AI chat bots the easy way

tl;dr: The only thing you need to do to make a convincing AI chat bot is not to fuck it up.

The goal of sentient AI research has been, in a sense, nearly universally misconstrued: the goal is to make something that we experience as sentient, not to make something that is sentient in an absolute sense. This is the only meaningful goal, really, because no one has direct access to anyone else’s sentience; the existence of any sentience or intelligence other than your own is only something you infer, not perceive.* In fact, note that the only widely used definitional test for intelligence is the Turing Test, which is, in fact, a test for precisely the criterion I’m stating here: whether other humans perceive the test subject as intelligent, not whether the test subject is objectively intelligent.

Why is this? Well, to start at the beginning:

Our brains are designed to take incoming sensory information and find patterns in it and organize it into percepts. Additionally, we have special circuits dedicated to finding percepts of conspecifics (i.e. other creatures like ourselves) and other non-conspecific creatures, because that was especially survival-relevant during our evolution.

Two other processes work together here. Matching a pattern is intrinsically rewarding (that’s why we like puzzles, for example). And, perceptual circuits are tuned to be overly “grabby” because it’s better to mistakenly think we saw a hungry predator and then realize we were wrong, then to mistakenly think we didn’t see a hungry predator and then realize we were wrong.

Because of those two things, we naturally anthropomorphize. To put it another way, anthropomorphization isn’t some extra weird hyperactive imagination that primitive peoples had (which is how it is traditionally presented), but rather represents the normal functioning of our brains in the context of the information that is available in a given circumstance. One good example is the Heider-Simmel Illusion, widely studied in psychology and neuroscience. Another is ELIZA, a shockingly simple chat bot created in the early 1960s based on Rogerian psychotherapy principles, which despite its simplicity is said to have convinced some people to share some of their innermost thoughts and feelings.

So, if you present someone with a system that can be perceived as an intelligence, it will be… unless some other factor intervenes to prevent that from happening. (If the patterns almost line up with a percept of a human, but are slightly off, then one experiences what’s known as “uncanny valley”. )

An important consequence of this is that the lower the bandwidth, the easier it is to be convincingly intelligent. ELIZA was convincingly intelligent when the sensory and conceptual bandwidth was limited to the territory of only a Rogerian psychotherapist communicating through a teletypewriter. A savvy modern person, expecting a cheesy chat bot, will have that expectation almost instantly confirmed, the illusion broken or never formed; a person in the 1960s encountering ELIZA unexpectedly, with no context for what a responsive terminal might represent other than another person, fell into that percept and in some cases stayed there quite a while. Indeed, the strategy behind Eugene Goostman, a bot widely but naïvely reported to have “passed the Turing Test” in 2014 was simply to reduce the bandwidth of available interactions by presenting the character as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy with little cultural knowledge in common with the judges.

Thus, one major obstacle to a successful AI chat bot is that if the product is released and people expect a fully general intelligence, the conceptual bandwidth of the experience is too great and people will quickly find the holes.

Another obstacle stems from the “unless some other factor intervenes” caveat. As I said above, someone in the 1960s stumbling across ELIZA with no context to perceive an interactive conversation as originating with anything other than a human, will have that perception reinforced and will stick with it (for a little while, at least). But a person approaching ELIZA with the attitude “I know this is not intelligent, I’m not going to be impressed until it convinces me” is not going to be impressed. The key here, though, is that that’s not a problem with AI; that’s just how our perception of intelligence or sentience works. In Capgras Syndrome, a patient physically recognizes the appearance, voice, and other physical characteristics of a familiar person, but becomes unable to recognize their personality or sense of personhood and so believes they are an impostor or “body snatcher”. They will be quite explicit in admitting how convincing the substitution is, even admitting that specific speech patterns, facial expressions, personality quirks, etc. are consistent, but nevertheless the percept of “this is this person” never forms. (Well, never is an overstatement; people often recover from this delusion eventually.)

Now imagine that, for whatever reason, you believed that you were about to receive a text message from a chat bot and engage in a conversation, when in fact there was a live person at the other end of the line. How many text messages would it take for you to be guaranteed, 100% convinced that it was a person and not a bot? If you started out believing it was a bot, and you’re familiar with the idea of text bots, then I guarantee you that even if you came around quickly to the opinion that boy, this is a pretty good bot, I didn’t know they had become so advanced, it would still take a long time for you to fully change your mind and believe it was a human—or you might never! (You can try out a variation of this theme here.)

