The Open Internet and Its Enemies


Crazyfinger makes an interesting comment on Jeff Jarvis’s blog.




Deadwood. The blogosphere of today feels like that town, with its own version of Swearengens, E. B. Farnums…


There is a lot of background to this, worth unpacking; it can all be distilled, however, to the observation that people are sometimes mean on the internet.


The long version goes something like this.  Kathy Sierra, who is an admired web design guru, Web 2.0 advocate, and co-author of the immensely popular Head First series of technical books, has a blog.  And recently people started making obnoxious comments on her blog, obnoxious comments on other blogs about her, works of Photoshop clipping involving her, and finally death threats.  She is now considering getting out of the blogosphere altogether, a dramatic instance of Gresham’s law at work.  In the meantime, however, it turns out she has some notable friends who are now trying to use their influence to do something about the netnasties.  Tim O’Reilly, who runs a successful technical press and also helped coin the term Web 2.0, proposes a blogger code of conduct to which bloggers can sign on as a mark of their bona fides.


In other milieus, this mild suggestion of self-regulation would seem perfectly reasonable, but the internet is not just any milieu.  It has mythic origins as an unregulated medium for the transmission of ideas and great hopes — democratic ideals, anarchic utopias, freedom of speech, freedom of expression — are tied to it.  The wildness of the internet contributes to its appeal.  Like the American frontier, it is a terrain where anyone can re-create themselves, and build a new culture in which they can happily dwell.


This conjoining of freedom, the Internet, the blogosphere, Web 2.0, and the Open Source movement was at one time promoted by the same people who are finding problems with it now.  In a 2006 commencement speech at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Tim O’Reilly said:




The internet has enormous power to increase our freedom. It also has enormous power to limit our freedom, to track our every move and monitor our every conversation. We must make sure that we don’t trade off freedom for convenience or security.


In his own explication of what his neologism Web 2.0 meant, O’Reilly wrote:




If an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain, the blogosphere is the equivalent of constant mental chatter in the forebrain, the voice we hear in all of our heads. It may not reflect the deep structure of the brain, which is often unconscious, but is instead the equivalent of conscious thought. And as a reflection of conscious thought and attention, the blogosphere has begun to have a powerful effect.


Kathy Sierra has been more consistent in her view of the openness of the Internet.  In 2005 she discussed the enforcement of “be-nice” rules on a forum she started.




Enforcing a “be nice” rule is a big commitment and a risk. People complain about the policy all the time, tossing out “censorship” and “no free speech” for starters. We see this as a metaphor mismatch. We view javaranch as a great big dinner party at the ranch, where everyone there is a guest. The ones who complain about censorship believe it is a public space, and that all opinions should be allowed. In fact, nearly all opinions are allowed on javaranch. It’s usually not about what you say there, it’s how you say it.


And this isn’t about being politically correct, either. It’s a judgement call by the moderators, of course. It’s fuzzy trying to decide exactly what constitutes “not nice”, and it’s determined subjectively by the culture of the ranch.


At the same time, it was also she who pointed out, quite accurately, this principle of the Internet:




If we want our users (members, guests, students, potential customers, kids, co-workers, etc.) to pay attention, we have to be provocative. We can moan all we want about how the responsible person should pay attention to what’s important rather than what’s compelling. But it’s not about responsibility or maturity. It’s not even about interest.



Provocation is in the eye of the provoked, obviously, so there’s no clear formula. But there’s plenty we can try, depending on the circumstances….


These notions of the Internet age as herald to a new form of social interaction even permeates seemingly unrelated movements like the  Agile Methodology for software development, which promotes:




Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan


Even the Open Source movement, which promotes a particular way of distributing software, includes these interesting stipulations in the license they promulgate:




5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.


6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.


By open, they truly mean open.  Given this emphasis on ideals of individuality, freedom, and equality in Internet culture, it can be seen why any suggestion that it might be in everyone’s interest to curtail any of these is seen as anathema.  It also explains the strange bind those working on O’Reilly’s proposed blogger’s code of conduct find themselves in.  Once it was agreed upon that some sort of action should be taken to deal with the netnasties, it was discovered that nothing could really be done without enforcement, and no one wants enforcement since it is a form of coercion.  Consequently, the code of conduct has turned out to be a document that offends half of the Internet by suggesting mild coercion in the first place, and then draws the dirision of the other half by having no teeth.  The draft code of conduct is currently in a state of flux, and may change radically over the next several weeks.  At one point, however, it included an article that stated that bloggers don’t take themselves seriously.  The intent of this was somewhat lost to me, but the irony was not.  Bloggers don’t take themselves seriously, and yet they feel they need a code of conduct to explicate what they believe in, including the tenet that they don’t take themselves seriously.


