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Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

Sad to say, my only experience with wargaming was playing Risk in high school. I'm not sure that counts.

Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

Let me refer you to Computation and Human Experience, by Philip E. Agre, and to Understanding Computers and Cognition, by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores.

You Be the Jury: Survey on a Current Event

Guesstimates based on quick reading without serious analysis:

(1) Probability that Amnda Knox is guilty: 5%

(2) Probablility that Raffaele Sollecito is guilty: 10%

(3) Probability that Gudy Guede is guilty: 60%

(4) Probability that my estimates are congruent with OP's: 50% (ie random, I can't tell what his opinion is)

Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

Hi, Antiochus. What areas of history are you interested in? I'm similarly interested in history -- particularly paleontology and archaeology, the history or urban civilizations (rise and collapse and reemergence), and the history of technology. I kind of lose interest after World War II, though. You?

Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

I was able to follow this explanation (as well as the rest of your post) without seeing your physical body in any way. ... The fact that we can do this looks to me like evidence against your main thesis.

Ah, but you're assuming that this particular interaction stands on its own. I'll bet you were able to visualize the described gestures just fine by invoking memories of past interactions with bodies in the world.

Two points. First, I don't contest the existence of verbal labels that merely refer -- or even just register as being invoked without refering at all. As long as some labels are directly grounded to body/world, or refer to other labels that do get grounded in the body/world historically, we generally get by in routine situations. And all cultures have error detection and repair norms for conversation so that we can usually recover without social disaster.

However, the fact that verbal labels can be used without grounding them in the body/world is a problem. It is frequently the case that speakers and hearers alike don't bother to connect words to reality, and this is a major source of misunderstanding, error, and nonsense. In our own case here and now, we are actually failing to understand each other fully because I can't show you actual videotapes of what I'm talking about. You are rightly skeptical because words alone aren't good enough evidence. And that is itself evidence.

Second, humans have a developmental trajectory and history, and memories of that history. We're a time-binding animal in Korzybski's terminology. I would suggest that an enculturated adult native speaker of a language will have what amount to "muscle memory" tics that can be invoked as needed to create referents. Mere memory of a motion or a perception is probably sufficient.

"Oh, look, it's an invisible gesture!" is not at all convincing, I realize, so let me summarize several lines of evidence for it.

Developmentally, there's quite a lot of research on language acquisition in infants and young children that suggests shared attention management -- through indexical pointing, and shared gaze, and physical coercion of the body, and noises that trigger attention shift -- is a critical building block for constructing "aboutness" in human language. We also start out with some shared, built-in cries and facial expressions linked to emotional states. At this level of development, communication largely fails unless there is a lot of embodied scaffolding for the interaction, much of it provided by the caregiver but a large part of it provided by the physical context of the interaction. There is also some evidence from the gestural communication of apes that attests to the importance of embodied attention management in communication.

Also, co-speech gesture turns out to be a human universal. Congenitally blind children do it, having never seen gesture by anyone else. Congenitally deaf children who spend time in groups together will invent entire gestural languages complete with formal syntax, as recently happened in Nicaragua. And adults speaking on the telephone will gesture even knowing they cannot be seen. Granted, people gesture in private at a significantly lower rate than they do face-to-face, but the fact that they do it at all is a bit of a puzzle, since the gestures can't be serving a communicative function in these contexts. Does the gesturing help the speakers actually think, or at least make meaning more clear to themselves? Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues think so.

We also know from video conversation data that adults spontaneously invent new gestures all the time in conversation, then reuse them. Interestingly, though, each reuse becomes more attentuated, simplified, and stylized with repetition. Similar effects are seen in the development of sign languages and in written scripts.

But just how embodied can a label be when gesture (and other embodied experience) is just a memory, and is so internalized that is is externally invisible? This has actually been tested experimentally. The Stroop effect has been known for decades, for example: when the word "red" is presented in blue text, it is read or acted on more slowly than when the word "red" is presented in red text -- or in socially neutral black text. That's on the embodied perception side of things. But more recent psychophysical experiments have demonstrated a similar psychomotor Stroop-like effect when spatial and motion stimulus sentences are semantically congruent with the direction of the required response action. This effect holds even for metaphorical words like "give", which tests as motor-congruent with motion away from oneself, and "take", which tests as motor-congruent with motion toward oneself.

I understand how counterintuitive this stuff can be when you first encounter it -- especially to intelligent folks who work with codes or words or models a great deal. I expect the two of us will never reach a consensus on this without looking at a lot of original data -- and who has the time to analyze all the data that exists on all the interesting problems in the world? I'd be pleased if you could just note for future reference that a body of empirical evidence exists for the claim. That's all.

Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

Are you really claiming that ability to understand the very concept of indexicality, and concepts like "soon", "late", "far", etc., relies on humanlike fingers? That seems like an extraordinary claim, to put it lightly.

Yeah, I am advancing the hypothesis that, in humans, the comprehension of indexicality relies on embodied pointing at its core -- though not just with fingers, which are not universally used for pointing in all human cultures. Sotaro Kita has the most data on this subject for language, but the embodied basis of mathematics is discussed in Where Mathematics Comes From, by by Geroge Lakoff and Rafael Nunez . Whether all possible minds must rely on such a mechanism, I couldn't possibly guess. But I am persuaded humans do (a lot of) it with their bodies.

What does "there, relative to the river" mean?

In most European cultures, we use speaker-relative deictics. If I point to the southeast while facing south and say "there", I mean "generally to my front and left". But if I turn around and face north, I will point to the northwest and say "there" to mean the same thing, ie, "generally to my front and left." The fact that the physical direction of my pointing gesture is different is irrelevant in English; it's my body position that's used as a landmark for finding the target of "there". (Unless I'm pointing at something in particular here and now, of course; in which case the target of the pointing action becomes its own landmark.)

In a number of Native American languages, the pointing is always to a cardinal direction. If the orientation of my body changes when I say "there", I might point over my shoulder rather than to my front and left. The landmark for finding the target of "there" is a direction relative to the trajetory of the sun.

But many cultures use a dominant feature of the landscape, like the Amazon or the Missippi or the Nile rivers, or a major mountain range like the Rockies, or a sacred city like Mecca, as the orientation landmark, and in some cultures this gets encoded in the deictics of the language and the conventions for pointing. "Up" might not mean up vertically, but rather "upriver", while "down" would be "downriver". In a steep river valley in New Guinea, "down" could mean "toward the river" and "up" could mean "away from the river". And "here" could mean "at the river" while "there" could mean "not at the river".

The cultural variability and place-specificity of language was not widely known to Western linguists until about ten years ago. For a long time, it was assumed that person-relative orientation was a biological constraint on meaning. This turns out to be not quite accurate. So I guess I should be more nuanced in the way I present the notion of embodied cognition. How's this: "Embodied action in the world with a cultural twist on top" is the grounding point at the bottom of the symbol expansion for human meanings, linguistic and otherwise.

Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

You make a very important point that I would like to emphasize: incommensurate bodies very likely will lead to misunderstanding. It's not just a matter of shared or disjunct body isomorphism. It's also a matter of embodied interaction in a real world.

Let's take the very fundamental function of pointing. Every human language is rife with words called deictics that anchor the flow of utterance to specific pieces of the immediate environment. English examples are words like "this", "that", "near", "far", "soon", "late", the positional prepositions, pronominals like "me" and "you" -- the meaning of these terms is grounded dynamically by the speakers and hearers in the time and place of utterance, the placement and salience of surrounding objects and structures, and the particular speaker and hearers and overhearers of the utterance. Human pointing -- with the fingers, hands, eyes, chin, head tilt, elbow, whatever -- has been shown to perform much the same functions as deictic speech in utterance. (See the work of Sotaro Kita if you're interested in the data). A robot with no mechanism for pointing and no sensory apparatus for detecting the pointing gestures of human agents in its environment will misunderstand a great deal and will not be able to communicate fluently.

Then there are the cultural conventions that regulate pointing words and gestures alike. For example, spatial meanings tend to be either speaker-relative or landmark-relative or absolute (that is, embedded in a spatial frame of cardinal directions) in a given culture, and whichever of these options the culture chooses is used in both physical pointing and linguistic pointing through deictics. A robot with no cultural reference won't be able to disambigurate "there" (relative to me here now) versus "there" (relative to the river/mountain/rising sun), even if physical pointing is integrated into the attempt to figure out what "there" is. And the problem may not be detected due to the illustion of double transparency.

This gets even more complicated when the world of discourse shifts from the immediate environment to other places, other times, or abstract ideas. People don't stop inhabiting the real world when they talk about abstract ideas. And what you see in conversation videos is people mapping the world of discourse metaphorically to physical locations or objects in their immediate environment. The space behind me becomes yesterday's events and the space beyond my reach in front of me becomes tomorrow's plan. Or I alway point to the left when I'm talking about George and to the right when I'm talking about Fred.

This is all very much an empirical question, as you say. I guess my point is that the data has been accumulating for several decades now that embodiment matters a great deal. Where and how it matters is just beginning to be sorted out.

Welcome to Less Wrong! (6th thread, July 2013)

You make some good points. Please forgive me if I am more pessimistic than you are about the likelihood of AGI in our lifetimes, though. These are hard problems, which decompose into hard problems, which decompose into hard problems -- it's hard problems all the way down, I think. The good news is, there's plenty of work to be done.

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