Saturday, May 14, 2016

On Blindsight (contains spoilers)

One of the many ways you can classify the books is whether they distract you from thinking or encourage you to think about something. Blindsight by Peter Watts, to me, falls in the second category.

There is that old discussion of what is intelligence about. Peter Watts tries to imagine intelligence without sentience - a thinking entity without an I that does the thinking. Blindsight, among other things, refers to that concept of an I which could be seen as an illusion distracting the individual from efficient acting. This reminded me of I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter which I've read recently. It has a different claim: that the possession of an I concept, even though it doesn't physically relate to anything, is the prerequisite of calling a being intelligent in the first place. I have to admit that it's pretty difficult to imagine intelligence without sentience, and such existence appears pretty dull to whatever I call "me". Nevertheless, it's an interesting possibility, and not being able to imagine something properly doesn't mean that it could never be true.

But that is not how the book begins. It begins with a story of a human who doesn't have empathy, due to an operation he endured as a child. He isn't even sure whether he can truly understand anything or whether he is just a human version of Chinese room - the construct which can provide correct answers to the outside queries without being able to explain what those answers could mean. The protagonist's disability became a blessing in disguise, turning him into an ideal "translator" between narrow specialists and the ordinary humans. He does it by tuning to the body language of those he translates from. Almost everything is seen through his eyes and told through his voice.

The protagonist has a dramatic past, including botched relationship and sad childhood memories. He sails back and forth between now and then during the narrative. Somehow, it made me think that perhaps our unhappiness is partially responsible for defining what we are. ("If we are not in pain, then we are not alive" - that's how the story begins). One side remark: notable that the author goes for describing a "traditional" relationship, while claiming that this kind of relationships already became old-style; I guess making a different choice here would be immensely more daunting task - after all, we, the readers, are still merely humans mostly living in the "real" world.

The world described by Watts - sometime in the future - doesn't feel warm and cuddly. For once, it has vampires, which are the product of genetic (re-)engineering, are said to be way more intelligent than any human but get a seizure whenever they see anything resembling a cross. (That last part doesn't make much sense from the rational point of view, but we have to take it as a given). They are held on drugs which both restrain them from their natural tendency to hunt warm-blooded human beings and help to overcome the cross impediment. The reason they exist is because people want problem-solvers smarter than them who would still not be machines. One of those vampires is heading the mission the protagonist is part of.

Also, there is a technocratic version of Paradise called "Heaven", where people can dream off the rest of their lives in the self-designed VR worlds. It's not uploading into the cloud: destroying the body also destroys the Heaven inhabitant. The protagonist's mother, whom he always calls by her first name, has left for that world. The protagonist's father is one of the few people on Earth who still do work (he is busy with planetary security). Those who choose "to not be a parasite" often become cyborgs, changing their minds and bodies. (Examples present in the mission crew). There is a bit of sad irony to realize that those who chooses to work do nothing else but benefit those parasites, but who wouldn't care, as long as it boosts their dopamine and serotonin levels. (Speaking about happiness).

The storyline is exponential: it starts slowly and then accelerates. An idea falls into the gravity field of the narrative, gets enshrouded by flesh and blood on the way, and eventually explodes due to overheating, leaving some charred remains in the aftermath. The non-sentient and superintelligent aliens, an advanced version of cosmic ants, are inhabiting a scary-looking artifact, devoid of any sense of beauty, but capable of almost anything. They cannot communicate with humans because there is nothing to communicate about. They can conjure "a collective I", but it's nothing but Chinese room to us. There isn't any individual on the other side. Every alien being is nothing but an efficient autonomous agent / data storage unit. The little crew of the human spaceship goes through lot of pain to get to that truth. The vampire storyline also has a resolving point, a bit rough if you ask me. Many questions are answered in the end, but not all of them, and the end itself feels rather a prolonged pause than a real conclusion. (There is a second book by Watts which seems to be playing in the same world, but I am not yet sure whether it's a sequel, a prequel or an alternate reality).

Unwelcome as that world appears, the book is worth reading, not only for that question about the nature of intelligence that it poses, but also for the insights into psychology of human interaction (the little isolated crew in stressful conditions being a suitable playground for that). I would rather not to provide more plot details, it's better to read the story.

