Can AI Learn From The Moon?

The Apollo 11 moon landing remains one of the greatest achievements in human endeavour and demonstrated what can be achieved through the combination of technology and people. But are there there any lessons for today’s emerging technology that can be taken from a decades old project?

I remember watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on a black and white television and picking up on the excitement of the announcers reporting on every stage of the moon landing. Even today the whistle-beep sound punctuating communication between the astronauts and Huston brings back memories of early July in 1969. Since then I have always been fascinated by the technology that carried three people: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, in something that seemed no bigger than a large skip over 235,000 miles, land them on the moon and then bring them safely back.

Winding the clock forward to today and we are abounding in new technology that is breaking into all areas of life from the production of food to medicine and transportation. But one - Artificial Intelligence - has caught the publics attention. Articles fill the newspapers and the web about AI and journalists, within a few paragraphs, link the eventual demise of human life from the technology with their imagination heightened by films such as The Matrix, The Terminator and epitomised by the sinister computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Artificial Intelligence is a technology that has been developing since the mid 1940s and started with the development of a mathematical model for a neuron: the basic unit of a human brain. Its development has accelerated in the last ten years by the increase in computing power for less cost, and the capability of gathering what feels like the near infinite amount of data. Artificial Intelligence uses the mathematical model of a neuron in a simplistic way to simulate a neuron in the brain and when connected together in a network it is used to “learn” by analysing data. For example, being able to distinguish between the pictures of cats and dogs. But AI can neither explain nor do they understand which are some of the key characteristics of being human. Also, the largest number of neurons used in the current applications of Artificial Intelligence are in the millions whereas the best estimate for the neurons in a human brain is 100 billion or 100,000,000,000. Even if a computer could handle the same number of neurons as a human brain then how they connect to each other to create the wide range of human characteristics would propbably remain a mystery for a very long time. However, there are a number of applications of Artificial Intelligence that are in everyday use. For example, communicating with people, in systems such as Siri and Alexa and guiding our purchase of goods and services with, Amazon and Netflix. I am sure that technology will continue to develop and become a greater part of our lives, and the concerns about acting more like a human are starting to be researched in projects such as DAPRA’s project: Building Trusted Human-Machine Partnerships

Behind the Apollo 11 moon landing there were thousands and thousands of people involved who covered a wide range of skills. But there was one area that fascinated me most which was the design of the software that kept the space craft on its flight path and safely landed the astronauts on the moon. But even using state of the art software there were two potentially serious events that could have ended in tragedy. The first event was the computer overloaded with extraneous data just as they were about to land and the mission could have been aborted. The ground controllers and Neil Armstrong knew that by restarting the computer it would would keep the essential programs running for the landing and the mission continued. However, a second problem started to loom. Neil Armstrong’s attention was drawn by the appearance of a rocky crater that the guidance system was taking them too. It was to late to retarget the computer for a different trajectory. Instead, he took over the landing from the computer and manoeuvred across the crater and landed at Tranquility Base.

What can be learned form the moon landing? Without the intervention of the astronauts the mission would either of been aborted or ended in tragedy. Without the technology the astronauts would not have reached the moon. One depended on the other. Therefore it is important to keep people at the centre of the technology and that they fully understand its limits. Artificial Intelligence will bring many benefits but only if it enhances people’s capabilities rather than replace them!

Different Perspectives

Although I can’t draw without the aid of a ruler and the limits of my painting skills are decorating, I have always found the paintings produced by an artist fascinating. It was this fascination that took me down to David Hockney’s The Bigger Picture exhibition in the Royal Academy a few years ago.

Jostling for position around the paintings, the words of the American author Jerzy Kosinski were rolling around in my mind “The principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.” Eventually I found enough space to take in a large picture of a woodland scene. Questions started to build up: was there a wind pushing the leaves to point along the path? why the choice of colours which felt like a Walt Disney production? What was the artist trying to evoke?

