Everybody has their faults – here are some of mine

One of the many things I adore about rock is the way it offers such a joyous sense of perspective. When I realize what a tiny blip in geological history I am, most of my troubles start to look pretty pathetic. After all, even the entire history of mankind will one day be reduced to a small brown stain in a few cliff faces. And yet, at the very same time, rocks make me feel wonderfully connected to everything that is and ever was, and I become acutely aware of the meaningful part I play in this huge and beautiful story. It’s quite paradoxical.

The other day I needed to go out for a walk to do some thinking about the brain, so I decided to stroll along the Lake Mary Fault, a few miles from my apartment. Lake Mary lies in a Graben – a block of the earth’s crust that has slumped downwards between two faults. The fault line itself is pretty dull to look at and yet, as my mother often used to reassure me, looks aren’t everything:

Part of the Lake Mary Fault. I said it wasn't much to look at!


Actually, the other side of the lake – the Anderson Mesa fault – looks rather more dramatic, but the point is that Lake Mary is on a pretty big chunk of rock that’s slipped down between two cracks. For much of geological history, the land that is now Arizona was being squished together like a concertina by unbelievable tectonic forces. That’s why the rocks beneath my feet contain fossil sea shells when I’m actually 7,000 feet above sea level. Back in Permian times these rocks were forming on the sea bed, but since then the entire Colorado Plateau has been lifted up by at least a mile and a half, as the oceanic crust of what’s now the Pacific inexorably buried itself under the continent like a cat trying to hide under a rug. The majestic Rocky Mountains owe their existence to such squishing but, as it turned out, this was merely a petulant phase this part of the planet was going through. In more recent times, relatively speaking, the forces acting on Arizona have been in the opposite direction, pulling the state apart again like books slumping on a giant bookshelf after nature took away the bookends. The Lake Mary Graben is one of the smaller pieces of evidence for this stretching.

So anyway, I was merrily wandering along this fault-line and I suddenly remembered that local geologists are predicting a significant earthquake on this fault, sometime in the next decade or two. I whipped out my trusty iPhone and looked to see how much the fault is actually moving (there’s an app for everything these days). I admit I was kind of hoping the earthquake might happen that morning, since I was in the perfect place to watch it. The answer, though, much to my disappointment, was that the fault is currently slipping by no more than 0.2mm per year.

0.2mm? That’s not even as thick as my fingernail! Admittedly, if we are expecting a magnitude 6.9 earthquake soon then there must be a lot of pent-up energy waiting to be released, and in a photo below you can see some blistered rock along the Anderson Mesa fault that gives a hint of this tension. But 0.2mm is pathetic! It occurred to me that I’d have to wait five years just to see a single millimetre of movement.

Come to that, it means there’s only been a centimetre of slip in my entire lifetime. Less than the width of a fingertip.

Five hundred long years ago, back in 1512, when Martin Luther was receiving his doctorate and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was first being shown to the public, the lake was thus a mere ten centimetres higher than it is today. In order to get to a whole metre of slip – the distance from my outstretched fingertip to my nose, I’d have to go back, not five hundred but five thousand years, to when Stonehenge was being built and the Bronze Age was just getting underway. Multiplying by ten once more takes us back to a time long before the last glaciation, when the first people were just begininng to wander into North America from Siberia and a small asteroid the size of a parking lot was hurtling towards the planet, intent on creating Meteor Crater, which is not very far from Lake Mary. All of this happened just ten metres of fault movement ago; the height of a house.

Fracture in the Anderson Mesa fault zone, showing there's tension in the rock


Standing there on the shore of the lake, looking up to the top of Anderson Mesa, where I often go running, I suddenly felt rather small. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, the land I was currently standing on was all the way up THERE. Having huffed and puffed my way up that hill at this altitude I can tell you that it’s a great deal more than ten metres to the top, so we’re talking about many times greater than 50,000 years of movement.

Of course extrapolating from today’s 0.2mm per year any further than a metre is pretty silly. It’s like saying “if present trends continue, that tree will be ten miles tall by the end of the millennium.” Present trends rarely do actually continue, and that’s certainly true for earthquake faults. But just to keep the metaphor running, let’s multiply by ten yet another time. Now we have a hundred metres of hypothetical fault movement, which is about the distance the crust under Lake Mary has actually slumped since the earth around here first cracked. This takes us back half a million years into the past. At 0.2mm per year to create a hundred metres of movement this seems such a crazy long time ago, but half a million years is only yesterday in geological terms. In fact it used to be called the Recent Epoch. That’s like, last Tuesday!

