Human-Like Computing

Last week I attended an EPSRC workshop on “Human-Like Computing“.

The delegate pack offered a tentative definition:

“offering the prospect of computation which is akin to that of humans, where learning and making sense of information about the world around us can match our human performance.” [E16]

However, the purpose of this workshop was to clarify, and expand on this, exploring what it might mean for computers to become more like humans.

It was an interdisciplinary meeting with some participants coming from more technical disciplines such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and Robotics; others from psychology or studying human and animal behaviour; and some, like myself, from HCI or human factors, bridging the two.


Perhaps the first question is why one might even want more human-like computing.

There are two obvious reasons:

(i) Because it is a good model to emulate — Humans are able to solve some problems, such as visual pattern finding, which computers find hard. If we can understand human perception and cognition, then we may be able to design more effective algorithms. For example, in my own work colleagues and I have used models based on spreading activation and layers of human memory when addressing ‘web scale reasoning’ [K10,D10].

robot-3-clip-sml(ii) For interacting with people — There is considerable work in HCI in making computers easier to use, but there are limitations. Often we are happy for computers to be simply ‘tools’, but at other times, such as when your computer notifies you of an update in the middle of a talk, you wish it had a little more human understanding. One example of this is recent work at Georgia Tech teaching human values to artificial agents by reading them stories! [F16]

To some extent (i) is simply the long-standing area of nature-inspired or biologically-inspired computing. However, the combination of computational power and psychological understanding mean that perhaps we are the point where new strides can be made. Certainly, the success of ‘deep learning’ and the recent computer mastery of Go suggest this. In addition, by my own calculations, for several years the internet as a whole has had more computational power than a single human brain, and we are very near the point when we could simulate a human brain in real time [D05b].

Both goals, but particularly (ii), suggest a further goal:

(iii) new interaction paradigms — We will need to develop new ways to design for interacting with human-like agents and robots, not least how to avoid the ‘uncanny valley’ and how to avoid the appearance of over-competence that has bedevilled much work in this broad area. (see more later)

Both goals also offer the potential for a fourth secondary goal:

(iv) learning about human cognition — In creating practical computational algorithms based in human qualities, we may come to better understand human behaviour, psychology and maybe even society. For example, in my own work on modelling regret (see later), it was aspects of the computational model that highlighted the important role of ‘positive regret’ (“the grass is greener on the other side”) to hep us avoid ‘local minima’, where we stick to the things we know and do not explore new options.

Human or superhuman?

Of course humans are not perfect, do we want to emulate limitations and failings?

For understanding humans (iv), the answer is probably “yes”, and maybe by understanding human fallibility we may be in a better position to predict and prevent failures.

Similarly, for interacting with people (ii), the agents should show at least some level of human limitations (even if ‘put on’); for example, a chess program that always wins would not be much fun!

However, for simply improving algorithms, goal (i), we may want to get the ‘best bits’, from human cognition and merge with the best aspects of artificial computation. Of course it maybe that the frailties are also the strengths, for example, the need to come to decisions and act in relatively short timescales (in terms of brain ‘ticks’) may be one way in which we avoid ‘over learning’, a common problem in machine learning.

In addition, the human mind has developed to work with the nature of neural material as a substrate, and the physical world, both of which have shaped the nature of human cognition.

Very simple animals learn purely by Skinner-like response training, effectively what AI would term sub-symbolic. However, this level of learning require many exposures to similar stimuli. For more rare occurrences, which do not occur frequently within a lifetime, learning must be at the, very slow pace of genetic development of instincts. In contrast, conscious reasoning (symbolic processing) allows us to learn through a single or very small number of exposures; ideal for infrequent events or novel environments.

Big Data means that computers effectively have access to vast amounts of ‘experience’, and researchers at Google have remarked on the ‘Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data’ [H09] that allows problems, such as translation, to be tackled in a statistical or sub-symbolic way which previously would have been regarded as essentially symbolic.

Google are now starting to recombine statistical techniques with more knowledge-rich techniques in order to achieve better results again. As humans we continually employ both types of thinking, so there are clear human-like lessons to be learnt, but the eventual system will not have the same ‘balance’ as a human.

If humans had developed with access to vast amounts of data and maybe other people’s experience directly (rather than through culture, books, etc.), would we have developed differently? Maybe we would do more things unconsciously that we do consciously. Maybe with enough experience we would never need to be conscious at all!

More practically, we need to decide how to make use of this additional data. For example, learning analytics is becoming an important part of educational practice. If we have an automated tutor working with a child, how should we make use of the vast body of data about other tutors interactions with other children?   Should we have a very human-like tutor that effectively ‘reads’ learning analytics just as a human tutor would look at a learning ‘dashboard’? Alternatively, we might have a more loosely human-inspired ‘hive-mind’ tutor that ‘instinctively’ makes pedagogic choices based on the overall experience of all tutors, but maybe in an unexplainable way?

What could go wrong …

There have been a number of high-profile statements in the last year about the potential coming ‘singularity’ (when computers are clever enough to design new computers leading to exponential development), and warnings that computers could become sentient, Terminator-style, and take over.

There was general agreement at the workshop this kind of risk was overblown and that despite breakthroughs, such as the mastery of Go, these are still very domain limited. It is many years before we have to worry about even general intelligence in robots, let alone sentience.

A far more pressing problem is that of incapable computers, which make silly mistakes, and the way in which people, maybe because of the media attention to the success stories, assume that computers are more capable than they are!

Indeed, over confidence in algorithms is not just a problem for the general public, but also among computing academics, as I found in my personal experience on the REF panel.

There are of course many ethical and legal issues raised as we design computer systems that are more autonomous. This is already being played out with driverless cars, with issues of insurance and liability. Some legislators are suggesting allowing driverless cars, but only if there is a drive there to take control … but if the car relinquishes control, how do you safely manage the abrupt change?

Furthermore, while the vision of autonomous robots taking over the world is still far fetched; more surreptitious control is already with us. Whether it is Uber cabs called by algorithm, or simply Google’s ranking of search results prompting particular holiday choices, we all to varying extents doing “what the computer tells us”. I recall in the Dalek Invasion of Earth, the very un-human-like Daleks could not move easily amongst the rubble of war-torn London. Instead they used ‘hypnotised men’ controlled by some form of neural headset. If the Daleks had landed today and simply taken over or digitally infected a few cloud computing services would we know?


Sometimes it is sufficient to have a ‘black box’ that makes decisions and acts. So long as it works we are happy. However, a key issue for many ethical and legal issues, but also for practical interaction, is the ability to be able to interrogate a system, so seek explanations of why a decision has been made.

Back in 1992 I wrote about these issues [D92], in the early days when neural networks and other forms of machine learning were being proposed for a variety of tasks form controlling nuclear fusion reactions to credit scoring. One particular scenario, was if an algorithm were used to pre-sort large numbers of job applications. How could you know whether the algorithms were being discriminatory? How could a company using such algorithms defend themselves if such an accusation were brought?

One partial solution then, as now, was to accept underlying learning mechanisms may involve emergent behaviour form statistical, neural network or other forms of opaque reasoning. However, this opaque initial learning process should give rise to an intelligible representation. This is rather akin to a judge who might have a gut feeling that a defendant is guilty or innocent, but needs to explicate that in a reasoned legal judgement.

This approach was exemplified by Query-by-Browsing, a system that creates queries from examples (using a variant of ID3), but then converts this in SQL queries. This was subsequently implemented [D94] , and is still running as a web demonstration.

For many years I have argued that it is likely that our ‘logical’ reasoning arises precisely form this need to explain our own tacit judgement to others. While we simply act individually, or by observing the actions of others, this can be largely tacit, but as soon as we want others to act in planned collaborate ways, for example to kill a large animal, we need to convince them. Once we have the mental mechanisms to create these explanations, these become internalised so that we end up with internal means to question our own thoughts and judgement, and even use them constructively to tackle problems more abstract and complex than found in nature. That is dialogue leads to logic!


We split into groups and discussed scenarios as a means to understand the potential challenges for human-like computing. Over multiple session the group I was in discussed one man scenario and then a variant.

Paramedic for remote medicine

The main scenario consisted of a patient far form a central medical centre, with an intelligent local agent communicating intermittently and remotely with a human doctor. Surprisingly the remote aspect of the scenario was not initially proposed by me thinking of Tiree, but by another member of the group thinking abut some of the remote parts of the Scottish mainland.

