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23 May 2008 / erikduval

Do blind people dream?

As announced, I did a talk on the snowflake effect at the Academy of Science last Tuesday. The slides are below. You will notice that, after an introductory note about how bad we are at understanding exponential growth, I tried to connect to the theme of “brain, consciousness and mind” by starting from the Turing test, bridging to the need for intelligent support in order to deal with abundance, and then talking about the snowflake effect as a way to realize that. In typical Internet serendipity style, I had just read Paul Lamere’s blog post about his music recommender Turing test results: that gave me a nice way to tie the end of the presentation back to the start.

It seems like someone is actually reading this blog, because I was introduced as probably the youngest person in the audience – a comment triggered by my earlier blog post 😉 …

The talk went rather well, if I can believe the feedback from the audience… After me, Dirk Van Dyck talked about AI and neural networks. He emphasized the importance of feedback loops to create exponential growth, a nice addition to what I had presented. He also mentioned that we, humans, share 98.5% of our genes with a chimpanzee and 50% with … a banana – a nice factoid!

Beatrice de Gelder concluded the presentations and started by explaining that we will not understand how the brain works if we ignore emotions and the body. I think that is correct: there is a form of intelligence embodied (!) in my body. Of course, that doesn’t imply that all forms of intelligence must be contained in a body in a similar way. Her research focuses on how our brains deal with “body language” – a topic that previously apparently was hardly studied as everybody focused on how we deal with faces… Interesting. I am also quite puzzled by the notion of emotional contagion: we apparently feel happier in the presence of happy people – seems to me like that could create a feedback loop that results in exponential growth of happiness?

As often, the discussions afterwards were at least as interesting as the talks. The first question from the floor was whether blind people dream. I was not sure how that connected with the presentations, but it sure did make me think of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?“. I’m a bit annoyed that I didn’t demonstrate the collective intelligence I mentioned in my own talk by just googling the question and finding out that, of course, blind people do dream. Another participant asked whether I was in favor of open peer review and more transparent forms of democracy. I answered that I was, but that we need to organize that in such a way that we actually get wisdom of the crowds, for instance by making sure that we get independent opinions rather than group think.

As so often, there was some apprehension about using software to filter out more relevant stuff from the abundant sources, nicely formulated by the president of the academy as a potential cause of the decline of civilization 😉 I often get this question and I am not sure that I really understand it. Somehow, people are comfortable with the idea that they can’t talk with everybody, or read everything, or listen to all music ever produced, etc. when this is caused by a lack of physical access to everybody or everything. Now that we more and more do have access to everybody and everything, and need help to filter out what is most relevant and valuable to us, that help is a treat to our identity or civilization?

The most to the point remark I got was from Irina Veretennicoff, who raised the issue that I only talked about the 1 billion of us who live in abundance and not about the 5 billion who have more pressing needs like shelter, food and physical wellness. Point taken. I should have made that point myself early on.

Finally, I really appreciated the nice comments I received over the reception: thanks! And I am very intrigued by some comments on the reasons why people feel uncomfortable with the notion of abundance. There may be a link to christian history and the notion of sin? Someone also recommend “The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age” by Simon Schama. This is certainly a theme I would like to explore further: what is it that makes so many people so uncomfortable with the notion of abundance. I’d be very interested in any other suggestions you may have!

And before I forget: many thanks to the folks who took me to dinner. That was Serious Fun!


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