Our increasingly absurd fault analogy will give us a kilometre of earth movement after five million years. That takes us to the beginning of the Pliocene.  If we were to go back in a handy time machine, life wouldn’t look all that unusual. There would be Mastodons instead of elephants, but camels and armadillos looked pretty much the same then as they do today, and it wouldn’t be all that long before Australopithecines were wandering around Africa, tantalisingly leaving their bones behind to perplex future anthropologists. A kilometre of vertical movement along the fault isn’t actually possible at Lake Mary but it’s not at all unreasonable for faults in general. Many faults in Arizona have more than a kilometre of throw. Don’t forget that Lake Mary is itself two kilometres above the sea in which its bedrock originally formed and there was probably a good deal more rock above this point before it eroded.

Multiply by ten one more time and we reach back to fifty million years ago and a completely hypothetical ten kilometres of crustal movement – about the distance between here and the post office, traveling at a rate not much greater than the size of the period at the end of this sentence each year. Pause here for a moment and just think about that last sentence. Imagine someone setting out to post a letter and yet, a whole year later, their car has only moved by the width of a full stop. But after all these powers of ten we still haven’t even got back as far as the last possible moment in which to see dinosaurs (if you don’t count chickens).

It’s in the nature of powers of ten that they rise pretty rapidly, so including another power of ten actually skips most of the interesting stuff and lands us right in the middle of the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago. I was once lucky enough to stand on the famous Burgess Shale in British Columbia and hold in my hand some of the freaky alien animals that lived during this period but whose descendents never made it to our time. Of course, I couldn’t have stood near Lake Mary and done the same thing, since the rocks on which the lake now rests wouldn’t form for another 250,000,000 years.

One final power of ten and we get back to five billion years. Now we’re talking serious time. The earth didn’t even exist yet and nor did our sun. According to some scientists, we only have another five billion years left before the universe ends, so I guess I’d better stop with this fanciful analogy while I still have time. But my point is, a fault that slips one puny fifth of a millimetre per year really brought it home to me how astoundingly ancient this planet is. Some days I feel really old, but heck, my entire lifetime accounts for just a finger’s width of movement along the Lake Mary fault. And that’s considered “active.”

Major fault near the Verde Valley. Notice how the rocks on the very left of the picture bear no resemblance to those on the right, showing how far this side has slipped downwards. Hundreds of metres of rock have been eroded from above the right side of the fault.


The general point I wanted to make is that standing on any old lump of rock, as long as you have some idea what you’re actually looking at, really puts life into perspective. In a way it makes me feel very, very, very small. The forces that shaped Lake Mary and raised the Permian sea bed over a mile into the air, and the fact that the fossil sea shells I picked up that morning last drew breath a quarter of a billion years before human beings were even thought of, puts me right in my place.

And yet I don’t feel at all bad about feeling small. Quite the opposite, in fact. Geology also makes me feel intimately connected with the earth and its great story. There’s an unbroken thread that connects me personally to every other living thing on earth today, and to everything that has ever lived on this planet. We are all related; all the same family. And I’m today’s representative of one fine strand of that beautiful unbroken thread. Rocks enable me to feel this. No man-made thing, no religion, could ever, ever do that.

A few days before my Lake Mary stroll, I’d been hiking on a mountainside among bright red rocks that formed in an ancient desert during the Triassic period. The Triassic actually contains a very boring collection of rocks, but for very interesting reasons. There aren’t many fossils in them, partly because all the continents on earth were joined into one giant supercontinent at the time, whose interior was a blistering hot desert, but more interestingly because the junction between the Permian and Triassic periods marks a truly massive extinction event, during which up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species were wiped out, never to be seen again. There aren’t many fossils in the Triassic because life on earth had been almost competely destroyed and it took millions of years for it to crawl back from the brink.

Holding one of the Burgess Shale fossils. That dark smear is from the creature's body fluids!


But in these Technicolor red rocks that I was hiking on, I came across some thin white bands. These turned out, on closer examination, to be evaporites from the bed of an ancient, dried up lake. And in the chunks of friable white rock I found some thin, tendril-like grooves and some tiny black dots. With a hand-lens I could see that the dots were the same thing as the tendrils, just seen in cross section as they disappeared into the rock. They were black because they still contained their original carbon. I was looking at tiny plant roots, a quarter of a billion years old.

I sat down on this ancient lake bed and held these frail remains in my hand. The owners of these tiny roots had once clung desperately to life on a hostile desert lake shore and maybe even had to contend with early dinosaurs trampling all over them and crushing their leaves (they had no flowers, since flowering plants hadn’t yet evolved). Perhaps the one I was holding had only lived a year. The local earthquake faults might only have shifted by a fingernail’s thickness before this vegetation succumbed to the summer heat and left its delicate root fibres behind in the salty, preservative mud for all eternity. But nevertheless we had shared this beautiful planet, this little plant and me. We were both lucky enough to have had our moment in the sun. It had its moment two and a half million centuries ago, and here was I, two extinctions later, in the same warm Arizona sunlight, having mine.

