Friday 30 January 2009

On Face Recognition

The organic cerebral source code that has evolved in our brains is a wondrous thing, and way beyond my humble comprehension. One of the more power subroutines of this complex neural code must be the one dealing with face recognition. We are remarkably efficient at picking out faces and instantly matching them from previous experience to immediately identify a myriad of friends, family and celebrities. This powerful process ensures that a couple of dots and a line are all we need to recognise a pair of eyes and a mouth. The consequences of this usefully evolved ability is the fact that we can also easily see faces when none are actually present. The Madonna on a pop tart, Jesus on a slice of a toast, a face on a mars, a monster in the curtains, and a ghost on the stairs seem to me more likely explained by this natural ability of our brains rather than crazy paranormal phenomenon.

The new face recognition software on iPhoto ’09 must work in a similar, but far less sophisticated way. My prediction, whilst installing iLife ’09 last night, and mulling this over, was that surely even the geniuses at Apple aren’t as clever as many hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection, honing and fine tuning our minds. Therefore surely iPhoto ’09 will also see faces where there are none.

The face recognition software turned out to be better than I had expected, despite the fact that I noticed on Stephen Fry’s twitter feed that he was having some problems getting it to recognise himself. However, as I suspected after sorting a large number of faces, iPhoto did eventually start seeing things. I’m not going to count, the cigar stall Indian, the statue of Horus and the picture of Carl Sagan on my T-Shirt, all of which iPhoto asked me to name. But as expected, iPhoto eventually found a face in the folds on my wife’s skirt, and in the craggy light and shade of a rock face. I write this not as a criticism of iPhoto ’09, which I was most impressed with, despite the fact that it did once ask me to confirm that a bearded and bespectacled gnarled old man was my beautiful wife. I’m writing this to ask a question; if we can now write software that not only efficiently apes one of our more complex brain functions, but is also prone to the same delusions as us, does this make genuine artificial intelligence or even artificial consciousness seem just a little more probable at some point in our species future?

Thursday 22 January 2009

Stephen Fry: In America (The Book)

I’m fascinated by the sights, sounds, philosophies and cultures of foreign lands. However, like many others, the constraints of time and money severely restrict my ability to witness much of this fascination at first hand. These fascinations and constraints have made me an avid world traveller through the televisual medium of Michael Palin, and fired me with enthusiasm to view one of the worlds most fascinating countries through the witty and informative eyes of Stephen Fry. Although our close Anglo-American ties mean that much of America is familiar to the British, a country so vast and varied invariably has a few wonders and surprises in store for the more intrepid tourist. Unfortunately the TV series did not quite live up to my high expectations, but the book succeeded by providing a more candid interpretation of Fry’s travels, unsweetened for a less generic audience.

Although Fry travels through and writes about each of the 50 States individually, what this book is not, is a travel guide. As the author clearly outlines in the preface, anyone looking for a detailed account and description of the 50 American states will be sorely disappointed. Furthermore, any inhabitant of any specific state may be outraged by the scant and incomplete coverage of his or her homeland. (especially if you home state is Idaho). What the book does provide in abundance, is an overall taste and flavour of the country as a whole by the agglomeration of random vignettes and anecdotes peppered across this vast land. In fact, I think the book provides two levels of insight. Firstly, for the British reader, Fry provides a sympathetic insight into the belief, cultures and traditions that seem alien to us. Secondly, for the American reader, Fry provides a view of the familiar from an unfamiliar and foreign perspective.

Fry rightly refuses to play up to unfounded British stereotypical prejudices and visions of superiority. The vast majority of his travels, interviews and encounters ensure that the inhabitants of this country come across as the genuine, honest, kind and interesting individuals that I know they are. However, whilst unashamedly rejoicing in the landscapes, achievements and cultures, he is not afraid to point out America’s biggest failing, i.e. the inability to understand cheese. As a British person, I may be advised not to throw stones in my own greenhouse when it comes to criticising another countries culinary abilities, but cheese should never be squirted from cans.

I found a couple of interviews on the TV programme a little annoying, In particular, a witch interviewed in Salem, and a Bigfoot tracker interviewed in Oregon. Fry’s inner thoughts on the utter absurdity of beliefs of the Bigfoot tracker in particular where not as apparent until I read in the book. In fact the whole book affords the reader a much deeper insight into Fry’s mind, not only emphasising what is clearly ridiculous but further celebrating what is great and wonderful about the country and its peoples.