The local agent would need to be able communicate with the patient, be able to express a level of empathy, be able to physically examine (needing touch sensing, vision), and discuss symptoms. On some occasions, like a triage nurse, the agent might be sufficiently certain to be able to make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. However, at other times it may need to pass on to the remote doctor, being able to describe what had been done in terms of examination, symptoms observed, information gathered from the patient, in the same way that a paramedic does when handing over a patient to the hospital. However, even after the handover of responsibility, the local agent may still form part of the remote diagnosis, and maybe able to take over again once the doctor has determined an overall course of action.

The scenario embodied many aspects of human-like computing:

  • The agent would require a level of emotional understanding to interact with the patient
  • It would require fine and situation contingent robotic features to allow physical examination
  • Diagnosis and decisions would need to be guided by rich human-inspired algorithms based on large corpora of medical data, case histories and knowledge of the particular patient.
  • The agent would need to be able to explain its actions both to the patient and to the doctor. That is it would not only need to transform its own internal representations into forms intelligible to a human, but do so in multiple ways depending on the inferred knowledge and nature of the person.
  • Ethical and legal responsibility are key issues in medical practice
  • The agent would need to be able manage handovers of control.
  • The agent would need to understand its own competencies in order to know when to call in the remote doctor.

The scenario could be in physical or mental health. The latter is particularly important given recent statistics, which suggested only 10% of people in the UK suffering mental health problems receive suitable help.


As a more specific scenario still, one fog the group related how he had been to an experienced physiotherapist after a failed diagnosis by a previous physician. Rather than jumping straight into a physical examination, or even apparently watching the patient’s movement, the physiotherapist proceeded to chat for 15 minutes about aspects of the patient’s life, work and exercise. At the end of this process, the physiotherapist said, “I think I know the problem”, and proceeded to administer a directed test, which correctly diagnosed the problem and led to successful treatment.

Clearly the conversation had given the physiotherapist a lot of information about potential causes of injury, aided by many years observing similar cases.

To do this using an artificial agent would suggest some level of:

  • theory/model of day-to-day life

Thinking about the more conversational aspects of this I was reminded of the PhD work of Ramanee Peiris [P97]. This concerned consultations on sensitive subjects such as sexual health. It was known that when people filled in (initially paper) forms prior to a consultation, they were more forthcoming and truthful than if they had to provide the information face-to-face. This was even if the patient knew that the person they were about to see would read the forms prior to the consultation.

Ramanee’s work extended this first to electronic forms and then to chat-bot style discussions which were semi-scripted, but used simple textual matching to determine which topics had been covered, including those spontaneously introduced by the patient. Interestingly, the more human like the system became the more truthful and forthcoming the patients were, even though they were less so wit a real human.

As well as revealing lessons for human interactions with human-like computers, this also showed that human-like computing may be possible with quite crude technologies. Indeed, even Eliza was treated (to Weizenbaum’s alarm) as if it really were a counsellor, even though people knew it was ‘just a computer’ [W66].

Cognition or Embodiment?

I think it fair to say that the overall balance, certainly in the group I was in, was towards the cognitivist: that is more Cartesian approach starting with understanding and models of internal cognition, and then seeing how these play out with external action. Indeed, the term ‘representation’ used repeatedly as an assumed central aspect of any human-like computing, and there was even talk of resurrecting Newells’s project for a ‘unified theory of cognition’ [N90]

There did not appear to be any hard-core embodiment theorist at the workshops, although several people who had sympathies. This was perhaps as well as we could easily have degenerated into well rehearsed arguments for an against embodiment/cognition centred explanations … not least about the critical word ‘representation’.

However, I did wonder whether a path that deliberately took embodiment centrally would be valuable. How many human-like behaviours could be modelled in this way, taking external perception-action as central and only taking on internal representations when they were absolutely necessary (Alan Clark’s 007 principle) [C98].

Such an approach would meet limits, not least the physiotherapist’s 25 minute chat, but I would guess would be more successful over a wider range of behaviours and scenarios then we would at first think.

Human–Computer Interaction and Human-Like Computing

Both Russell and myself were partly there representing our own research interest, but also more generally as part of the HCI community looking at the way human-like computing would intersect exiting HCI agendas, or maybe create new challenges and opportunities. (see poster) It was certainly clear during the workshop that there is a substantial role for human factors from fine motor interactions, to conversational interfaces and socio-technical systems design.

Russell and I presented a poster, which largely focused on these interactions.


There are two sides to this:

  • understanding and modelling for human-like computing — HCI studies and models complex, real world, human activities and situations. Psychological experiments and models tend to be very deep and detailed, but narrowly focused and using controlled, artificial tasks. In contrast HCI’s broader, albeit more shallow, approach and focus on realistic or even ‘in the wild’ tasks and situations may mean that we are in an ideal position to inform human-like computing.

human interfaces for human-like computing — As noted in goal (iii) we will need paradigms for humans to interact with human-like computers.

As an illustration of the first of these, the poster used my work on making sense of the apparently ‘bad’ emotion of regret [D05] .

An initial cognitive model of regret was formulated involving a rich mix of imagination (in order to pull past events and action to mind), counter-factual modal reasoning (in order to work out what would have happened), emption (which is modified to feel better or worse depending on the possible alternative outcomes), and Skinner-like low-level behavioural learning (the eventual purpose of regret).


This initial descriptive and qualitative cognitive model was then realised in a simplified computational model, which had a separate ‘regret’ module which could be plugged into a basic behavioural learning system.   Both the basic system and the system with regret learnt, but the addition of regret did so with between 5 and 10 times fewer exposures.   That is, the regret made a major improvement to the machine learning.


Turning to the second. Direct manipulation has been at the heart of interaction design since the PC revolution in the 1980s. Prior to that command line interfaces (or worse job control interfaces), suggested a mediated paradigm, where operators ‘asked’ the computer to do things for them. Direct manipulation changed that turning the computer into a passive virtual world of computational objects on which you operated with the aid of tools.

To some extent we need to shift back to the 1970s mediated paradigm, but renewed, where the computer is no longer like an severe bureaucrat demanding the precise grammatical and procedural request; but instead a helpful and understanding aide. For this we can draw upon existing areas of HCI such as human-human communications, intelligent user interfaces, conversational agents and human–robot interaction.


[C98] Clark, A. 1998. Being There: Putting Brain, Body and the World Together Again. MIT Press.

[D92] A. Dix (1992). Human issues in the use of pattern recognition techniques. In Neural Networks and Pattern Recognition in Human Computer Interaction Eds. R. Beale and J. Finlay. Ellis Horwood. 429-451.

[D94] A. Dix and A. Patrick (1994). Query By Browsing. Proceedings of IDS’94: The 2nd International Workshop on User Interfaces to Databases, Ed. P. Sawyer. Lancaster, UK, Springer Verlag. 236-248.

[D05] Dix, A..(2005).  The adaptive significance of regret. (unpublished essay, 2005)

[D05b] A. Dix (2005). the brain and the web – a quick backup in case of accidents. Interfaces, 65, pp. 6-7. Winter 2005.

[D10] A. Dix, A. Katifori, G. Lepouras, C. Vassilakis and N. Shabir (2010). Spreading Activation Over Ontology-Based Resources: From Personal Context To Web Scale Reasoning. Internatonal Journal of Semantic Computing, Special Issue on Web Scale Reasoning: scalable, tolerant and dynamic. 4(1) pp.59-102.

[E16] EPSRC (2016). Human Like Computing Hand book. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. 17 – 18 February 2016

[F16] Alison Flood (2016). Robots could learn human values by reading stories, research suggests. The Guardian, Thursday 18 February 2016

[H09] Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira. 2009. The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data. IEEE Intelligent Systems 24, 2 (March 2009), 8-12. DOI=10.1109/MIS.2009.36

[K10] A. Katifori, C. Vassilakis and A. Dix (2010). Ontologies and the Brain: Using Spreading Activation through Ontologies to Support Personal Interaction. Cognitive Systems Research, 11 (2010) 25–41.

[N90] Allen Newell. 1990. Unified Theories of Cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

[P97] DR Peiris (1997). Computer interviews: enhancing their effectiveness by simulating interpersonal techniques. PhD Thesis, University of Dundee.

[W66] Joseph Weizenbaum. 1966. ELIZA—a computer program for the study of natural language communication between man and machine. Commun. ACM 9, 1 (January 1966), 36-45. DOI=

First version of Tiree Mobile Archive app goes live at Wave Classic

The first release version of the Tiree Mobile Archive app (see “Tiree Going Mobile“) is seeing real use this coming week at the Tiree Wave Classic. As well as historical information, and parts customised for the wind-surfers, it already embodies some interesting design features including the use of a local map  There’s a lot of work to do before the full launch next March, but it is an important step.

