Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Brain Storms - 2 - The Black Hole In Brain Research

The whole issue of how the brain works, and the origins of human intelligence, are matters of considerable interest, and most universities will have several very different departments which have staff researching some aspect of the area. In hospitals and medical research departments people study the effects of injuries and illnesses that effect the brain. Modern equipment can identify electrical signals and locate their sources. Computer Science Schools may have departments of Artificial Intelligence, while there is interest among psychologists, educationalists, linguists, biologists, evolutionists and many others. In each speciality there will be a mountain of publications, many of excellent scientific quality. It is quite clearly impossible for anyone to be fluent with the current research right across the board and there is so much narrow specialisation that researchers in one area may find it very difficult to understand some of the other specialities,.

So lets all stand back as far as we can and take an overall, and hopefully non-partisan, look.

While the amount of knowledge we have of the brain has increased enormously in recent years there is a problem. If we were working towards some kind of unified theory of the brain the aim would be to link all these different disciplines together in a central model. What we find in the middle is more like a large black hole with people from different disciplines kibbling round the edge. For example there is no clear route which links the neurons to language learning or the ability to play chess well. Particularly when making comparisons with animals, one is even uncertain what how the term “intelligence “ should be defined.

An analogy might help to identify the problem. An alien life form with a very different technology visits this planet and takes away a number of working personal computers, each actively running a different application. The aim to investigate the nature of the intelligence inside the boxes. They make enormous progress. They “kill” one or two and find the circuit board and the various components and study these in great detail. They design monitors which tell them which components are electrically active and examine each application in great detail. For instance they discover that the chess is a game – and they use their own technology to play the game and win.

Despite all this research they still do not understand the key to these boxes apparent intelligence. What they are missing is an understanding of the instruction set of the central processor and the way it interacts with the memory, and the way this allows information for each application to be mapped onto the memory.

I am suggesting the the “black hole” in brain research is equivalent to the one described in the analogy. We know that the brain's central processors must be neurons, working singly or in groups, and that memory must be held somewhere in the network of nerves. The brain somehow uses this arrangement to support a wide variety of tasks (often different in different people) as varied as supporting one or more spoken languages, playing chess, flying an aeroplane, earning a living or arguing with 100% conviction for (or against) the existence of a god.

The target of these Brain Storms is to explore the options for such a “brain central processor” and one option that will be examined will be to look at of an unconventional computer language called CODIL, which was designed to be human friendly and which can demonstrably support a wide range of applications. This suggests some features suggesting one possible model, but there may be others and you suggests are very welcome.

The next few Brain Storms posts will look at the evolution of Mankind and what it tells us about the evolution of man's self- named “intelligence” and the possible relation between human and animal “intelligence”. I will then describes a provisional target model for the Storm – and start looking at how far the CODIL model succeeds, and fails in other ways, to meet the target. Hopefully by this stage other people with have joined in with other ideas – so that together we can define a possible predictive model for more detailed examination.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Brain Storms - 1 - Introduction

I am trapped in a box. You are trapped in a box, In fact we are all trapped in many different physical, social and mental boxes which in one way or another control the way we look at the world.

And because of we are trapped in mental boxes it is hard to think objectively of human thought and how it evolved because we are not impartial observers. But let us try – so why not join me in this series of brain storming posts about the brain.

But before we do I must declare an interest – by describing the box that I am in. I am in my 70s, and having taken early retirement over 20 years ago I abandoned all direct contact with university research, apart from regularly reading the New Scientist. Recently I decided to catch up online with any recent developments relevant to the discarded research project and what I found suggests that this long forgotten research is actually relevant to some of the obstacles in understanding how the mind works and how it might have evolved. This set my brain spinning, and, as my resources are strictly limited to the web and a desk-top computer (not even a University library reading card at present) I decided to launch this blog.

