Tuesday, August 21, 2007

So close, yet so far...

Have you ever solved a Rubik's cube? Some 5 or 6 moves prior to arriving at the solution, it still looks like a mess.

I think--but perhaps this is a thought shared by all cognitive scientists--that we're some 5 or 6 steps towards solving the big problem in Cognitive Science. Like the Rubik's cube, it all looks like a mess now, though we do have huge amounts of knowledge in the neurosciences, linguistics, computer science, philosophy and psychology. However, central organizing principles that may cogently explain how humans can use language, imagine impossible events such as anything beyond one's light cone, play chess or go, have low-level vision and high-level conceptual imagery, or even conceive of something like continental drift or a light cone. How can a brain do so much that's so varied?

A term that many brain scientists usually use is "functional areas", to demarcate that here goes vision, there goes grammar, in that other area we find touch, and so on. This perspective, perhaps, has been a problem on the way to progress. Others may have been the view that the brain is a computer; the empirical dependence on static patterns, the separation between low-level perception and high-level conceptual research, the encapsulation of analogy as a tangential issue, and the lack attention to feedback mechanisms. These are the topics of the PhD seminar starting this week. To some of those we have, I think, a satisfactory solution, as Steve Jobs would say, "available, today".

But to others we have only glimpses and glances of what they look like. If the scientific challenges are met, the technological and business opportunities will be huge. I see the scenery today as in the days of pre-TCP-IP, in which a bunch of guys were daydreaming about a network in which the physical medium would not be important at all, and any point in the network--any point--could be disrupted and the network would not be affected. A basic breakthrough like TCP-IP brings forth hordes of technological advances, and this is the role Cognitive Science may play in the coming decades.

The operating system has been the major platform in the computer industry, at least up until SUN came up with a vision of (pre-web2.0) ideas. Now we're shifting technology to a "new operating system", based not on multi-threading or task scheduling or windowing, but an architecture of community interaction, interoperability between people and computer systems and devices (like your cell phone). Blah blah blah; this is history, right? But what's about to come may be even bigger. Now that we have the whole world connected, and hordes of information available, if a true absolute cognitive technology comes forth, huge sweeping changes will come with it.

I feel that we're in the pre-TCP-IP era of cognitive technology. The net, of course, turbocharges cognitive technology, as it turbocharges globalization, and many other things. But if we suddenly turn this Rubik's cube in the right way for a few more moves, we may just stumble into something really groundbreaking. Discover the missing gaps in our understanding of the mind, and you'll have the ultimate operating system in your hands. I'm betting my career on it; and I plan to do it in all ways: by teaching and writing scientific papers, by programming and designing and striving to see the minute technical details and the big picture, by discussing within the Club of Rome's forums the importance and magnitude of what's happening, by building other, perhaps for-profit, organizations to develop these models, by declaring "friendly war" with Mr. Hawkins, and by having entrepreneurs randomly jumping into my classes to see what they're all about.

Probably I won't touch these untold riches, probably it won't be me who'll turn Rubik's cube the right way, and maybe I won't even live to see this happen, but in any case I'll be glad to help those with enough energy and intelligence to jump into one of the deepest, world-altering, questions of science and technology ever to be found.