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Thinking Matters

Archive for November, 2008

IBM to build brain-like computer, but…

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 22, 2008

Like this?

Like this?

In 1967 Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, said that “within a

Or this?

Or this?

generation … the problem of creating artificial intelligence will be substantially ‘solved”.  He was wrong, of course, as were others who made similarly optimistic predictions.  These included Arthur C Clarke who I’m sure expected that machines very like HAL, the star of his film 2001, would be up and running by the turn of the century.

According to BBC News, IBM have set up a team to have another crack at the problem.  According to the BBC News article if the project is successful it will result in ‘…computers could gather together disparate information, weigh it based on experience, form memory independently and arguably begin to solve problems in a way that has so far been the preserve of what we call “thinking”‘

But there’s a but.  The IBM team is aiming to build a circuit ‘…with the complexity of a cat’s brain’.

Based on my obersvation of our own cat, Sheba, and other members of her species, I would say her ability to gather together disparate information, form memories and so on is fairly limited.  I don’t want to be labelled a cynic: replicating a cat’s brain would be an amazing achievement.  But if the machines behaviour patterns were also similar to those of cats it would spend much of its time asleep and would divide the remainder between finding the warmest possible place to sleep, defending its territory and persuading gullible humans to feed it.  Opening and closing pod-bay doors, let alone piloting a space ship to Jupiter would, I think I can say quite confidently, be well beyond Sheba’s capabilities.


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Did you miss it?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 20, 2008

I did.  Yesterday was World Toilet Day and I’ve only just realised.  A serious matter, of course, particulalry if you’re amongst the 40% of the world’ population which doesn’t have access to a toilet.  There are some excellent logos here at the WTO’s (World Toilet Organisation’s) website to bring the message home and be sure not to miss artist Scoop Branisco’s thoughts about the Art for Toilets project which you can find here.

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High Street Woes All Psychology, Top Retailer Confirms

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 20, 2008

Only time for a quick post but I’ve just listened to this interview with Andy Green, MD of the John Lewis retail chain.  All good points he says ‘the downturn in spending is actually irrational…it’s all about confidence’.   He says that the government has to take measures to restore confidence.  He is probably thinking about economic measures, but banning hyperbolic adjectives in media headlines would certainly help as well.

It’s not really worth listening to the interview with Philip Green which is at the end of the clip: he doesn’t have any useful point to add and makes a rather feeble attempt to change the subject to the BBC licence fee.

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Why you are almost certainly wrong, most of the time

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 18, 2008

More from the wonderful world of cognitive psychology.  Here’s a handy list of reasons why, as the page puts it’ ‘what you think is right is wrong’.  Many of the factors listed almost certainly apply to the appalling case of Baby P, which anyone following the press in the UK for the last couple of weeks will know rather more about than they’d probably like to know.  Confirmation bias, the tendency to filter out information which doesn’t fit with a decision we’ve already made, has certainly played a part in similar cases in the past.  Unfortunately it has also been a factor in cases in which professionals decided that abuse had taken place, but hadn’t.

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Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 15, 2008

A brief postcript to my last witter.  Three more laws that Obama will need to bear in mind while he’s changing things: the Law Of Unintended Consequences, Hoftstadter’s Law and my own Law of Infinite Complexity.  Taken together, they mean that whatever he tries to do won’t turn out as planned (it’s a systems thing), it’ll take longer than he thinks (even if he already thinks it will take longer than he thinks) and the more people he recruits to advise him the more complex the solutions will become.

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Cognitive surplus, The Vision Thing, Kurt Lewin and Newton

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 15, 2008




George H Bush allegedly said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thing’ (although, following two minutes extensive research via Google I can’t actually find a source for that so perhaps he didn’t).

Either way, his son’s successor is very big on Vision.  And following on from his extraordinarily successful use of the web to help back up his job application for the Leader of the Free World post he’s about to take on, he’s using the web to collect visions.  

