Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil

This is an article from TIME by Ray Kurzweil called Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence.  Basically, Kurzweil’s stance is that “technology is a double-edged sword” and that it always has been, but that’s no reason to abandon the research.  Kurzweil also states that, “Virtually every­one’s mental capabilities will be enhanced by it within a decade.”  I hope it makes people smarter and not just more intelligent! 


Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence

Retro toy robot
Getty Images

Kurzweil is the author of five books on artificial ­intelligence, including the recent New York Times best seller “How to Create a Mind.”

Two great thinkers see danger in AI. Here’s how to make it safe.

Stephen Hawking, the pre-eminent physicist, recently warned that artificial intelligence (AI), once it sur­passes human intelligence, could pose a threat to the existence of human civilization. Elon Musk, the pioneer of digital money, private spaceflight and electric cars, has voiced similar concerns.

If AI becomes an existential threat, it won’t be the first one. Humanity was introduced to existential risk when I was a child sitting under my desk during the civil-­defense drills of the 1950s. Since then we have encountered comparable specters, like the possibility of a bioterrorist creating a new virus for which humankind has no defense. Technology has always been a double-edged sword, since fire kept us warm but also burned down our villages.

The typical dystopian futurist movie has one or two individuals or groups fighting for control of “the AI.” Or we see the AI battling the humans for world domination. But this is not how AI is being integrated into the world today. AI is not in one or two hands; it’s in 1 billion or 2 billion hands. A kid in Africa with a smartphone has more intelligent access to knowledge than the President of the United States had 20 years ago. As AI continues to get smarter, its use will only grow. Virtually every­one’s mental capabilities will be enhanced by it within a decade.

We will still have conflicts among groups of people, each enhanced by AI. That is already the case. But we can take some comfort from a profound, exponential decrease in violence, as documented in Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. According to Pinker, although the statistics vary somewhat from location to location, the rate of death in war is down hundredsfold compared with six centuries ago. Since that time, murders have declined tensfold. People are surprised by this. The impression that violence is on the rise results from another trend: exponentially better information about what is wrong with the world—­another development aided by AI.

There are strategies we can deploy to keep emerging technologies like AI safe. Consider biotechnology, which is perhaps a couple of decades ahead of AI. A meeting called the Asilomar ­Conference on Recombinant DNA was organized in 1975 to ­assess its potential dangers and devise a strategy to keep the field safe. The resulting guidelines, which have been revised by the industry since then, have worked very well: there have been no significant problems, accidental or intentional, for the past 39 years. We are now seeing major ad­vances in medical treatments reaching clinical practice and thus far none of the anticipated problems.

Consideration of ethical guidelines for AI goes back to Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which appeared in his short story “Runaround” in 1942, eight years before Alan Turing introduced the field of AI in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” The median view of AI practitioners today is that we are still several decades from achieving human-­level AI. I am more optimistic and put the date at 2029, but either way, we do have time to devise ethical standards.

There are efforts at universities and companies to develop AI safety strategies and guidelines, some of which are already in place. Similar to the Asilomar guidelines, one idea is to clearly define the mission of each AI program and to build in encrypted safeguards to prevent unauthorized uses.

Ultimately, the most important approach we can take to keep AI safe is to work on our human governance and social institutions. We are already a human-­machine civilization. The best way to avoid destructive conflict in the future is to continue the advance of our social ideals, which has already greatly reduced violence.

AI today is advancing the diagnosis of disease, finding cures, developing renewable clean energy, helping to clean up the environment, providing high-­quality education to people all over the world, helping the disabled (including providing Hawking’s voice) and contributing in a myriad of other ways. We have the opportunity in the decades ahead to make major strides in addressing the grand challenges of humanity. AI will be the pivotal technology in achieving this progress. We have a moral imperative to realize this promise while controlling the peril. It won’t be the first time we’ve succeeded in doing this.

Kurzweil is the author of five books on artificial ­intelligence, including the recent New York Times best seller How to Create a Mind.


 

This article can also be found here.
 

 

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Ben Goertzel – Beginnings [on Artificial Intelligence – Thanks to Adam A. Ford for this video.]