Here’s a brief extract from the Massachusetts chapter on Salem:

The shameful, primitive and disgusting events of the 1690’s have receded into jokey folklore and Salem now embraces its position as the Halloween and Olde Puritan capital of America, abounding with Publick Houses and Crafte Shoppes. Indeed there are now real witches in Salem, witches who are out and proud. “Can you feel the positive energy here?” “Er, well, since you mention it, not really…” I meet the High Priestess Laurie Cabot in her occult shop “The Cat, The Crow and the Crown”, the first of its kind, she claims, anywhere in the world. She and her co-religionists have fought long and hard for “the Craft” to be treated as any other faith under the constitution. Laurie is the “official witch of Massachusetts”, a title granted by Governor Dukakis in the seventies. She is not to know that I am entirely allergic to anyone using the word “energy” in a nonsensical, New Age way. A hundred years ago it would have been “vibrations”. I am determined not to be surly and unhelpful, however, so I plough on. “Big Day for you, today, Laurie, Halloween.” “Today is not Halloween.” She says, putting me right, “it is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Christians took it over, along with so much else.“ There is no black cat perched on her shoulder, but there might as well be. “The Christians went on from persecuting us to scorning us for what they call superstition.” I murmur sympathy, which is genuine. To me, all religions are equally nonsensical and the idea that Christians, with their particular invisible friend, virgin births, immaculate conceptions and bread turning into flesh, could have the cheek to mock people like Laurie for being “superstitious” is appalling humbug.

A very enjoyable read and it has certainly fuelled me with an even stronger desire to tick off a few more States.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Faith: A humanitarian perspective

“Oh ye of little faith”, the pious religions mock
Because I exercise free thought, instead of following the flock
Society kowtows, to spiritual devotion
And reverence increases, with the absurdity of notion

Humanitarian thinking, I hear to my dismay
Is unsuitable material, to air on “Thought for the Day”
They say that lack faith, is the primary reason why
Critical thinking, has led my thoughts awry

But I have lots of faith, of this I am quite sure
Despite your weird delusion, which I find so immature
I have faith in many things, so I shall make a list
And put them in a poem, to show you they exist

I have faith in all my friends, and especially in my family
I have faith in my convictions, and that my children will astound me
I have faith when I get home, my wife will drink some tea
I have faith no matter what, she’ll always have love for me

I have faith than in the summer, I’ll be quaffing lots of cider
And that knowledge will be gained, from the Large Hadron Collider
I have faith in education, and reading books by Sagan
I have faith that learning science, will stop us turning Pagan

I have faith that young musicians, in spite of Simon Cowell
Will learn to play guitars, instead of throwing in the towel
I had that Faith that Roger Waters, would talk to Dave Gilmour
I have faith that modern medicine, will strive to find a cure

I have faith in quantum mechanics, gravity and evolution
That scientific method, provides the best solution
I have faith that several men, have walked upon the moon
If others share my faith, we could return quite soon

I have faith that detox diets, are a way of making money
You have no psychic powers, and there is no Easter Bunny
But I have faith that every fraud, and alternative medicine maker
Will be exposed by Mr Randi, or the wit of Ben Goldacre

I have faith in secular government, although they’re much maligned
I have faith conspiracy theories, are purely in your mind
My faith in modern morality, beats your old religious ways
I prefer to respect women, free slaves and befriend gays

I have faith in Mr Darwin, And Mr Einstein too
And all of the experiments, that proved their theories true
So I have lots faith, but it’s not the religious kind
It’s based on solid evidence and certainly isn’t blind

Saturday 10 January 2009

Polarisation of the Populace

It was nice to read Rebecca Watson’s top tens of 2008, listening her top ten people who have contributed the most to the cause of Skeptisim, Science and Enlightenment and on the other side of the coin, the top 10 douche bags who’ve done their best to promote pseudoscience and miss information, often at a terrible human cost.

I was also recently listening to Quentin Cooper’s Material World Podcast and noticed that a number of the celebrities who were taking in an interest in science and climate change where among some of the performers I saw at Robin Ince’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People just before Christmas.

Putting these two pieces of information together, it seems as if more and more celebrities and the public in general are starting to make a conscious decision on where they stand regarding this issue and are declaring their hand.

Perhaps I am just viewing things from too deeply from within the Skeptical community of which I am starting to become involved. Maybe this gives me the false impression that many people are starting to stand-up and be counted. I suspect that the effect would be far less noticeable from a general more disinterested populace. Although the recent success of Ariane Sherine’s “Atheist Bus Campaign” suggests that maybe there is some wide spread interest.