Whether you decide to join in will depend on whether you are interested in brain storming approaches to how we think – but will also depend on the boxes you are trapped in. For instance your own thought processes may be trapped by a box which means that you automatically assess the quality of research by its status - and automatically assume that the only good ideas come from young researchers, in  prestigious institutions, with plenty of funding. If so you may care to ask yourself if someone in a less favourable situation could get a controversial idea accepted you may find my post Why is Blue Sky research so difficult of particular interest.
The approach behind these brain storms will be to start by trying to stand back and get an overview of the issue, using Occam’s Razor to discard as much detail as possible. I will try to keep each issue short and any comments, points of information,, etc., which readers can add will be very welcome – and may well influence the way the Brain storms develop. The goal is to explore novel models for the way that the brain supports a wide range of mental activities.

The starting point of the Storms will be to look at The Black Hole in Brain Research and then Human Evolution and the Brain.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Why "Blue Sky" research is so difficult

First published in the New Scientist 14 July 1988
Why Genius gets nipped in the bud

SO YOU'VE just had a brilliant idea. You were relaxing in the university's senior common room after a heavy session of exam marking and then Eureka! - There it was. Those patterns of dancing shadows suddenly came together and you saw the flaw in the current theories, and the scintillating alternative. What will this mean? Promotion? Possibly a chair? Your own research team? You imagine the applause as you go up to get your Nobel prize. Then you wake up.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Resurrecting the Software - 5

Since Report 4 there has last been some real progress. I now have a BBC Computer running MicroCODIL using the BBC DFS system and old 5 inch floppy discs. I also have a modified  BBC Master with a 500 MByte flash drive added and I rescuing all my old floppy discs (at least those that are still readable after 25 years) by copying the programs and data to the flash drive. MicroCODIL will need some hopefully minor modification to run on this system as the software is designed to  run from drive 0 - which is the drive number for the flash drive. However it should soon be possible for me to supply copies of the software to people who have access to a BBC or BBC Master Computer. 

Work on transferring the software to a P.C. - using a BBC Basic interpreter - has not yet got underway. I will need to see how practical it is. The  problem is that only a small part of the program does the "real work" and much of the code relates to providing a good user interface in the context of the BBC computer (allowing for various models) using a 40 column by 25 lines teletext screen layout, which the interpreter does not allow to be changed. I am therefore looking at the possibility of producing an experimental subset modified to simulate running on a neural network model - which will be experimentally very exciting. However such a rewrite might need to be done by someone more familiar with modern compilers and interpreters..

Global Warming - To Australia in a box

An Environmental Flight of Fancy

As I write I am flying to Australia to help with research into the greenhouse effect, so environmental matters are very much on my mind. Through the cabin window I catch glimpses of the wonderful world we all live in.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Contacting LEO, the Lyons King of the early computers

I came across the Leo Computer Society web site today – and decided to contact them to see if any of their members remembers the CODIL project or are interested in what became of it. I wrote:

In 1967 I decided I was not being paid enough as a Chemistry PhD working as an information scientist – and switched to working for Shell Mex and BP to get onto the computer bandwagon. They had, at the time, two large Leo III installations and I was in the first group of programmers to learn CLEO – and became something of an expert using it. Shortly afterwards they went to tender for replacement systems with online terminal input, etc. and I was asked to do some preliminary work on transferring the sales contract applications. I came up with what I considered a very obvious solution – which was deemed to be “research” and hence impractical. At that point it was announced that the contract would go to Univac – and I was offered a job with what was English Electric Leo – by which time they were already selling System 4 computers.

I joined the Sales department at about the time it moved to Euston Road, working with George Stern on what was, in effect market research for future large systems. This meant a rapid learning period ranging from discussions with CPU designers as to likely technical advances through to discussions with the future application “ideas” men in selected large customers.

After a few months I hesitatingly suggested to George that there was a fundamental problem in the design of the stored program computer when used for tackling logically complex tasks which required significant human interaction. With his encouragement I submitted a short report to John Aris – who passed it to David Caminer and John Pinkerton  Overnight I was assigned to Minerva Road to draw up detailed proposals as to how the idea might be tested, The result was that a “top secret” project was set up (funded £50,000) and work was started on the patents. The project was initially called DORIS but later changed to CODIL. I was supervised by John Meredith-Smith and for various reasons I continued working at the Euston Road offices, although reporting to Minerva Road.