I held my delicate fellow earthling in my hand and we communed.


Upper Lake Mary from the dam. Lake Mary fault is to the right and Anderson Mesa to the left.

Seeing the wood for the trees

A while back I wrote a piece about bonobos and chimpanzees – how different they are and how human political differences might be a reflection of these two ways of life.

One thing that struck me about bonobos is that they are separated from chimpanzees by nothing more than a river. The Congo River is apparently what separated two populations of their common ancestors a couple of million years ago and prevented them from interbreeding. One population went on to become modern chimpanzees and the other bonobos. Once their genes were no longer able to mingle, it was inevitable that they would diverge from each other in both physiognomy and behavior.

What was it about the south side of the Congo that favored collaboration and appeasement instead of dominance and aggression? I have no idea, but it needn’t have been very much at all. The tiniest difference in habitat could lead to a change in culture (such as a shift in the roles of males and females) and this in turn would have knock-on effects. Positive feedback would soon lock in these changes and drive an expanding wedge between the two populations.

In modern humans, chimpanzee-like right-wing behaviors and bonobo-like left-wing behaviors coexist, but very uneasily. Empathy, for instance, serves different purposes in each mode: “socialism” (with a small “s”) is fundamentally based upon empathy in the form of sympathy – the understanding that other people suffer like we do, and if we help and support each other we can minimise this suffering for all. “capitalism”, meanwhile, makes use of empathy to outwit other people. A CEO who can walk into a business meeting and immediately grasp what everyone around the table is thinking will come away with a better deal. The consequences of this difference are profound. To a libertarian conservative, for instance, government is an unwanted imposition – a Them who controls Us. It’s an Alpha Male to be feared, opposed and ideally got rid of. Meanwhile, from the perspective of a liberal, the government actually is us; it is the collective will; the way we look out for each other. It’s no wonder the two sides fail to understand each other. In America and the UK this tension is very strong at the moment and it sometimes makes me feel that humans must be descended from the interbreeding of two previously separated species, because the two points of view aren’t very compatible and evolution might have been expected to opt for either one or the other. Bonobos and chimpanzees certainly did.

All this came back into my mind this morning when I read this article in Machines Like Us. The gist of it is that Australopithecus afarensis appears to have walked upright on two feet, in roughly the front-of-foot way that we humans do, rather than the bowlegged way that other primates do. And they did this almost four million years ago at the latest – around the time the human bloodline separated from the chimp/bonobo bloodline.

It made me wonder what kind of “Congo river” might have separated the two lines, and it’s really not hard to imagine. Chimpanzee and orangutan feet are designed for living in trees – their mastery of the arboreal mode of transport is astounding from the perspective of a human being, whose feet are utterly useless for dangling from branches. Every time I watch a primate leap confidently from branch to branch I find myself in awe and not a little envious.

But suppose the trees thin out? There are clear limits to how far apart branches can be whilst still being able to support two hundred pounds of leaping flesh. When trees get too thin on the ground, primates have to climb down and walk. For a quick dash, followed by a rapid climb back into safety, chimpanzee feet are ideal, but there will come a point when efficient running becomes far more important than efficient climbing and leaping. There are no tigers in the trees (which is basically why primates live in them), so being a bit ungainly in the canopy is not nearly as serious as being unable to reach the safety of the next trunk. The evolutionary advantage of good running feet would very quickly be tested, once running became necessary.

And what then? Once you perform better on the ground than in the canopy, you can free your hands. You have to watch out more carefully for predators and find ingeneous ways to thwart them (even using sticks as weapons, maybe). Sex becomes different. Meetings tend to happen face-to-face instead of face-to-ass. Perhaps females carrying young need protection. You are presented with vistas that exceed a mere wall of leaves. A thousand things have suddenly changed, and each of those thousand things would go on to create a thousand other changes. And all because the trees got too far apart to leap between.

Perhaps this was all it took to make the human race? Perhaps we’re just the descendants of incompetent leapers who had to evolve bizarre and expensive tricks like literature and intelligence in order to survive on the ground when we could no longer stay hidden in the trees. As we dash (by elevator) from the safety of our office-trees to the safety of our house-trees and climb the wooden stairs to bed, on feet and hips that are very much designed for the ground, it’s sobering to think that most of what we see around us might have been caused by a bit of a lingering drought, four million years ago.

