Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When Daddy's tour in Iraq is extended yet again...

Dear Dr. XX,

Thank you for asking me to consult on aspects of children's socio-emotional development relevant to the Department of Defense's solicitation titled, "Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members."

I was appreciative of the fact that the DoD opened with a historical perspective:

The ability to reach out and communicate with loved ones from areas of conflict is better than at any time in history. Nevertheless, the stresses of deployment might be softened if spouses and especially children could conduct simple conversations with their loved ones in immediate times of stress or prolonged absence. Historically, families have derived comfort and support from photographs or mementos, but current technology SHOULD allow for more personal interactive messages of support. Over 80% of American children between the ages of three and five regularly use computers, and 83% of families have a computer in their home. So, computer-based applications would resonate with children and capture their interest and imagination. The challenge is to design an application that would allow a child to receive comfort from being able to have simple, virtual conversations with a parent who is not available "in-person".

It's wonderful that the military is prepared to spend substantial money to improve the well-being of military families. They may hope families will be more tolerant of repeated and prolonged tours if they can speak with a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence.

Still, I confess I am skeptical of the utility of an artificial intelligence program which mimics parental dialogue. Is there any evidence that children age 3-5 will understand that the avatar on the screen is supposed to be their parent? I wouldn't envy the job of a mother who has to train her 3 year old to comprehend this. (Just think of the bright happy forced energy required in "Let's go say good-night to Daddy!") And once children do understand, how will they sort out that this is an artificial intelligence, not really their parent? Recall young children's difficulty with the "appearance-reality distinction" (documented by Piaget and the American developmental psychologist John Flavell). This may create more confusions: where/what is my father?

Great background-story for a dystopian novel: In the early 21st century, when the protagonist was only three, he was beta-tested on a military AI project...

I saw that spouses were mentioned as possible beneficiaries of the proposed product. Would spouses really take comfort from an AI program saying the couple's tender phrases? Or perhaps the topic proposers are remembering a book they read in the 1970s, "Stepford Wives" -- the AI will be better than a human being because it can cater to the fantasies of the left-behind-spouse.

From a research standpoint, the first step in phase 1, "1. Develop metrics to determine user acceptance, usability, and content requirements" should be completed before anything else is attempted. Indeed, a simple questionnaire for armed services personnel could be sufficient to find out whether an AI could "soften the stresses of deployment." I was surprised this hasn't been done -- but indeed, the references section was about what one would expect from an undergraduate term paper -- idiosyncratic, showing little awareness of background research in the relevant scientific disciplines.

One more question: Do you have any thoughts on why the DoD does not simply try to provide (more) real-time video computer connection (as is possible with skype and ichat)?



Note: I learned about this project by receiving a request to be a consultant, but after googling saw that bloggers have already called it a "Creepy government project."

(And I really wanted to development AIs back when I was a teenager at the dawn of modern computing...)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy Year New! And use your card credit to pay those fees legal, you thank

A good friend who I knew when she was in grad school in Boston used to mess around with visual illusions of the wordy kind -- top-down expectations influencing subjective phenomenology. After 10 years that project got written up, published in Consciousness and Cognition, and now science bloggers are writing about it!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring

Published on Thursday, December 18, 2008 by
Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring
by Gary Olson
In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that "The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology." One hopes so. The financial system's collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.

For the last few years I've been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another's shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it's compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni's superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.

However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public's appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain intrepretations of human nature have functioned to override empathic responses. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions."

We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society's prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci's writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as "common sense." It isn't that individual deviations don't occur within the interstices of society but generally they don't threaten elite control.

If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.

Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.

Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.

Of course there are also predatory and cruel urges within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of "natural" hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that "No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence." Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How razor-sharp is your wit? Test your skills against the RYS experts

How did I stumble upon "Rate your students?" Well... I've been pummeled and left for dead countless times on, rejoindered on "Professors Strike Back!" and even debated the two sites with college journalism students at my uni. So it was natural for me to start hanging out round the campus water cooler.

RYS is the site where I finally accepted that "extreme" is the new edgy, something it took me a while to understand.

Offensive, ridiculous, over-the-top, pin-your-ears-back -- its gotta be extreme to capture eyeballs on today's web. I first heard this (but didn't "get" it)' when my blogging mentor emailed me that I should not have been caterwauling over Sarah Faith Alterman's self-confessed "Americaphile asshole" attitude towards my precious China. Just back from my sabbatical in Beijing, I was mortified at her attitude and sent a big F-U to her and the Phoenix, a much-admired weekly here in Boston (my comment is at the end of her article). My mentor emailed me to pipe down, Alterman's sarcasm was pretty typical for today's humorous, edgy journalism.

My second example was hearing (uh... reading) a lit blogger referred to as "James Wood's fluffer" over in the comments section of Contra James Wood. Now, I myself probably barely know what "fluffer" means, but I know it is, like, really, really insulting -- What if the lit blogger read that??? But if extreme is the new edgy, then the lit blogger maybe grinned, what the hell, more eye balls (and search engines) are grazing on my name, thanks CJW.

But how does one learn how to write edgy? I tell my students you learn by doing -- AND getting feedback.

So here's the game (or the training regimen). You regularly read RYS. You imagine how you would respond to the current "Big thirsty." Maybe even write something. Maybe even send it in. It doesn't make it on the site. And then your eyeballs blow out when you read what did get published.

Now, I don't mean to claim that RYS only posts the nasty, Tabasco-on-the-lip screeching screeds (although I will blog about that in my next post). Frequently, it just prints the funniest stuff, with that ring of truth. First it makes you laugh, then it makes you think about the times when that really happened to you.

Such as: The professoriat's response to "The ideal campus visit." H laughed out loud as I read him gems like.... Nope, can't read just one. Run, do not walk to RYS and read'em all.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Can we shall together? A Found Poem

To me of 28 years.
Growth 171 see dark, eyes beautiful,
a figure sports.
Formation the maximum.

On character kind,
sympathetic and quiet.
Not for the husband.
Children while are not present.

I live in very beautiful city - Cheboksariy.
My hobbies - music, sports, housekeeping, knitting.
Music, from classical up to modern.
I love sports,
I like to prepare and be engaged in house affairs.

Yet has not met that the man to which could trust and pass on
a vital way to a place and consequently I dream
to get acquainted for serious attitudes
with kind, good, cultural and clever the man.
Where you wash the unique and tender reliable friend??!!

With greater impatience I look forward to hearing from you Masha!!!

Editor's note: Our experts have identified this poem as a low match to the vocabulary and grammar of a human English speaker, and suggest the English was produced by translation from Russian by a computer program.

From HumanProject: Dear Masha. Your poem reminds me of the words of the famous cultural anthropologist Edward Hall, who wrote, "... good art persists and art that releases its message all at once does not."

I am still pondering the meaning of "Children while are not present." I imagine. They are away back home, being taken care of by a woman who is my age, a youngish Babushka, a clerk in a government office. You miss your children and they you, but they know you are hard at the business of using your lovely brown eyes to secure their future.

Masha's email available on request.