The mini-site for this Wave Classic version has a simulator, so you can see what it is like online, or download to your mobile … although GPS tracking only works when you are on Tiree 😉

Currently it still has only a small proportion of the archive material from An Iodhlann so still to come are some of the issues of volume that will surely emerge as more of the data comes into the app.

Of course those coming for the Wave Classic will be more interested in the sea than local history, so we have deliberately included features relevant to them, Twitter and news feeds from the Wave Classic site and also pertinent tourist info (beaches, campsites and places to eat … and drink!).  This will still be true for the final version of the app when it is released in the sprint — visitors come for a variety of reasons, so we need to offer a broad experience, without overlapping too much with a more tourism focused app that is due to be created for the island in another project.

One crucial feature of the app is the use of local maps.  The booklet for the wave classic (below left) uses the Discover Tiree tourist map, designed by Colin Woodcock and used on the island community website and various island information leaflets.  The online map (below right) uses the same base layer.  The map deliberately uses this rather than the OS or Google maps (although final version will swop to OS for most detailed views) as this wll be familiar as they move between paper leaflets and the interactive map.


In “from place to PLACE“, a collection developed as part of Common Ground‘s ‘Parish Maps‘ project in the 1990s, Barbara Bender writes about the way:

“Post-Renaissance maps cover the surface of the world with an homogeneous Cartesian grip”

Local maps have their own logic not driven by satellite imagery, or military cartography1; they emphasise certain features, de-emphasise others, and are driven spatially less by the compass and ruler and more by the way things feel ‘on the ground’.  These issues of space and mapping have been an interest for many years2, so both here and in my walk around Wales next year I will be aiming to ‘reclaim the local map within technological space’.

In fact, the Discover Tiree map, while stylised and deliberately not including roads that are not suitable for tourists, is very close to a ‘standard map’ in shape, albeit at a slightly different angle to OS maps as it is oriented3 to true North whereas OS maps are oriented to ‘Grid North’ (the problems of representing a round earth on flat sheets!).  In the future I’d like us to be able to deal with more interpretative maps, such as the mural map found on the outside of MacLeod’s shop. Or even the map of Cardigan knitted onto a Cardigan knitted as part of the 900 year anniversary of the town.


Technically this is put together as an HTML5 site to be cross-platform,, but … well let’s say some tweaks needed4.  Later on we’ll look to wrapping this in PhoneGap or one of the other HTML5-to-native frameworks, but for the time being once you have bookmarked to the home page on iOS looks pretty much like an app – on Android a little less so, but still easy access … and crucially works off-line — Tiree not known for high availability of mobile signal!

  1. The ‘ordnance‘ in ‘Ordnance Survey‘ was originally about things that go bang![back]
  2. For example, see “Welsh Mathematician walks in Cyberspace” and  “Paths and Patches – patterns of geognosy and gnosis”.[back]
  3. A lovely word, originally means to face East as early Mappa Mundi were all arranged with the East at the top.[back]
  4. There’s a story, going cross browser on mobile platform reminds me so much of desktop web design 10 years ago, on the whole iOS Safari behave pretty much like desktop ones, but Android is a law unto itself!.[back]

Walking Wales

As some of you already know, next year I will be walking all around Wales: from May to July covering just over 1000 miles in total.

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced the opening of the Wales Coastal Path a new long distance footpath around the whole coast of Wales. There were several existing long distance paths covering parts of the coastline, as well as numerous stretches of public footpaths at or near the coast. However, these have now been linked, mapped and waymarked creating for the first time, a continuous single route. In addition, the existing Offa’s Dyke long distance path cuts very closely along the Welsh–English border, so that it is possible to make a complete circuit of Wales on the two paths combined.

As soon as I heard the announcement, I knew it was something I had to do, and gradually, as I discussed it with more and more people, the idea has become solid.

This will not be the first complete periplus along these paths; this summer there have been at least two sponsored walkers taking on the route. However, I will be doing the walk with a technology focus, which will, I believe, be unique.

The walk has four main aspects:

personal — I am Welsh, was born and brought up in Cardiff, but have not lived in Wales for over 30 years. The walk will be a form of homecoming, reconnecting with the land and its people that I have been away from for so long. The act of encircling can symbolically ‘encompass’ a thing, as if knowing the periphery one knows the whole. Of course life is not like this, the edge is just that, not the core, not the heart. As a long term ex-pat, a foreigner in my own land, maybe all I can hope to do is scratch the surface, nibble at the edges. However, also I always feel most comfortable as an outsider, as one at the margins, so in some ways I am going to the places where I most feel at home. I will blog, audio blog, tweet and generally share this experience to the extent the tenuous mobile signal allows, but also looking forward to periods of solitude between sea and mountain.

practical — As I walk I will be looking at the IT experience of the walker and also discuss with local communities the IT needs and problems for those at the edges, at the margins. Not least will be issues due to the paucity of network access both patchy mobile signal whilst walking and low-capacity ‘broadband’ at the limits of wind-beaten copper telephone wires — none of the mega-capacity fibre optic of the cities. This will not simply be fact-finding, but actively building prototypes and solutions, both myself (in evenings and ‘days off’) and with others who are part of the project remotely or joining me for legs of the journey1. Geolocation and mobile based applications will be a core part of this, particularly for the walkers experience, but local community needs likely to be far more diverse.

philosophical — Mixed with personal reflections will be an exploration of the meanings of place, of path, of walking, of nomadicity and of locality. Aristotle’s school of philosophy was called the Peripatetic School because discussion took place while walking; over two thousand years later Wordsworth’s poetry was nearly all composed while walking; and for time immemorial routes of pilgrimage have been a focus of both spiritual service and personal enlightenment. This will build on some of my own previous writings in particular past keynotes2 on human understanding of space, and also wider literature such as Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful “Wanderlust“.  This reflection will inform the personal blogging, and after I finish I will edit this into a book or account of the journey.

research3 — the practical outcomes will intersect with various personal research interests including social empowerment, interaction design and algorithmics4.  For the walker’s experience, I will be effectively doing a form of action research!.  This will certainly include how to incorporate local maps (such as tourists town plans) effectively into more large-scale experiences, how ‘crowdsourced’ route knowledge can augment more formal digital and paper resources, data synchonisation to deal with disconnection, and data integration between diverse sources.  In addition I am offering myself as a living lab so that others can use my trip as a place to try out their own sensors and instrumentation5, information systems, content authoring, ethnographic practices, community workshops, etc.  This may involve simply asking me to use things, coming for a single meeting or day, or joining me for parts of the walk.

If any of this interests you, do get in touch.  As well as research collaborations (living lab or supporting direct IT goals) any help in managing logistics, PR, or finding sources of funding/sponsorship for basic costs, most welcome.

I’ll get a dedicated website, Facebook page, twitter account, and charity sponsorship set up soon … watch this space!

  1. Coding whilst walking is something I have thought about (but not done!) for many years, but definitely inspired more recently by Nick the amazing cycling programmer who came to the Spring Tiree Tech Wave.[back]
  2. Welsh Mathematician Walks in Cyberspace“, and “Paths and Patches: patterns of geognosy and gnosis“.[back]
  3. I tried to think of a word beginning with ‘p’ for research, but failed![back]
  4. As I tagged this post I found I was using nearly all my my most common tags — I hadn’t realised quite how much this project cuts across so many areas of interest.[back]
  5. But with the “no blood rule”: if I get sensor sores, the sensors go in the bin 😉 [back]

Holiday Reading

Early in the summer Fiona and I took 10 days holiday, first touring on the West Coast of Scotlad, south from Ullapool and then over the Skye Road Bridge to spend a few days on Skye.  As well as visiting various wool-related shops on the way and a spectacular drive over the pass from Applecross, I managed a little writing, some work on regret modelling1. And, as well as writing and regret modelling, quite a lot of reading.

