Sunday, 23 April 2017

Why our brains are shrinking

A letter in the current New Scientist (April 22) asks the question "But why have we never filled up a brain?" and wonders why we appear to have evolved brains with spare capacity. I have just posted the following reply:

There are good evolutionary reasons why our brains are bigger than we need to survive. About 100,000 years ago the rate at which we invented new tools started to increase and as our tool-making knowledge increased we might have expected a significant increase in brain size. The opposite is happening and our brains are now slightly smaller than our immediate ancestors.

An ongoing re-assessment of an unconventional research language called CODIL suggests the reason. The original research looked at how humans and computers might work together on complex tasks and the current analysis suggests a direct relationship between the brain’s neural nets, language and intelligence. Animal (and early human) brain size is clearly limited by the time spent on trial-and-error learning in a single lifetime. However, once a self-modifying language has been invented (no need for a change in brain size or structure) a major tipping point is reached. One generation can now pass information to the next generation as abstract concepts, reducing trial-and-error learning times.  High level generalizations learnt in this way also need less neuron storage space and the savings increase as language became more sophisticated over the millennia.  In addition modern civilization allows us to call on shared knowledge (other people, books, etc), and so we no longer need brains as big as those of our pre-language ancestors in order to survive, and are actually left with some spare capacity to enjoy science, the arts, and the world around us.

Of course one is limited in what one can say in a short letter (New Scientist letters are rarely more than 250 words long) and it is worth saying a few words here to expand the above point.
Bottom up learning by neural net is an expensive business and brains cost a lot to run, and have to compete for resources with the other organs of the body in the evolutionary struggle to survive. But normally everything an animal learns in its lifetime is lost when it dies, so there is a practical limit on how much time an animal spends learning useful patterns rather than eating, breeding and evading predators. Different species have adopted different strategies and one, adopted by the primates is to concentrate on a small number of infants, and protective parents, to maximise learning time.
Early humans found simple tools helps survival and needed to pass on their tool-making skills to their children. So a slightly longer learning time helped and over some five million years our ancestors brains very slowly grew bigger allowing them to make somewhat more sophisticated tools. However the more steps it takes to make a tool the harder it becomes to learn how to make it by trial and error copying.
This is where CODIL comes in. CODIL was designed to allow humans to "teach" computers in a way that can be related to neural nets - and can be considered as a model for early human language as a means of making tools, with language itself being a taught tool, which can morph from processing patterns (normal animal learning) into set processing (handling abstract ideas and generalizations) and on to rule building (instructions for making tools).
What appear to have happened is that until about one and two hundred thousand years ago humans brains could be considered as little more that animal pattern recognising systems which learnt by trial and error - including trial and error copying of their parents using a simple language. Then language developed to a point where it allowed more complex tools. This meant that having language allowed each generation to make more powerful tools, including a more powerful language, which in turn enabled even more powerful tools to develop. A tipping point was reached which as equivalent to an auto-catalysed chemical reaction which, once it has started, proceeds at an every increasing rate.
The process also means making more and more powerful generalizations, which can be stored more efficiently in the neural network of the brain. (For instance learning about "mammals" and their key differences uses less memory than learning about a large number of species bottom up.) As long as our ancestors still lived in family-sized hunter gatherer groups most of the brain would still have been needed for survival. However once people started living in larger communities specialization would have started - and survival would depend on the skill mix of the community rather than individual skills. In fact the more we depend on others, including knowledge in books, etc., the less general survival skills we each need - and this allows our brains  - which evolved to learn as quickly as possible - to spend time on creative mental activities which have no obvious survival value!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Has Trump been fooled by "Fake News" over Syria

So Trump has seen the horror of an incident in Syria and sent in 59 cruise missiles because he is the sort of person who acts impulsively without thinking through the implications - forgetting that he is always saying that the media pump out "false news"

I am quite prepared to accept that there has been yet another dreadful incident in Syria in which people of all ages have been killed. In part I accept this because we have been repeated told this for years and I have repeatedly seen pictures of unnecessary death and destruction, which I deplore.

Trump will also have seen such earlier pictures and yet only a week ago the message from the White  House was that he could work with Assad. What has changed his mind is not that people are being killed by military action (as that happens almost every day in Syria) but how they were killed.

But how the hell does he really know how they were killed. He is always saying the news media fake the job and we know from Iran that the intelligence media get things wrong - so I guess he is reacting violently to the site of dreadful violence as displayed on the box because that is the way his mind works.

As a trained scientist I like to consider the evidence and it would seem that there are many different factions who hate each others guts  I can't see why Assad should use poison gas when he has control of the air and is regularly using conventional means of killing Syrians.  All the other groups hate Assad and know that if they could provoke Trump to act impulsively against Trump by generating "Fake News" it could be to their advantage. Quite simply when Assad is dropping bombs it could grab the world headlines if you release poison gas very close to where one of the bombs has fallen.

Of course I don't know that this is what happened - but what the incident will have taught every terrorist group in the world is that if you can make it look as if your enemy used poison gas there is a good chance that Trump will loose his cool and start attacking your enemy before there has been time for anyone to discover what really happened.