Basically the idea was to build an information processor which, at the machine code level handled sets instead of numbers. Processing was simply by comparing sets using a simple algorithm and by using a simple set compare routine, associative addressing, and a very high degree of recursion the need for all the explicit conditional tests and address arithmetic vanished. The black box of the stored program computer paradigm was replaced by a white box information processing system, which processed sets and NOT conceptually separate program and data, and which ordinary people could use directly because it used sets in the way they found natural.

The “Pilot Project” to simulated the operation and demonstrate it on a wide variety of admittedly small test applications went better than predicted. Unfortunately the merger to form ICL blew the idea right out of the water – despite (or because of) Basil de Ferranti initially approving the idea. I was given permission to transfer to a university – but made an unsuitable choice – in part because I am naturally a quite retiring back-room boy type of individual who needs an actively supportive environment. Despite looking very promising the research was later abandoned for personal reason – and because all funders seem to think that because conventional computers were so successful an approach which asked serious questions about the stored program computer paradigm must be invalid!

Recently I decided to return to the subject and have started a blog www.trapped-by-the-box.co.uk which includes the history of the project and the key publications describing it. I have also been looking at recent research to see (a) whether anyone else has done anything else like it – the answer appears to be “No” and (b) whether there could be any further research interest. The answer to this one could be a very big “Yes.” Preliminary work suggests suggests that CODIL is a natural to implement on a neural net – and could be an admittedly crude model of a “symbolic assembly language” which occupies the memory between the brain's neurons and natural language (which is why it is easy for people to understand) and which can also process a wide range of information processing applications (as clearly demonstrated in it original experimental form). As far as I can gather no-one has made any progress on tackling this problem.

So what I have been doing could be of interest to your members for one or more of the following reasons

  1. I worked on a major LEO III installation for about 18 months and have memories of the machine and the work I did on it.
  2. It shows that after the switch to System 4 computers David Caminer and John Pinkerton were still very actively encouraging imaginative ideas into computer architecture.
  3. If my wildly speculative ideas turn out to be correct it could be that the chances of a major research and technological breakthrough were missed because of the formation of ICL and if this is so it is only fair that the origins of the ideas could be credited back to LEO.

I have not been in touch with anyone from the old days for many years and would love to hear from anyone who remembers me, or DORIS or CODIL

Friday, 17 June 2011

Trapped in a religious box

Our lives are all influenced by the boxes, both mental and physical, we find ourselves in, and everyone lives their life in a belief system box – which many people will relate to religion. One can find many cases where different people who have logically incompatible belief system boxes disagree violently – to the point where there have been many wars about, or supported by, people with different religious or political belief systems. At the other extreme you can find people who are tolerant of people with (some) other belief systems – and some who are unhappy with the system they were taught about as a child and decide to change.

My personal approach is simply to accept that people I meet socially (including my wife) have different belief systems to my own. I regularly meet a fair number of Christians socially and we usually agree on moral issues (even if we differ on more fundamental beliefs) and today my wife and I attended a local church hall where a very reasonable lunch is served at a very reasonable price. We have attended these lunches for years and of course many of the people who attend are worshippers at the church, and there will be religious posters on the wall. I suspect that most of those who were interested already knew that I only attend church services for hatches, matches and dispatches when it is respectful to my friends to attend. Despite being an atheist I have had many interesting discussions over the dining table in that hall, including some potentially “interesting” ones about evolution, but I have never been drawn into conversations on religious fundamentals.

Until today, that is. A pleasant lady with a fine old testament name stopped at the table, looked in my directions, and asked “Do you pray?” There was not simple way out of giving a straight answer “No.” She was taken aback by the firmness of my reply – and she was clearly worried about the future of my (non-existent) soul. I made it clear that I accepted that she was sincere in her beliefs – but there were people now and in the past who proselytised for gods such as Allah, Odin, Ra, etc, who were just as convinced they were right as she was – it is quite clear that they can't all be right and I treated all religions as equally wrong. She also went on about the spirit without saying anything more substantial than it was something she believed in – reminding me of todays Calamities of Nature cartoon.