This was my holiday reading:

The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved, Robbins Burling (see my booknotes and review)

In Praise of the Garrulous, Allan Cameron (see my booknotes)

A Mind So Rare, Merlin Donald (see my booknotes and review)

Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit (see my booknotes)

  1. At last!  It has been something like 6 years since I first did initial, and very promising, computational regret modelling, and have at last got back to it, writing driver code so that I have got data from a systematic spread of different parameters.  Happily this verified the early evidence that the cognitive model of regret I wrote about first in 2003 really does seem to aid learning.  However, the value of more comprehensive simulation was proved as early indications that positive regret (grass is greener feeling) was more powerful than negative regret do not seem to have been borne out.[back]

September beckons: calls for Physicality and Alt-HCI

I’m co-chairing a couple of events, both with calls due in mid June: Physicality 2012, and Alt-HCI.   Both are associated with HCI 2012  in Birmingham in September, so you don’t have to chose!

Physicality 2012 – 4th International Workshop on Physicality

(Sept.11, co-located with HCI 2012)

Long awaited, the 4th in the Physicality workshop series exploring design challenges, theories and experiences in developing new forms of interactions that exploit human physical interaction with digital technology.

Position papers and research papers due 18th June.



(track of HCI 2012, 12-15 Sept 2012)

A chance to present and engage with work that pushes the boundaries of HCI.  Do you investigate methods for inducing negative user experience, or for not getting things done (or is that Facebook?).  Maybe you would like to argue for the importance of Taylorism within HCI, or explore user interfaces for the neonate.

Papers due 15th June with an open review process in the weeks following.

see: HCI 2012 call for participation  (also HCI short papers and work-in-progress due 15th June: )

books: The Nature of Technology (Arthur) and The Evolution of Technology (Basalla)

I have just finished reading “The Nature of Technology” (NoT) by W. Brian Arthur and some time ago read “The Evolution of Technology” (EoT) by George Basalla, both covering a similar topic, the way technology has developed from the earliest technology (stone axes and the wheel), to current digital technology.  Indeed, I’m sure Arthur would have liked to call his book “The Evolution of Technology” if Basalla had not already taken that title!

We all live in a world dominated by technology and so the issue of how technology develops is critical to us all.   Does technology ultimately serve human needs or does it have its own dynamics independent of us except maybe as cogs in its wheels?  Is the arc of technology inevitable or does human creativity and invention drive it in new directions? Is the development of technology now similar (albeit a bit faster) than previous generations, or does digital technology fundamentally alter things?

Basalla was  published in 1988, while Arthur is 2009, so Arthur has 20 years more to work on, not much compared to 2 million years for the stone axe and 5000 years for the wheel, but 20 years that has included the boom (and bust!), and the growth of the internet.  In a footnote (NoT,p.17), Arthur describes Basalla as “the most complete theory to date“, although then does not appear to directly reference Basalla again in the text – maybe because they have different styles.  Basalla (a historian of technology) offering a more descriptive narrative  whilst Arthur (and engineer and economist) seeks a more analytically complete account. However I also suspect that Arthur discovered Basella’s work late and included a ‘token’ reference; he says that a “theory of technology — an “ology” of technology” is missing (NoT,p.14), but, however partial, Basella’s account cannot be seen as other than part of such a theory.

Both authors draw heavily, both explicitly and implicitly, on Darwinian analogies, but both also emphasise the differences between biological and technological evolution. Neither is happy with, what Basella calls the “heroic theory of invention” where “inventions emerge in a fully developed state from the minds of gifted inventors” (EoT,p.20).  In both there are numerous case studies which refute these more ‘heroic’ accounts, for example Watts’ invention of the steam engine after seeing a kettle lid rattling on the fire, and show how these are always built on earlier technologies and knowledge.  Arthur is more complete in eschewing explanations that depend on human ingenuity, and therein, to my mind, lies the weakness of his account.  However, Arthur does take into account, as central mechanism,  the accretion of technological complexity through the assembly of components, al but absent from Basella’s account — indeed in my notes as I read Basella I wrote “B is focused on components in isolation, forgets implication of combinations“.

I’ll describe the main arguments of each book, then look at what a more complete picture might look like.

(Note, very long post!)

Basella: the evolution of technology

Basella’s describes his theory of technological evolution in terms of  four concepts:

  1. diversity of artefacts — acknowledging the wide variety both of different kinds of things, but also variations of the same thing — one example, dear to my heart, is his images of different kinds of hammers 🙂
  2. continuity of development — new artefacts are based on existing artefacts with small variations, there is rarely sudden change
  3. novelty — introduced by people and influenced by a wide variety of psychological, social and economic factors … not least playfulness!
  4. selection — winnowing out the less useful/efficient artefacts, and again influenced by a wide variety of human and technological factors

Basella sets himself apart both from earlier historians of technology (Gilfillan and Ogburn) who took an entirely continuous view of development and also the “myths of the heroic inventors” which saw technological change as dominated by discontinuous change.

He is a historian and his accounts of the development of artefacts are detailed and beautifully crafted.  He takes great efforts to show how standard stories of heric invention, such as the steam engine, can be seen much more sensibly in terms of slower evolution.  In the case of steam, the basic principles had given rise to Newcomen’s  steam pump some 60 years prior to Watt’s first steam engine.  However, whilst each of these stories emphasised the role of continuity, as I read them I was struck also by the role of human ingenuity.  If Newcomen’s engine had been around since 1712 years, what made the development to a new and far more successful form take 60 years to develop? The answer is surely the ingenuity of James Watt.  Newton said he saw further only because he stood on the shoulders of giants, and yet is no less a genius for that.  Similaly the tales of invention seem to be both ones of continuity, but also often enabled by insights.

In fact, Basella does take this human role on board, building on Usher’s earlier work, which paced insight centrally in accounts of continuous change.  This is particularly central in his account of the origins of novelty where he considers a rich set of factors that influence the creation of true novelty.  This includes both individual factors such as playfulness and fantasy, and also social/cultural factors such as migration and the patent system.  It is interesting however that when he turns to selection, it is lumpen factors that are dominant: economic, military, social and cultural.  This brings to mind Margaret Bowden’s H-creativity and also Csikszentmihalyi’s cultural views of creativity — basically something is only truly creative (or maybe innovative) when it is recognised as such by society (discuss!).

Arthur: the nature of technology

Basella ends his book confessing that he is not happy with the account of novelty as provided from historical, psychological and social perspectives.  Arthur’s single reference to Basella (endnote, NoT, p.17) picks up precisely this gap, quoting Basella’s “inability to account fully for the emergence of novel artefacts” (EoT,p.210).  Arthur seeks to fill this gap in previous work by focusing on the way artefacts are made of components, novelty arising through the hierarchical organisation and reorganisation of these components, ultimately built upon natural phenomena.  In language reminiscent of proponents of ‘computational thinking‘, Arthur talks of a technology being the “programming of phenomena for our purposes” (NoT,p.51). Although, not directly on this point, I should particularly liked Arthur’s quotation from Charles Babbage “I wish to God this calculation had been executed by steam” (NoT,p.74), but did wonder whether Arthur’s computational analogy for technology was as constrained by the current digital perspective as Babbage’s was by the age of steam.

Although I’m not entirely convinced at the completeness of hierarchical composition as an explanation, it is certainly a powerful mechanism.  Indeed Arthur views this ‘combinatorial evolution’ as the key difference between biological and technological evolution. This assertion of the importance of components is supported by computer simulation studies as well as historical analysis. However, this is not the only key insight in Arthur’s work.

Arthur emphasises the role of what he calls ‘domains’, in his words a “constellation of technologies” forming a “mutually supporting set” (NoT,p.71).  These are clusters of technologies/ideas/knowledge that share some common principle, such as ‘radio electronics’ or ‘steam power’.  The importance of these are such that he asserts that “design in engineering begins by choosing a domain” and that the “domain forms a language” within which a particular design is an ‘utterance’.  However, domains themselves evolve, spawned from existing domains or natural phenomena, maturing, and sometimes dying away (like steam power).

The mutual dependence of technology can lead to these domains suddenly developing very rapidly, and this is one of the key mechanisms to which Arthur attributes more revolutionary change in technology.  Positive feedback effects are well studied in cybernetics and is one of the key mechanisms in chaos and catastrophe theory which became popularised in the late 1970s.  However, Arthur is rare in fully appreciating the potential for these effects to give rise to sudden and apparently random changes.  It is often assumed that evolutionary mechanisms give rise to ‘optimal’ or well-fitted results.  In other areas too, you see what I have called the ‘fallacy of optimality’1; for example, in cognitive psychology it is often assumed that given sufficient practice people will learn to do things ‘optimally’ in terms of mental and physical effort.

human creativity and ingenuity

Arthur’s account is clearly more advanced than the early more gradualists, but I feel that in pursuing the evolution of technology based on its own internal dynamics, he underplays the human element of the story.   Arthur even goes so far as to describe technology using Maturna’s term autopoetic (NoT,p.170) — something that is self-(re)producing, self-sustaining … indeed, in some sense with a life of its own.