The point of these thought experiments is that the perception of an Other as sentient is, to a large extent, determined by one’s expectations. Although the human mind is promiscuous in recognizing sentience everywhere, overcoming an initial set of expectations about a percept of sentience (or non-sentience) is very difficult. And this poses another obstacle to the development of a convincing AI chat bot.

In conclusion, the task of AI can be reframed as the task of making a system that is perceived as being intelligent rather than the task of making a system that is intelligent in some objective sense, and this framing of the task is more consistent with the criterion that is already being used for success, as well as being more consistent with how the brain actually works. Framed thus, the task can theoretically be accomplished quite simply (not necessarily easily, but simply) if one is able to sufficiently narrow the scope of the interactions. However, it is a very difficult task to overcome a prior belief that the bot is unconvincing; and behavior flaws which clearly do not fit into the parameters of the percept also can quickly damage the illusion.

*Actually, the existence of your own sentience is only inferred, not perceived, and in fact the inference is done by the same brain circuitry that infers others’ sentience. Note that there’s a self-oriented analogue of Capgras Syndrome, the Cotard Delusion, where one believes that one’s own self does not exist (or, is dead). However, this is a much more profound discussion that I’ll leave for another time.

Nonparametric tests

Just compiled this for a friend, putting it here for the world. She was trying to understand a paper so she could do a similar analysis and she was getting confused by what I was saying. It turned out that the paper used the wrong test: they used Kruskal-Wallace when they should have used Friedman, because they had repeated measurements in the same monkeys. It’s kind of a mess.

Basic single-factor statistical tests, “ordinary” parametric statistics:

 Parametric Tests Independent Samples Non-independent Samples (Repeated Measures)

More than
two samples

One-way ANOVA One-way repeated-measures ANOVA
T-test Paired

Basic single-factor statistical tests, non-parametric statistics:

 Non-Parametric Tests Independent Samples Non-independent Samples (Repeated Measures)

More than
two samples

Kruskal-Wallace Test Friedman Test
Wilcoxson Signed Rank Test

How to write a cover letter: a procedure based on Cognitive Work Analysis

I took a class on Cognitive Work Analysis from Dr. John D. Lee here at the UW. I found it very interesting. A friend was asking me for help writing cover letters, specifically how to edit it down to be short enough. I don’t have a lot of experience writing cover letters per se, but I wrote this procedure based on CWA. I’d be interested in feedback, of course.

  1. Write the letter without worrying about brevity. It’s always normal to write something too long first, and then cut it down in the next rounds of editing.
  2. Make a new document (or just add text at the end of this one, or whatever works for you) and copy and paste each sentence as its own individual bullet point in a list. Don’t worry about sentence structure or whether the sentences themselves are too long; you’re just making a list of each fact or item you’re saying about yourself.
  3. Go through the list of points and separate them out into two lists: (a) Critical points that you really want to make sure they notice about you right away (it’s OK if some or all of those points are also in your resume); and (b) everything else, i.e. not critical.
  4. Go through the “not critical” list and check each item against your resume. If an item is already in your resume, then delete it from the letter. If it is not already in your resume, then copy it over into a third list called “Decide what to do”.
  5. Now you have two lists: the “critical” list, and the “decide what to do” list. (You already deleted everything else.) Everything in the “critical” list stays in the letter, obviously.
  6. Go through the “decide” list point-by-point. For each point, decide if you want to add it to your resume, or if you want to add it to your letter, or if it’s just not important. Or maybe it’s really important and you add it to the letter AND you add it to your resume. As you do this, keep in mind how much space you have left in the letter.
  7. Now go back to the letter and adjust the sentence structure and paragraph structure to make it flow again.
  8. Take a step back and look at the letter. Is it short enough now? If so, then you’re done! If it’s still too long, can you make your sentences shorter and clearer?
  9. If you can’t make it short enough with basic editing, then repeat this procedure from the beginning, but focus more on the question of what’s really critical. You have to decide on what’s critical, on the basis of how much space you actually have. If you’re trying to fit in 5 critical points but you only have room for 3, then you have to ask yourself: Since I only have room for 3, which are my top 3? If you ask yourself the question in that way, then you will almost certainly be able to pick your top 3. (Or whatever number you have room for.)
  10. If you have trouble separating out the critical points from the less critical points, then try this: Make the list of points, then write them out in rank order from most critical to least critical. Just do it quick-and-dirty, don’t worry about getting the order exactly right. Then show that ranked list to someone else, along with the job description. Almost anyone will be able to give you good feedback on whether your ranking makes sense for that job description.

