Writing this blog in style (or not)

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this blog. I’ve written numerous lengthy drafts that haven’t (and may not) see the light of day. This has prompted me to consider what I want to achieve with this blog, and how I might change the style and content of my writing. And that’s what I’ll write about here: the style that my posts might start to take moving forward, and the rationale for how and why that might work better.

Going back to the beginning, I wanted a platform to share my ideas and opinions on a broad range of topics. A blog seemed to be a good alternative to more formal publishing, and the pseudo-anonymity the internet still affords means that expressing some of my more unusual ideas might be less likely to come back and haunt me. However, the incorporation of recreational writing in my everyday life, when having a lot of other things that need doing, is less easy to manage than I’d hoped. I’m sure many bloggers know this feeling.

The posts I’ve written in the past have been of a moderate length, and have been reasonably planned out rather than spontaneous. I’ve been aiming for word limits, but under the current circumstances, time limits might be more effective. This would probably push me to write in a different format and style. Most ideas and topics can, and probably should, be broken down into smaller elements. This was done  for the first series of blog posts I wrote on values, but my posts could probably be broken down even further. Long and winding posts might be useful for explaining the drawing of links–painting larger stories with vivid similes and poetic phrases–but are less concise and sometimes lose clarity.

Part of the beauty of blogs is the incremental nature in which posts can be made that build a story or a concept. Leveraging the blog as a central store of writing, posts can be very short and reference previous or future posts rather than cover the material all in one place. And that is what the aim will be for the immediate future: to write shorter posts, not necessarily self-contained, but focused on a single idea concept or topic. Ignoring the immediate gaps that are almost certainly exist at the beginning, but hopefully identifying them, pointing to references, or dealing with them in future posts or comments as they become apparent.

This is almost a necessity when I hope to be dealing with topics that cross philosophy, ethics, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, technology, artificial intelligence and robotics. The boundaries blur and merge, as the horizons lie within each others’ borders. I hope that, if I still have anyone reading, people will challenge these ideas, point out when I’ve made unfounded assumptions and prompt me to find references and evidence.

I’m always open to revising my point of view in light of sufficiently compelling evidence and arguments. I’ll see what I can do to write arguments that are thought-provoking and compelling too.

Rewards and values: Introduction

Reward functions are a fundamental part of reinforcement learning for machines. Based partly on Pavlovian, or classical conditioning, exemplified by the pairing of ringing a bell (conditioned stimulus) with the presentation of food (unconditioned stimulus) to a dog repeatedly, resulting in the ringing of the bell alone to cause the dog to salivate (conditioned response).

More recently, developments in reinforcement learning, particularly temporal difference learning, have been compared to the function of reward learning parts of the brain. Pathologies of these reward producing parts of the brain, particularly Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, show the importance of the reward neurotransmitter dopamine in brain functions for controlling movement and impulses, as well as seeking pleasure.

The purpose and function of these reward centres in the basal ganglia of the brain, could have important implications in way in which we apply reinforcement learning. Especially in autonomous agents and robots. An understanding of the purpose of rewards, and their impact on the development of values in machines and people, also has some interesting philosophical implications that will be discussed

This post introduces what may become a spiral of related posts on concepts of rewards and values covering:

Hopefully this narrowing of post topics results in giving me focus to write and some interesting discourse on the each of the themes of this blog. Suggestions and comments are welcome!

Mind the Leap: Introduction

BlogIntroIt’s been a long time since I created this blog.  I wrote a lot of draft posts, but never edited or posted them; until now.  The best place to start is probably a more detailed description of the things that I want to cover in this space.  Hopefully it will not only inform potential readers of what they might expect from this blog, but also keep me on track to writing on the main topics I want to share ideas on.

First: My day job (although I’m not currently getting paid) is postgraduate research on robot intelligence.  As one of the few PhD students who hasn’t become jaded after working on the same research topic for years, I still find studying robotics and artificial intelligence really engaging and enjoyable.  A part of this blog will be devoted to talking about these topics, but usually at a non-technical, conceptual level.

Second: Intelligence is such a fraught term though, that I have spent a lot of time looking into the underlying neuroscience and thinking about biological intelligence, consciousness, the mind and the brain.  This continues to be a big influence on my approach to robot intelligence.  While the some additions in the path to the evolution of the human brain might not be necessary for functional robot intelligence, people are the primary example of the general intelligence we want in our robots.  Some of this blog will discuss how neuroscience and cognitive science might translate into AI and robotics.

Third: As the brain becomes less of a mystery, the soul is no longer a necessary hypothesis.  Physicalism, the belief that the world is only matter and energy and without a spiritual dimension, is a starting point a lot of my thoughts about the world.  A significant amount of what I would like to discuss is more philosophical in nature.  While I usually try to have a scientific underpinning—or use a thought experiment as an intuition pump—philosophical, moral and ethical issues often remain disputable.  Nonetheless, I think about these issues, and I think they are important enough that another voice can’t hurt.

Those are the main themes and topics this blog will cover.  The style of writing is something I want to be conscious of too.  There are a fine lines between entertaining and obfuscating; informative and long-winded; and concise and plain.  Many of my drafts were possibly drifting towards long-winded attempts to be entertaining.  With a personal credo of trying to improve at all things I do, I’ll look for a balance.  Humour, like morality, is subjective.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of doing these things better.  Potential readers beware: there’s no telling what you’ll be subjected to.  Even, sentences that a preposition they end in.  Yoda would be proud.  Or really disappointed.  Or just confused… I’m not sure.  ( Lame grammar joke, Star Wars reference, and smiley face: check. 😀 )

Hello World?

HelloWorld“Hello World!” is a common test program when learning a new programming language or testing some new hardware.  Getting the computer to say “Hello World!” shows that a simple program is working.  We programmers can say, “Hello,” back, but the computer doesn’t actually comprehend anything (yet).  The internet, however, is a place full of real humans, just like me, tapping away at computers or smartphones.  While I’m content sending my words into the void, maybe someone will see something I’ve written here.  Then the World might say, “Hello,” back…