Apr 27, 2009

Of note

1. David A. Ferrucci and the IBM scientists are working on teaching a computer to answer Jeapordy! questions, according to the New York Times article which says success would mean "a leap forward" for Artificial Intelligence.

I read as much of Ferrucci as I could find when I was working on my philosophy thesis. I was trying to work out a linguistic,Wittgensteinian solution to the Mind-Body problem, and Ferrucci's work struck me as important. He isn't a philosopher or even a theorist, really, and I had trouble articulating why his work mattered. I spent a bunch of time trying to write about BRUTUS.1, his story-generating computer, but my advisers seemed to dismiss the section as irrelevant to the philosophical problem.

Reading the New York Times piece, I now realize how Ferrucci's work is philosophical important. He makes two assumptions which eliminate almost all of the tangle of Mind-Body philosophy:

First, he doesn't care if the world is dualistic or monistic. It is what it is and we can't know and even if we did it wouldn't change how we interact with it or, more to the point, speak about it. Second, unlike most all of the theorists, Ferrucci takes the Wittgensteinian step of assuming there's nothing wrong with our "mentalese" language. Our talk of the experience of pain and the perception of color doesn't need to be philosophically corrected or reduced. It is enough to say that our language is dualistic, even if our world is not, and so "intelligence" and the possession of qualia are equal, in every practical sense, to the use of the first person singular and mentalese phrases.

"The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms."

Regardless of whether computers can yet do what Ferrucci wants them to, his assumptions could be a theoretical break through.

2. Consistently the best in storytelling, on or off the radio, This American Life has put out a particularly good show with this old episode, Scott Carrier's The Friendly Man:

"The people I interview are all so sad, so lonely, with such thin souls, like ghosts and demons have invaded their hearts and are sucking their souls dry. A person's soul should be like an ocean, but a schizophrenic's soul is like a pool of rain in a parking lot. They suffer and they are completely alone in their suffering and there's nothing I can do, nothing anyone can do to bring them back. I come home at night and cry. I sob like a 3-year-old."

3. Democratic economic policy is finally clear to me, after reading Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber's piece in The New Republic. Their work shows how Obama fits into the evolution of liberal economics in America, tracing the changes since Carter and Clinton, and how it fits into the general acquiescence to capitalism and Keynesian theory, while pushing the ethical concerns and the policies progressive's have pushed since the Great Depression.

"In Obama's state, government never supplants the market or stifles its inner workings--the old forms of statism that didn't wash economically, and certainly not politically. But government does aggressively prod markets--by planting incentives, by stirring new competition--to achieve the results he prefers ... Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes."

It's hard, sometimes, to get past the cries of "socialism" and the straw men and the false claims of government-"free" markets made by the Free Marketers, but if Conservatives are actually going to make an economic case, if they're going to be serious and not just demagogue and rally with tea bag, then this is the economic policy they have to oppose.

The truth is, though, that Conservatives and Liberals don't really disagree about economic means, about governmental tweaks and nudges to the market. They disagree about the ends, about who should be helped, who should be protected, who should benefit, and what a better society looks like.

4. A national sense of humor is obviously a nebulous thing, but we learn a lot about Germans from their TV ads. Such as this, this, and this.