“Have you ever thought that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…”

Human beings love nostalgia, perhaps strangely. For all the success of various self-help gurus and such telling us to ‘live in the moment’, there are few things more satisfying than sitting back and letting the memories flow over us, with rose-tinted spectacles all set up and in position. Looking back on our past may conjure up feelings of longing, of contentment, of pride or even resentment of the modern day when considering ‘the good old days’, but nobody can doubt how comforting the experience often is.

The real strangeness of nostalgia comes from how irrational it is; when analysing the facts of a given time period, whether in one’s own life or in a historical sense, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the past is usually as bad as the present day, for some different and many of the same reasons. The older generations have, for example, have always thought that current chart music (for any time period’s definition of ‘current’) is not as good as when they were a teenager, that their younger peers have less respect than they should, and that culture is on a downward spiral into chaos and mayhem that will surely begin within the next couple of years. Or at least so the big book of English middle class stereotypes tells me. The point is that the idea that the modern day is worse than those that have gone before is an endless one, and since at no point in history have we ever been rolling in wealth, freedom, happiness and general prosperity it is a fairly simple process to conclude that things have not, in fact, actually been getting worse. At the very least, whilst in certain areas the world probably is worse than it was, say, 30 years ago (the USA’s relationship with the Middle East, the drugs trade, the number of One Direction fans on planet Earth and so on), from other standpoints it could be said that our world is getting continually better; consider the scientific and technological advancements of the last two decades, or the increasing acceptance the world seems to have for certain sections of its society (the LGBT community and certain racial minorities spring to mind). Basically, the idea that everything was somehow genuinely better in the past is an irrational one, and thus nostalgia is a rather irrational idea.

What then, is the cause of nostalgia; why do we find it so comforting, why is it so common to yearn for ‘good old days’ that, often, never truly were?

Part of the answer may lie in the nature of childhood, the period most commonly associated with nostalgia. Childhood in humans is an immensely interesting topic; no other animal enjoys a period of childhood lasting around a quarter of its total lifespan (indeed, if humans today lived as long as they did in the distant past, around half their life would be spent in the stage we nowadays identify as childhood), and the reasons for this could (and probably will one day) make up an entire post of their own. There is still a vast amount we do not know about how our bodies, particularly in terms of the brain, develop during this period of our lives, but what we can say with some certainty is that our perception of the world as a child is fundamentally different from our perception as adults. Whether it be the experience we do not yet have, the relative innocence of childhood, some deep neurological effect we do not yet know about or simply a lack of care for the outside world, the world as experienced by a child is generally a small, simple one. Children, more so the younger we are but to a lesser extent continuing through into the teenage years, tend to be wrapped up in their own little world; what Timmy did in the toilets at school today is, quite simply, the biggest event in human history to date. What the current prime minister is doing to the economy, how the bills are going to get paid this month, the ups and downs of marriages and relationships; none matter to a childhood mind, and with hindsight we are well aware of it. There is a reason behind the oft-stated (as well as slightly depressing and possibly wrong) statement that ‘schooldays are the best of your life’. As adults we forget that, as kids, we did have worries, there was horrible stuff in the world and we were unhappy, often; it’s just that, because childhood worries are so different and ignore so many of the big things that would have troubled us were we adults at the time, we tend to regard them as trivial, with the benefit of that wonderful thing that is hindsight.

However, this doesn’t account so well for nostalgia that hits when we enter our teenage years and later life; for stuff like music, for example, which also is unlikely to have registered in our pre-teen days. To explain this, we must consider the other half of the nostalgia explanation; the simple question of perception. It is an interesting fact that some 70-80% of people consider themselves to be an above-average driver, and it’s not hard to see why; we may see a few hundred cars on our commute into work or school, but will only ever remember that one bastard who cut us up at the lights. Even though it represents a tiny proportion of all the drivers we ever see, bad driving is still a common enough occurrence that we feel the majority of drivers must do such stupid antics on a regular basis, and that we are a better driver than said majority.

And the same applies to nostalgia. Many things will have happened to us during our younger days; we will hear some good music, and ignore a lot of crap music. We will have plenty of dull, normal schooldays, and a couple that are absolutely spectacular (along with a few terrible ones). And we will encounter many aspects of the world, be they news stories, encounters with people or any of the other pieces of random ‘stuff’ that makes up our day-to-day lives, that will either feel totally neutral to us, make us feel a little bit happy or make us slightly annoyed, exactly the same stuff that can sometimes make us feel like our current existence is a bit crappy. But all we will ever remember are the extremes; the stuff that filled us with joy, and the darkest and most memorable of horrors. And so, when we look back on our younger days, we smile sadly to ourselves as we remember those good times. All the little niggly bad things, all the dull moments, they don’t feature on our internal viewfinder. In our head, there really were ‘good old days’. Our head is, however, not a terribly reliable source when it comes to such things.

