The Construction of Belief And Ways of Seeing in The 21st Century
Many of nature’s processes can be boiled down to chance and reinforcement; both processes that had been implemented into machines as early as the 50s. SNARC is an exploration of the human psyche. Through the use of artificial intelligence and constructed environments, the project questions the nature of our thinking and the construct that is our society. If intelligence can be engineered, what distinguishes us from AI?
SNARC is short for Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Computer, a machine rudimentary mirroring learning processes of the brain. It was designed by Marvin Lee Minsky and is considered one of the pioneering attempts at developing artificial intelligence. The idea was to create a network of artificial receptors that would learn about their environment without the need for pre-programmed instructions.
I opened the door to our apartment, slowly. I tried to be quiet so I wouldn’t wake up Giulia. She is a light sleeper and from everything I have learned she was undoubtedly already in bed. It was late, almost midnight on a Wednesday in February. Most neighbors had retreated into their apartments, probably watching Netflix or already dreaming. The only ones still outside were the dubious figures who apparently declared the corner store their territory. Our neighbor, Theresa, told me that “most of the neighbors are good people,” but didn’t want to tell me anything about the neighbors she didn’t include in that statement.
Back to the apartment. I tried to quietly open the door. For one moment, the familiar sound of the door dragging along the wooden floor disturbed the lingering silence of the building. It was an obtrusive sound and I started to realize that no matter how careful I open the door, I would eventually just prolong the nuisance.
When I stepped in, soft orange light was flooding through the frosted glass separating the bedroom from the kitchen. I noticed the shadow leaning against the window from the opposite side. So, she wasn’t asleep. Probably reading. Her grey figuration resembled that of a human but not quite. The head was large and droplet shaped, the neck long and skinny. It reminded me of the extraterrestrials Spielberg likes to conjure up; humanlike and good, eventually with a glowing finger holding healing powers.
A few weeks ago, our roommate, Aaron, saw my shadow leaning against the glass. He also described it as alienlike, but scary. I assume he is more familiar with Ridley Scott’s version of the extraterrestrial.
When it comes to scary aliens, there are two types. Type A, a vicious predator with sharp teeth and bloodthirsty mind, unaware of its actions, just reacting to fulfill its most primitive desires.
Type B, advanced and sophisticated, with a purposeful agenda, with families to feed, and intellectual cravings to fulfill. Humans are just a nuisance on the way to progress for this type of alien. They are
technologically more advanced than us. Maybe they had more time to evolve. Maybe they have been created with intent, designed as algorithmic machines perfected to aide their maker by identifying and annihilating competing civilizations.
The physical build of both types is highly specialized. One has sharp teeth to catch their prey, the other might have more human-like teeth in order to enjoy all the advantages of an omnivore diet. One walks on many legs to navigate quickly and run faster, the other is bipedal and might use its hands for crafting and communicating. Their bodies are made to excel at a specific set of tasks. Brains, on the contrary, are breathtakingly unspecific devices. They are primarily made of two parts. Neurons and glial cells. Neurons are sending and receiving signals, glial cells are supporting the neuron’s function and physically holding them in place. Even though neurons are cells with only one function — communication — they are responsible for every thought, every emotion, and every memory. But even though neurons are responsible for remembering, they don’t store information. Instead, they create and reinforce their wiring among each other. On average, each neuron connects to 10.000 others. When one receives a signal, it passes it on to its neighbors, creating elaborate activation patterns, that together form memories. Neurons are the foundation for the brain of every living being. Type A, type B, human, cat, mouse.
Darwin famously said that “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
In an effort to maintain man’s title as the pinnacle of creation, religious thinkers and scientists alike have been contemplating the characteristics that would distinguish us from other organisms. The last line of defense against nature’s lurking indifference being the mind-body problem: The philosophical and scientific difficulty in explaining how thoughts and emotions can be implemented by physical structures
such as neurons. If we could enlarge a brain enough as to walk inside it, we would only find transmitters and receivers exchanging signals, but nothing to explain any kind of perception. For Descartes, this conundrum posed unanswerable, leading him to evade the problem by appointing the mind a nonphysical substance, elevating us to a species never to be comprehended through science alone. He identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and distinguished it from the brain as the seat of intelligence. How else could a rational being, governed by logical processes, decide to act contrary to its own desires? How can a person choose a less beaten, arduous path just for the sake of doing so, if it wasn’t for a separate, immaterial instance, granting absolution from the immutable logic of nature?
Maybe — and this is a possible explanation — we don’t know what it is the human brain desires. What if, as Dostoyevsky’s underground man suggests, to act as if by independent choice, alongside love and health and procreation, is, in fact, an obscurely logical desire, brought about by some inscrutable dynamic of evolution?
The conscious mind might just be nature’s biggest riddle. We intuitively know what it is but empirical indicators of its existence are hypothetical. Global Workspace Theory suggests that what we experience as consciousness is, in fact, a reverberating of signals between related areas of the brain. Every input creates a wave sweeping through the brain, activating neuron after neuron.