But if human conscience, and culture with it, is a mere blindsight, and it would be possible to have a civilization of selfless intelligent beings, what would be their drive to move forward? The survival instinct alone? How did the ants arrive at the designs for their homes and are they ever going to improve them? I guess humanity needs a couple million years of sentience to answer these questions.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

It could've been interesting to create a language learning program that would determine one's active vocabulary (e.g. based on one's contributions to the social networks and/or public chat transcripts - suppose for simplicity that privacy issues could be solved here somehow), compile more or less close analog in the target language and craft the study path based on that. Of course, such approach might have missed the point of expanding one's horizons with learning a new language. But it might also encourage the learners to use the new language sooner and more efficiently if they could do so without deviating too much from their original identity.

On the other hand, getting the proper feel for the language without living in the country where that language is spoken might be too challenging for a human being. How many languages would it be even possible to learn properly and what is the price for that? I don't know about any strictly scientific studies in this area.

Personally, I often feel that my English is either dry as winter leaves or rough like a cartoon drawing (or both), and my Dutch dwells on the pre-teen level, which results in a personality switch every time I switch the language.

I wonder how many other seasoned ESL speakers have similar experiences? It might only be the thing for those who, like me, started actively using another language relatively late.

It is great that the modern tools (like online translation) help to reduce language barriers, but could these barriers one day disappear completely? So many misunderstandings, from personal to country level, might go away then. (One hopes...) Would it be possible for a human both preserve their own identity and easily "map" it into any other language / culture?

Of course, there is more to the game than just language (Le Ton Beau de Marot by Hofstadter is explaining that much better than I ever could), but one has to start somewhere.

Friday, July 03, 2015


No, Eurydice did not turn away.
She followed Orpheus, and the path
Was quivering with light, and flickering
With the motifs that crave to take the wing
When time looks back, as if it wants to stay.

But Cerberus, the stubborn Hades' guard,
Three ugly heads, each darker than the night,
He met that gaze and grinned, and trode behind.

The singer rose into the blazing day,
Where sun was painting the horizon blue.
(They say, that word was not invented yet,
And thus, all days were either white or grey.)
He glanced once more into the gaping cave,
To see her coming near, if all was true.

Like an obsidian trident could've fled,
The hound darted in between instead.
The song was over. Neither his cittern
Nor hazy form of Eurydice could
Have time to move, so quickly all was set 
When Cerberus retreated, dragging back
The quivering, but now voiceless rag -
The payment was complete, he was content.

She cried, but who was there to take that call?
The wailing cry of madness sans relief,
Of happiness, pulled from behind the feet,
Of everything, that makes the soul bleed.
And till this day, we think that was a slave
Of Dionysus, scared by the deed,
And blame the wine and lust that take their toll
Of bards and poets from this dusty ball.

She lives till now, a Muse of suicide.
The finest poets would not see her glide,
The door appears, the dog with triple smile,
It's over quickly, barely in time
To throw the latest gaze and leave behind 
A name, another stone to sing and shine

For nonchalant mankind.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reading about crypto made me think that we might store the reality in our memory using one-way hashing, which is why it's easy to recognise the usual surroundings, but difficult to remember them in details.

A side thought: if someone or something doesn't fit the patterns we already have for the similar objects, and didn't happen to grab our attention specifically, then there is a big chance that this person or object won't get registered in the memory at all, simply because it would be too expensive to apply the hashing to the new object. This might explain why people don't notice the little changes around them, too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Not sure about the hardware, but for the modern software (be it an application or a website) that has been around for more than five years or so, it feels absolutely true:
"As well as any human beings could, they knew what lay behind the cold, clicking, flashing face — miles and miles of face — of that giant computer. They had at least a vague notion of the general plan of relays and circuits that had long since grown past the point where any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole."
(C) Isaac Asimov, The Last Question.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Песню последней встречи
Сонно бормочет тень.
Глядясь в уходящий день,
Отлетает вечер.

На небе Млечный
Путь еще не зажгли.
В комнате ожиданий
Спят отбывающие с Земли
На чемоданах воспоминаний.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I have to confess that I rather dislike the modern attitude of adding "girl" to the words describing activities in supposedly "male" domain, that girl programmer, girl scientist or girl whatever. Why emphasize gender? One of the best Russian poets of the XX century, Marina Tsvetaeva, has never called herself "a poetess" and was fiercely opposing those who tried calling her that, preferring the generic term: a poet. And what was good enough for a poet, should be good enough for an engineer, a scientist or a jet pilot. Isn't it?