Out of the corner of my eye a tall figure with bushy grey hair, and long sideburns, caught my attention as he leaned closer to the painting. His thick fingers lifted up his glasses and propped them onto his forehead, and slowly took in the picture. Then spoke in a low voice, ‘Why .. why .. why?’ Pulling himself straight he slowly pulled his glasses down and looked up and with one final ‘why?’ I froze. Up to that point in time I had been absorbed in the painting trying to work out my own interpretation. Now my thoughts were being being interrupted by a stranger. I turned to see a man in a crisp light blue jacket and an open necked which gave him an air of authority. He turned his rugged face to me and his blue eyes seemed to widen as if to reinforce the question. But before I could try and find a reply he went on, ‘Why is there so much of it? It is far to big and overblown?’ he paused, then nodding his head, continued, ‘It is it so crude’. He then turned back to me. I scrambled for a few thoughts, after all this is David Hockney one of the greatest living artists, he must have been trying to say something. I started to reply, ‘I don’t know but there is something I like about it.’ He turned back to the picture and waving his right hand as though he was painting each line rattled off: ‘Picaso, Brueghel, or a Van Gogh, Picasso, Fauve or even a Frederick Gove may have influenced him, but he has failed!’ Some of the artists I had heard of, some I hadn’t. Then shaking his head again, ‘He was such a talented draughtsman …each touch of the brush capturing something about his subjects. Shrugging his shoulders, ‘Where has it gone, its as if the technology that he dabbles with has robbed him of his skills.’ At last I found a few words, ‘But isn’t he trying to tell us something about the countryside?’ I felt that this was a weak reply, and quickly followed on ‘Isn’t he trying to look at it differently?’ There I thought, I had replied, and hoping that the discussion was closed. But he came back, ‘In what way?’ After large parts of my life living in the countryside, I felt that I could reply with some confidence, ‘Look it is not a picture of the countryside, but for me’, stressing the me, ‘the exaggeration of colour and textures is making me think about looking more closely at woods, what am I really seeing?’ He turned and looked at me square on then turned his head to look at the picture then turned back to face me. By then people were starting to gather around us straining to find what was going on. ‘Money’ the man grunted - he stood back and looked around and in a tone that felt he had drawn a conclusion ‘money!’’, what we have paid to see this is propping up RA so that it can keep rolling out this sort of rubbish! He them turned and pointed to somewhere outside of the building, ‘It would be better up for sale on those railings across the way.’

Coming through from the next gallery I saw a security guard moving towards us. I turned back to the stranger and he gone! I never saw him again.

Later that day, on the train back to Crewe, I couldn’t get the stranger out of my mind. Who was he? Why did David Hockney’s work evoke such a reaction in him. I still liked the picture, but I couldn’t put my finger on why, and maybe that is what art does - no easy answers. I’ll never get a chance to ask David Hockney what he was trying to express or what feelings he was tying to evoke. But I continue to look more intensely at the composition of trees and plants when I walk through the local woods and maybe that is what is meant by the bigger picture.

Surely You're Joking, Prof. Wittgenstein!

Jokes and philosophy are an odd combination. Philosophy is mainly academic in flavour; full of terminology that locks most people out. Jokes make most people laugh. However Norman Malcolm wrote in Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, that Wittgenstein remarked “that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes ( without being facetious )”. Jokes? Philosophy? Further investigation is required.

Jokes come in many forms: puns, funny gestures, pranks, irony, sarcasm, nonsense etc. Anything that in general makes us laughs. Comedians, of whom there are many fine examples, deliver jokes. Not a stand-up philosopher. Apart from a comedian’s sense of timing in delivering a joke, they can use gestures. Watch any clip of Tommy Cooper and you’re laughing before he speaks! All skills that a philosopher lacks.

However, Wittgenstein is clear: jokes need to be written down and therefore they must make the reader laugh without the aid of speaking or gestures. Some jokes that are delivered by a comedian can be funny in writing, in particular one-liners, for example one from Tim Vine “Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels.” Wittgenstein also stresses that the jokes have not to be facetious. No “why did the chicken cross the road ?” type jokes. Also, he was not considering jokes about philosophers but rather about philosophical problems.