However, he struggles with the implications of this.  If, technology responds to “its own needs” rather than human needs, “instead of fitting itself to the world, fits the world to itself” (NoT,p.214), does that mean we live with, or even within, a Frankenstein’s monster, that cares as little for the individuals of humanity as we do for our individual shedding skin cells?  Because of positive feedback effects, technology is not deterministic; however, it is rudderless, cutting its own wake, not ours.

In fact, Arthur ends his book on a positive note:

Where technology separates us from these (challenge, meaning, purpose, nature) it brings a type of death. But where it affirms these, it affirms life. It affirms our humanness.” (NoT,p.216)

However, there is nothing in his argument to admit any of this hope, it is more a forlorn hope against hope.

Maybe Arthur should have ended his account at its logical end.  If we should expect nothing from technology, then maybe it is better to know it.  I recall as a ten-year old child wondering just these same things about the arc of history: do individuals matter?  Would the Third Reich have grown anyway without Hitler and Britain survived without Churchill?  Did I have any place in shaping the world in which I was to live?  Many years later as I began to read philosophy, I discovered these were questions that had been asked before, with opposing views, but no definitive empirical answer.

In fact, for technological development, just as for political development, things are probably far more mixed, and reconciling Basella and Arthur’s accounts might suggest that there is space both for Arthur’s hope and human input into technological evolution.

Recall there were two main places where Basella placed human input (individual and special/cultural): novelty and selection.

The crucial role of selection in Darwinian theory is evident in its eponymous role: “Natural Selection”.    In Darwinian accounts, this is driven by the breeding success of individuals in their niche, and certainly the internal dynamics of technology (efficiency, reliability, cost effectiveness, etc.) are one aspect of technological selection.  However, as Basella describes in greater detail, there are many human aspects to this as well from the multiple individual consumer choices within a free market to government legislation, for example regulating genome research or establishing emissions limits for cars. This suggest a relationship with technology les like that with an independently evolving wild beast and more like that of the farmer artificially selecting the best specimens.

Returning to the issue of novelty.  As I’ve noted even Basella seems to underplay human ingenuity in the stories of particular technologies, and Arthur even more so.  Arthur attempts account for “the appearance of radically novel technologies” (NoT,p.17) though composition of components.

One example of this is the ‘invention’ of the cyclotron by Ernest Lawrence (Not,p.114).  Lawrence knew of two pieces of previous work: (i) Rolf Wideröe’s idea to accelerate particles using AC current down a series of (very) long tubes, and (ii) the fact that magnetic fields can make charged particles swing round in circles.  He put the two together and thereby made the cyclotron, AC currents sending particles ever faster round a circular tube.  Lawrence’s  first cyclotron was just a few feet across; now, in CERN and elsewhere, they are many miles in diameter, but the principle is the same.

Arthur’s take-home message from this is that the cyclotron did not spring ready-formed and whole from Lawrence’s imagination, like Athena from Zeus’ head.  Instead, it was the composition of existing parts.  However, the way in which these individual concepts or components fitted together was far from obvious.  In many of the case studies the component technology or basic natural phenomena had been around and understood for many years before they were linked together.  In each case study it seems to be the vital key in putting together the disparate elements is the human one — heroic inventors after all 🙂

Some aspects of this invention not specifically linked to composition: experimentation and trial-and-error, which effectively try out things in the lab rather than in the market place; the inventor’s imagination of fresh possibilities and their likely success, effectively trail-and-error in the head; and certainly the body of knowledge (the domains in Arthur’s terms) on which the inventor can draw.

However, the focus on components and composition does offer additional understanding of how these ‘breakthroughs’ take place.  Randomly mixing components is unlikely to yield effective solutions.  Human inventors’ understanding of the existing component technologies allows them to spot potentially viable combinations and perhaps even more important their ability to analyse the problems that arise allow them to ‘fix’ the design.

In my own work in creativity I often talk about crocophants, the fact that arbitrarily putting two things together, even if each is good in its own right, is unlikely to lead to a good combination.  However, by deeply understanding each, and why they fit their respective environments, one is able to intelligently combine things to create novelty.

Darwinism and technology

Both Arthur and Basalla are looking for modified version of Darwinism to understand technological evolution.  For Arthur it is the way in which technology builds upon components with ‘combinatorial evolution’.  While pointing to examples in biology he remarks that “the creation of these larger combined structures is rarer in biological evolution — much rarer — than in technological evolution” (NoT,p.188).  Strangely, it is precisely the power of sexual reproduction over simpler mutation, that it allows the ‘construction’ and  ‘swopping’ of components; this is why artificial evolutionary algorithms often outperform simple mutation (a form of stochastic hill-climbing algorithm, itself usually better than deterministic hill climbing). However, technological component combination is not the same as biological components.

A core ‘problem’ for biological evolution is the complexity of the genotype–phenotype mapping.  Indeed in “The Selfish Gene” Dawkins attacks Lamarckism precisely on the grounds that the mapping is impossibly complex hence cannot be inverted2.  In fact, Dawkins arguments would also ‘disprove’ Darwinian natural selection as it also depends on the mapping not being too complex.  If the mapping between genotype–phenotype were as complex as Dawkins suggested, then small changes to genotypes as gene patterns would lead to arbitrary phenotypes and so fitness of parents would not be a predictor of fitness of offspring. In fact while not simple to invert (as is necessary for Lamarckian inheritance) the mapping is simple enough for natural selection to work!

One of the complexities of the genotype–phenotype mapping in biology is that the genotype (our chromosomes) is far simpler (less information) than our phenotype (body shape, abilities etc.).  Also the complexity of the production mechanism (a mothers womb) is no more complex than the final product (the baby).  In contrast for technology the genotype (plans, specifications, models, sketches), is of comparable complexity to the final product.  Furthermore the production means (factory, workshop) is often far more complex than the finished item (but not always, the skilled woodsman can make a huge variety of things using a simple machete, and there is interesting work on self-fabricating machines).

The complexity of the biological mapping is particularly problematic for the kind of combinatorial evolution that Arthur argues is so important for technological development.  In the world of technology, the schematic of a component is a component of the schematic of the whole — hierarchies of organisation are largely preserved between phenotype and geneotype.  In contrast, genes that code for finger length are also likely to affect to length, and maybe other characteristics as well.

As noted sexual reproduction does help to some extent as chromosome crossovers mean that some combinations of genes tend to be preserved through breeding, so ‘parts’ of the whole can develop and then be passed together to future generations.  If genes are on different chromosomes, this process is a bit hit-and-miss, but there is evidence that genes that code for functionally related things (and therefore good to breed together), end up close on the same chromosome, hence more likely to be passed as a unit.

In contrast, there is little hit-and-miss about technological ‘breeding’ if you want component A from machine X and component B from machine Y, you just take the relevant parts of the plans and put them together.

Of course, getting component A and component B to work together is anther matter, typically some sort of adaptation or interfacing is needed.  In biological evolution this is extremely problematic, as Arthur says “the structures of genetic evolution” mean that each step “must produce something viable” NoT,p.188).  In contrast, the ability to ‘fix’ the details composition in technology means that combinations that are initially not viable, can become so.

However, as noted at the end of the last section, this is due not just to the nature of technology, but also human ingenuity.

The crucial difference between biology and technology is human design.

technological context and infrastructure

A factor that seems to be weak or missing in both Basella and Arthur’s theories, is the role of infrastructure and general technological and environmental context3. This is highlighted by the development of the wheel.

The wheel and fire are often regarded as core human technologies, but whereas the fire is near universal (indeed predates modern humans), the wheel was only developed in some cultures.  It has long annoyed me when the fact that South American civilisations did not develop the wheel is seen as some kind of lack or failure of the civilisation.  It has always seemed evident that the wheel was not developed everywhere simply because it is not always useful.

I was wonderful therefore to read Basella’s detailed case study of the wheel (EoT,p.7–11) where he backs up what for me had always been a hunch, with hard evidence.  I was aware that the Aztecs had wheeled toys even though they never used wheels for transport. Basella quite sensibly points out that this is reasonable given the terrain and the lack of suitable draught animals. He also notes that between 300–700 AD wheels were abandoned in the Near East and North Africa — wheels are great if you have flat hard natural surfaces, or roads, but not so useful on steep broken hillsides, thick forest, or soft sandy deserts.