Maybe I should go for a run…

Are you a chimpanzee or a bonobo?

This interesting article points out that the hominid branch of the evolutionary tree has split several times. The earliest side-shoot led to orangutans (bless their hearts!) and a slightly later one led to gorillas. A short time after this, a third split gave rise eventually to humans, while the final division (so far) separated the other bloodline into bonobos and chimpanzees. To put it another way, bonobos and chimps are more closely related to each other than either of them is to humans, but all three of us share an older common ancestor.

Chimpanzee (Click for photo source)

The article then goes on to ask what this common ancestor was like. Was it more Pan-like (chimp/bonobo) or more Homo-like (human)?

In answer to the question, the author points out that there are actually large differences in social behavior between chimps and bonobos, despite them having a recent common ancestor. Furthermore, she suggests, we humans show both types of behavior, so perhaps the common ancestor of all three species showed this variety too. Perhaps humans retained the more generalized or variable social structure of our common ancestor, while chimps and bonobos represent specializations.

But this intriguing speculation about the distant past rather glosses over something important about our modern selves, I think. Humans are not some kind of vague mush of chimp and bonobo features. Individual people and individual cultures have a marked tendency to gravitate towards one camp or the other, and they tend to show a good deal of antipathy towards the opposing camp. Collectively, we show characteristics of both species, but individually we tend to be either chimpanzee-like or bonobo-like, as I hope to explain.

Presumably chimpanzees live in an environment in which adopting only one particular mode of life has proved perfectly stable and useful, while bonobos occupy a different niche and went the other way. Meanwhile, the environment the human line found itself in might have fallen into one of two categories: 1) neither the chimp nor bonobo extremes were ideal, and some kind of less polarized social structure worked best, as it may have done for the common ancestor; 2) the environment kept changing, so our gene pool retained the capacity for both options because it paid to be able to adopt whichever mode best suited the times. At different periods, the proportions of “chimp” and “bonobo” phenotypes would have fluctuated, perhaps through epigenetic means.

But here’s the thing: these two lifestyles are mutually incompatible. You can’t have a dominance hierarchy that is flat; you can’t have a patriarchy that is also a matriarchy; you can’t have an alpha male if everyone is going around having sex all the time. But humans seem to have inherited a choice, and it seems to me that the fight for which choice is best is still very much being fought. What I’m wondering is whether this is the very fight that is today being fought at the ballot box and the altar…

Let’s compare Pan troglodyte and Pan paniscus a little to see what I mean. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just quote from the article:

“If we start with modern chimps and bonobos, they manifest some striking behavioral differences. 1) Chimp societies are characterized by strong male dominance hierarchies, whereas bonobo societies have strong female dominance hierarchies. 2) Chimp males have been documented to engage in warfare with neighboring troops and kill troop members, whereas such behavior has not been observed in bonobos. 3) Chimp males are known to engage in infanticide, again a behavior unreported in bonobos. 4) Chimps engage in sex only when females are in estrus (“heat”), at which times males make great efforts to monopolize females and hence guarantee paternity. By contrast, bonobos engage in sex often (ten times per day has been reported) and throughout the estrus cycle, and seem quite disinterested in keeping track of paternity. 5) Homosexual sex has not been observed with chimps, whereas it occurs frequently between female and often between male bonobos.”

Mention of infanticide was what first caught my eye, because I’d just read this disturbing article about how men in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) not-infrequently waterboard their babies (yes, really) in order to instill in them a fear and respect for authority. Another sentence also caught my eye: “it’s unlikely that FLDS leaders such as her ex-husband (who is now a bishop) would follow [such new laws], much less extend legal rights to women or stop the practice of abandoning boys who are surplus in a community where the older, powerful men arrange the marriages and take multiple wives.”

Polygamy? Aggressive male dominance hierarchies? Alpha males? So what is the FLDS church, then, if not a bunch of chimpanzees? I don’t know about infanticide, specifically, only the waterboarding, but it’s not uncommon in other masculine monotheisms such as fundamentalist Islam.

The FLDS is admittedly a pretty freaky organization, but the chimpanzee qualities clearly extend to all the monotheistic religions to some degree, and the more fundamentalist they are, the more this is true. Aggressive in-group/out-group antipathy is fundamental to all, whether it be the ancient Tribes of Israel, modern Islamic or Christian antisemitism, or the Saved versus the Damned. An aggressive dominance hierarchy is a fundamental aspect of these religions too: The Judeo-Christian-Muslim god is unquestionably the alpha-male of all alpha-males, and Right-wing Christianity in the US is very much about doing what you’re told. Take this video, for instance – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually argue for a dictatorship before, but the more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes that this rather extreme video is only saying out loud something that is implicit in fundamentalist monotheistic religions today.