I  am sure that as a result ISIS will be busy planning new and different ways to cause Donald Trump to loose his cool.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

My Limericks aren't as dead as a dodo

The poor Dodos extinct so goodbye
For of course the poor birds couldn’t fly
And the men in their boats
Preferred fresh meat to oats
All that’s left are some bones, very dry

A recent email has reminded me that a year or so ago I regularly posted a limerick illustrating a scientific topic - in part because it encouraged me to think outside the box.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

I have been trapped in a loop of unproductive activity


I continue absorbed in what I am doing at the computer.

Tap,   Tap.

I look to my left and about four feet away there is a long-tailed tit apparently looking at me through the window, Have I forgotten to top up the bird feeders - but no - and there is a tasty fat ball only inches from his perch.

Suddenly he rapidly flies up the window and there is another tap. Back down to the perch, another flurry of activity ending with another tap on the glass.  He did the same yesterday ... and the day before.

I then realise what is happening. He can't see me, only feet away, because I am in a dark room while he is in the sun-lit garden. What he can see is another long tailed tit invading his territory that won't go away when he attacks it. He is attacking his reflection in the window only inched from the perch. He is trapped in a loop, driven by instinct, and may well continue in this useless activity for days.

I stop and think.
A comic post card featuring the Saucy Little Bird, published in 1908
One of the reasons this blog has been rather quiet recently is that I have been trapped in a very different loop by a saucy little bird who is lurking inside my computer. Because of the tragic deaths of my daughters Lucy and Belinda I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The chief problem is that to avoid becoming over-stressed to the point of a panic attack or becoming very depressed I need to find activities which help me relax. The danger is that as pressures mount I spend so much time relaxing that things that need to be done get put on one side till they become an additional source of stress.

Since retiring I have found historical research is a good way of relaxing and my web site Genealogy in Hertfordshire has grown to over 1 gigabyte, and has over a quarter of a million visitors a year. However the software is out of date and was never designed to support such a large web site. I find managing it has become hard work, and while visitors have donated many thousands of pounds to mental health over the years donations have almost entirely dried up. What had started out as an excellent way of relaxing has become stressful and the lack of donations makes it hard to justify  spending too much time on it.

Then last year I was horrified when the UK voted for Brexit - and having spent some time professionally working on climate research I was further distressed when climate change denier Donald Trump was elected as president of the USA. My stress levels rocketed, I became more depressed, and work I was doing on the evolution of human intelligence via this blog was pushed to one side.

One of the comic cards by Karaktus
published in St Alban
However one history research project, linked to a St Albans post card publisher provided a good way to relax. The task was to track down the comic post card artist involved - and this has proved more interesting, more complex, more difficult and much more time consuming than I has expected. The research means selectively searching through the many millions of comic postcards advertised on ebay and other web sites. Every day new questions present themselves. For instance Was the set of comic cards published in the USA in 1908 relating to a saucy little bird drawn by the same artist who was working for the failing London View Company in 1907 and publishing cards in St Albans in 1909? The trouble is that currently I get perhaps 40-50 emails a day warning me of cards that have come up for sale which may be relevant ... ...

One of the comic cards by "F S"
published in St Albans
Of course it is fun trying to find out more about the artist who painted the saucy little bird post cards but knowing the answer is not really that important and the activity is a time wasting distraction which will get me nowhere - just like the activities of the long-tailed tis at the window.

I have decided that I will cut right back on this post card research and return to this blog - exploring both how human intelligence evolved and also the various way we find ourselves trapped by the box.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Berners-Lee , Fake News on the World Wide Web, and transparent communications

In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web - which has expanded in ways which I am sure no-one would have predicted and which, via social networks, is very much affecting how people in the more advanced cultures now live their lives.

Tim has now spoken out about the abuse of personal data and "Fake News" and the problems these can cause, He is proposing a 5 year strategy to try and tackle the problems cause by his invention, See BBC Report.

Part of the problem is a result of the lack of transparency in how the World Wide Web works. This related straight back to the lack of transparency of the stored program computers on which it runs. What we have now is a massive black box system which contains a vast number of very attractive digital goodies, but there is no easy way of understanding the underlying mechanisms as to how the information got there or how reliable it is. Problems range from the misuse of personal data through to fake news and political manipulation - with the Sunday Times today reporting that GCHQ is concerned about Russian use of the network to try and influence the political system in the UK, and almost certainly in Europe, as they may have already done in the USA.

Could we have had a more transparent system which made it easier for people to understand the sources of the information, and the way it is being (mis)used? Perhaps?

In 1980 (9 years before the World Wide Web came into existence) I was involved in a British Library project called BLEND which was about the online publishing of scientific papers. This was based on very conventional stored program computer technology and I decided to see how my research system, CODIL, which was a transparent system for human-computer interaction, could tackle the same problem. I set up a number of different papers using CODIL and linked them together to show that they could not only exchange text, but also working programs (written in CODIL) and supporting data files. All this information would be written in the transparent CODIL Language, so it would be hard to hide underhand information processing -  which is the weakness of the world wide web., The work was written up for a conference in 1983, and included in a publication of BLEND papers, but the idea was not followed further due to lack of funds.