As it is shaping up, though, the code of conduct ressembles to a remarkable degree the bylaws of various community forums across the Internet.  What separates forums from blogs is, primarily, that forums are composed of people who consent to obey the oversight of moderators as a mechanism for regulating discussions.  Blogs, on the other hand, are visible and generally accessible to everyone.  Forums usually have mechanisms in place to eject members who repeatedly behave badly.  The Internet has no such mechanism.  Finally, forums usually only provide one with an audience of a hundred to a thousand people.  Blogs offer a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people.


It is likely for this last reason that many people have turned to blogs, rather than forums, as their main outlet for Internet discourse.  If gold was the main currency of the Old West, attention is the main currency of the new frontier — or, as advertisers like to call it, eyeballs.  The public life of many people on the Internet involves acquiring eyeballs, which can then be converted to real money if one chooses to advertise on one’s site, or else may simply be used as a mode of social promotion.  Returning to moderated forums is akin to returning to the towns back East where laws were more stringent, and safety more assured, but opportunities for advancement and transformation were limited.  The blogosphere holds out the promise that anyone can be famous if they turn the right phrase, capture the right attention, come up with the next big idea.

For these very reasons, however, the rules of a community cannot be enforced where no laws exist.  How then does justice get enforced on the digital frontier?


As Crazyfinger (who has an interesting blog of his own about Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments) suggests, an analogy can be drawn between the TV drama Deadwood and the current state of the Internet.  Had Deadwood survived another season, we might even have received a definitive answer, but as it is, we only have suggestions.


Deadwood, in the show of the same name, is a gold town in South Dakota marching slowly toward incorporation and civilization.  Alma Garret (a proxy for Kathy Sierra) has accidentally struck it rich when her lot is discovered to contain one of the richest gold veins in the region.  As a consequent, she is a victim of unscrupulous persons anxious to take hold of her, ermm, eyeballs.  Having neither reputation to lose nor character to restrain them, they act provacatively in their efforts to raise their own social status.


Throughout the series, three main ways are provided to afford Alma Garret the protection of civilization she requires, in a place without civilization.  The first is Wild Bill Hickock, who through the authority granted him by his reputation, is able to coerce people to behave appropriately.  This is analogous to the the attempt by Kathy Sierra’s friend Tim O’Reilly, as well as others, to use their reputations to shame people into agreeing to some sort of blogging standards.  Sadly, the attempt is also analogous to the letter written by the town fathers in Season Three in the local paper to turn sentiment against George Hearst, who has designs on Alma’s gold.  Wild Bill, of course, is shot at the end of Season One.  Best character on TV ever.  Nuff said.


Alma Garret’s second line of defense is Sheriff Seth Bullock.  Bullock is of heroic proportions.  Through the exercise of precise and barely restrained violence, Bullock is able to herd and intimidate those who would upset the peace of Deadwood.  Bullock is the equivalent of the sort of hero we occassionally encounter in forums and message boards, who through wit, knowledge, and force of character is able both to inspire people to behave better as well as punish with an acid tongue those who do not.  Alas, on the Internet, there are too few of these, and the few there are tend to retreat into their own preoccupations over time.  A case again, perhaps, of Gresham’s Law: bad money drives good money out of circulation.


The last option Alma Garret has at her disposal is to accede to the wishes of the villainous and violent George Hearst on the best terms she is able.  This is what Alma Garret does at the end of Season Three, rather than force a confrontation that would likely see many of the main characters killed off.  This, as far as I can see, is the only way to bring civilization to the blogosphere, and it is an unhappy turn.  Civilization, once we accept that there will always be netnasties, is only possible when we turn a monopoly of coercive power over to a single entity.  If, as O’Reilly, Sierra and others have argued, it is necessary to make the blogosphere and the Internet, by extension, obey the rules of a community forum, then something like this must occur.  The most likely way for this to happen is if one of the main social networking sites joins forces with one of the major blogging hosts, such as Typepad or LiveJournal, and compels everyone who wants to blog to sign on to their service, following the other principle of the Internet that growth engenders growth.  Having acquired a majority share of the blogosphere, such a monopolistic regime can then enforce community rules such as the ones Tim O’Reilly is attempted to formulate.  This entails the victory of Hearst and of civilazation, and the closing of the frontier.


