Thursday, June 28, 2007

Manifesto for a Material Study of Learning

Continuing in the vein of "winding down the school year" the EES met on June 26 (there was a BBQ on Sunday so we rescheduled) to talk about a 24 page final paper, written by Anna, full of [insert better example than this here] notes that was dense enough to expand into a book if it's not broken into six papers instead :-)

The abstract:

I propose a program for seeking thick, data-rich analogies between learning systems. The goal is to understand why evolution is able to design species; why animals are able to acquire useful behavior patterns; and why communities of scientists are able to find predictively useful theories. Each individual system is already being studied by a large number of system-specific specialists. My proposal offers a framework for enrolling these system-specific research efforts into a single, larger endeavor.

Specifically, I argue that each of the above systems can be understood as a procedure of natural selection undertaken on a certain kind of fitness landscape with a certain kind of variation-making. I argue that if we make the fitness landscape and variation-making central objects of study, we will be able to move past the thin cross-system models that have previously been offered to make rich contact with the data.

Having talked about the paper, the abstract appears especially abstract relative to the content of the paper. For example, there's no mention in the abstract of the No Free Lunch Theorem or Occam's Razor or Grue or...

Friday, June 8, 2007

Games as Symbolic Bottlenecks

As UCSD's quarter winds down, the Emergent Epistemology Salon met on June 3, 2007 and talked about the ideas in the final paper of Justin, one of our members. The conversation was about "games" taking the idea very broadly to include actual games like chess but (fuzzy definition ahead!) to also include nearly any interaction that can be simplified to the point that non-human participation starts being feasible. Games offer their participants "symbolic bottlenecks".

Three snippets from a very early draft of Justin's writing:

Groups of humans give rise to a vast array of organizational patterns found in no other system in the natural world. This has, of late, given rise to the suggestion that humans implement "group intentionality" in one way or another.


Chess is primarily a person-person interaction taking place over a board in physical space. It can also be played through the mail, by phone, over computers, or simply between persons calling out moves. Meaning is created during a chess game by the rule-constrained manipulation of pieces on a board, however these are instantiated. The game of chess organizes human behavior in complex and interesting ways across space and time.

The last century saw the rise of computerized chess engines. Computers, though hideously inefficient and unable to do lots of other things, now kick ass at chess.


Traditionally, language games are viewed as giving rise to exclusively human-human interactions. Certainly human-human interactions form a large part of our game-playing activity. But there is nothing essential to the structure of most games that requires a human opponent/participant. And even if this was a requirement, groups of humans can and do participate in games all the time.

Maybe more importantly, humans care about and invest in games (consider the parliaments of the world, religions, etc). If we find ourselves struggling in a game with entities that are not obviously reducible to one agent (the phone company, NIMBY, Quebec), or entities that are non-human (the phone company's automated devil box), we care, because the moves in the game matter to us.

here is a sense in which our investiture in games opens the door to intervention by entities other than individual humans.

If we are committed to the belief that many meaningful human activities are best understood as game-like interactions, and we discover non-human entities that can play our games with us (or even impose them upon us), what are we to make of the activity that results from our interaction with these entities? Is it meaningful in the same way human-human interaction is meaningful? What does it say about the other party? What does it say about us?