Friday, March 25, 2005

Evolving Minds, Thinking Machines

In my previous pieces on Incompleteness and Chaos, I have often come close to writing about the human mind. I have certainly had questions about the way we understand ourselves (philosophically and scientifically). How did we evolve into conscious, thinking, intelligent beings? Since any theory must stand experimental validation, can scientists test and validate the theory of evolution? Will we ever be able to duplicate our intelligence, our way of thinking in machines? How well can we answer the question, "How do we think?" Here are some glimpses in what may be the answers.

Let us start by taking the tour of a lab populated by 200 computers in the basement of the Plant and Soil Sciences building at Michigan State University. Researchers and scientists here have worked over a decade, to develop Avida. Avida is a digital evolution research platform. What, you might ask, is digital evolution? Consider this scenario:

A digital organism is a few lines of program code which initially does not do anything useful, but can replicate and produce other copies of code like itself. We will call it a primitive digital organism. At regular intervals, we present it with a pair of numbers. At first, it will not be able to do anything with the numbers. Nevertheless, each time it replicates, there is a small chance that one of its command lines might mutate into something else. On a rare occasion, these mutations will allow the organism to process one of the numbers in a simple way. It may acquire the ability simply to read a number, for example, and then produce an identical output.

If that happens, we reward the digital organism by speeding up the time it took it to reproduce. If an organism could read two numbers at once, we would speed up its reproduction even more. If they could add the numbers, we would give them an even bigger reward. Within six months, a lab doing this experiment had organisms, which were addition whizzes. The organisms always evolved, but what was more surprising was exactly how the organisms were adding numbers. Some of the ways they developed during evolution were completely insane, something, which even their creators, had not thought of.

In Avida, a population of self-replicating computer programs is subjected to external pressures (such as mutations and limited resources like a rationed supply of nutrition) and allowed to evolve subject to natural selection. This is not a mere simulation of evolution -- digital organisms in Avida evolve to survive in a complex computational environment and adapt to perform entirely new traits in ways never expected by the researchers, some of which seem highly creative.

Using Avida, scientists have found plausible answers to questions like: Can complex organisms like humans evolve from simple precursors like single celled protozoa? Can natural selection produce a complex organ like the human brain? Why does a forest have so many varieties of plants as in shouldn't only the fittest species have survived? Why do organisms cooperate in nature, when competing for existence? Why is not all reproduction in nature asexual when it is far more efficient than the sexual variety? The implications are completely mind blowing and give rare insights into why we are, the way we are, today.

If you think, however, we know enough already, you are mistaken. Let us consider another facet of this self-quest. The human brain performs at least one quadrillion operations per second, almost a thousand times more than the best supercomputers. Given the overwhelming complexity of the brain, it is not surprising to know that neuro-scientists still do not understand the way the brain processes information. The so called `neural code' which encodes the complex working of small electrical and magnetic impulses, which jump between our neurons, is still not very well understood. How are thoughts triggered in our head? How exactly does a set of neurons fire in or out of sequence to make some of us feel ravenous at the smell of a freshly baked chocolate cake, while making others feel completely nauseated?

Even though the scientists do not know how or why, they seem to be able to record what the neurons do. The patterns in which a whole orchestra of neurons fire in response to a stimuli is observable. By implanting electrodes in a monkey's brains, and analyzing the information from a small set of neurons, scientists have invented a system that could recognize patterns in monkey brains well enough to let the animals swing a robot arm to the left or to the right with their thoughts.

Curiously scientists still argue that chips which, would even, be able to decipher, let alone control the human mind are still far away in the future. When signals in the monkey's brain accompanying a specific arm movement are recorded; they can be processed by a computer and be used to move a robot arm. If the monkey's arm is tied down, the monkey learns how to control the robot arm using an entirely different set of neural signals. The mutability of neural code means even though chips one day might help restore memory to stroke patients or learn taekwondo instantly, in true Matrix style, but there is no way they will be able to identify the memory of your grandmother in a particular series of neural impulses.

Do we jump from here to cyborg implants on humans or maybe an artificial intelligence? The answer to both is still very much uncertain. Consider that the organisms in Avida can evolve in ways inconceivable by its creators. Will harmful computer viruses be able evolve like this someday? How can we tell when an evolving piece of software begins `thinking' on its own, when we do not even exactly know how we think ourselves? If scientists and engineers ever succeed in building a truly intelligent machine based on a neural coding scheme similar to ours, we won't able to read its mind either!

I'll sum up with a line about the human mind, which I heard at the end of a National Geographic television program many years ago:

The most powerful thinking entity on this planet is still unable to understand itself.

All the technical content in this post was obtained from the following sources: Read these excellent articles to know more about the subjects discussed in this post.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Sulagti zameen par moam ki moorat, Tum.

Ghutan ki raaton main hawa ka jhonka, Tum.

Sookhe hoton par bheegi mitti ki khusboo, Tum.

Ret ki aandhi main meri aankhon ki palken, Tum.