And, I think, it is also the moral of Deadwood, if there is a moral to be found.  The frontier gives us heroes, but it also engenders monsters.  The idealized vision of the frontier must at some point be confronted with the ugliness it foments; a place of greed, corruption, mysogeny, pornography and guys who say “cocksucker”.  If we can’t find it in ourselves to embrace the ugliness along with the heroism of the frontier, then we must make the great compromise and bear the yoke which assures civility, and which, Rousseau promises, is only a light yoke, after all.

Nostalgia

The Clementinum Baroque Library, Prague

I have been looking through my library shelves, picking out books I once read for signs of what I once saw in them.  I no longer remember.  All I find are rare page corners delicately turned over.  I have never been able to pick up the habit of actually touching ink to my books, which has always struck me as a sort of desecration of the text.  Nevertheless, I do find chocolate and nicotine stains on the edges, occassionally, and from books I have not openned since college, I am often rewarded with the foul whiff of stale cigarettes smoked long ago, a scent no doubt mirrored internally as a black smear on my lungs.  As I peruse these pages with their foreshortenned corners, a sign from my past self to my future self that here there be something of note, I wonder what I used to know that I no longer know, and what I thought I knew but now I know better.  This is one such passage.

 

In ancient times the painters were supplied with their themes by the poets, though at liberty to indulge in as much decorative play as was decent within the limits of a given theme; later, the failure of the poets to keep their position at the head of affairs forced painters to paint whatever their patrons commissioned, or whatever came to hand, and finally to experiment in pure decoration; now affectations of madness in poets are condoned by false analogy with pictorial experiments in unrepresentational form and colour.  So Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in Vogue (August, 1945):

Once again we are leading Europe in the Arts …

He lists the fashionable painters and sculptors and adds:

The accompanying works of the poets are not hard to find … Dylan Thomas, whose texture is as abstract as that of any modern painter … There is even no necessity for him to explain his imagery, for it is only intended to be half understood.

It is not as though the so-called surrealists, impressionists, expressionists and neo-romantics were concealing a grand secret by pretended folly, in the style of Gwion; they are concealing their unhappy lack of a secret.

For there are no poetic secrets now, except of course the sort which the common people are debarred by their lack of poetic perception from understanding, and by their anti-poetic education (unless perhaps in wild Wales) from respecting.  Such secrets, even the Work of the Chariot, may be safely revealed in any crowded restaurant or cafe without fear of the avenging lightning-stroke: the noise of the orchestra, the clatter of plates and the buzz of a hundred unrelated conversations will effectively drown the words — and, in any case, nobody will be listening.

— Robert Graves, The White Goddess

Today, the Work of the Chariot has its own flash-enabled web page, as well as a Wikipedia entry.  There was even an X-Files episode in which it served as a narrative device. 

May Bertram

“So that I’m the only person who knows?”

“The only person in the world.”

“Well,” she quickly replied, “I myself have never spoken.  I’ve never, never repeated of you what you told me.”  She looked at him so that he perfectly believed her.  Their eyes met over it in such a way that he was without a doubt.  “And I never will.”

She spoke with an earnestness that, as if almost excessive, put him at ease about her possible derision.  Somehow the whole question was a new luxury to him—that is from the moment she was in possession.  If she didn’t take the sarcastic view she clearly took the sympathetic, and that was what he had had, in all the long time, from no one whomsoever.  What he felt was that he couldn’t at present have begun to tell her, and yet could profit perhaps exquisitely by the accident of having done so of old.  “Please don’t then.  We’re just right as it is.”

“Oh I am,” she laughed, “if you are!”  To which she added: “Then you do still feel in the same way?”

It was impossible he shouldn’t take to himself that she was really interested, though it all kept coming as a perfect surprise.  He had thought of himself so long as abominably alone, and lo he wasn’t alone a bit.  He hadn’t been, it appeared, for an hour—since those moments on the Sorrento boat.  It was she who had been, he seemed to see as he looked at her—she who had been made so by the graceless fact of his lapse of fidelity.  To tell her what he had told her—what had it been but to ask something of her? something that she had given, in her charity, without his having, by a remembrance, by a return of the spirit, failing another encounter, so much as thanked her.  What he had asked of her had been simply at first not to laugh at him.  She had beautifully not done so for ten years, and she was not doing so now.  So he had endless gratitude to make up.  Only for that he must see just how he had figured to her.  “What, exactly, was the account I gave—?”

