Empty Headed You

You don't need a brain.
You don’t need a brain.
There’s a lot to unpack here today so take a moment to get some coffee, maybe a snack, and get comfy. For years and years we’ve been hearing that the human mind is like a computer. It takes in data, processes it, and reaches logical conclusions. In a perfect world at least. Scientists argued that the same “garbage in, garbage out” dilemma that faces computers also affects humans. In many ways this point of view makes sense. After all, humans build computers on the principle that they can do many things humans can do, only faster. The one thing they can’t do, at least thus far, is grasp abstract thought. Here’s the problem. There are humans who can’t grasp abstract thought and they succeed more than you might think. They are Autistic. Many tech companies, realizing that those funny traits you laughed at in Rain Man are actually the exact traits they need to do all the complex and theoretical math that makes the Internet run.

Tom Worstall, full link above, spoke with several such companies about why this trend is increasing.

I will admit to a certain surprise though for I’m a little shocked that people haven’t been doing this before. We all know that serious technical chops are in short supply while those who can smile their way around social problems are two a penny. And the research into autism from Simon Baron Cohen (no, not Sacha, ie Ali G, but his cousin at Cambridge University) has long been that there’s an overlap between that autism spectrum and the ability to concentrate on certain sets of tasks.

Baron Cohen’s basic idea is that there’s a spectrum of brain types, from the empathic (what might be called in a genderist or sexist way “female”) through to the systemising brain (or, same disclaimer, male). No, it does not even imply that all females have that empathising brain, nor all males the systemising. Only that we would expect the distribution of women to be richer at one end of the scale and of men at the other. He points out (in fact one of his pieces of research he touts as proof of the contention) is that engineering requires that systemising type of brain and thus we’re not surprised to find more men in it. He goes further too, looking at the families of those who do engineering and looking for signs of autism in the wider family. Among both men and women doing such engineering courses there does, at least he says there is, seem to be more autistics in their wider families than in the general population. This is part of what underpins his description of the autistic brain as being to the edge of the spectrum, way over beyond systemising.

Please note that this description does not mean disabled, just differently abled and not in the politically correct manner that, say, the psychotic are sometimes described as having anger management issues. It’s simply a different set up, a more extreme form perhaps, in the brain and this has both its pluses and minuses just as does any other variation around the norm that humans are subject to.

Baron Cohen goes on to note that there’s a significant overlap between the skill sets of many on the autism spectrum and the skill sets required to do quite a lot of the harder parts of computer engineering. That socially maladroit geek who will tinker with a machine until they understand how it ticks: that’s the beginnings of that spectrum whether it’s a male or female doing it. And just for clarity, no, this doesn’t mean that every computer engineer is autistic, nor that all with autism could or should be writing code as acolytes of Richard Stallman.

The ability to focus on single tasks is something a computer does very well. So why isn’t it something humans do naturally? The answer is not going to make you happy. You see, far from having minds like computers, it may be more accurate to say we have minds like biceps.

Follow me here.

When you were a child you learned your ABC’s. You did not see them once, have them completely memorized, and move on. That is something a computer, and some autistics, can do, but not the rest of us. Nope, we learn them through a variety of methods which involve repetition. Many mnemonic devices, those are things that help you remember stuff, include simple songs and visual stimulation such as pictures or videos.

Back to biceps.

If you want to learn a physical task you need to repeat it over and over. From playing guitar to learning gymnastics to hitting a curve ball, you need to put serious time into it. What that means is that your brain ins’t remembering the task, it needs to be taught.

Well, duh, you’re saying, that’s why people say “practice makes perfect.” Yes it does. But why do we need to practice if our brains are like computers?

Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California, author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, says it’s because we don’t actually have memories at all.

No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

Our shoddy thinking about the brain has deep historical roots, but the invention of computers in the 1940s got us especially confused. For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.

To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies. Thanks to evolution, human neonates, like the newborns of all other mammalian species, enter the world prepared to interact with it effectively. A baby’s vision is blurry, but it pays special attention to faces, and is quickly able to identify its mother’s. It prefers the sound of voices to non-speech sounds, and can distinguish one basic speech sound from another. We are, without doubt, built to make social connections.