So what was Wittgenstein on about? It is difficult to image Wittgenstein laughing at a joke. He was mostly in a state of tension with periodic bouts of suicidal thoughts. Although there are some remarks in Wittgenstein’s work about humour and jokes, they are never developed enough to gain any insight.

Early in his life Wittgenstein read the philosophical works of Schopenhauer which may have influenced his ideas on the connection between jokes and philosophy. Schopenhauer’s view was that a joke lies in an object that can, at a stretch, be classified under a concept, even though it differs greatly from the objects usually classification. We laugh involuntarily when we grasp the inconsistency: when we see the object doesn’t really fit the concept after all. Sounds complicated but an example may illustrate what he is getting at. Amongst the many Spike Milligan jokes that makes me laugh is: “A man loses his dog, so he puts an ad in the paper. And the ad says, ‘Here, boy!’” The phrase ‘Here boy’ said within the context of a man walking his dog in a park we immediately understand without any problems or confusion, if not irritated when we are trying to soak up the sun. However when we move the context by placing the phrase in a newspaper we laugh at the inconsistency.

Wittgenstein’s view was that problems in philosophy arise when there is a failure to recognise that the words being used have lost their sense. When we come across a misuse of words, when they have lost their meaning, they could create an inconsistency. And rather than spending lots of time puzzling over the meaning of the sentence we should grasp it for what it is: nonsense, laugh, and move on.

So how would it work? My attempt is based on solipsism, the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist, and goes ‘A man thought he was the only person in the world, until he looked in the mirror’. Would Wittgenstein have laughed? Maybe not but I would hope for a wry smile.

Talking About Wittgenstein

My interest in Wittgenstein was developed further through television. There were a few programmes about his life and work which were aimed at a broad audience and I found them very absorbing. The following is a collection of those programmes that can now be found on the web.

In Christopher Sykes’ BBC Horizon documentary Wittgenstein is brought to life through anecdotes from people that knew him, his letters to friends and commentaries on his work:

A series of programmes that I always looked forward to was the BBC’s The Great Philosophers with Brian Magee. The series covered the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, among others, and ended with a discussion with John Searle on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. In their discussion they cover Wittgenstein’s legacy; ranging from his early work, the Tractatus, to his posthumously published, Philosophical Investigations. Although the thought of two philosophers in deep discussion about Wittgenstein may feel daunting Brian Magee keeps the discussion at a level that is very accessible to the the non-academic:

The quality of the writing in the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations were mentioned in the discussion and the following sections show the difference in approach and style between the two works. First a section from the Tractatus that discusses language and the nature of philosophy:

4.001   The totality of propositions is the language.

4.002   Man possesses the capacity of constructing languages, in which every sense can be expressed, without having an idea how and what each word means—just as one speaks without knowing how the single sounds are produced.

Colloquial language is a part of the human organism and is not less complicated than it. From it it is humanly impossible to gather immediately the logic of language.

Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.

The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated.

4.003   Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language.

(They are of the same kind as the question whether the Good is more or less identical than the Beautiful.)

And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.

The following section is from the Philosophical Investigation and discusses again language and the nature of philosophy:

122 .  A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.—Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connexions'. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases. The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a 'Weltanschauung'?)

123 . A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about".

124 . Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it. A "leading problem of mathematical logic" is for us a problem of mathematics like any other.

125 . It is the business of philosophy, not to resolve a contradiction by means of a mathematical or logico-mathematical discovery, but to make it possible for us to get a clear view of the state of mathematics that troubles us: the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved. (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty.) The fundamental fact here is that we lay down rules, a technique, for a game, and that then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we had assumed. That we are therefore as it were entangled in our own rules.

This entanglement in our rules is what we want to understand (i.e. get a clear view of). It throws light on our concept of meaning something. For in those cases things turn out otherwise than we had meant, foreseen. That is just what we say when, for example, a contradiction appears: "I didn't mean it like that."
The civil status of a contradiction, or its status in civil life: there is the philosophical problem.