It has felt recently as if the small community of individuals interested in science reason and critical thinking (to work in my blog title) seems to be encompassing many well known comedians and musicians. It’s reassuring and pleasing to see that some of the most talented of these share some similar thought processes to me. (I was going to stick a list of names in here, but decided against it as it would be incomplete).

It is of course disappointing when public figures with the ability to sway the public opinion promote pseudoscience and superstitions. Especially when it is a celebrity I liked. Damn, why does Jim Carey have to support his mad wife, I liked him!

However after listening to Maria Maltseva on this weeks Skepticality Podcast she opened my eyes to a potential danger behind this polarisation. I personally view the dogmatic, inflexible, contradictory and incompatible doctrinarians of established religions as one of the seeds of hatred, oppression, violence, war and terrorism that we could well do without. Anyway, I certainly wouldn’t want the polarisation of views between Skeptics and Believers to harbour seeds of hatred that could lead to conflict beyond healthy debating. Fortunately, I’ve found the Believers who’ve visited us at “Skeptics in the Pub” in London to have been brave and charismatic individuals and I hope we can continue to debate and drink with them in the amicable way that I know we can.

Wednesday 7 January 2009


I started to think last week about the difference in what we physically see and what we actually perceive in our minds. The catalyst for these thoughts where as a result of watching the same television programme as some other people but having a completely different perception of what we had seen.

I visualised the following diagrammatic metaphor as a means of understanding this behaviour. But first a disclaimer, I have no knowledge of the optical mechanics of the human eye or the vastly complex neural processes that convert electrically stimulated cells on the retina into a conscious understanding in the brain. The diagram a few paragraphs below is therefore purely a metaphor.

Without intelligence, an image has no meaning. A digital camera can record a 7 million pixel crystal clear image of the world, but to the camera itself, it is worthless, the camera cannot deduce anything from the image or have a sense of beauty or wonder at the image it has captured. The human eye itself is somewhat similar, it merely captures an image of the world through a lens. The brain however, is able to decipher this image into some type of meaning. I suspect however, that it can’t do this without some prior knowledge and learning, and the nature of that knowledge and learning will determine how the image is perceived.

I remember an anecdote Billy Connolly once gave where he took his young children to the top of a mountain to show them a breathtaking view and had to explain to them that it was beautiful. Without learning what beauty is, and relating it to images, how can we judge what is beautiful? So once we have a little knowledge we can start to truly see things. I suspect however that our limited knowledge and learning greatly restricts what we are in fact able to see.

In the diagram below the eye is seeing a complete image of the world, but the limited knowledge of the brain processing the image is severely restricting what the viewer perceives to the green shaded area.

According to this crude metaphor: education, learning and knowledge have a great deal to play in actually being able to see what is around us. Not only does the breadth of knowledge affect what we can see, the nature and details of the knowledge will also affect how we see it.

One criticism that science is often charged with is that breaking the physical and natural world down into cruel, intelligible and atomic facts and processes can rob it of its beauty and majesty. Many popular science writers rebut this accusation with a contrary claim that knowledge in fact increases our ability of appreciating beauty and awe. My metaphor echoes this claim and my experience backs it up. I can certainly perceive a lot more about the world around me (including its beauty and awe) as a result of making a conscious attempt to understand it better.

Perhaps this metaphor can also explain a little about how religious and secular views of the world differ. The Church has historically made great efforts to control and restrict the knowledge and understanding of its followers to ensure they only perceive that small part of the world that is relevant to the Church’s teachings. Based on my religious friends, I suspect that the Church still attempts to instil notions and taboos in order to try and restrict the growth of knowledge outside of its worldview by censoring, or at least actively discouraging, secular books and TV programmes that threaten its cherished view. It is very easy to understand how religion had such a stronghold on the populous in the Dark Ages where knowledge was limited and Church controlled. No wonder natural disasters where routinely perceived as divine retribution and simple confidence tricks and coincidences perceived as miracles.

To take the metaphor once stage further, I think the notion of the knowledge of the brain deciphering the images of our eyes can extend beyond the small visible spectrum of light our eyes have evolved to process.

Our understanding of the universe, galaxies and planetary system largely exceeds what can be viewed by the naked eye. We had an understanding of the atomic structure in a time when glimpsing it was not possible. Perception can therefore be advanced beyond our sight by scientific peer reviewed theories backed up by incontrovertible evidence.

Perhaps this is what has led to a complex (although still incomplete) scientific perception of the world that often seems at odds with our “common sense”. A “common sense” that has evolved to make use of the more limited and less educated perception of the world. Is it this the same “common sense” that leads us up the garden paths of religion, paranormal, superstition, pseudoscience and quackery?