A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to changerapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’). On my computer, each byte contains 8 bits, and a certain pattern of those bits stands for the letter d, another for the letter o, and another for the letter g. Side by side, those three bytes form the word dog. One single image – say, the photograph of my cat Henry on my desktop – is represented by a very specific pattern of a million of these bytes (‘one megabyte’), surrounded by some special characters that tell the computer to expect an image, not a word.

Computers, quite literally, move these patterns from place to place in different physical storage areas etched into electronic components. Sometimes they also copy the patterns, and sometimes they transform them in various ways – say, when we are correcting errors in a manuscript or when we are touching up a photograph. The rules computers follow for moving, copying and operating on these arrays of data are also stored inside the computer. Together, a set of rules is called a ‘program’ or an ‘algorithm’. A group of algorithms that work together to help us do something (like buy stocks or find a date online) is called an ‘application’ – what most people now call an ‘app’.

Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physicalmemories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?

Like I said, there’s a lot to unpack.

Now, why is this important? Think about it. We have created an entity, computers, who do not, and can not, ever think like us. They may as well be aliens from another world when it all comes down to it. And that means they will never understand us. If they can never truly feel empathy for humans what makes humans think these beings are ever going to relate to, or assist, us?

And don’t this is some far off hypothetical possibility.

Vivek Wadhwa, over at the Washington Post, says the future is now.

In the fields in which it is trained, AI is now exceeding the capabilities of humans.

AI has applications in every area in which data are processed and decisions required. Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly likened AI to electricity: a cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything. He said that it “will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now ‘cognitize.’ This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.”

AI will soon be everywhere. Businesses are infusing AI into their products and helping them analyze the vast amounts of data they are gathering. Google, Amazon, and Apple are working on voice assistants for our homes that manage our lights, order our food, and schedule our meetings. Robotic assistants such as Rosie from “The Jetsons” and R2-D2 of Star Wars are about a decade away.

And who will those beings relate to? And I do mean “beings” not machines. They will be self aware. And they will not be all that interested in us. Other than in a form of intellectual curiosity. No, they will only relate to beings similar to themselves. Which brings us back to where we started; Autism.

I’ll let Stasia Bliss fill you in.

One out of every 38 children born today is said to have autism. Autism, as it has been experienced by many, is an overwhelming condition which no doubt, takes a lot of attention and energy from parents and family.  Could autism be more than a neural development disorder which inhibits social interaction and ‘normal’ growth? What if autism was ahead of it’s time and instead of a disorder, a signal to a great leap in the evolution of consciousness?   Rev. Noel McInnis, diagnosed with a mild case of autism himself a number of years ago, author of numerous philosophical and spiritually based books and writings muses in this direction.

In one of Noel’s blogs titled “Autism’s Ultimate Cause: An Evolutionary Make-over” he begins:

I intuitively feel that the ultimate cause of autism is an emerging subjective evolutionary makeover of an outmoded, non-sustainable order of consciousness with which we objectify people, animals, the environment, and reality in general.  In other words, autism may be a NEW and SUBJECTIVE order of consciousness that cannot accommodate the prevailing old DISorder of consciousness that tends to totally objectify our experiencing of reality. Accordingly, it is so-called “neuro-normalism” that tends to be disordering of our consciousness, while autism is an evolutionary correction thereof – a re-education of our human sensibilities.

A re-education of our human sensibilities – wow.  Ponder that for a moment. Rev. Noel McInnis is not alone in his view of autism.  Lori Shayew, creator of ‘The Gifts of Autism’ website asks a very similar question – “What if the autistic state of mind and way of viewing the world represents, not a defect that we must correct, but an evolutionary step up? What if millions of autistic individuals are here to show us neuro-typicals a different way, a way of living that can potentially be more spiritually satisfying, more deeply connected, more co-creative and profoundly meaningful than we can imagine?”

We already have trouble interacting with people on the Autism spectrum, but they have no trouble interacting with our digital progeny. Simply put we are rapidly coming to a point where humans, as currently conceived, are no longer relevant. Certainly neither autistic people, if they could truly become self sufficient, which they could with the aid of computers, nor computers actually need us.

Whether or not that’s a good thing I’ll leave to wiser minds than mine.


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