Dharma dog piano therapy

I was trying to remember where I heard this story and I finally found it. It’s from Warrior King of Shambhala by Jeremy Hayward.

During Rinpoche’s visit to New York, an event occurred which is a beautiful illustration of Rinpoche’s use of humor to break through to the heart of his students. Madeline Bruser, a talented young concert pianist and piano teacher, was already a student of Rinpoche, though she had not yet met him. Madeline tells this story of the first time she met him:

I had offered to play for him during his stay in New York and he accepted. So, one evening, I went to his suite, where about a dozen of us were gathered. When he entered the room, I felt so relaxed in his presence that I walked right up to him and said, “Hello, I’m going to play for you tonight.” And he said, “Oh! You’re going to play with me!” After several minutes of silence punctuated by a few bits of conversation between him and all of us, he walked slowly over to the piano, sat down, and started slapping at the keys as though it were a big joke. I began to feel quite nervous. Then he said, “Now YOU play,” and he stood up. I sat down at the piano, but he remained standing. Aren’t you going to sit down?” I asked him. And instead of sitting down, he picked up his little dog and stood next to the piano, waiting for me to begin. Since he was standing, everyone else had to stand also.

I launched into a dramatic performance of Beethoven’s deeply serious “Sonata in A-flat,” Opus 110. The lid of the piano was slightly raised, and soon after I started to play, Rinpoche put his dog—a very cooperative and furry lhasa apso—on the piano. Over and over, the dog slowly slid down the slanted lid as I continued to huff and puff my way through Beethoven’s intense, lofty, lyrical first movement. At times, instead of putting the dog back onto the piano, Rinpoche beat the time with one hand, making more of a joke out of the music. The twelve guests giggled, and I felt humiliated yet exhilarated. At one moment I tried to challenge him by looking directly and boldly at him, but he just peered over his glasses at me and left me feeling completely powerless.

Suddenly, a minute or so into the rollicking second movement, something switched. I found myself playing with an amazing freedom and energy that I’d never known was possible. The music leapt out of me and burst brilliantly into the room like a force of nature. It was tremendously liberating, and I noticed that Rinpoche was now holding his dog and listening attentively. I played with this total abandon for about two minutes, but it was so disorienting that I reverted back to my habitual overblown approach, and Rinpoche gave the dog more rides down the piano lid. Thus went a twenty-minute performance of one of the most profound pieces of music ever written. Beethoven and I had come into contact with an enlightened audience. The next day, I could no longer play the old way. I had received the best piano lesson of my life from a man who never played the instrument.

Postcolonial yoga, appropriation and humanism

This article by Susanna Barkataki is one of many in a new wave of recognition of the downsides of the current wave of popularity of Eastern-derived practices such as meditation and yoga. I don’t think of it as a “backlash”, quite, and I don’t think she would either: “Powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them.” Hardly what you’d expect to read in a “backlash”. Instead, I think there is a growing sense that our cultural tendency to jump thoughtlessly on the latest bandwagon, our “irrational exuberance”, could once again give us trouble if we don’t stop to think. We need to be more mindful about mindfulness, as it were.

Barkataki describes how Indians suffered the repression of their own culture under centuries of colonialism. “To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land.” And now, Westerners’ shallow appropriation of parts of that same culture is echoing the harms of colonialism. “As a desi, this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today.”

“If someone from the dominant culture completes a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana based, and remains blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it by stripping its essence away.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think the main point of Barkataki’s article is so incontrovertible that I’m just going to leave it without further comment and focus on a philosophical side issue that is more up my alley.

Here’s a statement of one item of my own personal moral belief system: One culture or person is not “better” or “worse” than another. To make someone the “other” is equally dehumanizing, regardless of whether you imagine them to be savages, or noble. To be a humanist is to recognize our universal shared humanity that transcends any shallow and momentary sense of “better” or “worse” and to love all merely for being human, not because each human is uniquely important, but merely because they are human. 