I think therefore I feel like I am.
What would it mean if there was no such thing as a mind; if what feels like our most intimate, contemplative self is in fact just the bouncing back and forth of electrochemical signals between clusters of neurons? All of our decision makings would be based on what we know, see, feel, hear, smell, and desire. Everything we do would be based on what natural selection sculpted us to do.
Our brain contemplates, takes into consideration, comes to conclusions. Every time we make a choice, our brain inwardly consolidates everything it has absorbed and everything it is experiencing at this very moment. Our emotional landscape, our physical condition, the temperature, the light, the noise around us. The result is definitive, unchanging even if replayed a thousand times. The result is profoundly informed but free of free choice.
I tried to be quiet so I wouldn’t wake up Giulia.
She is a light sleeper and from everything I have learned she was undoubtedly already asleep.
Most neighbors had retreated into their apartments, probably watching Netflix or already dreaming.
The only ones still outside were the dubious figures who apparently declared the corner store their territory.
Our neighbor Theresa told me that “most of the neighbors are good people,” but didn’t want to tell me anything about the neighbors she didn’t include in that statement.
Our brains know nothing but logic because their building blocks are governed by natural law. Once we accept our brain’s inability to making fundamentally irrational decisions, we might grasp our world on its most microbial level. Everything is fundamentally predictable. Every effect has a cause. Why do I feel stressed? Why did I surf the web instead of working? Why did I choose the orange chair over the black one?
Like neurons are the building blocks of the brain, brains are the building blocks of society. Why do we want a house in the suburbs? Why do we deem humility important? Why do we show importance through golden trophies and medals? All of the answers can be found in the repeated firing of a network of neurons.
In my project, a model of a suburban house acts as a catalyst for the idea of a computational society. While it has been created by an individual — as a non-inhabitable simulacrum of the concept of a suburban house — its design decisions adhere to any of the same elusive influences as the original 1925 Sears kit-house that it has been modeled after. Medals, unlike a house, serve no practical purpose. They don’t provide shelter and usually don’t present a substantial economic asset. They are stand-ins for achievements but they aren’t achievements of their own. Without any obvious purpose, medals need to adhere to a certain set of cultural ideals in order to retain their authority. Striking colors are used often, red and blue being international favorites. They are usually made from shiny metals or are coated with them. Imprinted are men in uniforms, eagles, stars, laurel wreaths, crowns, and other symbolic heavyweights.
The neural networks we know today, don’t have the capacity to grasp context. If we present one of them with several hundred images of medals, it will start to recreate common shapes and paint them with metal colors, maybe even put a crown or a wreath on top of it. The more images we feed into the algorithm and the more time we give it to revise its results, the clearer the images will get. But what might seem like a rudimentary understanding of concepts, is in reality just a mathematical understanding of the relationships between the pixels. The network has no knowledge of the circumstances which led to the creation of the medals, nor of the meaning of the symbols it is recreating. What makes a theoretically perfect neural network so fascinating is that the inability to understand context is not caused by faulty programming, but by a lack of training data.
Computers could become brains. Brains are computers.
Neural systems are represented everywhere. Like fractals in nature, the structure of our brain is infinitely scaleable: to offices, cities, the economy, the global environment. Every human interaction, every event, and achievement has been and will be the result of some kind of neural system, and we are getting increasingly confident at utilizing them. Youtube’s Up Next algorithm, which, based on previous online behavior, serves personalised video-suggestions, routinely drags viewers down hour-long clip spirals. In a leaked video titled The Selfish Ledger, Google imagines a future shaped by big data. In the hypothetical scenario, a system creates registers as data-driven representations of individuals and then suggests ways of behaving to reach a goal specified earlier. If the goal is e.g. to live healthier, the system might suggest a scale in order to track weight data. If it can not find a scale that it deems a fit for the user, it might scour the register for interests and visual preferences, design a scale and deliver it to the doorstep. The concept would be to outsource the custody of our evolutionary agenda, analyze it, and compute a better future for everyone. This would sound like a distant vision of the future, if it wasn’t for Amazon. In 2012, they registered a patent for anticipatory package shipping. A system which might allow the company to speculatively send packages on its way before any customer has placed the order.
Thinking of free-will as a construct leads to a dangerous temptation. To surrender all accountability to fate. If we can’t decide to do good or bad, we might as well just do whatever we feel like doing. And in a way, that is true. However, believing in some kind of agency is of particular importance. Despite the proposed non-existence of free-will, contemplation is integral to our decision-making process. Being aware of the implications of careless or immoral behavior, might push our thinking into a positive direction. Me telling you that you have no control over your life might just push you to the tipping point over accepting your fate and turning into a nihilistic supervillain. So writing this last paragraph can be seen as a moral obligation, self-imposed and complied with by myself (my brain). This is an attempt to mitigate the effects of former contemplations:
We ought to use all of our energy in the wide-eyed pursuit to push our collective, reverberating consciousness to a point where the rational brain can not help but decide to be good. Reactive behavior does not grant us absolution from the choices we make.