sarkology

computing intentions

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on April 15, 2011

Background: 13 has the genes for Huntington’s. Which means there will come a time when she will be in intolerable suffering and will want to end her life for it to go away. She recently euthanized her brother who had the same disease, for the same reason. She got jailed 6 months for that. House being the typically curious guy he is, wants to know why she did time. On the day of her release, he offers her a ride home. He eventually figures out the truth. As they arrive at her place,

House: I’ll kill you.

13 is surprised

House: When the time comes, if you want me to.

13 pondering how to respond.

House: We could do it now if you like…. Yeah, I got a baseball bat in the back.

13 pauses again.

13: I’ll see you on Monday.

You see House has trouble empathizing with people. He cannot bring himself to show compassion for others in the usual way. But he wants to. So he has to do it in some shocking way, turn it into a joke, employ sarcasm, etc. Most people are pissed off by this. 13 however, understands this, and knows that explicitly acknowledging his compassionate gesture will ruin it for him, which is why she didn’t say anything.

If the above seemed contrived, be prepared for more of it in the future.

Already the world is so complex that the obvious signals of intention do not get translated into intended outcomes. Most obviously in politics. To take a non-controversial example (where the low status people act out the bad example), some concerned moms think the MMR vaccine contributes to autism risk. As a result, they tragically forgo the far greater benefits of the vaccine for their beloved child. I would go into immigration, except that is a tad too controversial for most people.

And that is only halfway. Even if you get the outcome right, the receiving party still has to interpret it correctly for your communication to succeed. This is a large category of human interaction, those mediated by reality. But direct communication shares other problems.

As the human population grows, there will be greater genetic diversity in our collective gene pool, hence also greater neurodiversity. This is further compounded as once collectivist/conformist cultures fall under the influence of individualism. Liberals like to preach diversity. But the bleeding heart multiculturalism simply won’t cut it. Partly because it’s not entirely sincere, but mostly because without expending significant effort into understanding other cultures, you will fail to empathize with them. House would severely piss of most liberals.

In the future, true empathy will be something akin to mathematical proof. You can’t insist on intuition all the way. At some point, and probably at many, you’ll have to just buckle down and engage in senseless symbol shuffling. Our thoughts and emotions probably share much the same structure, but the translation from one culture/individual to another is not trivial. In the past such translation was mostly between nouns, without needing to pay attention to grammar. For example, I like apples, you like oranges, I can empathize with you savoring an orange because I know what it feels like to savor an apple and I know you savor oranges. Hence for the purpose of empathy, I translate orange to apple. Now this seems a crude description, but it’s essentially what is going on. Well, that used to be sufficient anyway. It’s easy to translate between families, you and your brother is like me and my sister. It’s harder with cults. Even harder cultures. Nigh inconceivable with aliens.

But aliens are a way off, we don’t even know they exist yet. In addition to increased world-complexity, neurodiversity, and individualism, the future promises radical self-modification. At first via drugs, then genetic engineering, then tweaking mind uploads, etc. In Greg Egan’s Diaspora, a group of humans who call themselves the ‘Bridgers’ self-modify to become intermediate between the proliferation of mind-phenotypes among their neighbors, in order to preserve communicability between them all. But this is rather ignorant of the well-known result of the telephone game, where the signals degrade as it is passed along a leaky chain. Of course with mind uploads, and with enough self-understanding and self-modification ability we can build interfaces to our minds so that we can ‘natively’ communicate with each other as if we were of the same mind-type. This is just like automated language translation which works. However, the proliferation of minds could be so vast that there cannot be isomorphisms at the native level between mind-types. Still, it will help that computational power will be cheaper then, allowing symbol manipulation as a fall back. By this point, if we do get to this point, we will be some ways back to where we were at the dawn of humankind, when there were no truly foreign cultures to deal with.

But meanwhile, let’s practice, for we are already in an age which requires the computing of intentions. I’ll start,

I’ll kill you.

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One Response

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  1. autumn said, on April 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    thanks for this post, i really enjoyed it.

    the possibility of ‘native’ communication between minds is very exciting


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