding" as I am sure that the views raised by the course, and in student discussions, will be thought-provoking. It therefore seems to be a good idea to record what I currently understand by the terms "Mind" and "Consciousness" before I start the course.
Google provides the following definitions, which I find satisfactory.
  1. the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.
  2. a person's ability to think and reason; the intellect
  1. the state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings
  2. a person's awareness or perception of something
The brain model I am using assumes a network of neurons recursively organised into higher level nodes which hold the information the brain has about the environment in which it lives. Messages come in from the sense organs which are passed into the network and most rise until a point where they are recognised and can be handled automatically. However some more important messages reach the effective top of the network.
In this framework the "mind" can be considered to be the sum total of knowledge held in the network, while "consciousness" is the awareness of the active messages that have risen to the top - in effect the messages in the brain's "working memory." Of course human working memory has a limited capacity of about half a dozen items, and we can get confused, and forget what we were doing, if too many messages become active. In addition a very important message (say someone shouting "Fire" in your ear) can become dominant and trigger appropriate emotional responses. In addition to responding to external inputs we can simply think about a task and guide our "consciousness" window on a tour of the "mind" - in the process remembering the past or reviewing the present.
There are two immediate conclusions from this model:
  • The "mind" is information stored in a network of living cells - and that this information is lost when the brain dies.
  • While human brains may support a wider and deeper "mind" and have a wider "consciousness" window there is no reason to believe the brains of higher animals are any different in the way they function.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Comments on the "A DARPA Perspective on Artificial Intelligence" video

 My attention has been drawn to the following recent video by the web site Conscious Entities which is useful in explaining some of the background to my research.

 This video discusses the history of AI into three stages
  1. Wave 1 AI is based on handcrafted knowledge where experts took knowledge that they had about a particular domain and they described in in rules that they could fit in the computer. The computer was then used to explore the implications of those rules. Applications included ches s. This approach can be very successful when the rules are well known in advance. Such systems have no learning capability and poor handling of uncertainty.
  2. Wave 2 AI is based on statistical learning and has been very successful in areas such as voice recognition and analysing photographs. However it is very dependent of specially engineered statistical techniques appropriate to the particular domain, often using large data sets. Such approaches, while successful in doing the predefined task lack reasoning capabilities. A mathematical techniques, referred to as neural nets, is used to distinguish between different patterns.
  3. We now need a third wave of AI technology linked to contextual adaption to produce systems than build explanatory models which allow them to characterize real-world phenomena because it is clear humans are doing things in a different way.
This is very relevant in explaining the problems I had with my own research.

In 1967 I was asked to come up with ideas as to how one of the most complex commercial applications (a contract procing system dealing with about 250,000 customers and 5000 products) could be moved to the next generation of computers. I saw the market place as posing complex real-world problems and that what was needed was a system that could dynamically interact with the sales staff. I concluded that the top priority was to have a system that the sales staff could understand and control - and this required the system to be able to explain what it was doing in terms that the sales staff could understand - which meant using a common language and having a communication "window" which did not overload the human short term memory. Within the year I have discovered that my "specialist" proposal could be generalized to become task independent, and potentially able to cope with poorly defined and fuzzy information. CODIL (COntext Dependent Information Language) was created. By the early 1970s I found a model which had started as a solution to a complex commercial problem could handle a wide range of tasks including a powerful heuristic problem solver called TANTALIZER.
The problem was I was attempting to model how people processed a wide range of information processing tasks on a computer - so what I was doing must be "Artificial Intelligence." Unfortunately what I was doing was conceptually very different to what the video called "Wave 1 AI" and this made getting finance very difficult. The work finished when a new boss was appointed who was an enthusiastic supporter of 1970s style AI.
Once I had retired I could look at the problem again - and discovered that there are no predictive models of how the neurons of the human brain support our more intelligent human activities. However I then came up with a problem with "Wave 2 AI" as I was interested in networks of neurons and how they work - but this is very different to how A.I. uses "Neural nets" - which is a very sophisticated mathematical technique - needing much human engineering support. The difference between the approaches is such that there appears to be very little similarity between a biological network of neurons and a the mathematically complex neural nets of A.I.
So on to "Wave 3 AI" which will be concerned with reasoning and context - which is what I was proposing in 1967. Perhaps after 50 years my idea will prove to have some relevance.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Blog under Construction

In recent years I have been running the blog "Trapped by the Box" which dealt with issues relating to the ways in which our actions are constrained by the world in which we live - and in particular by the way computers limit what we do and the way we see the world. As lighter relief I have included some photographs as "Trapped by the Camera" and also included a number of limericks on science-based topics. I plan to continue the blog, and these topics as before.
The "Trapped by the Box" blog is continuing
However the blog also contained much information and discussion about the research project "CODIL" and the possible relevance to evolution and how the brain works. Discussing the problem on that blog helped me to reach a point when I can come up with a clear model and as a result I have decided that all future blog posts relating to the evolution of human intelligence, and the earlier research on CODIL will appear one this blog. 
Over the next week or two some introductory material will be added, together with selected updated material from the "Trapped" blog. However you comments are still welcome during the construction phase.