Monthly Archives: February 2006

An Old Kind of Science

In my current thrashing about within AI and computational science topics, I returned once again to consider Wolfram’s New Kind of Science material. In brief review, Steve Wolfram has spent the better part of his life fascinated with computational complexity arising from simple algorithms. Initially working from cellular automata systems, Wolfram has built up an impressive set of equivalent computational systems all exhibiting the same fundamental patterns of behavior. These patterns are classified into four types – Type 1 systems evolve into static conditions; Type 2 evolve into periodic patterns; type 3 become “chaotic”; Type 4 evolve into the most interesting behaviour that is best described as “complex” or structured randomness. After spending many years studying a vast variety of simple systems, Wolfram published an enormous treatise, “A New Kind of Science”, back in 2002 to describe his findings.

I had been following Wolfram and the general field of complexity, and in particular automata, off and on throughout my post-college years. When I heard of this new work, I couldn’t wait to receive a copy (a Christmas present from my wife, if I recall correctly). I devoured the book upon receiving it, and was thoroughly…. shocked and disappointed! Here was not a revolutionary theory explaining computational complexity. Instead, Wolfram had produced an overwhelmingly conceited presentation of example after example of complexity arising from simple systems, but with nothing to offer in the way of theory. Indeed, in his opening remarks, he describes his “new kind of science” as that which doesn’t fit the traditional dogma of science requiring hypothesis and proof, and the build up of mathematical explanatory theory. Rather, this seems to be “science by example”. Although intriguing examples are presented, he offers no hope of creating a method by which to discover which simple machines are good at representing a given phenomenon. The applied use of this “science” instantly becomes highly questionable. Wolfram seems to favor brute force searching for machine rules which are of interest.

He is wrong in describing his form of “science” as new. Rather, he should have used the term “primitive”. Wolfram’s study (and those of his followers) is reminiscent of early observational astronomy. When I read through the vast number of examples, presentations of “interesting” observations, displays of aesthetically pleasing patterns, and hear this described as “science”, I am reminded of Tyco Brahe cataloging the exact positions of points of light in the firmament. Even in modern astronomy, there is this role of the passive observer who catalogs observation after observation.

About a month ago, I was driving my family home from the movies, and I observed a fireball. My wife doubted what we had seen, but from my previous experience I was sure it was a fireball. A couple of days later, I happened upon the American Meteor Society (amsmeteors.org), and actually filled out a fireball observation report. Sure enough, within a few days I received an email indicating that three other observations corroborated my sighting. Although this was a “fun” exercise, what purpose is served by the AMS? They simply catalog observations. Meteors are just about fully understood, and certainly no set of amateur sightings is going to advance the state of our knowledge of meteors.

Returning to Wolfram’s field, what I see here is a very primitive set of observations. From both reading his enormous book, and looking through the discussion forums he has sponsored (wolframscience.com), I see very little interest in the creation of an explanatory or predictive theory for computational complexity. I see a fascination with examples, I see an overblown interest in aesthetics (which are truly meaningless, as they are purely a function of the presentation of the data generated by these systems), and just about no interest in applications of the field of knowledge to address real world problems. What I see, in essence, is an amazingly powerful failure.

Despite my grim assessment of Wolfram’s approach to the field of study he has (primarily) defined, I still believe it is a fundamental key to understanding much of the world that surrounds us.

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Thoughts on Neural Networks

I’m nearing the completion of On Intelligence, past the point where the author stops presenting his sketch of a theory of intelligence, and moves into the land of speculation. He has answered the question “what is consciousness” in a rather straight-forward manner (it is the experience of being intelligent), but has not yet tackled the question of free will.

Listening to this book has lead me back to reading articles from the rather large collection of journals I have on the topic of computational intelligence. The journals are IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks, on Evolutionary Computation, and on Fuzzy Logic. The papers in the first two journals (I have not actually read any of the Fuzzy Logic journal to date) are mostly very narrow investigations of esoteric topics in their fields. A neural network applied to this problem needed to be modified from its traditional form in such and such a manner, and either solves, or sort of solves the problem. Other papers are taxonomies of algorithms or computational structures all falling under the same heading – and the author adds some little twist to the last category he describes. These are the papers that can usually be skipped without missing anything essential – and they are all written by grad students, with some professor listed as one of the authors.

Occasionally, there is a massive article that introduces some fundamentally new concept. But (so far) even those fundamental concepts are not so fundamental as to significantly advance the field. Even rarer are articles that seek a border between theory and reality, or the rarest of all – theory and philosophy. They are in there, but they are tough to spot.