What about homophobia? And what about the repressive puritanical attitude towards sex generally? Fundamentalist Christianity is very much a patriarchal dominance hierarchy with aggressive and sexually repressive features. It is exactly what an alien anthropologist would expect if we were closely related to chimpanzees.

Bonobo (Click for photo source)

And yet we’re also closely related to bonobos. These are the hippies of the primate world: laid back, “make love not war” creatures who opt for a flatter, or at least less aggressive, hierarchy. Their matriarchal societies seem to have more in common with our older, polytheistic or animistic religions, filled as these are with goddesses and a virtual supernatural soap-opera of social interactions. Bonobos, I might point out, are also the hominids with the most upright gait and sophisticated tool use, if not also the most language ability. If you were to meet one of our ancient Homo ancestors, he or she would probably look more like a bonobo than a chimpanzee. Bonobos are the hippie intellectuals of the forest. This doesn’t make them better than chimpanzees – each is best adapted to a certain environment, but when we humans try to describe our species, we tend to do so in a way that emphasizes our bonobo characteristics over our chimpanzee ones. Although, to be fair, perhaps that’s simply because it’s the bonobos amongst us that tend to write the history books!

Human hippie intellectuals tend to be political liberals. Is this mere coincidence? Perhaps not. Perhaps the political Left and Right are modern-day equivalents of the dichotomy that pushed chimpanzees and bonobos into separate niches?

The terms Left and Right originated in the French Revolution. On the right of the president sat the supporters of the king – those in favor of a very strong (male or honorary-male) dominance hierarchy. These were people who preferred the old feudal system, in which all men are not equal. They thought that social capital should be unevenly distributed, so that kings and dukes held most of the wealth. They were the ones “loyal to religion.” Today, they fear God, they fear the government and they would like others to fear them. These are the people who most support aggression as a means to solve problems (e.g. by preventing gun control, supporting high military spending and condoning wars). Their lack of empathic, egalitarian tendencies makes them oppose social care programs such as healthcare. They tend to be sexually repressive, homophobic and often somewhat misogynistic. They are concerned about in-group/out-group (e.g. the Birthers, who believe against all the evidence that Obama is not American). (Oh, and who is it that is most scared that we evolved from apes? Few people know much about bonobos but everyone knows about chimpanzees, so I’m not surprised the Far Right are uncomfortable about their past; they perhaps recognize themselves in it.)

If chimpanzees ever develop really complex social organizations, this is what they will be like. Remember Planet of the Apes?

Of course, such a simplistic characterization has its difficulties. For instance, an ardent Republican might accuse the Left of chimpanzee-like infanticide, given their respective stances on abortion. But perhaps even this has its explanation. The anti-abortion lobby is driven more by emotion than reason. Witness a billboard I saw in Florida recently that said “at 18 days after conception a baby’s heart is already beating”, which it then misleadingly illustrated with a picture of a six month-old foetus, not a tiny fish-like embryo as it should have been. What difference does it make that its heart is working (rather than, say, its kidneys)? It’s a meaningless observation designed to appeal to our basic instincts, and who is it that cares most about kin? Who is programmed to appeal to the alpha-male (i.e. God) to decide what’s right? Who has the least to gain from female choice?  Hint: it’s not our inner bonobo.

Similarly it’s not simply a matter of Left and Right, because the extreme Left is just as totalitarian and “daddy knows best” as the extreme right. It’s more like the extreme right versus the center (which in the US is generally called the Left).

And why are leftists progressives and the Right conservative? Aside from a possibly greater tendency for bonobos to use tools I don’t know of anything in principle that would make one social system more progressive than the other. Presumably it’s an historical accident: we’ve just been through a couple of thousand years during which the chimpanzee model dominated, thanks in large part to Christianity and Islam. An earlier Age of the Bonobo may or may not have existed in the evolutionarily recent past (the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, say), but from the perspective of our era it seems quite new, not really gathering momentum until the 1960’s. So we would expect it to represent the progressive stance, and to make the chimpanzees amongst us feel under threat and act more conservatively.