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The Chinese Room

Today marks the start of another attempt at a multi-part set of posts- the last lot were about economics (a subject I know nothing about), and this one will be about computers (a subject I know none of the details about). Specifically, over the next… however long it takes, I will be taking a look at the subject of artificial intelligence- AI.

There have been a long series of documentaries on the subject of robots, supercomputers and artificial intelligence in recent years, because it is a subject which seems to be in the paradoxical state of continually advancing at a frenetic rate, and simultaneously finding itself getting further and further away from the dream of ‘true’ artificial intelligence which, as we begin to understand more and more about psychology, neuroscience and robotics, becomes steadily more complicated and difficult to obtain. I could spend a thousand posts on the subject of all the details if I so wished, because it is also one of the fastest-developing regions of engineering on the planet, but that would just bore me and be increasingly repetitive for anyone who ends up reading this blog.

I want to begin, therefore, by asking a few questions about the very nature of artificial intelligence, and indeed the subject of intelligence itself, beginning with a philosophical problem that, when I heard about it on TV a few nights ago, was very intriguing to me- the Chinese Room.

Imagine a room containing only a table, a chair, a pen, a heap of paper slips, and a large book. The door to the room has a small opening in it, rather like a letterbox, allowing messages to be passed in or out. The book contains a long list of phrases written in Chinese, and (below them) the appropriate responses (also in Chinese characters). Imagine we take a non-Chinese speaker, and place him inside the room, and then take a fluent Chinese speaker and put them outside. They write a phrase or question (in Chinese) on some paper, and pass it through the letterbox to the other person inside the room. They have no idea what this message means, but by using the book they can identify the phrase, write the appropriate response to it, and pass it back through the letterbox. This process can be repeated multiple times, until a conversation begins to flow- the difference being that only one of the participants in the conversation actually knows what it’s about.

This experiment is a direct challenge to the somewhat crude test first proposed by mathematical genius and codebreaker Alan Turing in the 1940’s, to test whether a computer could be considered a truly intelligent being. The Turing test postulates that if a computer were ever able to conduct a conversation with a human so well that the human in question would have no idea that they were not talking to another human, but rather to a machine, then it could be considered to be intelligent.

The Chinese Room problem questions this idea, and as it does so, raises a fundamental question about whether a machine such as a computer can ever truly be called intelligent, or to possess intelligence. The point of the idea is to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to appear to be intelligent, by conducting a normal conversation with someone, whilst simultaneously having no understanding whatsoever of the situation at hand. Thus, while a machine programmed with the correct response to any eventuality could converse completely naturally, and appear perfectly human, it would have no real conciousness. It would not be truly intelligent, it would merely be just running an algorithm, obeying the orders of the instructions in its electronic brain, working simply from the intelligence of the person who programmed in its orders. So, does this constitute intelligence, or is a conciousness necessary for something to be deemed intelligent?

This really boils down to a question of opinion- if something acts like it’s intelligent and is intelligent for all functional purposes, does that make it intelligent? Does it matter that it can’t really comprehend it’s own intelligence? John Searle, who first thought of the Chinese Room in the 1980’s, called the philosophical positions on this ‘strong AI’ and ‘weak AI’. Strong AI basically suggest that functional intelligence is intelligence to all intents and purposes- weak AI argues that the lack of true intelligence renders even the most advanced and realistic computer nothing more than a dumb machine.

However, Searle also proposes a very interesting idea that is prone to yet more philosophical debate- that our brains are mere machines in exactly the same way as computers are- the mechanics of the brain, deep in the unexplored depths of the fundamentals of neuroscience, are just machines that tick over and perform tasks in the same way as AI does- and that there is some completely different and non-computational mechanism that gives rise to our mind and conciousness.

But what if there is no such mechanism? What if the rise of a conciousness is merely the result of all the computational processes going on in our brain- what if conciousness is nothing more than a computational process itself, designed to give our brains a way of joining the dots and processing more efficiently. This is a quite frightening thought- that we could, in theory, be only restrained into not giving a computer a conciousness because we haven’t written the proper code yet. This is one of the biggest unanswered questions of modern science- what exactly is our mind, and what causes it.

To fully expand upon this particular argument would take time and knowledge that I don’t have in equal measure, so instead I will just leave that last question for you to ponder over- what is the difference between the box displaying these words for you right now, and the fleshy lump that’s telling you what they mean.