winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
Only recently, thanks to the computer, has it become feasible to solve real, nontrivial problems of reasoning from incomplete information, in which we use probability theory as a form of logic in situations where both intuition and "random variable" probability theory would be helpless. This has brought out the facts in a way that can no longer be obscured by arguments over philosophy. One can always argue with a philosophy; it is not so easy to argue with a computer printout, which says to us: "Independently of all your philosophy, here are the facts about what this method actually gives when applied."

Daaamn. That's some gettin' told right there.

The above quote (emphasis added) is from the eminently readable Probability in Quantum Theory by E.T. Jaynes, which presents a critique and alternative perspective on the role of probability within quantum mechanics. If you've any interest in philosophy of science or the philosophical disputes between frequentism and Bayesianism, even if you've no real knowledge of physics, then I highly recommend reading it. While the frequentist vs Bayesianist argument is well-known of, the details of what is actually at stake are less well-known and often quite subtle. I think the author does a good job of bringing out and highlighting what the argument is about, and why it is relevant to the future of science (especially physics).

For my part, I've been well indoctrinated into the Bayesian philosophy. This semester I'm taking a course on frequentism, or rather on "experimental methods" as they call it. A professor here has been pushing hard for Bayesian methods in behavioral sciences, and the professor of my class delights in teasing him about it (though he admits to no investment in the philosophical debate). It's been a very long time since I've seen the frequentist perspective, and I'm always of the opinion that it's good to keep an eye on one's philosophical enemies. I've known that frequentism has long dominated the behavioral sciences, but I must shamefully admit that I've attributed this to them being "soft" (even for as much as I identify with my undergrad training in anthropology and humanities). However, coming from machine learning where Bayesianism is de rigueur, one thing I found startling about the article is that, apparently, in physics too it's the frequentists who've dominated the conversation for decades. Indeed, as Jaynes portrays it, it's the frequentists who ousted Laplace, rather than the other way around as is portrayed in AI/ML circles.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

For those who haven't heard, John McCarthy (1927–2011) (of Lisp and Artificial Intelligence fame) passed on last night.

Edit: And since I hadn't mentioned it, Dennis Ritchie (1941–2011) (of C and Unix fame) passed on a short while back.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
Hat-tip to Homasse:

Gamers beat algorithms at finding protein structures

Today's issue of Nature contains a paper with a rather unusual author list. Read past the standard collection of academics, and the final author credited is... an online gaming community.

Scientists have turned to games for a variety of reasons, having studied virtual epidemics and tracked online communities and behavior, or simply used games to drum up excitement for the science. But this may be the first time that the gamers played an active role in producing the results, having solved problems in protein structure through the Foldit game.

As I commented there: working in natural language processing, one of the big tasks is manually analyzing the outputs in order to figure out where the maths went wrong and how to add human-intelligence. Some folks have recently started using Amazon's Mechanical Turk for this kind of thing, but I think the game setting is a lot more enticing than paying folks a penny per task. Especially once you throw in the MMO features like player ranks and special challenges.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

As the good Tom Waits would say, I want to pull on your coat about something. As I've been revamping my cv and hunting for advisors for the next round of phd applications, I've begun once again lamenting the fragmentation of my field. I suppose I should tell you what my field is but, y'see, that's where all the problems lie: there's no such field. As diverse and Renaissance as my interests are, they're all three sides of the same coin: language, sociality, and intelligence.

So, first things first. Evidently language is a diverse topic, but I mean to focus on formal and theoretical matters, the quintessence of what makes what we call "language". The early work of Chomsky to the contrary, there's an unfortunate —though entirely understandable— break between the study of formal languages and natural languages. On the natural side I'm interested in morphology and its interfaces with other components of language (morphophonology, morphosyntax & scrambling, morphosemantics & nuance). On the formal side I'm interested in the design of programming languages, ontologies, and interfaces. And on the middle side I'm interested in grammar formalisms like TAG and CCG as well as the automata theory that drives these and parsers and machine translation.

Sociality is also a diverse topic, without even accounting for the fact that I'm abusing the term to cover both the structure of societies and the interactions within and between them. Here too there's an unfortunate —though entirely understandable— break between the humanities and the sciences. In the humanities I'm interested in anthropology, gender/sexuality studies, performativity, the body as media, urban neo-tribalism, and online communities. More scientifically I'm interested in nonlinear systems theory, information theory, chaos theory, catastrophe theory, scale-free networks, and theoretical genetics. And again, on the middle side there are issues of sociolinguistics: code switching, emotional particles, uses of prosody, politeness and group-formation; and evolution: both evolutionary computation, and also cultural and linguistic evolution.

And as you may no doubt be gathering, studies of intelligence too are vast and harshly divided— between wetware and hardware, or between cognition and computation if you prefer. Language is often pegged as a fundamental component to humanity's ability for higher thought, and yet even despite this the majority of linguistic formalisms neglect questions of how cognitively realistic they are as models of actual human linguistic performance. Over on the side of artificial intelligence and artificial life there's a rift between those studying complexity, adaptation, and emergence vs those trying to hammer thought and knowledge into the rigid formalisms of logic and probability. Sandwiched between these conflicts are the war-torn battle grounds of machine translation, language learning, and language acquisition.

So how many fields are involved in this tripartite Janus of interfaces, systems, and agency? To make a short list: linguistics, mathematics, computer science, cultural anthropology, gender/queer/feminist studies, women's lit, systems science/systems theory, cognitive science, social psychology, computational biology, artificial intelligence/artificial life/machine learning, and given the vagaries of universities often electrical engineering and philosophy for good measure. How many is that? Too goddamned many, that's how many. And to top it off, all of them are interdisciplinary to boot. Now you may be saying to yourself that I'm trying too hard to unify too many disparate discourses, and perhaps it's true, but there is a cohesion there which should be evident by the extent to which each of those many fields crosscut these three seemingly simple categories.

Systems theory gets it right when they say that the current state of science is burdened by its focus on fundamentalism. )


1 Apr 2006 02:46 pm
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

Quick update. The biomod was a success. According to the param this vessel should last for another 70 years if I don't upgrade before then. My body should be coming to town this week via the Seattle starport, I just figured I'd stop by beforehand to visit a few people before they head off.

I'll be here until 2106sol.098ter, then I need to stop by Venus for some maintenance. It seems the terraforming schedule needs some adjustments as the aogi are overpowering the development of the kuoi. I figure I'll make some personal observations and then tell Elehayym what changes to make. It shouldn't require any downtime and shouldn't affect her personality this time.

And then I'll be heading outsystem again. If time permits, I might stop back by once my vessel is on the flight, but that'd only be for a few hours unless I want to get stranded or get home via dattrans across the anniq. Let me know your schedules if you want to meet up while I'm out here. I should be visiting with Elehayym again in a couple years anyways though I might be back before then, sine corpore, natch.

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