In this video, Ben Goertzel talks a little about how he got into AGI research and about the research, itself.  I first heard of Ben Goertzel about four years ago, right when I was first studying computer science and considering a career in AI programming.  At the time, I was trying to imagine how you would build an emotionally intelligent machine.  I really enjoyed hearing some of his ideas at the time and still do.  Also at the time, I was listening to a lot of Tony Robbins so you could imagine, I came up with some pretty interesting theories on artificial intelligence and empathetic machines.  Maybe if I get enough requests I’ll write a special post on some of those ideas.  You just let me know if you’re interested.


Runtime: 10:33


This video can also be found at here and here.

Video Info:

Published on Jul 27, 2012

Ben Goertzel talks about his early stages in thinking about AI, and two books : The Hidden Pattern, and Building Better Minds.

The interview was done in Melbourne Australia while Ben was down to speak at the Singularity Summit Australia 2011.

http://2011.singularitysummit.com.au

Interviewed, Filmed & Edited by Adam A. Ford
http://goertzel.org

 

Peter Voss Interview on Artificial General Intelligence

This is an interview with Peter Voss of Optimal talking about artificial general intelligence.  One of the things Voss talks about is the skepticism which is a common reaction when talking about creating strong AI and why (as Tony Robbins always says) the past does not equal the future.  He also talks about why he thinks that Ray Kurzweil’s predictions that AGI won’t be achieved for another 20 is wrong – (and I gotta say, he makes a good point).  If you are interested in artificial intelligence or ethics in technology then you’ll want to watch this one…  

And don’t worry, the line drawing effect at the beginning of the video only lasts a minute.


Runtime: 39:55


This video can also be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4W_vtlSjNk0

Video Info:

Published on Jan 8, 2013

Peter Voss is the founder and CEO of Adaptive A.I. Inc, an R&D company developing a high-level general intelligence (AGI) engine. He is also founder and CTO of Smart Action Company LLC, which builds and supplies AGI-based virtual contact-center agents — intelligent, automated phone operators.

Peter started his career as an entrepreneur, inventor, engineer and scientist at age 16. After several years of experience in electronics engineering, at age 25 he started a company to provide advanced custom hardware and software solutions. Seven years later the company employed several hundred people and was successfully listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

After selling his interest in the company in 1993, he worked on a broad range of disciplines — cognitive science, philosophy and theory of knowledge, psychology, intelligence and learning theory, and computer science — which served as the foundation for achieving new breakthroughs in artificial general intelligence. In 2001 he started Adaptive AI Inc., and last year founded Smart Action Company as its commercialization division.

Peter considers himself a free-minds-and-markets Extropian, and often writes and presents on philosophical topics including rational ethics, freewill and artificial minds. He is also deeply involved with futurism and life-extension.


http://www.optimal.org/peter/peter.htm

My main occupation is research in high-level, general (domain independent, autonomous) Artificial Intelligence — “Adaptive A.I. Inc.”

I believe that integrating insights from the following areas of cognitive science are crucial for rapid progress in this field:

Philosophy/ epistemology – understanding the true nature of knowledge
Cognitive psychology (incl. developmental & psychometric) for analysis of cognition – and especially – general conceptual intelligence.
Computer science – self-modifying systems, combining new connectionist pattern manipulation techniques with ‘traditional’ AI engineering.
Anyone who shares my passion – and/ or concerns – for this field is welcome to contact me for brainstorming and possible collaboration.

My other big passion is for exploring what I call Optimal Living: Maximizing both the quantity & quality of life. I see personal responsibility and optimizing knowledge acquisition as key. Specific interests include:

Rationality, as a means for knowledge. I’m largely sympathetic to the philosophy of Objectivism, and have done quite a bit of work on developing a rational approach to (personal & social) ethics.
Health (quality): physical, financial, cognitive, and emotional (passions, meaningful relationships, appreciation of art, etc.). Psychology: IQ & EQ.
Longevity (quantity): general research, CRON (calorie restriction), cryonics
Environment: economic, social, political systems conducive to Optimal Living.
These interests logically lead to an interest in Futurism , in technology for improving life – overcoming limits to personal growth & improvement. The transhumanist philosophy of Extropianism best embodies this quest. Specific technologies that seem to hold most promise include AI, Nanotechnology, & various health & longevity approaches mentioned above.

I always enjoy meeting new people to explore ideas, and to have my views critiqued. To this end I am involved in a number of discussion groups and salons (e.g. ‘Kifune’ futurist dinner/discussion group). Along the way I’m trying to develop and learn the complex art of constructive dialog.