Anyone interested in change management and psychology is bound to have been thinking about the central message of Obama’s campaign.  If you spend $30.00 on an Obama victory T-shirt (I’d want a victory sweat shirt at that price, particulalry given the current dollar/pound exchange rate, but I suppose that’s not the point) you will be able to wander around broadcasting the message – ‘Change can happen’ – to anyone who happens to read you.

This is a pretty safe promise, of course.  Change can happen. We’re all agreed on that. There’s an implicit suggestion that the change in question, if it does happen, will be beneficial, but the slogan provides a safety net just in case it isn’t.  

thankyou_bannerThere’s a lot that could be said about managing change and it’s a fair bet that the large management consultancies are queuing up to say it to Obama’s transitition team in the hope of landing massive contracts of the kind that our own government, here in the UK, has handed out to them over the last eleven years (see various previous posts in which I’ve suggested that this isn’t necessarily a brilliant idea.)

I’ll limit myself to just one thought. Kurt Lewin, who died in 1947, is one of the best known theorists on change management. He is also, as the wikipedia article points out, known as the ‘father of social psychology’.  His ‘force field analysis’ approach is one of those lessons from pscyhology which I would put in the ‘obvious when you think about it but nevertheless useful’, category of ideas.  

Force field analysis is like a restatement of Newton’s First Law of Motion which, as you will recall, states that ‘”A body continues to maintain its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force”.  Lewin said that social situations are like this.  They remain static because a set of balancing driving and restraining forces keep them that way.  So, if you want them to change, you must reduce the restraining forces and/or increase the drivers.  

As the wikipedia article also explains, Lewin talked in terms of ‘unfreezing’ a situation, making the change happen and then ‘freezing’ it again. 

All this is massively difficult to do and although I’m a SLLL (sceptical lilly-livered liberal) I can understand why the right in America is aghast at the idea of an interventionist President attempting to change things using the Federal government machine.  (So aghast, in fact, that Representative Paul Broun has already played the ‘Hitler’ card by comparing the President elect with, yes, Adolf Hitler.  This is, of course, a sure sign that he has lost the argument.)

(The video is, incidentally from the excellent Daily Show website: fellow card-holding LLLs will appreciate why it’s been my main source of intelligence regarding recent goings on in the USA – the show’s website is excellent.)

Anyway, Obama certainly has one thing in his favour at present.  If you want to engineer large scale change you need a large shock to unfreeze the existing status quo.  In this respect, at least, Obama and Hitler have something in common: large scale economic shocks.  Hitler had the depression and its consequences for Germany.  Obama has the credit crunch induced world economic crisis.

It’s going to be an interesting few years, one way or another.  

My vision for America, incidentally, is that all American citizens are provided with one of my very-nearly-ready-to-sell Mindworks approach starter kits so that they can think things through properly instead of rushing out and changing everthing willy nilly.

The starter kit has been slowly fermenting away over the past couple of months, and has recently been renamed ‘Mindworks BrainGear’ after someone rightly pointed out that ‘Mindworks Approach’ didn’t exactly grab his attention.   The second part of the process around which the kit is based, incidentally, exploits force field analysis.  I talk about bridges and barriers rather than driving and restraining forces, but the idea is exactly the same.  Just thought you’d like to know, Senator Obama.

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Itunes U

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 12, 2008

I’ve rather neglected the blog recently – largely because I’m in ‘implement’ rather than ‘create’ mode at present, but something I’m very keen to do at present is to learn more about cognitive behaviour therapy (see numerous previous posts).

I’ve just typed ‘cognitive’ into the Itunes store search box, looking for audiobooks about CBT, and discovered Itunes U – masses of free audio downloads from the Open University, Princeton and others.  Try it.

I have a couple of posts about mental health to write over the next few days.  One of them is about the BBC2 Horizon programme ‘How mad are you?’.  You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for the next month or so, together with the second episdode.  Highly recommended – I’ll explain why later.

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Great news for lefties!

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 5, 2008

Following on from my earlier post about well known lefties, I was delighted to learn that the new Leader of the Free World is one of the clan.  Mind you, as you’ll see from the article, had John McCain won he would also have been the fifth out of the seven most recently elected lefty US Presidents.  Go figure.

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