In some ways these combinations: wheels and roads, trains and rails, electrical goods and electricity generation can be seen as a form of domain in Arthur’s sense, a “mutually supporting set” of technologies (NoT,p.71), indeed he does talk abut the “canal world” (NoT,p82).  However, he is clearly thinking more about the component technologies that make up a new artefact, and less about the set of technologies that need to surround new technology it make it viable.

The mutual interdependence of infrastructure and related artefacts forms another positive feedback loop. In fact, in his discussion of ‘lock-in’, Arthur does talk about the importance of “surrounding structures and organisations”, as a constraint often blocking novel technology, and the way some technologies are only possible because of others (e.g. complex financial derivatives only possible because of computation).  However, the best example is Basalla’s description of the of the development of the railroad vs. canal in the American Mid-West (EoT,p.195–197).  This is often seen as simply the result of the superiority of the railway, but in the 1960s, Robert Fogel, a historian, made a detailed economic comparison and found that there was no clear financial advantage; it is just that once one began to become dominant the positive feedback effects made it the sole winner.

Arthur’s compositional approach focuses particularly on hierarchical composition, but these infrastructures often cut across components: the hydraulics in a plane, electrical system in a car, or Facebook ‘Open Graph’. And of course one of the additional complexities of biology is that we have many such infrastructure systems in our own bodies blood stream, nervous system, food and waste management.

It is interesting that the growth of the web was possible by a technological context of the existing internet and home PC sales (which initially were not about internet use, even though now this is often the major reason for buying computational devices).  However, maybe the key technological context for the modern web is the credit card, it is online payments and shopping, or the potential for them, that has financed the spectacular growth of the area. There would be no web without Berners Lee, but equally without Barclay Card.

  1. see my WebSci’11 paper for more on the ‘fallacy of optimality’[back]
  2. Why Dawkins chose to make such an attack on Lamarckism I’ve never understood, as no-one had believed in it as an explanation for nearly 100 years.  Strangely, it was very soon after “The Selfish Gene” was published that examples of Lamarckian evolution were discovered in simple organisms, and recently in higher animals, although in the latter through epigenetic (non-DNA) means.[back]
  3. Basalla does describes the importance of “environmental influences”, but is referring principally to the natural envronment.[back]

One week to the next Tech Wave

Just a week to go now before the next Tiree Tech Wave starts, although the first person is coming on Sunday and one person is going to hang on for a while after getting some surfing in.

Still plenty of room for anyone who decides to come at the last minute.

Things have been a little hectic, as having to do more of the local organisation this time, so running round the island a bit, but really looking forward to when people get here 🙂  Last two times I’ve felt a bit of tension leading up to the event as I feel responsible.  It is difficult planning an event and not having a schedule “person A giving talk at 9:30, person B at 10:45”; strangely much harder having nothing, simply trusting that good things will happen.  Hopefully this time I now have had enough experience to know that if I just hang back and resist the urge to ‘do something’, then people will start to talk together, work together, make together — I just need to have the confidence to do nothing1.

At previous TTW we have had open evenings when people from the local community have come in to see what is being done.  This time, as well as having a general welcome to people to come and see,  Jonnet from HighWire at Lancaster is going to run a community workshop on mending based on her personal and PhD work on ‘Futuremenders‘. Central to this is Jonnet’s pledge to not acquire any more clothes, ever, but instead to mend and remake. This picks up on textile themes on the island especially the ‘Rags to Riches Eco-Chic‘ fashion award and community tapestry group, but also Tech Wave themes of making, repurposing and generally taking things to pieces.   Jonnet’s work is not techno-fashion (no electroluminescent skirts, or LEDs stitched into your wooly hat), but does use social connections both physical and through the web to create mass participation, including mass panda knitting and an attempt on the world mass darning record.

For the past few weeks I have had an unusual (although I hope to become usual) period of relative stability on the island after a previous period of 8 months almost constantly on the move.  This has included some data hacking and learning HTML5 for mobile devices (hence some hacker-ish blog posts recently) I hope to finish off one mini-project during the TTW that will be particularly pertinent the weekend the clocks ‘go forward’ an hour for British Summer Time.  Will blog if I do.

I hit the road last November almost immediately the Tech Wave finished, so never got time to tidy things up.  So, before this one starts, I really should try to write a up a couple of activities from last time as I’m sure there will plenty more this time round…

  1. Strange I always give people the same advice we they take on management roles, “the brave manager does nothing”.  How rare that is.  In a university, new Vice Chancellor starts and feels he/she has to change things — new faculty structure, new committees. “In the long run, will be better”, everyone says, but I’ve always found such re-organisation is itself re-organised before we ever get to t “the long run”.[back]

After the Tech Wave is over

The Second Tiree Tech Wave is over.   Yesterday the last participants left by ferry and plane and after a final few hours tidying, the Rural Centre, which the day before had been a tangle of wire and felt, books and papers, cups and biscuit packets, is now as it had been before.  And as I left, the last boxes under my arm, it was strangely silent with only the memory of voices and laughter in my mind.

So is it as if it had never been?  I there anything left behind?  There are a few sheets of Magic Whiteboard on the walls, that I left so that those visiting the Rural Centre in the coming weeks can see something of what we were doing, and there are used teabags and fish-and-chip boxes in the bin, but few traces.

We trod lightly, like the agriculture of the island, where Corncrake and orchid live alongside sheep and cattle.

Some may have heard me talk about the way design is like a Spaghetti Western. In the beginning of the film Clint Eastwood walks into the town, and at the end walks away.  He does not stay, happily ever after, with a girl on his arm, but leaves almost as if nothing had ever happened.

But while he, like the designer, ultimately leaves, things are not the same.  The Carson brothers who had the town in fear for years lie dead in their ranch at the edge of town, the sharp tang of gunfire still in the air and the buzz of flies slowly growing over the elsewise silent bodies.  The crooked major, who had been in the pocket of the Carson brothers, is strapped over a mule heading across the desert towards Mexico, and not a few wooden rails and water buts need to be repaired.  The job of the designer is not to stay, but to leave, but leave change: intervention more than invention.

But the deepest changes are not those visible in the bullet-pocked saloon door, but in the people.  The drunk who used to sit all day at the bar, has discovered that he is not just a drunk, but he is a man, and the barmaid, who used to stand behind the bar has discovered that she is not just a barmaid, but she is a woman.

This is true of the artefacts we create and leave behind as designers, but much more so of the events, which come and go through our lives.  It is not so much the material traces they leave in the environment, but the changes in ourselves.

I know that, as the plane and ferry left with those last participants, a little of myself left with them, and I know many, probably all, felt a little of themselves left behind on Tiree.  This is partly abut the island itself; indeed I know one participant was already planning a family holiday here and another was looking at Tiree houses for sale on RightMove!  But it was also the intensity of five, sometimes relaxed, sometimes frenetic, days together.

So what did we do?

There was no programme of twenty minute talks, no keynotes or demo, indeed no plan nor schedule at all, unusual in our diary-obsessed, deadline-driven world.

Well, we talked.  Not at a podium with microphone and Powerpoint slides, but while sitting around tables, while walking on the beach, and while standing looking up at Tilly, the community wind turbine, the deep sound of her swinging blades resonating in our bones.  And we continued to talk as the sun fell and the overwhelmingly many stars came out , we talked while eating, while drinking and while playing (not so expertly) darts.

We met people from the island those who came to the open evening on Saturday, or popped in during the days, and some at the Harvest Service on Sunday.  We met Mark who told us about the future plans for Tiree Broadband, Jane at PaperWorks who made everything happen, Fiona and others at the Lodge who provided our meals, and many more. Indeed, many thanks to all those on the island who in various ways helped or made those at TTW feel welcome.

We also wrote.  We wrote on sheets of paper, notes and diagrams, and filled in TAPT forms for Clare who was attempting unpack our experiences of peace and calmness in the hope of designing computer systems that aid rather than assault our solitude.  Three large Magic Whiteboard sheets were entitled “I make because …”, “I make with …”, “I make …” and were filled with comments.  And, in these days of measurable objectives, I know that at least a grant proposal, book chapter and paper were written during the long weekend; and the comments on the whiteboards and experiences of the event will be used to create a methodological reflection of the role of making in research which we’ll put into Interfaces and the TTW web site.

