Sunday, January 31, 2016

Firing up the Emotion Machine

Marvin Minsky has passed on, to use a phrasing I feel pretty confident that he՚d dislike. He was a thoroughgoing materialist, so according to him there is nothing to pass on, no spirit to live on beyond the body. Let՚s just say his meat machine gradually broke down, as they all do, and eventually ceased to function. He՚s rumored to have signed up for cryogenic preservation, for what that՚s worth, so there is the possibility of the machinery coming back into operating condition at some time in the future.

But whatever spirit animated him does live on, in the hacker culture that grew up around MIT and has since kind of taken over the world. Many people built that culture, but Marvin was at the core of the restless inquisitiveness, pragmatism, skepticism, and general disrespect of established institutions that characterizes it.

Everyone else who embodied this spirit gave their own twist to it, and perhaps Marvin՚s own special version is now lost until the digital resurrection. It almost doesn՚t matter. Marvin I think was somewhat disappointed, even bitter, in his later years, because the field he founded wasn՚t taking his ideas as seriously as he felt they deserved, and was going in directions he viewed as unpromising. If I could have had a last conversation with him, and felt presumptuous, I would tell him not to worry about any of that. The important part of who he was made it out into the world, embodied in the vast number of people he influenced.

And Marvin՚s own words and works live on. There՚s a collection of 150 or so video clips of him holding forth on the history of AI, his personal story, and the intellectual milieu he lived in and generated. His daughter Margaret assembled a beautiful web presentation of his paper Music, Mind, and Meaning. There is plenty of Marvin left in the world.

Marvin was brilliant in numerous ways, an accomplished inventor, mathematician, and musician aside from the work on artificial intelligence he is best known for. But his big trick was to face squarely the mechanical nature of the human mind and not be alarmed by it. Indeed, he found it rather delightful and intriguing. This put him at odds with standard-issue humanists, which suited him just fine. But Marvin himself was not in any way inhuman, far from it. He was an extremely warm and welcoming individual, and always willing to engage with anyone՚s open mind.

He was I suppose a reductionist, but to label him that is to reduce his own complicated way of thought to a single-word slogan. And that was one kind of reduction he did not practice. His other big trick was to know that there is no one big trick to the mind, that single-idea solutions like logic or bayesianism are insufficient, and that building a mind requires the complex orchestration of multiple mechanisms. Society of Mind was itself structured as as cooperating network of very specific ideas for mechanisms, making the form match its content. He was an extreme fox on the Isaiah Berlinfox/hedgehog scale (while John McCarthy, a co-founder of AI who was more fond of logical formalism, might be his counterpart hedgehog). So he tried to take intractable concepts like selves and consciousness and “reduce” them to a complex interaction between mechanisms:

“The idea that there is a central I that has experience is a typical case of taking a common sense concept and not realizing that it has no good technical counterpart, but it has 20 or 30 different meanings and you keep switching from one to the other without even knowing it, so it all seems like one thing…Consciousness seems very mysterious and unphysical if you don՚t know how it works, like when Houdini or Penn and Teller make an elephant disappear, then you say “this is not physical, it՚s impossible”. When you know how the magic trick works, the sense of wonder goes away, although you still might remember how it puzzled you once.”
His life could be seen as a battle against the idea that understanding how something worked in any way diminished it.

It was truly a privilege and a gift to learn from him. I was far from an ideal student, and went off in directions he didn՚t really approve of. I was consumed by the specifics of the notion of “agent” that he developed – a subpart of the mind with its own machinery, goals, and ability to act – and tried to understand exactly what agency consisted of, what it meant, how it was deployed as a metaphor in technical talk in general. When Marvin wrote a a follow-up book, the The Emotion Machine, he decided to drop the agent language in favor of the more neutral “resources”. I guess he was unhappy at how people inferred from the agent metaphor that these components were full-fledged minds with sophisticated reasoning and representations of their own, in which case the theory didn՚t really explain anything.

This may have been sound tactics but I think it was a strategic mistake. The question of what agency is and what machinery could underlie it is important, and lack of good ways to think about it is responsible for some of the confusion in current discourse around the idea of superempowered artificial intelligences.

Marvin was a mathematician (albeit a very nonstandard one) and mathematicians have the job of pulling eternal truths into the temporal processes of life, cognition, and scholarship. Computation itself – an idea that he helped define – is also a way of connecting the timeless and the temporal. His time to be active has come to an end, and you can look back on his life and see how he was a creature of his time, how he learned from the great minds of an earlier time, and how he passed on his knowledge to the generations that followed. All of whom had their own visions, colored by their own times, yet retaining and transmitting some fragments of what was learned from their teacher.

Time marches on and cuts us all down eventually, but some part of us is timeless. Not godlike or soullike, Marvin wouldn՚t have any of that, but perhaps there is some quasimathematical pattern that our mechanisms embody and that precedes us, outlives us, and connects us.

[More people remember Marvin. My own mentions of him over the years, here and on Ribbonfarm.]


patchworkZombie said...

Wait you're THAT mtravers? That's so cool, although more likely on second though considering I was directed here by Chapman.

mtraven said...

I am that mtravers that I am. And yourself?

David Rosenthal said...

Nice post, mtravers.

mtraven said... this the MIT David Rosenthal? Been a while!