“Of the way you did feel?  Well, it was very simple.  You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”

“Do you call that very simple?” John Marcher asked.

She thought a moment.  “It was perhaps because I seemed, as you spoke, to understand it.”

“You do understand it?” he eagerly asked.

Again she kept her kind eyes on him.  “You still have the belief?”

— Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle

On the Secret of Destiny

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Someone asked the eminent shaykh Abu ‘Ali b. Sina (may God the Exalted have mercy on him) the meaning of the Sufi saying, He who knows the secret of destiny is an atheist.  In reply he stated that this matter contains the utmost obscurity, and is one of those matters which may be set down only in enigmatic form and taught only in a hidden manner, on account of the corrupting effects its open declaration would have on the general public.  The basic principle concerning it is found in a Tradition of the Prophet (God bless and safeguard him): Destiny is the secret of God; do not declare the secret of God.  In another Tradition, when a man questioned the Prince of the Believers, ‘Ali (may God be pleased with him), he replied, Destiny is a deep sea; do not sail out on it.  Being asked again he replied, It is a stony path; do not walk on it.  Being asked once more he said, It is a hard ascent; do not undertake it.

The shaykh said: Know that the secret of destiny is based upon certain premisses, such as 1) the world order, 2) the report that there is Reward and Punishment, and 3) the affirmation of the resurrection of souls.

— Avicenna, On the Secret of Destiny (tr. George Hourani)

Jabberwocky

 

Download SAPISophiaDemo.zip – 2,867.5 KB

 

Following on the tail of the project I have been working on for the past month, a chatterbox (also called a chatbot) with speech recognition and text-to-speech functionality, I came across the following excerpted article in The Economist, available here if you happen to be a subscriber, and here if you are not:

 

Chatbots have already been used by some companies to provide customer support online via typed conversations. Their understanding of natural language is somewhat limited, but they can answer basic queries. Mr Carpenter wants to combine the flexibility of chatbots with the voice-driven “interactive voice-response” systems used in many call centres to create a chatbot that can hold spoken conversations with callers, at least within a limited field of expertise such as car insurance.

This is an ambitious goal, but Mr Carpenter has the right credentials: he is the winner of the two most recent Loebner prizes, awarded in an annual competition in which human judges try to distinguish between other humans and chatbots in a series of typed conversations. His chatbot, called Jabberwacky, has been trained by analysing over 10m typed conversations held online with visitors to its website (see jabberwacky.com). But for a chatbot to pass itself off as a human agent, more than ten times this number of conversations will be needed, says Mr Carpenter. And where better to get a large volume of conversations to analyse than from a call centre?

Mr Carpenter is now working with a large Japanese call-centre company to develop a chatbot operator. Initially he is using transcripts of conversations to train his software, but once it is able to handle queries reliably, he plans to add speech-recognition and speech-synthesis systems to handle the input and output. Since call-centre conversations tend to be about very specific subjects, this is a far less daunting task than creating a system able to hold arbitrary conversations.

 

Jabberwacky is a slightly different beast than the AIML infrastructure I used in my project.  Jabberwacky is a heuristics based technology, whereas AIML is a design-based one that requires somebody to actually anticipate user interactions and try to script them.

All the same, it is a pleasant experience to find that one is serendipidously au courant, when one’s intent was to be merely affably retro.

SophiaBot: What I’ve been working on for the past month…

I have been busy in my basement constructing a robot with which I can have conversations and play games.  Except that the robot is more of a program, and I didn’t build the whole thing up from scratch, but instead cobbled together pieces that other people have created.  I took an Eliza-style interpreter written by Nicholas H.Tollervey (this is the conversation part) along with some scripted dialogs by Dr. Richard S. Wallace and threw it together with a Z-machine program written by Jason Follas, which allows my bot to play old Infocom games like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I then wrapped these up in a simple workflow and added some new Vista\.NET 3.0 speech recognition and speech synthesis code so the robot can understand me.

I wrote an article about it for CodeProject, a very nice resource that allows developers from around the world to share their code and network.  The site requires registration to download code however, so if you want to play with the demo or look at the source code, you can also download them from this site.

Mr. Tollervey has a succint article about the relationship between chatterboxes and John Searle’s Chinese Box problem, which obviates me from responsibility for discussing the same.

