Sunday, September 16, 2007

Alchemy and AI

For over four millennia the alchemists sought to transmute the elements. It is only from the modern vantage point provided by chemistry and physics that the we can clearly see how foolhardy their quest was. The alchemists believed the secret to the success that eluded them was a philosophers stone. It was thought that such a stone would allow the base elements to combine to achieve their goals of producing silver and gold (and eternal youth, to boot).

Although, given their methods, their goal was impossible, they did develop quite a few useful results (gun powder, paints, ceramics, and booze, to name a few).

The folly of the alchemists was clearly that they were operating at the wrong granularity. They worked at the level of atoms and molecules while their quest could only be achieved by the manipulation of protons and neutrons. However, no one can blame them for starting with the se most obvious ingredients. These were the things they could see, smell, taste and touch.

AI and Ontology are presently operating under a similar dilemma. Here the goal is the mastery of intelligence via endowing it to machines. Like the alchemists, practitioners of AI and semantics have largely dealt with the most obvious ingredients of thought - symbols. However, it is clear, at least to me, that symbols are at the wrong level. Symbols and symbol manipulation are the end game of intelligence; they are not the elementary particles.

If symbols and symbol manipulation were the end game, it seems clear to me that symbols would be much more pervasive throughout the animal kingdom. You would certainly see other intelligent creatures (rats, apes, dolphins) engaging in symbolic reasoning. If symbols were primary then there would be an obvious way to translate the cacophony of our brain's neural firings into symbolic thought. At present, this has not been the case.

If symbols are not elementary then what is? I think the only answer can be numbers. Now, before blasting me with the ridicule that is so obvious to anyone who has studied modern mathematics, allow me a moment to explain.

Yes, it is quite clear that modern mathematics is symbol manipulation. So numbers are symbols. To claim that numbers are more primitive than symbols while also acknowledging numbers as symbols would seem to place me on the shakiest grounds. Fully aware of my peril, I shall continue forth.

Symbols are used in mathematics (number theory, arithmetic, algebra, etc.) because they are the only vehicle open to humans. Just as protons and neutrons were out of reach of the alchemists, so to the true nature of numbers is out of our reach. What is this true nature? 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 are just glyphs. They have no special status in nature. That much is uncontroversial. Given appropriate rules (called mathematics) we can use them to build models that are useful in describing things that we measure. However, what we measure are magnitudes. Our brains perceive magnitudes across various modalities and we are trained thorough the study of mathematics to represent those magnitudes as numbers (symbols). But the magnitudes are more fundamental than the numbers used to model them.

The key property of magnitudes is that they stand in relation to other magnitudes. Differences in magnitudes can be perceived. Further, magnitudes of one modality (say, hue perception) can be discriminated from magnitudes of other modalities (say, temperature perception). This is not true of the symbols "red", "blue", "warm" and "cold". Yet, it is by using using various equivalent formalism for manipulating symbols - all reducible to first (or higher) order logic - that modern AI and ontology operate. Like the alchemists, important results are achieved but the true nature of intelligence and consciousness remain elusive.

I must now kindly ask my reader for a bit of sympathy toward my plight. I am suggesting something to be the case without having the proper tools to show it is in fact the case. It is not unlike the problem faced by the first atomists. Woe is me. However, it is at the root of these difficulties and seeming contradictions that my intuition tells me the answers to the mysteries of intelligence and consciousness lie. None of the alchemists lived to see atoms of lead split and reconstituted inside of accelerators to produce gold. Based on the acceleration of man's progress in our modern era, I am hopeful that I will live to see the "splitting of symbolic intelligence" to its more primitive state.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are thinking of number in the wrong way it is not magnetued but vibration. From earlyest time, Number was seen a the foundation of everything. It was from that phylosophy that Alchemy was formed. The troble is if the cosmos is formed from pure number as ancient Greek Phylosophers blelived, How would you manipulate it?
j B