Interview done at SENS party LA 20th Dec 2012.

 

 

Sean O’Heigeartaigh – Interview at Oxford Future of Humanity Institute (on Artificial Intelligence)

Here is a video interview with Sean O’Heigeartaigh.  O’Heigeartaigh speaks on the ethics of artificial intelligence, the technological singularity, augmented reality… he covers a lot of ground.  The video is called Sean O’Heigeartaigh – Interview at Oxford Future of Humanity Institute and it’s worth the watch.


 

Runtime: 47:01


This video can also be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY90WIIrrlo 

Video Info:

Published on Jan 24, 2013

Dr Sean O hEigeartaigh
James Martin Academic Project Manager with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology

Seán has a background in genetics, having recently finished his phD in molecular evolution in Trinity College Dublin where he focused on programmed ribosomal frameshifting and comparative genomic approaches to improve genome annotation. He is also the cofounder of a successful voluntary arts organisation in Ireland that now runs popular monthly events and an annual outdoor festival.

The Future of Humanity Institute is the leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization. The last few centuries have seen tremendous change, and this century might transform the human condition in even more fundamental ways. Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities. Our goal is to clarify the choices that will shape humanity’s long-term future.

the Future of Humanity Institute: http://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/

Why neuroinformatics? from the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility

Here is a short introduction to neuroinformatics.  The video is called Why neuroinformatics? and it briefly lays out the mission of the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF).


 

Runtime: 3:18


This video can also be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuSdhaGGlAg

Video Info:

Published on Nov 10, 2013

Why does neuroscience need neuroinformatics? Watch this 3 min video to find out!

The mission of the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF) is to facilitate the work of neuroscientists around the world, and to catalyze and coordinate the global development of neuroinformatics.

Thank you to all featured community members for collaborating with our team in making this video!

Special thanks to:
– The Neuroscience department at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.
– The PDC Center for High-Performance Computing at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.
– The Neurological X-ray Clinic at the Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden.

Production company: Vimago (http://vimago.se)

About INCF
The International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF), together with its 17 member countries, coordinates collaborative informatics infrastructure for neuroscience data integration and manages scientific programs to develop standards for data sharing, analysis, modeling and simulation in order to catalyze insights into brain function in health and disease.

For press inquiries about INCF please contact: beatriz.martin@incf.org

 

This short YouTube video on neurobiotics (called A Simulated Mouse Brain in a Virtual Mouse Body) talks about building a ‘virtual mouse’ by putting a computer model of a mouse brain in a virtual mouse body.  How cool is science?


 

Runtime: 2:28


This video can also be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldXEuUVkDuw

Video Info:

Published on Feb 23, 2015

Neurorobotics engineers from the Human Brain Project (HBP) have recently taken the first steps towards building a “virtual mouse” by placing a simplified computer model of the mouse brain into a virtual mouse body. This new kind of tool will be made available to scientists, both HBP and worldwide. Read more:https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/-/a-…

Useful Links:

Human Brain Project: http://www.humanbrainproject.eu
NEST simulator software for spiking neural network models: http://nest-simulator.org/
Jülich Press Release 2013, Largest neuronalnetwork simulation using NEST : http://bit.ly/173mZ5j

Open Source Data Sets:
Allen Institute for Brain Science: http://www.brain-map.org
Bioinformatics Research Network (BIRN): http://www.birncommunity.org

The Behaim Globe:
Germanisches National Museum, http://www.gnm.de/
Department of Geodesy and Geoinformation, TU Wien, http://www.geo.tuwien.ac.at

 

FET Flagships: Definition and Examples from the Digital Agenda for Europe

This webpage (found at the Digital Agenda for Europe website) explains FET Flagships and two top flagship topics.  They are multidisciplinary approaches to unlocking technologies which have the potential to radically change the future of humanity.  The two flagship topics covered (in embedded videos) are Graphene and the Human Brain Project.


 

FET Flagships

The Future & Emerging Technologies (“FET”) Flagships are visionary, large-scale, science-driven research initiatives which tackle scientific and technological challenges across scientific disciplines.

The Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagships were developed over a two-and-a-half year preparatory phase. They will have a transformational impact on science, technology and society overall. They foster coordinated efforts between the EU and its Member States’ national and regional programmes. Highly ambitious, they rely on cooperation among a range of disciplines, communities and programmes, requiring sustained support up to 10 years.

