Monday, January 21, 2008

On the carving of waves

Legend tells that, during the first days of AI, Marvin Minsky was developing a machine to play ping-pong.  The greatest effort at that time, of course, was devoted to the "thinking" part--and if the story is true, then he assigned an undergraduate student to handle the "perception thing".

But of course, it didn't work.  Perception was found to be more difficult than it seems at first.  For us, perception is trivial; it is only when you start to deal with its mechanisms that the full extent of the problem arises.

Whenever we hear speech, we are carving waves of sound into discrete units (phonemes, then words, then phrases, etc).  Whenever we read a webpage, or look outside the window, we are carving a massive bidimensional wave of colors into discrete objects.  It is hard to model the information-processing that takes place on our minds.  Roughly 60 years later, Microsoft, with all the cash in the world, still struggles with the problem.

But the carving of continuous entities into discrete ones is not the only scientific problem here.  Even discrete entities are chunked into ever higher levels--in myriads of different ways.  Consider, for instance, the copycat project, the letter spirit project, the tabletop project, or any other project from FARG. 

For example, in NUMBO, numbers are chunked by applying operations with bricks.  95=(9*11)-4.  In chess, related pieces are chunked into groups.  And even a letter is a chunk of different traces.  The objects we see are not "out there", outside of any understanding.  Objects are mental creations.  And these mental objects, these chunks, have an enormously recursive structure.  Some traces chunk into a letter, some letters chunk into a word, some words chunk into a sentence, and on and on it goes.  Meaning is created, somehow, during the process.

We are developing a theory of mental objects, a theory of chunks, which, we believe, will push FARG forward.  In this model, one of the crucial ingredients of chunks are relations (which create new chunks based on other chunks), or rules (which help in carving waves into the most basic chunks possible--probably corresponding to what happens in V1, an area of the brain related to vision).  We are still quite far from a working model, but here's a strategy to approach it: forget about the waves at start, and deal with pre-built, low-level, chunks.  Only after that is satisfactorily solved, rules should be tackled.

If you think that that's an oversimplification, that dealing, for example, with discrete entities such as letters, is a problem way beyond the carving of waves, look no further than the unintentionally worst company domain names ever.  Here are some:

1. A site called ‘Who Represents‘ where you can find the name of the agent that represents a celebrity. Their domain name… wait for it… is

2. Experts Exchange, a knowledge base where programmers can exchange advice and views at

3. Looking for a pen? Look no further than Pen Island at

4. Need a therapist? Try Therapist Finder at

5. Then of course, there’s the Italian Power Generator company…

6. And now, we have the Mole Station Native Nursery, based in New South Wales:

Carving and chunking are deeply interrelated, both involved in the creation of mental objects.  Traditional computer science can't do the trick here.  Many traditional ideas must be reconsidered.  If Microsoft ever hires someone like Harry Foundalis, we'll know they're now serious about this thing.