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Bursting the Bubble part 1: Worlds of Illusion

While considering the future of AI and of simpler systems that appear to be persons, I’ve found myself thinking about natural intelligence, its origins, and how we understand the world. What I’ve come to realize is that we live in and create a world of illusions and imagination. Even more than that we live in many different worlds. This has a profound effect on a great many aspects of our lives, and it seems important that we acknowledge that, and contemplate what it means to us, to our lives and to the world as a whole.

This article is an updated version of one that appeared in my blog and on my Facebook page a few months back, and has been reworked in order to lead into part 2, to follow.

Let me start by saying that I am not denying the existence of an objective world — a real world that is the source of our experiences. There are real objects in the world that give off and reflect many forms of energy that we perceive through our various senses; real objects that interact with each other and ourselves; real people that we communicate and interact with.

Still, our daily moment to moment experience isn’t quite what we think it is. If I touch the tip of my nose with the tip of my finger, the nerve impulses from the two points of contact take different amounts of time to reach the brain. If I’m watching the reflection of myself doing it in the mirror, that information hits the brain even sooner, since in many ways the cells of our retina can be viewed as the most exposed part of our brain. Visual processing starts immediately. Still all those signals get integrated and interpreted as if they are all received at once. They come in at different times, but we experience “now” as if they were all simultaneous.

But it’s even worse than that. Because the nerve impulses, and the contractions of muscles that they induce all take time, if we are going to do something like run on sand, we actually have to predict the future. We don’t experience a delay between the sensation of our foot touching down on the sand and our adjusting our footing, rolling forward to take the next step or leap. Running, with both feet off the ground at once, especially on an uneven and shifting surface, requires a lot of predicting, and when we are doing it, our “now” is an amalgam of sensations of the past, with different propagation delays, integrated and extrapolated into the future. “Now” is a slippery time from a good part of a second ago to a similar part of a second from now.

Aristotle called the mental facility that does all that integration “the common sense”. The medievals called it the “common wit” — “wits”, for them, being internal faculties, and “senses” external. I wrote a short paper a while ago in which I posit that the integrated view of the world that this “common sense” gives us, is the fundamental building block of intelligence. (See “AI, a “Common Sense” Approach”, if you’re interested in this concept).

Our ongoing experience of “now” is, in some ways, an illusion, one that we pull together to prevent the world from being a “great blooming, buzzing confusion” as William James put it. Instead of that confusion we experience a synthetic world that with any luck corresponds closely enough to the actual objective world that we can pull off nearly impossible feats like running on sand at the beach of a summer’s day. Psychologists and stage magicians alike love to show us how much of an illusion that world is. We don’t see our blind spot and don’t notice things disappearing into it, for instance. M.C. Escher’s paintings all seem to “make sense”.

But these are far from the only illusions in our lives. As we’ve discussed the news and current events of the last several months, I have commented to a number of people that we’re living in a very real “multiverse”. We see each other walking around, we talk about the events of the day, but as we do, it becomes very clear that we are not living in the same world, not discussing precisely the same events. As technology has expanded our horizons, as news from the other side of the globe has come to be something that we can see and discuss seconds, minutes, or if time stretches way out, hours, after they have occurred, rather than waiting months or years, more and more of our daily experience is mediated by layers and layers of repetition and interpretation.

Once upon a time, any news from outside our village took so long and was so diminished that daily life was focused on the life we ourselves lived, daily. Now, everything on the globe can potentially be part of our daily life — far, far, too much for us to actually experience — and so from this unaccountably huge array of possible experiences, a vast array of filters select which few facts, experiences and reports actually get to us. This is one of the places that AI, machine learning, personified systems and agents come in. These days, the systems are learning what we like, what we want to hear, what we respond to well (and for them, hopefully, profitably).

Enter “The Bubble”, or more correctly, “the Bubbles”. With search engines wanting to help us each find what we are individually looking for, and advertisers each looking for what we will respond positively to, we are beginning to live more and more in a pre-selected bubble of information about the present that reflects the “good results” for us personally, of the past. And our good, old, “common sense” integrates it into the image of the world that we are experiencing and living in. We are each sure that we are living in the one real world and that everyone else is as well.

And there’s the rub! Since like the three year old talking on the phone to Grandma, who says, “I’m wearing my new dress, Grammy. Do you like it?” because she hasn’t managed to realize that everybody doesn’t know, can’t see, what she knows and sees, and Grandma doesn’t know what the dress looks like, we think everybody is experiencing the same world we are, and given that, some of their reactions are… well, out of this world.

Back when I was a teenager, it was pointed out to me that as humans we think that everyone values things the way that we do, has the same motives that we do. When that isn’t true, you can learn a lot about people, or nations, by what they project on others. The example at the time was, since we were in the midst of the Cold War, what Russia and the US accused each other of. The Russians said that we in the US were “Imperialists” out to conquer the world. We accused them of being ideologues trying to spread their doctrines across the world. Of course what we most wanted was to spread democracy, our ideology, all across the world. What they were doing was sending tanks into neighboring country and trapping people behind walls, fences, the Iron Curtain. They were Imperialists and we were ideologues, but we each projected our motives, our values, on the other.

Today we talk more and more in one common language over much of the world. A small handful of languages cover most of the 7 billion inhabitants of the globe. Because so many of us use the same language, the same words, to describe the things that happen, our interpretations of them and our reactions, we think we are talking about the same things, that we are living in the same world. But, more and more, the words are becoming nuanced, tuned, personalized.

The truth is, what we take to be the reality, the objective world is very different for different people, even if we use the same terms to describe it. Moreover, we have very different value systems, what we think is important about the worlds we live in. What this means is that when we see how others respond to the events, we are confused by, or aghast at, their reactions. Given our understanding of the world and our priorities, we would have to be crazy or evil to respond that way. Given that, they must be crazy, or evil, but certainly dangerous, or suspicious, at the very least.

Even worse, all of the above applies when everyone’s motives are good, when we are all doing the best we can, reacting to the world as we experience it. It doesn’t take into account the fact that more and more these days, spin, propaganda, denial, and just outright lying are being seen as business as usual. At our best, we are living in something of a house of mirrors. Add malice, opportunism, and lying, and it becomes a nightmare of illusion and confusion.

So, all these illusions, bubbles, and echo chambers, dividing us into different worlds, with different “facts”, and different assumptions, serve to separate and divide us, make it hard for us to understand each other, and so distrust grows. This raises a number of questions for us. How do we reach out across the barriers of illusion that separate us into the many worlds of this mutually created multiverse? How do we find the facts? How do we see the goggles we’re wearing and that each other are wearing? How do we understand each other? For, surely, acting as if it’s all one uniform, shared reality is just not going to work, not until we really are walking in the same world.

Can we build tools to help us break through the bubbles?

[Update: I address this question in: “Bursting the Bubble part 2: Artificial Assistance”.]

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