We moved.  Walking, throwing darts, washing dishes, and I think all heavily gesturing with our hands while taking.  And became more aware of those movements during Layda’s warm-up improvisation exercises when we mirrored one another’s movements, before using our bodies in RePlay to investigate issues of creativity and act out the internal architecture of Magnus’ planned digital literature system.

We directly encountered the chill of wind and warmth of sunshine, the cattle and sheep, often on the roads as well as in the fields.  We saw on maps the pattern of settlement on the island and on display boards the wools from different breeds on the island. Some of us went to the local historical centre, An Iodhlann [[ ]], to see artefacts, documents and displays of the island in times past, from breadbasket of the west of Scotland to wartime airbase.

We slept.  I in my own bed, some in the Lodge, some in the B&B round the corner, Matjaz and Klem in a camper van and Magnus – brave heart – in a tent amongst the sand dunes.  Occasionally some took a break and dozed in the chairs at the Rural Centre or even nodded off over a good dinner (was that me?).

We showed things we had brought with us, including Magnus’ tangle of wires and circuit boards that almost worked, myself a small pack of FireFly units (enough to play with I hope in a future Tech Wave), Layda’s various pieces she had made in previous tech-arts workshops, Steve’s musical instrument combining Android phone and cardboard foil tube, and Alessio’s impressively modified table lamp.

And we made.  We do after all describe this as a making event!  Helen and Claire explored the limits of ZigBee wireless signals.  Several people contributed to an audio experience using proximity sensors and Arduino boards, and Steve’s CogWork Chip: Lego and electronics, maybe the world’s first mechanical random-signal generator.  Descriptions of many of these and other aspects of the event will appear in due course on the TTW site and participants’ blogs.

But it was a remark that Graham made as he was waiting in the ferry queue that is most telling.  It was not the doing that was central, the making, even the talking, but the fact that he didn’t have to do anything at all.  It was the lack of a plan that made space to fill with doing, or not to do so.

Is that the heart?  We need time and space for non-doing, or maybe even un-doing, unwinding tangles of self as well as wire.

There will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March/April, do come to share in some more not doing then.

Who was there:

  • Alessio Malizia – across the seas from Madrid, blurring the boundaries between information, light and space
  • Helen  Pritchard – artist, student of innovation and interested in cows
  • Claire  Andrews – roller girl and researching the design of assistive products
  • Clare  Hooper – investigating creativity, innovation and a sprinkling of SemWeb
  • Magnus  Lawrie – artist, tent-dweller and researcher of digital humanities
  • Steve Gill – designer, daredevil and (when he can get me to make time) co-authoring book on physicality TouchIT
  • Graham Dean – ex-computer science lecturer, ex-businessman, and current student and auto-ethnographer of maker-culture
  • Steve Foreshaw – builder, artist, magician and explorer of alien artefacts
  • Matjaz Kljun – researcher of personal information and olive oil maker
  • Layda Gongora – artist, curator, studying improvisation, meditation and wild hair
  • Alan Dix – me

book: The Unfolding of Language, Deutscher

I have previously read Guy Deutscher‘s “Through the Language Glass“, and have now, topsy turvy, read his earlier book “The Unfolding of Language“.  Both are about language, “The Unfolding of Language” about the development of the complexity of language that we see today from simpler origins, and “Through the Language Glass” about the interaction between language and thought.  Both are full of sometimes witty and always fascinating examples drawn from languages around the world, from the Matses in the Amazon to Ancient Sumarian.

I recall my own interest in the origins of language began young, as a seven year old over breakfast one day, asking whether ‘night, was a contraction of ‘no light’.  While this was an etymological red herring, it is very much the kind of change that Deutscher documents in detail showing the way a word accretes beginnings and ending through juxtaposition of simpler words followed by erosion of hard to pronounce sounds.

One of my favourites examples was the French “aujourd’hui”.  The word ‘hui, was Old French for ‘today’, but was originally Latin “hoc die”, “(on) this day”. Because ‘hui’ is not very emphatic it became “au jour d’hui”, “on the day of this day” , which contracted to the current ‘aujourd’hui’. Except now to add emphasis some French speakers are starting to say “au jour aujourd’hui”, “on the day on the day of this day”!  This reminds me of Longsleddale in the Lake District (inspiration for Postman Pat‘s Greendale),  a contraction of “long sled dale”, which literally means “long valley valley” from Old English “slaed” meaning “valley” … although I once even saw something suggesting that ‘long’ itself in the name was also “valley” in a different language!

Deutscher gives many more prosaic examples where words meaning ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’ get accreted to verbs to create the verb endings found in languages such as French, and how prepositions (themselves metaphorically derived from words like ‘back’) were merged with nouns to create the complex case endings of Latin.

However, the most complex edifice, which Deutscher returns to repeatedly, is that of the Semitic languages with a template system of vowels around three-consonant roots, where the vowel templates change the meaning of the root.  To illustrate he uses the (fictional!) root ‘sng’ meaning ‘to snog’ and discusses how first simple templates such as ‘snug’ (“I snogged”) and then more complex constructions such as ‘hitsunnag’ (“he was made to snog himself”) all arose from simple processes of combination, shortening and generalisation.

“The Unfolding of Language” begins with the 19th century observation that all languages seem to be in a process of degeneration where more complex  forms such as the Latin case system or early English verb endings are progressively simplified and reduced. The linguists of the day saw all languages in a state of continuous decay from an early linguistic Golden Age. Indeed one linguist, August Schleicher, suggested that there was a process where language develops until it is complex enough to get things done, and only then recorded history starts, after which the effort spent on language is instead spent in making history.

As with geology, or biological evolution, the modern linguist rejects this staged view of the past, looking towards the Law of Uniformitarianism, things are as they have always been, so one can work out what must have happened in the pre-recorded past by what is happening now.  However, whilst generally finding this convincing, throughout the book I had a niggling feeling that there is a difference.  By definition, those languages for which we have written records are those of large developed civilisations, who moreover are based on writing. Furthermore I am aware that for biological evolution small isolated groups (e.g. on islands or cut off in valleys) are particularly important for introducing novelty into larger populations, and I assume the same would be true of languages, but somewhat stultified by mass communication.

Deutscher does deal with this briefly, but right at the very end in a short epilogue.  I feel there is a whole additional story about the interaction between culture and the grammatical development of language.  I recall in school a teacher explained how in Latin the feminine words tended to belong to the early period linked to agriculture and the land, masculine words for later interests in war and conquest, and neuter for the still later phase of civic and political development. There were many exceptions, but even this modicum of order helped me to make sense of what otherwise seemed an arbitrary distinction.

The epilogue also mentions that the sole exception to the ‘decline’ in linguistic complexity is Arabic with its complex template system, still preserved today.

While reading the chapters about the three letter roots, I was struck by the fact that both Hebrew an Arabic are written as consonants only with vowels interpolated by diacritical marks or simply remembered convention (although Deutscher does not mention this himself). I had always assumed that this was like English where t’s pssble t rd txt wth n vwls t ll. However, the vowels are far more critical for Semitic languages where the vowel-less words could make the difference between “he did it” and “it will be done to him”.  Did this difference in writing stem from the root+template system, or vice versa, or maybe they simply mutually reinforced each other?

The other factor regarding Arabic’s remarkable complexity must surely be the Quran. Whereas the Bible was read for a over a millennium in Latin, a non-spoken language, and later translated focused on the meaning; in contrast there is a great emphasis on the precise form of the Quran together with continuous lengthy recitation.  As the King James Bible has been argued to have been a significant influence on modern English since the 17th century, it seems likely the Quran has been a factor in preserving Arabic for the last 1500 years.

Early in “The Unfolding of Language” Deutscher dismisses attempts to look at the even earlier prehistoric roots of language as there is no direct evidence. I assume that this would include Mithin’s “The Singing Neanderthals“, which I posted about recently. There is of course a lot of truth in this criticism; certainly Mithin’s account included a lot of guesswork, albeit founded on paleontological evidence.  However, Deutscher’s own arguments include extrapolating to recent prehistory. These extrapolations are based on early written languages and subsequent recorded developments, but also include guesswork between the hard evidence, as does the whole family-tree of languages.  Deutscher was originally a Cambridge mathematician, like me, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, I found his style of argument convincing. However, given the foundations on Uniformitarianism, which, as noted above, is at best partial when moving from history to pre-history, there seems more of  a continuum rather than sharp distinction between the levels of interpretation and extrapolation in this book and Mithin’s.