Patjhad ki rahon par patton ki rangat, Tum.

Saagar ki leheron main sahare ka tinka, Tum.

Akeli sharmati parchai ki sangini, Tum.

Jagti ghabrayi neendon ka sapna, Tum.

Dhund ki subah main ugta suraj, Tum.

Sard tanhayee main makhmali odhni, Tum.

Safed kagaz par shayari ki likhayi, Tum.

Dard ke sharbat mai khuskhus ki thandak, Tum.

Behti nadiyon main chamakti dhoop, Tum.

Oonche parbat par umadta badal, Tum.

Mere sanson ke chalne ki manzil, Tum.

Mujhme mai ka aadhaar, Tum.


Wednesday, March 16, 2005


`Let me out!'
Rage's eyes, blood red, with many a tear,
Shackled in chains of Calm,
Behind her, helpless, in the dark corner, lay Fear.

`Liberty is our right too!'
Hate screamed, voice hoarse from repeated appeal,
Rods of Laughter at the prison gates,
Glistened, hard, like fine tempered steel.

`You all will die a horrible death!'
Demented with pain, Revenge avowed,
Love stood on guard outside the cell,
While the cacophonous voices echoed.

`All of you... Hypocrites! Show mercy, please.'
A tiny whimpering child, Avarice,
Courage stiffened the walls again,
Immune to the sirenical cries.

`We will be freed by master Death! Then...'
Rasped Anguish, with malice rife,
The envelop of Delight, cringed,
Relieved that for now atleast, the master was Life.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Guilty as accused

While the princess talks of agnostic love,
And the muse searches for her inspiration,
I contemplate what pizza toppings,
must be added, from inside and above.

And I am cogitating?

Tresses soaked in lacteous honey,
And life doubting it's own origin,
I can think of nothing but getting wet in the rain,
That too on a radiant day - ain't it funny?

And I am indulgent?

The sad child has lost her vengeance again,
A million wrongs cannot do one puny right,
I just wanted to iron out the wrinkles on my pants,
So that the creases do not leave a nonwashable stain.

And I am unjust?

Left, leaving, long gone, back to home,
Rather be her, than be him, poor man,
I only wrote of two elope with twain,
The answer: four; on all roads to Rome.

And I am illogical?

An aubade to endless sleep,
Fighting conversion with a literate rage,
I instead dreamed of my perfect date,
I danced, sang and counted sheep.

And I am ironic?

Pity the crazy soul, who needs reasons to be,
Ever tried a kiss with a pungent flavour?
I put a tape on every bruise I got,
The gum will join 'em up - you'll see.

And I am faithless?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Me, Myself and Mac

Ah! Finally... My order. The Maharaja Mac always makes me wait more than other run of the mill burgers. A combination of two grilled chicken patties with a smoke-flavoured mayonnaise, fresh onions, tomatoes, processed cheddar cheese in a toasted sesame seeded bun - mmmm... heaven in the palm of my hand. I took the tray from the hands of the girl at the counter. `Thank you.' `You are welcome. Have nice meal.' I went back and snuggled into the solitary table at the corner. After rummaging through my bag for some time, I located the novel I was reading. Swami and Friends, by R. K. Narayan. I've read it a hundred times. It just wants to be read a hundred times more. So I opened the book. `Where was I now? Mmmm... Lets see.. Swami was solving that sum about mangoes.' And as the faint smile stole its way in, on the left corner of my lips, I noticed a group of three teenage girls munching away at the nearby table break into a fresh peal of laughter. `Ahem! Not at me. Must be some silly joke of their own.' I wonder if my lips move when I speak with myself. I went back to the book, and not taking my eyes of the book, I groped at the burger. I had just barely caressed the soft bun with tender hands, when:

What do you think you are doing?

I looked up. I don't see anyone. Who said that?

It is me... Look down mister. What do you think you are doing?

I looked down, and staring me in the face was a very indignant looking burger.

Who... are you? What are you? I mean... have I gone crazy?
Where are your manners boy? Hmmph! Boys these days. No good at all.

I looked around. `No one seems to be bothered by this.' I looked back at `Mac.'

Me: Are you angry?
Mac: I say! Its about time you got that.

Me: But... why?
Mac: Why do you think? Where was your attention? I am not to be trifled with.

Me: But I was not... I was only reading the book.
Mac: Then why eat? Do you read while caressing your girlfriend?

Me: I do not...

Mac: I knew it. Food... Boy... your most trusted lady. And you treat me like a second hand tramp.

Me: I meant to say I do not have a girlfriend.
Mac: Now why am I not surprised.

Me: Sheesh! What is you problem? Just let me have a bite. I am starving.
Mac: Me? Have a problem? You don't even know who you are.

Me: You sound like my blog entries now. Did someone plant you here to drive me crazy? Go away, please, the way you were before.
Mac: Clueless! Absolutely clueless! And to think you write poetry sometimes.

Me: What's wrong with my poetry? Anyway why do you care?
Mac: Oh I care. I power your useless brain. I have to care. The kind you pointless, wishy-washy stuff you write... eeeyuck! I'd vomit myself, except that I do not eat.