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Notes from the ARARI Meeting

Doug and I attended last night’s February meeting of Ayn Rand Admirers of Rhode Island, hosted by Ellen and Harris Kenner. This was in the usual form of dinner at a simple restaurant, followed by dessert and discussion at the Kenners’ home. I greatly enjoyed myself, as I always do at these meetings.

In content, this meeting was less social and more substantive than usual, driven in part by the presence of two college-aged newcomers from Brown University, in whom Ellen appeared to have particular interest. There was also an elderly couple present, new to the group, one of whom had been introduced to Objectivism less than a year ago. I found this fascinating, given the usual impossibility of reaching anyone over age 30 with Ayn’s ideas.

Two elements of the evening I found notable.

Typically, the Kenners select a short video of interest to show during the meeting. This month, Ellen had selected the performance of a (famous?) female wrestler on the television show “Dancing with the Stars”. The premise of the show apparently is to take non-dancer entertainment professionals, and give them a week to master a form of dance, working one on one with a professional dance instructor. These folks then compete against each other, and (in a very predictable format), one or more of the “players” in the game are eliminated each week. The clip shown was of this wrestler dancing a Samba (I think). The performance was extremely impressive, and the woman majestically beautiful. That was the reason for Ellen’s selection, as an example of performance Art in the Objectivist sense.

My reaction was one of disinterest, and of slight disgust. Reflecting on the reasons for this “emotional” evaluation, I find that I am very generally unmoved by any visual art, and particularly unmoved by performance art. This, in turn, is an unresolved puzzle to me. As for the source of the disgust, I believe it has everything to do with the nature of the television “show”. Had the dance been shown without my knowledge that it was part of one of these “reality TV shows”, I do not believe I would have experienced the disgust (though I still would have been disinterested).

My reaction (or lack of reaction) to visual art does not imply that I do not “understand” art. I can recognize the relative value of various art forms, from the horrifying (Van Gogh), to the positive aspects of the Romantic artists. But I have never been overwhelmed with positive emotion in the presence of a visual artwork.

The second exchange of interest last night was a brief discussion of what I’ll term the “harshness” of Ayn Rand and her early followers. For the benefit of the college students, the first several minutes of A Sense of Life were shown. Prior to this, as introductory background, Ellen (and others) described the general demeanor and style of Ayn (and Piekoff) through a few anectodal stories. These included the Phil Donahue appearance in which Ayn refused to answer an audience question that began along the lines of “I used to believe in your philosophy, but then I grew up”, and even a conversation between Piekoff and Harris, in which Harris was told he was a “coward”. The theme here was that Ayn and her early followers were at times sharp in their handling of other people, particularly people in whom they suspected dishonest motives. This is a characterization which I have no reason to discount, but which I feel was often justified.

Ellen then proceeded to say that more recently this sharp edge of the Objectivist leaders has softened, as they attempt to become educators and “reach” more individuals. After listening to this, I offered a “second opinion”, as I described it. In my opinion, Ayn’s harsh (others used the word “fierce”) commentary was precisely what was needed to confront individuals with Reality. Anything less, in the situations mentioned and others of similar kind, could begin to sound not only soft, but apologetic. Ayn in particular, and the Objectivism movement in general should never be apologetic for any of the consequences of the philosophy. Reality certainly will not apologize, and neither should those who properly identify it.

Ellen answered that she, as a psychologist, was often willing to “lay it on the line” with her clients, but did not believe that proper communication with those wishing to learn about Objectivism could contain this element of harshness and be optimally effective. (Please note that these are NOT Ellen’s words, this is my integration of the meaning she conveyed in her answer – I am not very good at memorizing dialogues).

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A Ramble for Stress Relief

About two weeks have slipped by without comment. The main reason is work mania. I’m currently in a three-ring circus involving three separate contracts, not to mention my nominal position as Mr Process Improvement. Travel is a new phenomenon for me – after a couple years of no travel, I’ve been on four overnight trips in the past four months, and – including a trip to Minneapolis tomorrow – I’m about to complete three trips in the span of three weeks. Overtime is now a matter of habit, and that leaves little energy for anything else. The main ring is a nightmarish contract, involving close dealings with our Coating department (from whence I emerged some 15 years ago). This department has degraded to the point of intellectual extinction, and it is both deeply saddening and madly frustrating to daily observe the results of years of neglect.

I have been reading, nonetheless. I completed the Objectivist Newsletter bound set (1962-1965), and am now reading the Objectivist “magazine” bound set. This being a bit dry night after night, I’ve added “light” reading in the form of Henry Kissinger’s autobiography of his years in Washington (only about 2500 pages in two volumes). Although I am trying to suspend judgement as long as possible, I haven’t seen much yet to make me a fan of Dr. Kissinger.

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