Deutscher’s account seeks to fill in the gap between the deep prehistoric origins of protolanguage (what Deutscher’s calls ‘me Tarzan’ language) and its subsequent development in the era of media-society (starting 5000BC with extensive Sumerian writing). Rather than seeing these separately, I feel there is a rich account building across various authors, which will, in time, yield a more complete view of our current language and its past.

book: The Singing Neanderthals, Mithin

One of my birthday presents was Steven Mithin’s “The Singing Neanderthals” and, having been on holiday, I have already read it! I read Mithin’s “The Prehistory of the Mind” some years ago and have referred to it repeatedly over the years1, so was excited to receive this book, and it has not disappointed. I like his broad approach taking evidence from a variety of sources, as well as his own discipline of prehistory; in times when everyone claims to be cross-disciplinary, Mithin truly is.

“The Singing Neanderthal”, as its title suggests, is about the role of music in the evolutionary development of the modern human. We all seem to be born with an element of music in our heart, and Mithin seeks to understand why this is so, and how music is related to, and part of the development of, language. Mithin argues that elements of music developed in various later hominids as a form of primitive communication2, but separated from language in homo sapiens when music became specialised to the communication of emotion and language to more precise actions and concepts.

The book ‘explains’ various known musical facts, including the universality of music across cultures and the fact that most of us do not have perfect pitch … even though young babies do (p77). The hard facts of how things were for humans or related species tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago are sparse, so there is inevitably an element of speculation in Mithin’s theories, but he shows how many, otherwise disparate pieces of evidence from palaeontology, psychology and musicology make sense given the centrality of music.

Whether or not you accept Mithin’s thesis, the first part of the book provides a wide ranging review of current knowledge about the human psychology of music. Coincidentally, while reading the book, there was an article in the Independent reporting on evidence for the importance of music therapy in dealing with depression and aiding the rehabilitation of stroke victims3, reinforcing messages from Mithin’s review.

The topic of “The Singing Neanderthal” is particularly close to my own heart as my first personal forays into evolutionary psychology (long before I knew the term, or discovered Cosmides and Tooby’s work), was in attempting to make sense of human limits to delays and rhythm.

Those who have been to my lectures on time since the mid 1990s will recall being asked to first clap in time and then swing their legs ever faster … sometimes until they fall over! The reason for this is to demonstrate the fact that we cannot keep beats much slower than one per second4, and then explain this in terms of our need for a mental ‘beat keeper’ for walking and running. The leg shaking is to show how our legs, as a simple pendulum, have a natural frequency of around 1Hz, hence determining our slowest walk and hence need for rhythm.

Mithin likewise points to walking and running as crucial in the development of rhythm, in particular the additional demands of bipedal motion (p150). Rhythm, he argues, is not just about music, but also a shared skill needed for turn-taking in conversation (p17), and for emotional bonding.

In just the last few weeks, at the HCI conference in Newcastle, I learnt that entrainment, when we keep time with others, is a rare skill amongst animals, almost uniquely human. Mithin also notes this (p206), with exceptions, in particular one species of frog, where the males gather in groups to sing/croak in synchrony. One suggested reason for this is that the louder sound can attract females from a larger distance. This cooperative behaviour of course acts against each frog’s own interest to ‘get the girl’ so they also seek to out-perform each other when a female frog arrives. Mithin imagines that similar pressures may have sparked early hominid music making. As well as the fact that synchrony makes the frogs louder and so easy to hear, I wonder whether the discerning female frogs also realise that if they go to a frog choir they get to chose amongst them, whereas if they follow a single frog croak they get stuck with the frog they find; a form of frog speed dating?

Mithin also suggests that the human ability to synchronise rhythm is about ‘boundary loss’ seeing oneself less as an individual and more as part of a group, important for early humans about to engage in risky collaborative hunting expeditions. He cites evidence of this from the psychology of music, anthropology, and it is part of many people’s personal experience, for example, in a football crowd, or Last Night at the Proms.

This reminds me of the experiments where a rubber hand is touched in time with touching a person’s real hand; after a while the subject starts to feel as if the rubber hand is his or her own hand. Effectively our brain assumes that this thing that correlates with feeling must be part of oneself5. Maybe a similar thing happens in choral singing, I voluntarily make a sound and simultaneously everyone makes the sound, so it is as if the whole choir is an extension of my own body?

Part of the neurological evidence for the importance of group music making concerns the production of oxytocin. In experiments on female prairie voles that have had oxytocin production inhibited, they engage in sex as freely as normal voles, but fail to pair bond (p217). The implication is that oxytocin’s role in bonding applies equally to social groups. While this explains a mechanism by which collaborative rhythmic activities create ‘boundary loss’, it doesn’t explain why oxytocin is created through rhythmic activity in the first place. I wonder if this is perhaps to do with bipedalism and the need for synchronised movement during face-to-face copulation, which would explain why humans can do synchronised rhythms whereas apes cannot. That is, rhythmic movement and oxytocin production become associated for sexual reasons and then this generalises to the social domain. Think again of that chanting football crowd?

I should note that Mithin also discusses at length the use of music in bonding with infants, as anyone who has sung to a baby knows, so this offers an alternative route to rhythm & bonding … but not one that is particular to humans, so I will stick with my hypothesis 😉

Sexual selection is a strong theme in the book, the kind of runaway selection that leads to the peacock tail. Changing lifestyles of early humans, in particular longer periods looking after immature young, led to a greater degree of female control in the selection of partners. As human size came close to the physical limits of the environment (p185), Mithin suggests that other qualities had to be used by females to choose their mate, notably male singing and dance – prehistoric Saturday Night Fever.

As one evidence for female mate choice, Mithin points to the overly symmetric nature of hand axes and imagines hopeful males demonstrating their dexterity by knapping ever more perfect axes in front of admiring females (p188). However, this brings to mind Calvin’s “Ascent of Mind“, which argues that these symmetric, ovoid axes were used like a discus, thrown into the midst of a herd of prey to bring one down. The two theories for axe shape are not incompatible. Calvin suggests that the complex physical coordination required by axe throwing would have driven general brain development. In fact these forms of coordination, are not so far from those needed for musical movement, and indeed expert flint knapping, so maybe it was this skills that were demonstrated by the shaping of axes beyond that immediately necessary for purpose.

Mithin’s description of the musical nature of mother-child interactions also brought to mind Broomhall’s “Eternal Child“. Broomhall ‘s central thesis is that humans are effectively in a sort of arrested development with many features, not least our near nakedness, characteristic of infants. Although it was not one of the points Broomhall makes, his arguments made sense to me in terms of the mental flexibility that characterises childhood, and the way this is necessary for advanced human innovation; I am always encouraging students to think in a more childlike way. If Broomhall’s theories were correct, then this would help explain how some of the music making more characteristic of mother-infant interactions become generalised to adult social interactions.

I do notice an element of mutual debunking amongst those writing about richer cognitive aspects of early human and hominid development. I guess a common trait in disciplines when evidence is thin, and theories have to fill a lot of blanks. So maybe Mithin, Calvin and Broomhall would not welcome me bringing their respective contributions together! However, as in other areas where data is necessarily scant (such as sub-atomic physics), one does feel a developing level of methodological rigour, and the fact that these quite different theoretical approaches have points of connection, does suggest that a deeper understanding of early human cognition, while not yet definitive, is developing.

In summary, and as part of this wider unfolding story, “The Singing Neanderthal” is an engaging and entertaining book to read whether you are interested in the psychological and social impact of music itself, or the development of the human mind.

… and I have another of Mithin’s books in the birthday pile, so looking forward to that too!

  1. See particularly my essay on the role of imagination in bringing together our different forms of ‘specialised intelligence’. “The Prehistory of the Mind” highlighted the importance of this ‘cognitive fluidity’, linking social, natural and technological thought, but lays this largely in the realm of language. I would suggest that imagination also has this role, creating a sort of ‘virtual world’ on which different specialised cognitive modules can act (see “imagination and rationality“).[back]
  2. He calls this musical communication system Hmmmm in its early form – Holistic, Multiple-Modal, Manipulative and Musical, p138 – and later Hmmmmm – Holistic, Multiple-Modal, Manipulative, Musical and Mimetic, p221.[back]
  3. NHS urged to pay for music therapy to cure depression“, Nina Lakhani, The Independent, Monday, 1 August 2011[back]
  4. Professional conductors say 40 beats per minute is the slowest reliable beat without counting between beats.[back]
  5. See also my previous essay on “driving as a cyborg experience“.[back]