Me: But people seem to like it. What do you know?
Mac: Which people, pray, are those? Listen to me boy... how many thoughts in your head have you penned down till date.

Me: Not many.
Mac: Why?

Me: It's... it's just that I do not know what to write. The words do not appear before my eyes. My original idea keeps on running away.
Mac: You do not pay enough attention. Big brother gave you such a nice world to live in. What a waste. You do notice half of it. Why, that kid Swami is better than you are.

Me: It will come to me someday... I have faith...
Mac: Hee hee hee... ho hoo ho!

Ever seen a burger roll over with laughter. It was really funny, except when the mayonnaise got splashed all over my shirt. Suddenly:

Mac: Do not throw that word at me. You do not even know what it means.
Me: I do.

Mac: Nah! You are just using it because of the same reason that most people do these days. It is just the ``in'' thing to say. You ignorant brat. Go wallow in your own self pity. You'll not get any compassion from me. If you know... tell me... What does it mean?
Me: It means I believe.

Mac: In what?
Me: in... in... myself?

Mac: Is that a question or is that an answer?
Me: I am just hungry now.

Mac: Do not change the subject.
Me: Ok! So I do not know. Now what!

I could see the lettuce fall out of Mac... while he was snickering at me. The red tomatoes looked mockingly delicious.

Mac: Big brother is worried about you. He knows.
Me: I do not have clue about what you are talking about.

Mac: Learn. You still have a lot to learn. But there is hope for you yet. You are not afraid to learn as such. You are only afraid of what you might learn in the process.
Me: It is not a pleasant thought you know. Being left alone. That is why I lose myself in books.

Mac: You should try to find yourself. Not in books. Well a little bit perhaps. But find more of you in the world around you. And then you will not be scared.
Me: What if I get lost?

Mac: You can always find me. I am food for your thoughts. So you will always find your thoughts. They will guide you. Prevent you from losing your way. Believe in that. That is where you need to have faith.
Me: Oh.. but...

Mac: No more buts. Now close your eyes. And follow your heart.

I closed my eyes. And I saw a sign form out of the reddest ketchup there ever will be. It said, ``E A T.'' The smile was still there on the left corner of my lips. I could hear the three girls laughing.

And as I picked up Mac for a bite, my tongue frolicking among the succulent fillings...

`Why do you think father gave me this sum? Are the mangoes ripe? He did not tell me that. I am sure the answer is hidden somewhere in the ripeness of the mangoes. Ooooh! I hate the unitary method. Don't you too?'

And I saw Swami make the most angry and flummoxed expression he could muster on his innocent face. `First talking burgers. Now talking books?' I looked around. No one seemed to be bothered by this.

Friday, March 04, 2005

One hour

8am. Today morning.

I look out of the window to find that the sky has turned an ashen gray. `Ah! It is going to rain,' I think. As I am in the shower practicing my best Kishore staccato, I hear the sound of water pouring from the heavens. I wonder, `why the heavenly showers make a different sound than my bathroom one?' As I get dressed and ready to leave for college, the rain pours steady, making a quiet humming noise running through strands of air.

I have to drop dad at the nearby dispensary. He has an appointment with the medical specialist. I check out the rain again. `Wonder if I was the earth and the rain was my fiancee, how would I feel when it fell on me? But why be affianced to someone ephemeral.' I look down, `How wet is the car? Oh I hope the rain stops - the wipers are not working.'

By the time I go down, the rain is no longer falling. `Falling? Why does the rain fall? I mean why fall? Why not float down? Or just appear maybe?' I take out the rag lying at the back of the car to dry the windshield and as I am looking around everywhere except towards the wet windows of my car I see a man walking with an open umbrella. `Surely it is not raining... does he not realize that... should I tell him? Maybe it is still raining wherever he is now.' Dad comes down in the meantime, and I start the car up.

The window is half open, the tar on the road is wet and the sound of blaring horns is trying to scare the wetness out of the air. `Why does the wet road look softer? Will it hurt less if I fall on a wet road?' Red lights, green lights, bullying busses, the ominous police van behind me, unsteady auto-rickshaws and puddles of water. The small child who begs at the traffic crossing, sporting a wide grin hops in front of my car. `She seems happy today.' I drop dad at the dispensary, and the moment he steps out `... Jaane woh kaise log the jinke, pyar ko pyar mila...' `Hemant Kumar. Why this song? I am feeling happy I guess. Is this song happy? I'll ask it the next time I meet it.'

Main gate of the college. `The roads have dried up so soon. Oh.. no!' I park the car. `The sun is out.' I see a streak of sunlight kissing wet muddy cheeks. `Or maybe he is angry with her. He thinks she has been cheating? Why didn't she run away with the rain?'

I walk towards my room. I step into the concrete corridor. Bricks, wires, people, computers, lectures. `I am late for my meeting with the professor.'

`Bye and welcome. Till next time.'

Today morning. 9am.