Instead, I’ll just add some quick instructions:

 

The application is made up of a text output screen, a text entry field, and a default enter button. The initial look and feel is that of an IBX XT theme (the first computer I ever played on). This can be changed using voice commands, which I will cover later. There are three menus initially available. The File menu allows the user to save a log of the conversation as a text file. The Select Voice menu allows the user to select from any of the synthetic voices installed on her machine. Vista initially comes with “Anna”. Windows XP comes with “Sam”. Other XP voices are available depending on which versions of Office have been installed over the lifetime of that particular instance of the OS. If the user is running Vista, then the Speech menu will allow him to toggle speech synthesis, dictation, and the context-free grammars. By doing so, the user will have the ability to speak to the application, as well as have the application speak back to him. If the user is running XP, then only speech synthesis is available, since some of the features provided by .NET 3.0 and consumed by this application do not work on XP.

The appearance menu will let you change the look and feel of the text screen.  I’ve also added some pre-made themes at the bottom of the appearnce menu.  If, after chatting with SophiaBot for a while, you want to play a game, just type or say “Play game.”  SophiaBot will present you with a list of the games available (you can add more, actually, simply by dropping additional game files you find on the internet into the Program Files\Imaginative Universal\SophiaBot\Game Data\DATA folder (Jason’s Z-Machine implementation plays games that use version 3 and below of the game engine.  I’m looking (rather lazily) into how to support later versions.  You can go here to download more Zork-type games.  During a game, type or say “Quit” to end your session. “Save” and “Restore” keep track of your current position in the game, so you can come back later and pick up where you left off.

Speech recognition in Vista has two modes: dictation and context-free recognition. Dictation uses context, that is, an analysis of preceding words and words following a given target of speech recognition, in order to determine what word was intended by the speaker. Context-free speech recognition, by way of contrast, uses exact matches and some simple patterns in order to determine if certain words or phrases have been uttered. This makes context-free recognition particularly suited to command and control scenarios, while dictation is particularly suited to situations where we are simply attempting to translate the user’s utterances into text.

You should begin by trying to start up a conversation with Sophia using the textbox, just to see how it works, as well as her limitations as a conversationalist. Sophia uses certain tricks to appear more lifelike. She throws out random typos, for one thing. She also is a bit slower than a computer should really be. This is because one of the things that distinguish computers from people is the way they process information — computers do it quickly, and people do it at a more leisurely pace. By typing slowly, Sophia helps the user maintain his suspension of disbelief. Finally, if a text-to-speech engine is installed on your computer, Sophia reads along as she types out her responses. I’m not certain why this is effective, but it is how computer terminals are shown to communicate in the movies, and it seems to work well here, also. I will go over how this illusion is created below.

In Command\AIML\Game Lexicon mode, the application generates several grammar rules that help direct speech recognition toward certain expected results. Be forewarned: initially loading the AIML grammars takes about two minutes, and occurs in the background. You can continue to touch type conversations with Sophia until the speech recognition engine has finished loading the grammars and speech recognition is available. Using the command grammar, the user can make the computer do the following things: LIST COLORS, LIST GAMES, LIST FONTS, CHANGE FONT TO…, CHANGE FONT COLOR TO…, CHANGE BACKGROUND COLOR TO…. Besides the IBM XT color scheme, a black papyrus font on a linen background also looks very nice. To see a complete list of keywords used by the text-adventure game you have chosen, say “LIST GAME KEYWORDS.” When the game is initially selected, a new set of rules is created based on different two word combinations of the keywords recognized by the game, in order to help speech recognition by narrowing down the total number of phrases it must look for.

In dictation mode, the underlying speech engine simply converts your speech into words and has the core SophiaBot code process it in the same manner that it processes text that is typed in. Dictation mode is sometimes better than context-free mode for non-game speech recognition, depending on how well the speech recognition engine installed on your OS has been trained to understand your speech patterns. Context-free mode is typically better for game mode. Command and control only works in context-free mode.

48% of Americans Reject Darwinian Evolution

 

A new Newsweek poll reveals frightening data about the curious disjunct between faith and science among Americans.  Pundits have attributed these results to anything from poor science education in pre-K programs to global warming.  According to the poll, while 51% percent of Americans still ascribe to Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution through adaptation, an amazing 42% continue to cleave to Lamarkianism, while only 6% believe in Punctuated Equilibrium. 1% remain uncommitted and are waiting to hear more before they come to a final decision.