I could go on about the arguments she used but as an atheist who is interested in the evolution of human intelligence, I can see not reason for any adult version of Santa Clause – or any other kind of supernatural being. The important thing to realise is that any models of human intelligence and its evolution must take account of the fact that different people can end up with very different views of the world and what makes a valid argument.

There is a problem is carrying out this research in that the researcher is a human being who will have his own belief system, and is thus there is automatically a conflict of interest, . If you visit a militant atheist web site such as Pharyngula it is clear that if you are not with them you are against them – and religious people often being describes as if they were stupid or dishonest. The same will apply to many evangelical web sites, who disparage both Christians and Atheists who do not agree with them. In later posts, where I am looking at aspects of how human thought processes evolved I will be taking a neutral view – assuming that at the biological evolutionary level there is no significance difference in innate intelligence between people with such extreme views, and that such differences relate to the mental box containing the logical rules (which may have little relation to formal mathematical logic) that they learnt as a child.  

Monday, 13 June 2011

What is going on in an animal's brain?

Forget Calls of Nature - You can't get trapped in this box

Between our house and the centre of the town there is a recreation ares with swings and climbing frames for the younger children and more recently a basket ball court for the older ones. There were also seats where mothers could sit watching their children play - and where elderly citizens could pause as the walked up the hill carrying their shopping. Many years ago the council erected a box-shaped building to recognize the needs of at least some of the rate-payers.  By one door there was a sign "GENTLEMEN" and by the other "LADIES"

Resurrecting the Software - 4

Good progress on one front – and a very frustrating time on another.

In the last report I said I would make copies of selected publications available online. I have been through a mountain of paper and chosen the most representative papers and scanned them, with the exception of a few which were already available online – such as the three important Computer Journal papers. A summary of the key papers, is now available as An Introduction to Publications on CODIL. The search has turned up many things I had forgotten – and I will now be going through The History of CODIL – adding in links to the relevant papers – and clarifying a few points.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Re organisation in progress

I have just added a number of reprints to the web site and over the next few days will be linking them together. Apologies for any disruption.

Reprint: Architecture of Information Language 1990

The Architecture of an Information Language

C. F. Reynolds

Computer Journal
Vol 33, pp 155-163, 1990

This paper describes the CODIL information language in terms of an infinitely recursive model for poorly structured information. This approach is significantly different from the established approaches to programming language and data base theory. The paper then shows how the model has been adapted to work efficiently in the existing CODIL and MicroCODIL interpreters.
  Full text (pdf)

Reprint: CODIL for University Use 1981

IUCC Bulletin Volume 3, Number 2,  Summer 1981

 CODIL as an Information Processing Language for University Use
C. F. Reynolds, Department of Computer Science, BruneI University
CODIL is a computer language designed to reflect the way in which non-scientists think about information. It provides a good man-to-computer interface and is particularly suitable for open-ended information processing applications. This paper discusses the background to the language and describes a number of operational applications of relevance to the university environment, including several data bases of descriptive information.

Reprint: Handling clinical information 1978

 Medical Informatics Europe 78, editor J. Anderson, pp 465-474, 1978

Using CODIL to handle poorly structured clinical information
C. F. Reynolds, Department of Computer Science, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex. and M. Shackell and G. Sutton, Hillingdon Hospital, Hillingdon, Middlesex.

This paper looks at the problems of using computers to handle clinical information in the context of a small research team where changing requirements and comparatively low volumes can make conventional systems analysis and programming techniques hopelessly uneconomic. The way in which such difficulties can be overcome are discussed, and examples are given of an operational system, using CODIL as the implementation language, which handles clinical information on cardiac patients. The ease with which such an approach can be extended to other areas is discussed.

Reprint: Formalism or Flexibility [Relational Data Base] 1978

 Proceedings, International Conference on Data Base Management Systems, Milam, 29-30 June, 1978, pp127-138

C. F. Reynolds & D. Omrani
Department of Computer Science, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex.

The relational data base approach represents the essence of formalism in data base technology. In contrast CDOIL provides an extremely flexible, but potentially ambiguous, approach to open-ended and poorly defined information processing systems. This paper discusses the implementation of a relational system using CDOIL and discusses the various features of the language that make this possible.