Two projects were selected as winners among the pilot flagship topics:
Graphene and the
Human Brain Project.

The European Commission published in September 2014 the FET Flagship Staff Working document, announcing the implementation model for the Flagships in H2020. Read the overview and presentation.

Graphene

Graphene Logo

Graphene investigates and exploits the unique properties of a revolutionary carbon-based material. It possesses an extraordinary combination of physical and technical properties:  it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity,  it is stronger than steele and entails unique optical properties.

To better understand Graphene, check out the following:

  • New Graphene video:How Chalmers University manufactures scalable and high-performing solid Graphene samples, the raw material used by the over 100 research groups within the Graphene Flagship.
  • Follow @GrapheneCA on Twitter
  • Programme launch event (Oct2013 – Göteborg (SE))

The Human Brain Project

The Human Brain Project logo

Understanding the human brain is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century science. Using a unique simulation-based approach, the Human Brain Project aims to provide researchers worldwide with a tool to understand how the human brain really works. If we rise to the challenge, this initiative will revolutionise the future of neuroscience, medicine, and computing.

To better understand HPB, several resources are available:

  • The Human Brain Project Youtube Video Channel – check out video guides on various aspects of the project: Neuromorphic Computing, Future Medicin, Future Neuroscience , Future Computing, Ethics & Society, Neuroinformatics, Medical Informatics Platforms, High Performance Computing, Brain Stimulation Platform, Neurobotics, Mathematical and Theoretical Foundations of Brain Research;
  • Follow @HumanBrainProj on Twitter;
  • Programme launch event (Oct2013 – Lausanne (CH))

The FLAG-ERA ERA-NET

FLAG-ERA logo

The ERA-NET, called FLAG-ERA, gathers ministries and most funding organisations in Europe, participating either directly or as associated members, with the goal of supporting the FET Flagship initiatives ‘Graphene’ and ‘The Human Brain Project’ and more generally the FET Flagship concept.

FLAG-ERA offers a platform to coordinate a wide range of sources of funding towards the realization of the very ambitious research goals of the two Flagship initiatives. The funding organisation will coordinate their funding framework conditions, adapt their thematic programs and elaborate new joint support mechanisms according to the identified needs. In particular, they can launch transnational calls enabling researchers from different countries to propose joint contributions to the Flagships.

FLAG-ERA also offers support to the four non-selected “runner-ups” Flagship pilots to progress towards their goals with adapted means.

  • FuturICT – understanding and managing complex, global, socially interactive systems, with a focus on sustainability and resilience.
  • Guardian Angels – technologies for extremely energy-efficient, smart, electronic personal companions that will assist humans from infancy to old age.
  • IT Future of Medicine – a data-driven, individualised medicine of the future, based on the molecular, physiological, and anatomical data from individual patients.
  • RoboCom – Robot Companions for Citizens.

FET Flagship background

A call was published in July 2010, and six pilot projects were chosen for the so-called preparatory actions. At the end of 2012, 25 world-renowned experts evaluated the pilots’ work and two winning projects were announced by Vice-President Neelie Kroes on 28th January 2013.


This article can also be found here.

The first video can also be found here.

The second video can also be found here.

Video Info:

Video 1:

Published on Jan 28, 2013

“Graphene” will investigate and exploit the unique properties of a revolutionary carbon-based material. Graphene is an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties. The use of graphene was made possible by European scientists in 2004, and the substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century, including by replacing silicon in ICT products.

Video 2:

Published on Jan 28, 2013

The “Human Brain Project” will create the world’s largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain, for studying how the human brain works and ultimately to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases. This research lays the scientific and technical foundations for medical progress that has the potential to will dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Europeans.

 

PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism from the British Institute of Posthuman Studies

This video by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies explores three factors of transhumanism; super longevity, super intelligence, and super well-being.  Its called PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism and it’s a great video to show your friends who have never heard of transhumanism or the technological singularity.  


Runtime: 11:11


This video can also be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTMS9y8OVuY

Video Info:

Published on Nov 5, 2013

We investigate three dominant areas of transhumanism: super longevity, super intelligence and super wellbeing, and briefly cover the ideas of thinkers Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil and David Pearce.