Either way, it seems possible to me that the bonobo and chimpanzee lifestyles might offer hints about the deep, primitive impetuses that drive us humans. Mere logic sure as hell doesn’t. It might explain why our political system has two quite persistent ideologies. It may have something to say about the emotional and instinctive factors that underly the current desperate attempts of the religious right to regain their hold, and why right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity go together at all (despite much of the message of the New Testament). It may tell us what really lies underneath the present startling and troubling attempts in US politics to reinstate an oligarchy, if not a theocracy. It may explain why some people are willing to lie and deceive in order to get what they want, because cognitive dissonance is less painful than suppressing our primitive urges (which we don’t consciously understand). It may even explain why it’s virtually impossible for liberals and conservatives to understand each other at the most fundamental level. Perhaps all of this is because some of us are chimpanzees and some of us are bonobos; perhaps we are born or raised with fundamentally different assumptions.

You may have guessed that I’m biased towards the Bonobo Way of life. Perhaps the Day of the Chimpanzee is now an anachronism – an inappropriate adaptation to our new niche. I hope so. Perhaps, with luck, it will soon be over.

<fade up Imagine, by John Lennon>

Postscript: Aha! I just found this, which looks really promising: Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal. It seems that somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about may have explored this topic already. I guess I could have saved myself an afternoon’s work! I’ll read it and report back.

Brainstorm #3 – cheating doesn’t pay (sometimes)

I was going to write about self-organizing maps and associative links next but I need to make a little detour.

One of the quandaries when making a virtual artificial creature, as opposed to a robot, is how much to cheat. In software, cheating is easy, while simulating physical reality is hard. And I’m writing a video game here – I have severe computational constraints, user expectations (like the need to simulate many creatures simultaneously), and a very limited development schedule. Hmm… So let’s cheat like mad!

Oh, but… For one thing, cheating is cheating. I think Creatures was successful in large part because I was honest. I did my genuine best (given the constraints of technology and knowledge) to make something that was really alive, and this time I plan to be even more tough on myself and do my best to create something that really thinks and might even be conscious.

There’s also an intellectual reason not to cheat more than I can help, though. Cheating doesn’t pay. I’ll walk you through it.

Take vision, for instance. How am I going to handle the creatures’ visual systems? The honest, not-cheating-at-all way would be to attach a virtual camera (or two) to each creature’s head and use the 3D engine to render the scene from the creature’s perspective onto a bitmap. This would act as the creature’s retina, and the neural network would then have to identify objects, etc. from the features in the scene. Well that’s not going to happen. For one thing I can’t afford that much computer power inside a game. For another, it would involve me solving ALL the major challenges of visual science, and even at my most ambitious I can see that’s not going to be feasible between now and next summer.

At the other extreme, in Creatures I simply told the norns the category of the object they were currently looking towards. If they looked towards  a ball, the “I can see a toy” neuron was stimulated. If it was a carrot, the “I can see food” neuron lit up. It was the best I could do twenty years ago but it won’t cut it now. So I need something in-between.

But it’s harder than it at first appears. We don’t just use vision for recognizing objects; we use it for locating things in space and for navigating through space. Everyday objects can be treated as simple points, with a given direction and depth from the creature. But a close or large object extends over a wide angle of view. A wall may occupy half the visual field and the objective may be to walk around it. You can’t treat it as a point.

How should my creatures navigate anyway? The obvious way to handle navigation is to use a path-planning algorithm to find a route from here to there, avoiding obstacles. All the information is there in the virtual world for this to happen. Trying to do it from the creature’s own limited sensory information and memory seems like a ridiculous amount of effort that nobody will ever recognize or appreciate.

But here’s the thing:

Relating objects in space involves associations. Forming a mental map of your world is an object lesson in associative memory. Navigating to a target location is remarkably similar to planning, which in turn is remarkably similar to simulating the future, which is the core of conscious experience and the very thing I want to understand and implement. Come to that, navigating is very akin to servoing – reducing the distance between where I am and where I want to be. And for humans at least, this is a nested servo process: To go from the backyard to the shed to get a tool, I need first to go into my kitchen closet and get the key. To get into my kitchen I need to go through the back door, which is in the opposite direction to the shed. Then I have to go to the closet, reach for the key and then backtrack towards the shed. It’s a chain of servo actions and it’s nonlinear (the ultimate goal is reached by first moving away from it). These are precisely the things that I set out in Brainstorm #1 as the features I’m looking for. If I cheated, I might not even have seen the connection between visually-guided navigation and thinking.

In the brain, we know that there are “place fields” in the hippocampus (an older, simpler, curly fringe of the cortex). As far as I know, there’s no evidence (and it doesn’t seem awfully likely) that these “points of best representation” (see Brainstorm #2) are arranged geographically. I’ll have to catch up on the latest information, but it seems like these memories of place form a different kind of relationship and I can’t assume the brain navigates using a map in the conventional, geometrical sense. But somehow geographical relationships are encoded in the brain such that it’s possible for us to figure out (far better than any current computer game) how to get from A to B. We’re capable of doing this with both certain knowledge and uncertainty – navigating around moving obstacles, say, or traveling through unfamiliar territory. This is SO similar to goal-directed planning in general. It’s SO similar to predicting possible futures. All that differs is the kind of associative link (“is to the north-east of” instead of “tends to be followed by” or “is like”). There has to be a coherence to all this.

