Thoughts on… thinking and decisions

At the University we have weekly meetings for the Intelligent Systems Lab (ISL), that we cleverly call “LabMeets.” So, the topic today diverged from the usual talk on some aspect of computer intelligence, and was a brief talk followed by a short recording of an interview – the topic was essentially the Behavioural Economics of Daniel Kahneman. I was suitably impressed enough to write up some of my notes, and to exercise the liberal art of rhetoric. Although economics might at first seem quite distant from artificial intelligence, it is actually quite closely related.

As mentioned, the first section of today’s LabMeet was a brief overview of a paper by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky entitled “Choices, Values and Frames” published in 1984 in American Psychologist. This paper showed that people tend to be “risk-averse” when the outcomes are seemingly positive, whereas “risk-seeking” when the outcomes are negative. A number of examples were given which highlight that given exactly the same scenario, the language of two different options has a direct relationship to the option chosen. This is a key aspect of decision-making, and therefore having an objective view allows for a more rational decision. It matters quite a lot to humanity, because it means that humans can very easily be manipulated, just through the use of language.

Kahneman also wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow. Which, as far as I am aware, goes into more detail about this particular theory. In the labmeet, we watched a youtube video of an interview with Kahneman regarding Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman describes two systems which the brain uses:

  • System 1: Is, in essence, the part of the mental processes which includes intuition and subconscious thought. It is that “gut feeling,” and is our fast response unit.
  • System 2: Is, in essence, the more logical and rational mental processes. It (usually) takes more time to get a result from System 2 than it does from System 1, just because it takes time to calculate.

Considering one particular example. If somebody is on a short-term winning streak (e.g. in some kind of sport, or perhaps in playing the stock markets), our intuition (i.e. System 1) might tell use that that person is worth promoting or investing in. However, our rational mind (i.e. System 2) well tell us that statistically somebody that has been better than average for a lot longer (even if he/she is not currently having a winning streak), is better to promote or invest in. With this in mind System 2 is usually the better to go with.

However, we spend most of our lives, as humans, living in System 1 and it works for us most of the time. It is just that when the difficult decisions come, the result from System 2 will usually be the best decision. This is related to the regression towards the mean phenomenon.

What was also said was about leadership, and Kahneman mentions in the video that in terms of presidents of the USA; George Bush was more of a System 1 thinker, whereas Barack Obama is more of a System 2 thinker.

From my own point of view, I couldn’t help thinking that both System 1 and System 2 obviously have their pros and cons. I wonder, from a brain-improvement perspective, how this particular theory could help. Would it be possible to make our intuitions correct for more complex decisions (i.e. improving system 1 while retaining the speed), and would it be possible to improve our more rational brain by making our day-to-day lives more rational and making our rational thought incorporate the intuitive nature of our very being? It also leads me back to one of my previous blog posts where I consider how machines might deal with rationality and irrationality of humans.

Just some thoughts, and I’d be happy to hear yours…

Thoughts on… the art of memory, and art of brain work

What follows is largely a rambling of my current thoughts of art of memory/brain work. I don’t claim to be very knowledgeable on the subject, and certainly would not claim to be even remotely an expert on psychology or neuroscience – if there are readers of this post who are in the field, then I’d be more than happy to hear from you about this subject.

As every day passes I find myself treating my body and mind, not as me, but as a vessel for ‘me’. What do I mean by this? Well, if I see my body and my mind as a carrier for myself, then I could potentially treat such entities as mechanical devices. Mechanical devices have components, which can either be enhanced or replaced. When we think of machinery these days, we usually think of the materialistic technology (e.g. mobile phones, computers, televisions, cars and planes, and even things like prosthetics and robotics). This need not be so, machinery could also be biological, or even psychological.

So if we take our bodies, then exercise and diet are obviously two key parameters improving and enhancing it (or conversely degrading it!). However, we don’t often think of ways to improve our own minds. Granted when you go to school, college and university, then you do improve your knowledge, your “key skills” and your learning/researching abilities. You can also keep your mind active through the use of crosswords and other puzzles (e.g. Sudoku). There have also been “Brain Training” games that have appeared over the last decade or so, which improve mathematical, logical and visual capability… but is this enough?

In order to analyse whether this is “enough”, we need to consider the types of brain work, here are some of the areas that immediately come to my mind (and no doubt there are others)…

  1. Memory
  2. Mathematics
  3. Logics
  4. Creativity
  5. Language
  6. Sensory stimulation
  7. Hand-Eye Co-ordination (or to put it in mechanical terms: Actuator-Sensor Co-ordination)

It is “memory” that has particularly been on my mind recently, partly because I’ve had to memorise various things recently. So we usually get the distinction between:

  1. Long Term Memory
  2. Short Term Memory
  3. Also, sometimes, Muscle Memory

I’d like to think of slightly different categories for memory (there are probably more, and I could probably clarify them better than I have here, but…):

  1. Sequential Memory – where things (e.g. words, or symbols) are memorised in order, and they must be kept in order so as to maintain semantic and pragmatic integrity. Usually used for memorising scripts.
  2. Rule Memory – where A is associated with B, through some kind of rule or relation. Usually used for memorising concepts, or mathematics. Also an important concept for (Pavlovian) teaching/learning.
  3. Loci Memory (or Method of Loci), where concepts are stored sequentially or rule-based, against more memorable locations. Sometimes known as the “Memory Palace”
  4. Muscle Memory. Repetition can be associated to concepts, or more usually sequences. Consider the act of memorising a script, one word follows another, if it does so regularly then the physical act of moving ones mouth, can actually begin to materialise itself as a muscle memory without it entering into the sequential memory of the mind.

So I think that its quite important to exercise all these areas. Through both “order” (i.e. repetition of the usual), and “chaos” (i.e. unexpected memorisation which goes against what you’ve memorised). When exercising the memory, I find that it is usually both the memory itself AND the process of memorisation, that are important.

With memory exercised, I would say that other areas can then begin to become enhanced. Mathematics (arithmetic in particular) and Logic (and Sets), are key. Then its also important to get enough visual stimulation. Once visual stimulation occurs, then our connection between the visual, and our ability to manipulate the world, can begin to be improved (i.e. hand-eye co-ordination / Actuator-Sensor co-ordination). With Actuator-Sensor co-ordination exercised, we begin to see that communication is important, and so we can use our actuators to stimulate other peoples sensors, through the use of language and creativity. If we’re receiving language and creativity, then we make new memories, and the whole process of brain enhancement begins again.

Although far from a formalised and scientific method, I think that the above informal formula would be beneficial, and over the last few months I’ve tried to implement it (with a bit of success). We just have to treat our bodies and minds like the beautiful vessels that they are, and we will begin to see the benefits into the long term, both individually and in society.