126 . Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.—Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.

One might also give the name "philosophy" to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions.

127 . The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

It would have been fascinating, although daunting, to have attended one of Wittgenstein’s lectures at Cambridge University. His rooms were in Trinity College and they had a large view of the sky and also of Cambridge roofs. They were were sparsely furnished and extremely clean with a deck chair, or two, and virtually nothing else. His lectures were given without preparation and without notes. He would openly struggle with his own thoughts about a philosophical problem and passionately question his own thinking as well as those of the students. The closest example of what it would have been like experiencing one of his lectures is from Derek Jarmin’s film Wittgenstein:

Although Wittgenstein never committed to any formal religion he had a lifelong interest in religion and claimed: “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” In television series Sea of Faith Don Cupitt gives a different aspect on Wittgenstein’s life and work. The clip starts with a short introduction about previous religious thinkers:

On First Reading Wittgenstein

Over the years, a handful of books have pointed my curiosity in new directions. But there is one book that is still opening up new areas to explore.

In the late 70’s, after completing my first degree in Agricultural Engineering, there was a sudden drop in the job market as many manufacturers left the UK. I have always, and still do, enjoy mathematics and decided that I had better job prospects building up my mathematical skills. Cranfield University provided a course that took engineers, programmers, and scientists and developed their mathematical skills to Masters level in Applied Mathematics.

The course was full of mathematical terminology that was strange to me and I struggled. Luckily a normal day was structured with lectures in the morning and then we were free in the afternoon to catch up with the work. Most of my fellow students went back to their rooms in the hall of residence but I stayed in the students room at the end of the maths block along with one other, Mike. Mike was much older than me and after a BSc in mathematics had been writing software for the Civil Service. The course was a way to get a better job to support his increasing family. I was sure that I irritated him with my many questions about mathematical problems but with great patience he always had an answer.

During summer, the maths building would get very warm and to cool down I would go to the library situated in the middle of the campus. It had high ceilings and big windows and was well stocked with mathematics books that I could search through to help with the course work. One day I found a copy of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whithead’s three large volumes of the Principia Mathematica which was their attempt to establish the foundations of mathematics. It was notorious in world of mathematics for taking over four hundred pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. I could read the first few pages but my eyes glazed over when logical symbols filled the pages. On returning to the maths department I asked Mike if he knew of anybody who had ever read the three volumes. He replied that there was at least four people: the authors, Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I had heard of Gödel because I attended a seminar held in the department, which was way beyond my comprehension. But not Wittgenstein. Mike went on and described how he came from a very rich family in Vienna, started as an engineer and became interested in mathematics and its foundations. After studying with Russell he produced not one but two great works in philosophy the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. The thought of an engineer turning out to be a great philosopher gave me a some hope with my mathematical struggles.

A few days later I was walking past the campus book shop and I dropped in my my regular visit. It contained text books that covered the wide variety of course that the Institute offered. However, I was surprised to come across a copy of the Tractatus. I read a few pages and, although I didn’t understand, it caught my attention with its short sentences that had the appearance of logical statement yet have a poetic feel to them:

1 The world is everything that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

I bought the book.

Over the months of reading the Tractatus it emerged that it was not a text book about philosophy but a solution to all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein’s approach was to recognise that when we misuse language then words can lose their meaning and when meaningless words are used they lead to problems in philosophy. The Tractatus was an attempt to show when words lose their meaning and when this happens in the case of philosophy the problems disappear.

I successfully graduated in Applied Mathematics, and over the years gathered many books and papers, about Wittgenstein and his work, including his second philosophical work the Philosophical Investigations. The Philosophical Investigations criticised large sections of the Tractatus and developed a new approach to identify when words lose their meaning.

Wittgenstein’s work is full of sharp observations about the use of language in a wide range of subjects ranging from mathematics and logic to music, religion and culture. I continue to enjoy exploring these subjects which I probably wouldn’t have explored if it hadn’t been for a chance conversation that lit my curiosity.