In my belief system, the reason it’s bad for the dominant culture to appropriate and marginalize other cultures is simply because it hurts people. It steals from them and leaves them uncompensated. When you instead start to think that it’s all about other cultures being naturally Noble, Pure and Perfect, you’re dehumanizing them just as much as you are if you think they’re savages. Humans are human: flawed, alive, complicated, beautiful. Humanism is to love and respect all people simply because they’re human, not because they’re better or worse.

Myself, I practice Hatha Yoga from the Patanjali tradition, and meditation and yoga from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I do these things because my experience is that they are uniquely beneficial to me; I also have observed them being beneficial to others. So there’s some real value there. And, I make an effort to learn as much as I can about their roles and contexts in their original homes, and how those changed over time. I’m well aware that throughout their own histories these practices have been used and abused, preserved and scrambled, worshiped for historical authenticity and updated with contemporary relevance. And in some ways what we are doing now in America is just a continuation of this process. Are we losing the “essence” of yoga, or meditation? Well, maybe in some senses we are, and in other senses we aren’t. Some techniques and principles are being preserved, because they appeal to us; and others are being lost. Some of these changes will turn out to be for the better, and some will turn out to be for the worse.

As quick examples, I would say that one change for the worse is that “meditation” is often practiced abstracted from a great deal of context, including social support, body practice, ritual and tradition, ethical framework, and other diverse supportive techniques. Us Americans don’t have the experience with this collection of practices yet to have any kind of reasonable sense of what might be affected by the parts we’re stripping out. On the other hand, a change for the better is that it is now entirely possible to practice these techniques without first learning classical Sanskrit or Tibetan. Those are not easy languages to learn, and (I think) there is nothing inherent about the practices that should require anyone to jump through that enormous hoop before getting access to them.

As for cultural appropriation, that genie is already out of the bottle, the train has left the station, and the ship has sailed. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. By way of a comically ironic allegory, there is an old story about how the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, and thanked the buffalo for helping them live. This story itself is a prime example of the kind of “noble savageism” I’m discouraging here, but that doesn’t diminish its usefulness as a mere allegory. In some sense it appears that our culture is inherently carnivorous; we must eat the traditions of other cultures to survive. We may not  ever stop doing that, but we can at least try to do it with respect. Treat other cultures with respect. Appropriate with awareness and gratitude. Ask ourselves, would someone from the source culture be pleased to see us respectfully keeping their traditions alive? Or will they look at us and see something like an old blackface performance? Better yet, ask them. If you’re teaching a yoga class for Susanna Barkataki, listen to her. Pay attention. Be very open to learning that you’re “doing it wrong.”

Another genie that is permanently (I hope) out of the bottle is global communication. Cultures are henceforth aware of each other and appropriation is the new normal. An open and optimistic eye, looking around, sees many examples of how incredibly enriching this is. Artistic and spiritual exchange has created tremendous beauty. I dream of a future where we continue to create this beauty, and we exchange respectfully, as friends and colleagues.

Edit: My buddy Joe points out this video that sensitively summarizes the whole issue:

(note: just kidding, it’s hilarious!)

Confederate flag

I just saw a discussion thread rehashing the whole “But the confederate flag also has other meanings” argument. As usual with these emotionally loaded political issues there wasn’t a lot of communication between the discussants. I thought I’d write a brief and hopefully clear analysis to help people think about the topic.

My approach to this kind of question is based on the premise that there is a whole big world out there that exists whether you know about it or not. Since all that stuff exists even if you don’t know about it, it’s useful to understand the cause-effect relationships in that world, because they affect you even if you don’t know about it.

The argument some people are making is that it’s OK to display the Confederate flag because in addition to negative connotations for some people, it also has positive connotations for other people, associated with the culture and tradition of the South. I’m going to describe a parallel example where this argument is unquestionably valid. Then, having established what it takes to validate that argument, we can compare it with the situation with the Confederate flag in the US.

The swastika is an ancient holy symbol in many traditions of India and dates back to the Neolithic. It is indisputably a symbol that has a rich and ancient history and many deep meanings for people of that culture. In fact, in India, you will see it all over the place.

In India, for the vast majority of people, the only significance of that symbol is the traditional positive spiritual symbolism. India was largely unaffected by Nazi Germany and WWII so the newer significance of that symbol is essentially unknown to most people in India, and if they do know about it, it is more of a curiosity of foreign cultural anthropology and history than an emotionally laden issue.