This has led me to wonder what else Americans believe:

The 2002 Roper Poll found that 48% of americans believe in UFO’s, while 37% believe that there has been first hand contact between aliens and humans.  25% of Americans believe in alien abductions, while approximately 33% believe that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, and that all the UFO stuff is bunk.

The 33% of people who ascribe to the anthropocentric view of the universe corresponds numerically with the 33% of Americans who opposed the recent deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq (PEW Research center poll).   According to the Gallup poll, in 1996 33% of Americans thought they would become rich someday.  By 2003, this number had dropped to 31%.  According to a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 33% of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.  A Harris poll discovered that in 2004, 33% of adult Americans considered themselves Democrats.

PEW says that as of 2004, 33 million American internet users had reviewed or rated something as part of an online rating system.  33 million Americans were living in povery in 2001, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  According to PEW, in 2006 33 million Americans had heard of VOIP.  Each year, 33 million Americans use mental health services or services to treat their problems and illnesses resluting from alcohol, inappropirate use of prescription medications, or illegal drugs.  The New York Times says that out of 33 countries, Americans are least likely to believe in evolution.  Researchers estimate that 33% of Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes.  In the same year, 33 million Americans lost their jobs.

CBS pollsters discovered that 22% of Americans have seen or felt the presence of a ghost.  48% believe in ghosts.  ICR says 48% of Americans oppose embryonic stem-cell research.  CBS finds that 61% support embryonic stem-cell research.  There is no poll data available on whether they believe that embryos used for stem-cell research will one day become ghosts themselves.

82% of Americans believe that global warming is occuring, according to Fox News/Opinion Dynamics.  79% believe people’s behavior has contributed to global warming.  89% do not believe the U.S. government staged or faked the Apollo moon landing, according to Gallup.  Gallup also found that 41% of Americans believe in ESP, 25% believe in Astrology, 20% believe in reincarnation, while only 9% believe in channeling.  A USA TODAY/ABC News/Stanford University Medical Center poll found that 5% of American adults have turned to acupuncture for pain relief.

According to Gallup, 44% of Americans go out of their way to see movies starring Tom Hanks.  34% go out of their way to avoid movies starring Tom Cruise.  Only 18% go out of their way to avoid Angelina Jolie.

philosophia perennis

In the Valentine’s edition of The New Yorker, there was a rather nice portrait by Larissa MacFarquhar of Paul and Pat Churchland, connubial philosophers of the mind-body problem at UC San Diego.  For years they have been basically decrying in the wilderness against the way that philosophy of mind was being done without any regard for the experimental data being produced by studies in neurophysiology.  In the article, Pat Churchland says this prevalent approach was the result of Anglo-American common language philosophy, which holds that the object of philosophy is to clarify our ideas by analyizing language. The problem, as she sees it, is that clarifying incorrect notions about the relationship between mind and body does not get us to truth, but rather leads us simply to have sophisticated bad ideas.  The mind-body problem had become a problematic (to borrow from Foucault), when the evidence from neurophysiology was very clear — there is the brain and that’s it.  Everything else is language games.

The article continues on a disappointed note:

These days, many philosophers give Pat credit for admonishing them that a person who wants to think seriously about the mind-body problem has to pay attention to the brain.  But this acknowledgment is not always extended to Pat herself, or to the work she does now.

 

The common language philosophy that Pat Churchland critisizes has its roots in german philosophy and the general post-Kantian diminishing of the relevance of Metaphysics.  The deathknell for metaphysics in the 20th century may have arrived with Wittgenstein’s pronouncement in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that  “[w]ovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”  There are different ways to take this, of course, one of which is to say that, as with the dove-tailing of Kant’s first and second critiques, it delimits metaphysics in order to make room for faith (or occultism, or theosophy, or whatever).

The other is that it states what is already well known, that Metaphysic is dead, and there is nothing more to say about her.  But if philosophers can no longer talk about metaphysics, then what shall they talk about?  For years in Anglo-American philosophy, they talked about language.  Instead of the relation between appearance and reality in the world, they talked about appearance and meaning in language instead.  What the Churchlands found disturbing about this was that this seemed simply to be a way to practice metaphysics underground.  Philosophers could dismiss metaphysics on the one hand, but then reintroduce it in their conversations about language instead — though insisting that all they were doing was discussing how we talk about metaphysical notions, not metaphysics itself.  Like vampire hunters to the rescue (though under-appreciated, as indicated above) the Churchlands moved in and reapplied Wittgenstein’s dictum to this underground metaphysics.  I like to think of them as latter day versions of Maximus the Confessor, pointing out that the compromise monothelite christology was in fact simply the monophysite heresy under a new guise.  Claiming that Christ has two natures but one will is no better than claiming that he has one nature.  Claiming that mind and body are the same in the world but separated in language is no better than claiming that they are different in the world, also.

