[Humanist] 29.153 machines, machines everywhere

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 9 22:48:29 CEST 2015


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 153.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Paul Fishwick <metaphorz at gmail.com>                       (73)
        Subject: Re:  29.150 machines, machines everywhere?

  [2]   From:    Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>                   (113)
        Subject: Re:  29.150 machines, machines everywhere?


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 8 Jul 2015 20:07:13 -0500
        From: Paul Fishwick <metaphorz at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  29.150 machines, machines everywhere?
        In-Reply-To: <20150708222037.BD0812CFE at digitalhumanities.org>


Dear Willard

 Perhaps “machine” can be synonymous with “system.” I view the term fairly
broadly and abstractly. For instance, a Finite State Machine is an abstract machine
that can be defined algebraically or in a diagram — it is a “machine” on “paper.”
Likewise, machines can be made with organic material or gears. I realize that there
may be a tendency to think of a “machine as the other,” but I am not an adherent of
that definition. There is nothing wrong with working “within the machine” (Pink Floyd
in the background), “being a machine”, or “being composed of machines.” What’s
not to like?

-paul

On Jul 8, 2015, at 5:20 PM, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 150.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> 
> 
> 
>        Date: Thu, 09 Jul 2015 08:06:14 +1000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: machines, machines everywhere?
> 
> 
> In the New York Review of Books for 9 July Tim Flannery reports on Paul 
> G. Falkowski, Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable 
> (Princeton 2015), in "How you consist of trillions of tiny machines". He 
> comments,
> 
>> At a personal level, Falkowski's work is also challenging. We are
>> used to thinking of ourselves as composed of billions of cells, but
>> Falkowski points out that we also consist of trillions of
>> electrochemical machines that somehow coordinate their intricate
>> activities in ways that allow our bodies and minds to function with
>> the required reliability and precision. As we contemplate the
>> evolution and maintenance of this complexity, wonder grows to near
>> incredulity.
> 
> What interests me about Falkowski's argument here is its instantiation 
> of human-as-machine on the nano-organismic level. This is not at all to 
> say that he is somehow wrong to do this or wrong about it -- who are we 
> to say? -- nor to remark on the quite amazing success of the 
> human-machine metaphor, only to observe that we continue to talk in a 
> particular way about ourselves, about the world. But before we get too far 
> with this it's good to recall Minsky's point about what is meant here by 
> "machine". Having grown up when and where I did, the word immediately 
> and always conjures levers and gears, which try as I might I cannot 
> dismiss. Which leads me to my question: what now do we mean by 
> "machine"? And, apart from the tendency to find them, whatever they 
> are, wherever we look, how is this meaning structuring our thoughts? 
> (Or is "structuring" itself all wrong?)
> 
> And why do such thoughts belong here? I think because we're 
> self-identified as bringing machines into the study of the arts and 
> letters. Are we bringing these machines home?
> 
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
> Group, University of Western Sydney


Paul Fishwick, PhD
Chair, ACM SIGSIM
Distinguished University Chair of Arts & Technology 
   and Professor of Computer Science
Director, Creative Automata Laboratory
The University of Texas at Dallas
Arts & Technology
800 West Campbell Road, AT10
Richardson, TX 75080-3021
Home: utdallas.edu/atec/fishwick
Blog: creative-automata.com



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 9 Jul 2015 12:30:52 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  29.150 machines, machines everywhere?
        In-Reply-To: <20150708222037.BD0812CFE at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

I see here a case of reflected analogy--something that happens
a lot in the history of Artificial Intelligence.

We (humans) built big complicated telephone exchanges, then
said these look like brains, so we thought cognition works
like telephone exchanges work.  Then we built computers, and
said brains seem like computers, and went on to investigate
cognition as computation.

This pattern of thinking--build something that does something,
(a machine), "see" something of us in this machine and the way
it works, then start thinking we are like the machine we
built--is quite common, and is, I would say, what Falkowski
does in "Life's Engines": finding answers about what we are
and how we work in stuff we build and make work, and then,
crucially, forgetting that the notions first came from what we
built and made work.

Making machines that work (typically) takes significant
designing and engineering knowledge, understanding, expertise,
and effort.  Machines can not be brought into existence
without all this.  Nature builds things, equally intricate and
complex, and more so, but not by designing and carefully
engineering them: by (Neo)Darwinian Evolution.

Nature's ways are different from our Human ways.  We build
machines and know and understand how they work (and don't).
Nature evolves things, but doesn't know or understand what
get's built: Nature knows nothing!  Seeing likenesses,
inspirations, analogous workings, is useful and fun, but it
doesn't make for an identity between Human made machines and
Nature evolved things.  Calling some Naturally evolved thing a
machine, or engine, doesn't make it one.  So, appearing to say
that Nature built things are machines, can be, and is,
confusing.

It's to do with the nature of being.  Being Human is not, I
would say, satisfactorily understood as being made up of many
(trillions) of machines: no designs and no engineering
involved.  Being a Car Factory is well understood this way.

Using machines to know and understand things about being human
is fine.  Building this knowing and understanding out of what
we know and understand to design and build these machines is
confusing.

You can see this in the Flannery quote you present 

  "Falkowski points out that we also consist of trillions of
   electrochemical machines that somehow coordinate their
   intricate activities in ways that allow our bodies and
   minds to function with the required reliability and
   precision."

The "somehow coordinate their intricate activities" gives it
away.  In Nature built systems this coordination comes along
with the evolution of the parts coordinated.  It's intrinsic
to the parts and their interactions--and, as a consequence,
often very hard to know and understand.  In Human built
machines, this coordination is designed and engineered by us,
and is externally specified, and usually based upon sound
engineering principles and understandings.  Nature is not an
Engineer, nor a Designer.  Nature collects what works well
enough for it to (collectively) build more of what works.  How
the "somehow" was arrived at matters.  It make the difference
between what is (well) called a machine, and what is not.

Best regards,

Tim
Donostia / San Sebastián



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