Official Website: http://biops.co.uk
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/biopsuk
Twitter: https://twitter.com/biopsuk
Google+: http://gplus.to/biops

Written by: Peter Brietbart and Marco Vega
Animation & Design Lead: Many Artists Who Do One Thing (Mihai Badic)
Animation Script: Mihai Badic and Peter Brietbart
Narrated by: Holly Hagan-Walker
Music and SFX: Steven Gamble
Design Assistant: Melita Pupsaite
Additional Animation: Nicholas Temple
Other Contributors: Callum Round, Asifuzzaman Ahmed, Steffan Dafydd, Ben Kokolas, Cristopher Rosales
Special Thanks: David Pearce, Dino Kazamia, Ana Sandoiu, Dave Gamble, Tom Davis, Aidan Walker, Hani Abusamra, Keita Lynch

 

Using Pattern Recognition to Enhance Memory and Creativity and The Ravenous Brain by Daniel Bor

Here’s an article I found on The Atlantic website called Using Pattern Recognition to Enhance Memory and Creativity.  The article is inspired by the book, The Ravenous Brian, by author and neuroscientist, Daniel Bor which I just purchased.  I’ll make sure to review it here at Dawn of Giants when I am done reading it.  In the meantime, this article is definitely worth reading.  It reminds me of advice often given by success coach, Tony Robbins – “Chunk it down!”


 

Using Pattern Recognition to Enhance Memory and Creativity

“If seven friends in turn rapidly told him their phone numbers, he could calmly wait until the last digit was spoken and then, from memory, key all seven friends’ numbers into his phone’s contact list without error.”

ravenousbrain.jpgIt seems to be the season for fascinating meditations on consciousness, exploring such questions as what happens while we sleep, how complex cognition evolved, and why the world exists. Joining them and prior explorations of what it means to be human is The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (public library) by Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor in which, among other things, he sheds light on how our species’ penchant for pattern-recognition is essential to consciousness and our entire experience of life.

The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience. Once we have reached adulthood, we have decades of intensive learning behind us, where the discovery of thousands of useful combinations of features, as well as combinations of combinations and so on, has collectively generated an amazingly rich, hierarchical model of the world. Inside us is also written a multitude of mini strategies about how to direct our attention in order to maximize further learning. We can allow our attention to roam anywhere around us and glean interesting new clues about any facet of our local environment, to compare and potentially add to our extensive internal model.

Much of this capacity relies on our working memory — the temporary storage that holds these primitive pieces of information in order to make them available for further processing — and yet what’s most striking about our ability to build such an “amazingly rich” model of the world is that the limit of our working memory is hardly different from that of a monkey, even though the monkey’s brain is roughly one-fifteenth the size of ours: Experiment after experiment has shown that, on average, the human brain can hold 4 different items in its working memory, compared to 3 or 4 for the monkey.

What makes the difference, Bor argues, is a concept called chunking, which allows us to hack the limits of our working memory — a kind of cognitive compression mechanism wherein we parse information into chunks that are more memorable and easier to process than the seemingly random bits of which they’re composed. Bor explains:

In terms of grand purpose, chunking can be seen as a similar mechanism to attention: Both processes are concerned with compressing an unwieldy dataset into those small nuggets of meaning that are particularly salient. But while chunking is a marvelous complement to attention, chunking diverges from its counterpart in focusing on the compression of conscious data according to its inherent structure or the way it relates to our preexisting memories.

To illustrate the power of chunking, Bor gives an astounding example of how one man was able to use this mental mechanism in greatly expanding the capacity of his working memory. The man, an undergraduate volunteer in a psychology experiment with an average IQ and memory capacity, took part in a simple experiment, in which the researchers read to him a sequence of random digits and asked him to say the digits back in the order he’d heard them. If he was correct, the next trial sequence would be one digit longer; if incorrect, one digit shorter. This standard test for verbal working memory had one twist — it took place over two years, where the young man did this task for an hour a day four days a week.

Initially, he was able to remember roughly seven numbers in the sequence — an average improvement over the four-item limit that most people arrive at with a few simple and intuitive rehearsal strategies. But the young man was so bored with the experiment he decided to make it interesting for himself by doing his best to greatly improve his limit — which he did. By the end, some 20 months later, he was able to say back a sequence that was 80 digits long — or, as Bor puts it, “if seven friends in turn rapidly told him their phone numbers, he could calmly wait until the last digit was spoken and then, from memory, key all seven friends’ numbers into his phone’s contact list without error,” an achievement that would make Joshua Foer proud.