Could CODIL have been the answer? We'll never know. The big difference between CODIL and HTML (the language of the Web) is that CODIL concentrated on the meaning of the information being transferred while HTML is concerned with the formatting of data for transfer and display and is unconcerned with the information content. As such they are not equivalent approaches. However comparing the two approaches highlights the fact that as long as the World Wide Web depends on a black box approach it will be impossible to stop the less desirable activities being hidden by the unscrupulous.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Inside the "Infinity Box"

 Yayoi Kusuma has a exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, which includes a room of accurately placed mirrors which clains that it gives the nearest impression of infinity one is likely to experience.  Unfortunately I have no plans to go to Washington to see it - perhapos it will come to London!

Monday, 27 February 2017

A Cat trapped in a box

I was most amused by the following story in this week's New Scientist:

An Indian science textbook has been recalled after complaints that it gives details of how to kill kittens. The offending passage read: "Put a small kitten in each box. Close the boxes. After some time open the boxes. What do you see? The kitten inside the box without holes has died."
An important lesson on the proper storage of air-breathing mammals - but how very Newtonian! As any quantum physicist will tell you: the kitten can survive indefinitely as long as you don't open the box.

Takes me back to my time as a student having to learn about quantum mechanics - and was interested enough to do a Ph.D. in Theoretical Organic Chemistry.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Is this what "America First" really means ...

From Muslims against Isis

This political cartoon from 1941 sums up my feelings about Donald Trump's attitude to refugees and the rest of the world. I had not realized that the slogan "America First" comes from a 1930's U S movement that supported Adolf Hitler or that before Pearl Harbour the US was reluctant to take refugees from Nazi Germany.

One of the reasons this blog has been quiet recently is that a combination of things - including health issues - have left me rather depressed - and work on a paper on the "Evolution of Human Intelligence" has been delayed - perhaps because one of the conclusions is that humans aren't really that intelligent and that the inherent weaknesses of our brains predict serious failures in societies which fail to fairly share resources between their members.

This cartoon makes me realize that I will get nowhere if I try and hide from the political reality of the world around me. I have therefore decided that while I must get back to my research I need to let off steam about the way we are all trapped by political boxes which are beyond our control.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Academic Snakes

I was most interested to see the article "The Snake Fight Portion of your thesis defence" by Luke Burns - mentioned in a post on the Pharyngula blog.

On a number of occasions I have acted as the "snake" - i.e. and external examiner - and it can be difficult when the problem is, in part, due to poor supervision. I remember being asked, many years ago, to look at a Ph.D, thesis which consisted of little more that a computer program to index books and papers and which would have only got a middling grade as an undergraduate project in the University where I worked. Not only was there very little supporting library work but the student had not even looked at the operational system in the department's own library. In discussions it was clear that the supervisor (who was not a computer expert) was not aware of how trivial the program was compared with real working systems ...

However "snakes" can occur in other areas of academic life and I added the following comment to the Pharyngula post relating to my own experience as a victim:
Snakes can turn up anywhere – and perhaps some of the nastiest are the nameless snakes that block you publications and grant applications. In the 1970s I was working on a human-computer interaction model based on observations of how sales staff viewed the problems of complex sales contracts in one of the most advanced computerised system of its time. A colleague suggested that perhaps what it was doing had a link with Artificial Intelligence – and gave me a recent Ph.D. thesis to read. I quickly realised that much AI problem solving applications involved tiny closed systems with single solutions – while my work was aimed at complex open-ended tasks where the goal was not known in advance. But, I thought, simple closed tasks are a simple subset of complex open-ended tasks and I quickly showed that my “commercially inspired” approach could match (or even out-perform) most of the published AI problem solvers in the recent literature. But as soon as I tried to publish I was repeatedly blocked by anonymous snakes. Typically a paper describing my problem solver and giving details of how it solved a range of recognised AI problems would came back as “too theoretical ever to work.” By the time it was realised that the 1970s research on chess playing and simple logical puzzles had taught I had given up the research in disgust. Some 40 years later retirement allow me to do genuine “blue sky research” and it turns out that what I had in the 1970s was an crude neural net model which concentrated on the transfer of information between neural nets (the brain of the human and a computer) – bypassing much of the need for trial and error learning which dominates most current “Big Data” neural net research. Perhaps my research could still be of interest – but at nearly 80 years old, with an 1970s albatross of rejection round my neck, the modern snakes will automatically dismiss the ideas as I don't have a prestigious institution behind me so I must be wrong.
I have, of course, also had to deal with a "snake" when I had my on Ph.D. viva in 1963. In fact it was not too bad - but one of the big problems I had was due to supervision problems. The Ph.D. thesis was in the field of Theoretical Organic Chemistry and my supervisor was interested in the theory and really only wanted Ph.D. students to act as laboratory technicians - making chemical compounds that interested him, and measuring their properties to fit onto his graphs. However I was really interested in the underlying theoretical models and went off in my own direction - without his guidance - coming up with far better theory/observational matches than he had been getting ...