For a brief moment then I imagined a declarative statement written in PROLOG! God no! Please don’t make the brain a forward-chaining planner or an expert system! It’s interesting that the early days of AI were pretty close to the mark in some ways. Thinking IS a bit like deducing that “Mark is Sheila’s husband” from a set of predicates like “Mark is a man”; “Mark has a son called Peter”, “people who share a child are married”, etc. It IS a bit like a probablistic tree planning algorithm. But these are too abstract, too symbolic, too digital. Navigating through space is an analog process. Reaching out to grab an object is not a discrete, symbolic operation. Being fed a sequence of carefully chosen facts and rules is not the same as learning by experience. And yet…

The reasons why symbolic AI has failed are many and varied, and I don’t have the space or energy. But you can see that the early pioneers were heading in a good direction, thwarted only by some fundamental mistakes and false assumptions about symbol processing and abstraction. It was a fault of the paradigm and tools of both science and mathematics, not intent.

But my point here is that my creatures need to see in a very much more sophisticated way than norns did, and yet a more abstract way than true vision. And I need to find both an external (sensory) and internal (memory) representation that is authentic enough to make visually guided behavior a NATURAL PART OF thinking. The two are so close in concept that they must surely share a mechanism, or at least a set of computational principles. On the one hand this adds new problems – I have to think about navigation, obstacle avoidance, visual binding, retinotopic-to-egocentric conversion, egocentric-to-geographical conversion and a bunch of other things on top of all my other problems. On the other hand, by not cheating (too much, whatever that means) I’m now blessed with a whole new set of symptoms and requirements that give me a better grasp of what must be going on in the brain. It will help me see the central design problem more clearly. This, incidentally, is the reason why we should all be trying to create complete organisms, instead of fooling ourselves that the problem can be divided up and solved piecemeal.

I don’t know the answers to any part of this yet and there will be many future posts on visual representation, etc. But I’m glad I thought about this before starting to think more closely about associative links.

A note found floating on a pond

“…So what exactly was this superlative achievement of evolution? What was it that finally separated us from the animals and made us who we are — ducks?

Wings are not unique to us, of course, and have even evolved several times, although primitive versions of real wings – the ones that would ultimately culminate in duck wings – seem to have emerged in the early Oligocene.  But the important anatomical features that set us apart from mere animals – the qualities that make us so special – apparently didn’t evolve until much more recently. Our elegant webbed feet, for instance, are key to our dominance of the water’s surface, and our aquiline beaks enabled us to spend less time underwater looking for food, giving us the leisure to develop philosophy and mathematics. The latest DNA analysis suggests that these features are quite recent and true ducks actually split off only a few million years ago from our primitive canard cousins. This discovery is somewhat humbling, and provides yet another nail in the coffin for the unscientific but still widely held belief that we were created uniquely by Daffy, in His image, and given dominion over the fishes of the sea. This is no longer a tenable hypothesis and most educated ducks today recognize that we did in fact evolve from more primitive animals and have achieved our position at the very top of the evolutionary tree only comparatively recently in geological terms.

We ducks are beautifully adapted to our world. Other species sometimes have some interesting adaptations too, of course: snakes have lost their limbs and so can perform a rudimentary swimming motion, while certain primates have even lost their feathers (in mammals these are known as “hair” and lack significant waterproofing qualities) and hence had to evolve unnaturally bloated brains in order that they can keep themselves warm by seeking shelter. Nevertheless, nothing could be prized more highly than our beautiful voices, which are, without question, unique across the animal kingdom. Canardologists have been able to show that certain other, closely related species to ourselves, are capable of superficially similar utterances, but it is very clear that these are not true quacks. To the untrained ear they resemble quacking but they clearly lack genuine syntax and scientists regard them as at best a kind of squawk. Quacking is not possible without our highly evolved beaks, and some theorists even hold that our ability to quack is a consequence of strange quantum-mechanical interactions within the pecten on the edges of our beaks, which could not be replicated, either in nature or in misguided attempts to create Artificial Quacking, known as AQ [see Vaucanson, 1738].