Reprint: Psychological Approach 1978

 Proceeding of the Workshop on Computing Skills and Adaptive Systems
Liverpool, March 1978, pp 77-87
A Psychological Approach to Language Design
by Chris Reynolds
Brunel University
   CODIL is a computer language designed for non-mathematically oriented users with open-ended information processing applications. It originated from observations on how people tackled this type of problem and can be readily described in psychological terms. The hierarchical memory involves structures equivalent to short term and long term memory, together with an adaptive memory with learning properties. Processing is controlled by a simple but powerful decision making routine.
   The language has now been developed to an operational level and is currently being tested on a wide range of applications ranging from teaching information retrieval principles to artificial intelligence tasks. A number of these are briefly described.

Reprint: Computer Journal papers 1971

The Papers which officially introduced CODIL

Following the merger to form ICL it was decided to close down the research division where the research was being carried out., including the project itself. It was agreed that if I could find a university home for the project I could continue the research, as long as I did so without criticising ICL for closing the project. This made making extravagant claims for the approach unacceptable, and a neutral, factual approach to the first paper, which was drafted and agreed at ICL, It was also agreed that the hardware aspects of the approach should be played down.
The following paper is substantially the agreed draft, with some changes suggested by the editor of the journal, plus changes because, due to an editorial error, a later paper was printed first.

Reprint: CODIL 1970

Conference on Man-Computer Interaction,
Teddington, 2-4 September, 1970.
Published in proceedings, IEE Conference Publication No 68, pp 211-216, 1970

by C. F. Reynolds

In order to understand the problems of man-computer interaction it is necessary to understand something of the history of computing. The original computers were designed for numerical analysis and, for this purpose, the information about the application can easily be divided into an a priori list of operations (the program) and a separate list of numbers to be processed (the data). It was soon found that many highly repetitive data processing tasks could be handled using this approach, which has now been extended to cover an extremely wide range of applications. However, the more complex non-numerical applications often prove difficult. In particular large numbers of systems analysts and programmers are often needed because it is not possible for the users, (managers, clerks etc), to interact directly with the basic computer system. For many applications the provision of this human interface between the user and the computer represents over 50% of the cost of the application. This is a long way from the truly interactive system, where the user can approach an effectively empty computer and set up whatever application he requires.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Don't put Primates in Boxes

In recent months I have been thinking a lot about the evolution of human intelligence and I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the main difference between apes and us is the use of a spoken language. In other areas, such as emotion, and social interactions with their own species - particularly relatives - there may not be any great differences. The more I think about it the more I feel horror at the ways we have treated them.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

How often do you fill your lawn-mower box?

Glen Laden's Blog has a post about mowing the lawn entitled How to be a good suburbanite.

I fully support his reasons for not managing the lawn in a particular way just because your neighbours do. It reminds me of the song - Little boxes:

An Ill-considered Disposable Bag Action

The Bag Monster
OK - This site is concerned with "boxes" of all kinds - so a recent story about bags on A Few Things Illconsidered caught my eye.  

Anyone who has any feel for a better environment will be aware that a huge number of one-use then throw away plastic bags are handed out every year by supermarkets. Many of you will have seen the "witches knickers" hanging, like washing, on trees where they have been blown by the wind from nearby land fill sites. Bags which end up as floating garbage in the middle of the Pacific, or in the stomachs of dead animals, are less visible.

Of course there are people whose mental box means that they think environmental concerns are no more then a barrier to making
Money, Money, Money
This includes the manufacturers of reusable plastic bags who have decided to sue an American Company, Chicobags, which makes reusable plastic bags. Why? Because Chicobag adverts quote highly respectable sources that show that reusable bags are better for the environment. This legal challenge may well be because the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia believe they are so poor that they must fight to retain every cent of income, whatever the cost to the environment..

If you are not yet regularly using a reusable bag I suggest you train yourself to think "I am delighted to dedicate this disposable bit of plastic to the future wealth of the poor oil barons who might starve if I cared about the environment." If you feel can't do this perhaps next time you will remember to use a reusable bag.