But how, exactly, was an average person capable of such a superhuman feat? Bor sheds light:

This volunteer happened to be a keen track runner, and so his first thought was to see certain number groups as running times, for instance, 3492 would be transformed into 3 minutes and 49.2 seconds, around the world-record time for running the mile. In other words, he was using his memory for well-known number sequences in athletics to prop up his working memory. This strategy worked very well, and he rapidly more than doubled his working memory capacity to nearly 20 digits. The next breakthrough some months later occurred when he realized he could combine each running time into a superstructure of 3 or 4 running times — and then group these superstructures together again. Interestingly, the number of holders he used never went above his initial capacity of just a handful of items. He just learned to cram more and more into each item in a pyramidal way, with digits linked together in 3s or 4s, and then those triplets or quadruplets of digits linked together as well in groups of 3, and so on. One item-space, one objet in working memory, started holding a single digit, but after 20 months of practice, could contain as much as 24 digits.

This young man had, essentially, mastered exponential chunking. But, Bor points out, chunking isn’t useful only in helping us excel at seemingly meaningless tasks — it is integral to what makes us human:

Although [chunking] can vastly increase the practical limits of working memory, it is not merely a faithful servant of working memory — instead it is the secret master of this online store, and the main purpose of consciousness.

[…]

There are three straightforward sides to the chunking process — the search for chunks, the noticing and memorizing of those chunks, and the use of the chunks we’ve already built up. The main purpose of consciousness is to search for and discover these structured chunks of information within working memory, so that they can then be used efficiently and automatically, with minimal further input from consciousness.

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns, with one example being that amateur track runner developing tactics to link digits with running times in various races.

But, echoing Richard Feynman’s eloquent lament on the subject, Bor points to a dark side of this hunger for patterns:

One problematic corollary of this passion for patterns is that we are the most advanced species in how elaborately and extensively we can get things wrong. We often jump to conclusions — for instance, with astrology or religion. We are so keen to search for patterns, and so satisfied when we’ve found them, that we do not typically perform sufficient checks on our apparent insights.

Still, our capacity for pattern-recognition, Bor argues, is the very source of human creativity. In fact, chunking and pattern-recognition offer evidence for the combinatorial nature of creativity, affirm Steve Jobs’s famous words that “creativity is just connecting things”, Mark Twain’s contention that “all ideas are second-hand”, and Nina Paley’s clever demonstration of how everything builds on what came before.

The arts, too, generate their richness and some of their aesthetic appeal from patterns. Music is the most obvious sphere where structures are appealing — little phrases that are repeated, raised a key, or reversed can sound utterly beguiling. This musical beauty directly relates to the mathematical relation between notes and the overall logical regularities formed. Some composers, such as Bach, made this connection relatively explicit, at least in certain pieces, which are just as much mathematical and logical puzzles as beautiful musical works.

But certainly patterns are just as important in the visual arts as in music. Generating interesting connections between disparate subjects is what makes art so fascinating to create and to view, precisely because we are forced to contemplate a new, higher pattern that binds lower ones together.

What is true of creative skill, Bor argues, is also true of our highest intellectual contribution:

Some of our greatest insights can be gleaned from moving up another level and noticing that certain patterns relate to others, which on first blush may appear entirely unconnected — spotting patterns of patterns, say (which is what analogies essentially are).

Best of all, this system expands exponentially as it feeds on itself, like a muscle that grows stronger with each use:

Consciousness and chunking allow us to turn the dull sludge of independent episodes in our lives into a shimmering, dense web, interlinked by all the myriad patterns we spot. It becomes a positive feedback loop, making the detection of new connections even easier, and creates a domain ripe for understanding how things actually work, of reaching that supremely powerful realm of discerning the mechanism of things. At the same time, our memory system becomes far more efficient, effective — and intelligent — than it could ever be without such refined methods to extract useful structure from raw data.

Though some parts of The Ravenous Brain fringe on reductionism, Bor offers a stimulating lens on that always fascinating, often uncomfortable, inevitably alluring intersection of science and philosophy where our understanding of who we are resides.

TEMPLATEBrainPickings04.jpg

This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

This article can also be found here.