The many races of ducks on our waters today are, of course, one species,  and we must celebrate our differences whilst recognizing our common heritage. To our shame it was not until 1967 that Mandarins were legally recognized as ducks at all by Mallard society, but the time has come to put aside these superficial differences. Coots and Moorhens are merely primitive cousins but the presence of our elegant beaks and our stunning voices should be enough to qualify the rest of us as equal members of Anatidae. Today our attention must be focused on more pressing issues: our profligate over-fishing in particular threatens the food chain and hence the entire planet. We need to become better stewards, or else our lakes and streams may one day become dry, worthless land and we will have to return full-time to the air, like our primitive ancestors.”

Ode to Joy

Someone I know said recently that we should all list five things each day that we’re grateful for. She’s quite right, we should, and I do. I’m always gasping to myself about the things I’m grateful for, including the person who said this and the fact that I actually wake up each morning (I’m only going to get to see about 0.00000026% of all the days there have ever been or ever will be, so each one is precious).

I’m not going to list five things here, just two that I’m particularly grateful for today. The first is that I didn’t get struck by lightning! I climbed Mount Wilson, near Sedona, and the view was so stunning that I failed to notice a mere 20-mile wide thunderstorm creeping up behind me and trapping me on the mountaintop. To one side of me was a thousand-foot sheer drop, and to the other was safety, but to get to it I would have had to cross slightly higher open ground, directly under the worst of the storm, so I’m additionally grateful that a) I was very interested in atmospheric electricity many years ago and so I understand how things behave in a large potential difference, and b) I’m only five foot ten. Anyway, I got away with it but it was a bit close for comfort. I was otherwise engaged during the really scary ones, but here’s one of the many lightning strokes that were busily seeking out my head:

Yoo-hoo! I'm over here!

Yoo-hoo! I'm over here!

The second thing I’m grateful for today is that I was born on such a beautiful planet. The other day I was looking at photos of Mars and it looked amazing. But the interesting bits were hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Earth’s a bit more complex. Here is just a small fraction of the beautiful things I saw in a mere ten square FEET on the flanks of Mt. Wilson today. You need to have “What a Wonderful World” playing in your head as you look at these. Enjoy!








Bye darling


Isn’t human behaviour wonderful?

This is just a trivial post but then I’ve had a lazy afternoon, so what do you expect? I went downtown, as I usually do of a Sunday, and watched some dancing. But I got there not long before it finished, so I strolled up into Thorpe Park, to watch people instead.

There were no murders going on, this being Flagstaff, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to cringe or be envious of the guy singing and playing guitar at his girlfriend, so I watched a foursome, milling around near a car. I’ll call them Janet and John, and Peter and Jane.

Janet and John were approaching sixty, I’d say, and Peter and Jane were in their thirties. Jane was carrying a little dog, which was a useful distraction to all (a function usually served by babies). John, the older man, wore a cowboy hat and a moustache that he must have bought to go with the hat. That’s about as complex as he got. Janet, his wife, was more interesting. She had a sort of “nursey” air to her, but she was incredibly awkward and nervous, emitting little giggles to fill the silences. (She had those shoulders, Holly!) They were obviously Jane’s parents, and they hadn’t seen her for ages. This visit had clearly not been long enough by a factor of at least a thousand, but hell, Peter has his limits.

The thing is, they were all trying to say goodbye, but they couldn’t make it happen. Each would say a little piece and make sure it had a good trajectory, ending on the fundamental tone. Perfect. A momentary silence while everyone took their places for the finale, and then Peter would give Janet a hug. The trouble is, Janet would then giggle, shrug her shoulders and say how nice it was to have had more than one hug today. I think she got four in the end, so she must have been thrilled.

But her voice would always tail off, because she really didn’t want to see her daughter go. And that left the tune unfinished, so John, ever gallant, would then step in and say something to cover the gap – crack a joke, probably, given the way everyone took a conspiratorial step forward into a huddle and then erupted backward again. And that would give Jane time to think of something to say, or the dog would make a contribution and Janet would tickle him under the chin. And everyone was back where they started.

Peter made a solid move towards the car, and Jane put the dog inside. But she didn’t follow through, and came back out to appease poor Janet’s wistful look. And so then Peter would have to give her another hug (“Goodness, that’s THREE hugs I’ve had today!”) and the dance would start all over again.

I watched this for about half an hour and I felt so sorry for them. They were poised on the threshold of leaving but just couldn’t climb that last step. So I stood up, yawned, dropped my coffee cup into a trashcan and started to walk off, stage left. And immediately, Peter leapt for the driver’s door, Jane got in, Janet got a grip and John’s moustache breathed a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.

SOMEBODY had to leave or they’d have been there still.

There’s no point to this post, I just wanted to remark on how beautiful and complex human communication is, and how subtly poised and balanced. What a wonderful world!