The natural endpoint for the Churchlands is, then, to make our language conform to the world, in order to remove these errors of thought.

One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home.  My dopamine levels need lifting.  Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.'”  Paul and Pat have noticed that it is not just they who talk this way — their students now talk of psychopharmacology as comfortably as of food.

 

But if we cannot do metaphysics, and we should not even talk of it anymore, what should philosophers do with themselves?  Open Court Press may have found an answer with their Popular Culture and Philosophy series.  Not all the books listed below are from their press, but they do emphasize the point that if we cannot speak of metaphysics, that is if we cannot use philosophy to go beyond what we already know, then we ought to use her instead to explore those things that we are familiar with.  We should practice the perennial philosophy.

  1. The Beatles and Philosophy
  2. Monty Python and Philosophy
  3. U2 and Philosophy
  4. Undead and Philosophy
  5. Bob Dylan and Philosophy
  6. The Simpsons and Philosophy
  7. Harry Potter and Philosophy
  8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy
  9. James Bond and Philosophy
  10. The Sopranos and Philosophy
  11. Star Wars and Philosophy
  12. Baseball and Philosophy
  13. The Matrix and Philosophy
  14. More Matrix and Philosophy
  15. Woody Allen and Philosophy
  16. South Park and Philosophy
  17. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy
  18. Poker and Philosophy
  19. Hip-Hop and Philosophy
  20. Basketball and Philosophy
  21. Hitchcock and Philosophy
  22. The Atkins Diet and Philosophy
  23. Superheroes and Philosophy
  24. Harley-Davidson and Philosophy
  25. The Grateful Dead and Philosophy
  26. Seinfeld and Philosophy
  27. Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy
  28. The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy
  29. Bullshit and Philosophy
  30. Johnny Cash and Philosophy

Do Computers Read Electric Books?

In the comments section of a blog I like to frequent, I have been pointed to an article in the International Herald about Pierre Bayard’s new book,  How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Bayard recommends strategies such as abstractly praising the book, offering silent empathy regarding someone else’s love for the book, discussing other books related to the book in question, and finally simply talking about oneself.  Additionally, one can usually glean enough information from reviews, book jackets and gossip to sustain the discussion for quite a while.

Students, he noted from experience, are skilled at opining about books they have not read, building on elements he may have provided them in a lecture. This approach can also work in the more exposed arena of social gatherings: the book’s cover, reviews and other public reaction to it, gossip about the author and even the ongoing conversation can all provide food for sounding informed.

I’ve recently been looking through some AI experiments built on language scripts, based on the 1966 software program Eliza, which used a small script of canned questions to maintain a conversation with computer users.  You can play a web version of Eliza here, if you wish.  It should be pointed out that the principles behind Eliza are the same as those that underpin the famous Turing Test.  Turing proposed answering the question can machines think by staging an ongoing experiment to see if machines can imitate thinking.  The proposal was made in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence:

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A.” The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus:

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?

Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A’s object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer might therefore be:

“My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.”

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as “I am the woman, don’t listen to him!” to her answers, but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks.

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

The standard form of the current Turing experiments is something called a chatterbox application.  Chatterboxes abstract the mechanism for generating dialog from the dialog scripts themselves by utilizing a set of rules written in a common format.  The most popular format happens to be an XML standard called AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language).

What I’m interested in, at the moment, is not so much whether I can write a script that will fool people into thinking they are talking with a real person, but rather whether I can write a script that makes small talk by discussing the latest book.  If I can do this, it should validate Pierre Bayard’s proposal, if not Alan Turing’s.

Speech Recognition And Synthesis Managed APIs in Windows Vista: Part III

Voice command technology, as exemplified in Part II, is probably the most useful and most easy to implement aspect of the Speech Recognition functionality provided by Vista.  In a few days of work, any current application can be enabled to use it, and the potential for streamlining workflow and making it more efficient is truly breathtaking.  The cool factor, of course, is also very high.