Based on these facts, it’s clear that there are essentially no negative consequences of the display of this symbol in India. It’s also clear that an individual in India who chooses to display this symbol almost certainly has positive intentions, because they are unaware of anything negative about the symbol.

It’s common in moral and ethical philosophy to consider the consequences of, and/or the intention behind, an action when determining the value of that action. In this case, neither one of those things is negative, so regardless of the ethical calculus you’re using, there’s just no problem.

Now consider the case of an Indian individual who is proudly displaying the swastika, and then later learns about the significance of that symbol to some other foreign cultures. Does this new information bring a new obligation to take down the symbol? Not necessarily. They may choose to take down the symbol out of solidarity for the others who would be offended if they were there to see it; or they may enrich their knowledge of the vast diversity of human cultures and experience and leave it at that. In any case the consequences are unchanged, because it is still true that the vast majority of people who observe the symbol will have positive associations with it. Also, the knowledge of a counterfactual (i.e., if this symbol were somewhere else instead of here it would have different consequences) does not mean that the intention is automatically changed; neither logic nor emotion works that way.

(Hopefully any, say, American visitors with different values will have the maturity to avoid trying to impose their own cultural values on their host country.)

That establishes an ethically and morally convincing scenario where it’s OK to display a symbol that has both positive and negative connotations. Now let’s compare with the Confederate flag scenario in the U.S.

Is it possible that an American displaying the Confederate flag has only positive intentions? Yes, that is certainly possible. Although it probably seems strange to most of the people reading something I wrote (because you’re all probably some kind of liberal intellectual) the reality is that there has been enough of a historical revisionist effort in some circles that it’s possible someone in, say, the South might honestly not be aware of the association of the Confederate flag with slavery and oppression. That person could well be displaying the flag entirely out of a harmless sense of cultural pride.

However, for a flag being displayed at a major institution, whether public or private, it’s very unlikely that every single person with any authority in that institution is unaware of the negative associations.

Now consider consequences. When a Confederate flag is displayed in America, if it is only observed by people with positive connotations, then it will only have positive consequences. (In a limited emotional sense.) However, a flag that is displayed publicly will be observed by a wide range of people, and some will have positive, some negative connotations. Will the proportion of people with negative connotations be vanishingly small, as with the swastika in India? I suppose in some contrived scenario that could be the case, but I think that a careful demographic survey would demonstrate that a Confederate flag displayed on a major public building will be observed by a significant number of people who will primarily be reminded of slavery.

So I think it’s clear that public display of Confederate flags in the U.S. is likely to have negative consequences for a significant number of people.

Putting this all together, I would suggest that this means that when the Confederate flag is displayed at an institution, either: a) some of the people involved have negative intentions, in that they want the negative consequences, they want to evoke the association with slavery and oppression; or b) some of the people involved, although they have positive intentions in a certain sense, are also knowingly choosing to disregard the negative consequences.

As far as individual rights go, this is an open-and-shut case: The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to free speech, and the single most important principle of freedom of speech is that the protection of offensive speech is precisely the point. If you want to be a jerk and display the Confederate flag on your t-shirt or your private property or whatever, then you absolutely have the right to do that.

How about government institutions? Should the Confederate flag be displayed at a state capitol? Well, it’s not completely clear to me what the exact legal justification would be for arguing that governments aren’t supposed to intentionally hurt their citizens, but even without knowing the exact legality, I think basically everyone would agree with that. Even the people who are choosing to display the Confederate flag on a courthouse or whatever, would almost certainly agree with that principle.

In short, when a government institution displays the Confederate flag, then they are intentionally causing negative consequences for a significant number of their citizens. The fact that there are other citizens who are happy about it does not change this fact.

Anyone who believes that governments should not intentionally hurt their own citizens must conclude that public institutions should not display the Confederate flag.

The fact that individual citizens have a constitutional right to do so is irrelevant.

The fact that this action doesn’t hurt all the citizens is also irrelevant. If you want to make that argument, just try on parallel logic in other circumstances: “It’s OK for the sheriff to shoot some random people as long as they don’t shoot everyone.” “It’s OK for IRS agents to just randomly decide to take all your money to line their own pockets, as long as they don’t do it to everyone.” “It’s OK for the Mayor to go on TV and insult people’s mothers, as long as he doesn’t insult everyone’s mother.” Clearly that’s all nonsense.