Having grown up watching Star Trek reruns, however, I can’t help but feel that the dictation functionality is much more interesting than the voice command functionality.  Computers are meant to be talked to and told what to do, as in that venerable TV series, not cajoled into doing tricks for us based on finger motions over a typewriter.  My long-term goal is to be able to code by talking into my IDE in order to build UML diagrams and then, at a word, turn that into an application.  What a brave new world that will be.  Toward that end, the SR managed API provides the DictationGrammar class.

Whereas the Grammar class works as a gatekeeper, restricting the phrases that get through to the speech recognized handler down to a select set of rules, the DictateGrammar class, by default, kicks out the jams and lets all phrases through to the recognized handler.

In order to make Speechpad a dictation application, we will add the default DicatateGrammar object to the list of grammars used by our speech recognition engine.  We will also add a toggle menu item to turn dictation on and off.  Finally, we will alter the SpeechToAction() method in order to insert any phrases that are not voice commands into the current Speechpad document as text.  Create an local instance of DictateGrammar for our Main form, and then instantiate it in the Main constructor.  Your code should look like this:

	#region Local Members
		
        private SpeechSynthesizer synthesizer = null;
        private string selectedVoice = string.Empty;
        private SpeechRecognitionEngine recognizer = null;
        private DictationGrammar dictationGrammar = null;
        
        #endregion
        
        public Main()
        {
            InitializeComponent();
            synthesizer = new SpeechSynthesizer();
            LoadSelectVoiceMenu();
            recognizer = new SpeechRecognitionEngine();
            InitializeSpeechRecognitionEngine();
            dictationGrammar = new DictationGrammar();
        }
        

Create a new menu item under the Speech menu and label it “Take Dictation“.  Name it takeDictationMenuItem for convenience. Add a handler for the click event of the new menu item, and stub out TurnDictationOn() and TurnDictationOff() methods.  TurnDictationOn() works by loading the local dictationGrammar object into the speech recognition engine. It also needs to turn speech recognition on if it is currently off, since dictation will not work if the speech recognition engine is disabled. TurnDictationOff() simply removes the local dictationGrammar object from the speech recognition engine’s list of grammars.

		
        private void takeDictationMenuItem_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
        {
            if (this.takeDictationMenuItem.Checked)
            {
                TurnDictationOff();
            }
            else
            {
                TurnDictationOn();
            }
        }

        private void TurnDictationOn()
        {
            if (!speechRecognitionMenuItem.Checked)
            {
                TurnSpeechRecognitionOn();
            }
            recognizer.LoadGrammar(dictationGrammar);
            takeDictationMenuItem.Checked = true;
        }

        private void TurnDictationOff()
        {
            if (dictationGrammar != null)
            {
                recognizer.UnloadGrammar(dictationGrammar);
            }
            takeDictationMenuItem.Checked = false;
        }
        

For an extra touch of elegance, alter the TurnSpeechRecognitionOff() method by adding a line of code to turndictation off when speech recognition is disabled:

        TurnDictationOff();

Finally, we need to update the SpeechToAction() method so it will insert any text that is not a voice command into the current Speechpad document.  Use the default statement of the switch control block to call the InsertText() method of the current document.

        
        private void SpeechToAction(string text)
        {
            TextDocument document = ActiveMdiChild as TextDocument;
            if (document != null)
            {
                DetermineText(text);
                switch (text)
                {
                    case "cut":
                        document.Cut();
                        break;
                    case "copy":
                        document.Copy();
                        break;
                    case "paste":
                        document.Paste();
                        break;
                    case "delete":
                        document.Delete();
                        break;
                    default:
                        document.InsertText(text);
                        break;
                }
            }
        }

        

With that, we complete the speech recognition functionality for Speechpad. Now try it out. Open a new Speechpad document and type “Hello World.”  Turn on speech recognition.  Select “Hello” and say delete.  Turn on dictation.  Say brave new.

This tutorial has demonstrated the essential code required to use speech synthesis, voice commands, and dictation in your .Net 2.0 Vista applications.  It can serve as the basis for building speech recognition tools that take advantage of default as well as custom grammar rules to build adanced application interfaces.  Besides the strange compatibility issues between Vista and Visual Studio, at the moment the greatest hurdle to using the Vista managed speech recognition API is the remarkable dearth of documentation and samples.  This tutorial is intended to help alleviate that problem by providing a hands on introduction to this fascinating technology.

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