Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Expanding Search Beyond the Semantic Frontier

Alex Pardee’s Escaping Conviction, circa 2010

Here we have a little something about similarity concepts and search.

Why must we limit the internet to text? Sure we have a rudimentary image search function, but I’m referring here to the way we search our own memories. We don't use text only, we use our bodies, our autobiographies, the mental maps in our heads...

Explaining this new method for searching with a sketch vs. keywords:
“In designing the system, the researchers deliberately set a very broad similarity concept and adapted it to different types of sketch; for example, similar colors, shapes or directions of movement.”

Notes:, Jun 2016

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Age of Approximation

Screenshot from Iain McGilchrist called the Divided Brain on RSA Animate and TED.

“The Age of Enlightenment is Dead.” Thank you, Mr. Danny Hillis, for putting this in writing, and in the new MIT Journal of Design and Science no less.

Mr. Hillis makes the case, in a brief but very coherent treatise, that science is due for an update. In fact, it is not just science, but the very idea of human endeavor and progress. I recall the TED talk given by Iain McGilchrist called the Divided Brain. (This guy is author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, 2009). In his talk, he describes how the brain is split in two; the truth is more nuanced than that, and this is the point of the talk in fact. He goes on – there are two metaphorical sides, and they each do two different things, and the reason we tend to be right-handed is because the corresponding side of our brain is for active, intentional manipulation. And on – throughout history the pendulum swings, and one day we may regard the right side as the “right” side (because the Age of Enlightenment made us value the left side so much).

In the art classroom, I repeat these ideas, and ask them what the world would be like if everyone was “right-brained,” or artistically minded. Imagine if everyone was an artist, and nobody a scientist, all emotion and flight-of-fancy, and no bridges, tunnels, infrastructure, economic policy, institutions of higher learning, no numbers, no logic, and nothing to separate sense from nonsense. Crazy.

Then again, I can sort of imagine a world where artificial intelligence does all that stuff for us, so we can do more human things, more messy, emotional, intuitive things. I highly doubt this is what Mr. Hillis is talking about in his essay, but I’m quite excited nonetheless that he’s talking, period. He says right here:

“As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.”

Danny Hillis, MIT Journal of Design and Science, March 2016

Post Script:
What the hell does all this have to do with the Language of Smell?

A primary objective of Hidden Scents is to present the idea that after the wave of Big Data crashes on the shores of human civilization we will have entered a new era, one in which certainty itself is no longer valued in the way it once was. We already see this today, when we ask what it is that separates us from our imminent AI overlords. Humans have intuition, something an algorithm can never have, by its nature. Humans can do this thing called “messy thinking,” or fuzzy thinking, or half-thinking. This is what leads us to make novel discoveries and connections and to be creative in general. This is what makes us not computers. And in its uncanny way, this kind of mental activity is at the core of olfaction. To smell something is to navigate a sea of data too large to fully comprehend. In this sea, one can approximate, but never ascertain. (The source of a particular smell is only verified by one of the other senses, like when you actually find that dead mouse under the fridge.)

So if the Age of the Enlightenment is dead, then perhaps olfaction (and more specifically the language of olfaction) can serve to carve the path ahead.

Well, perhaps you think I’m a bit too right-brained to be writing about such things. Thanks for reading at least.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


The Triune brain, a visualization of the evolution of the human brain. Illustration by Joe Scordo for Hidden Scents: The Language of Smell in the Age of Approximation

Parts of the primate brain are made to deal with any potential situation. The way these highly adaptive brain parts work are by using recurrent loops that interfere with each other, in what is being called a “reservoir” network.

Perhaps we see headlines written like this because artificial intelligence work is typically performed by first predicting all potential situations (that is, until recently, with the advent of ‘deep learning’ techniques). In other words, the idea that a brain, or part of a brain, is designed to deal not with predictable situations but novel ones, is counter to this prevailing predictive technique.

I’d like to make a link here between this adaptive behavior and the fact that our sense of smell is not pre-coded but a blank slate. We do not have pre-existing preferences for smells, and the pattern of olfactory receptors in the nose seem to have no discernable pattern whatsoever because they're meant to learn anew for every creature and for every situation. This is because the way we interact with our organic environment is so complex, there can’t be a set of rules that work for every potential situation.

Smell is part of the mammal brain, and not rational thinking is part of the human brain. (Note that the mammal brain is not the same as the primate brain, which is only used as a term here to disambiguate it from the human brain…semantics!) Granted, primates have a prefrontal cortex too, and we have learned that there is not as much difference as once thought between humans’ and other animals’ brains. Nonetheless, smell is the animal inside us, and a link to our evolutionary past, and to a world much less predictable than the one we inhabit today.

Post Script, Jun 2016

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Potent Memories vs Weak Memories

Lots of discoveries have been popping up on the subject of memory. UK scientists won the Brain Prize for showing how memories are stored in the brain, based on the “fire together, wire together” theory.

Some recent work on how we forget has come up that reminds us why our smell memories stay potent forever. The idea that we forget memories after repeatedly recalling similar memories has been around for a while, but for the first time, scientists show evidence of active repression.

In Hidden Scents: The Language of Smell in the Age of Approximation, the potency and tenacity of our smell memories are discussed as an analogy to the concept of lossy data in computer science. In the study linked above, memories that are repeatedly accessed have a negative lasting effect of on the fidelity of similar memories. In computer science, every time a .jpg is opened and re-saved, it loses some of its data due to compression. This is what lossy data compression is about.

For smell memories however, where the memory is instigated by a unique signature of aroma compounds (one that might represent your grandparents’ attic, for example), this process of retrieval and re-saving does not happen for perhaps forty years. And then one day: You know that feeling – it’s called the Proustian moment, after the most widely recognized description of olfactory memory in literary fiction – it’s when you walk into a room and you’re hit, halted in your tracks, and assaulted by your past, captured in a moment that consumes your awareness.

“Oh my….oh…that’s…that’s my grandparents’ attic – I haven’t thought about that in forty years.”

And you shiver, you time-traveler, re-living a most personal page in your autobiography. Again, the reason smells can do this to us is because these instigating signatures, these unique aroma profiles, are such a complex and nuanced combination of molecules that the chances of your encountering them on a regular basis can be very small. There is no opportunity to rewrite the data. It just sits there forever, waiting.

There’s more to the story of course, like the fact that these memories are a holistic conglomerate of spatiotemporal, physiological data about the precise state of your body at the moment of encoding, but that’s already too much for today.


March 2016, BBC News

Nature Neuroscience, May 2016

March 2016, BBC News

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Artificial Molecules and the Organic Internet

Thesupermat via wikimedia commons

Scientists are now manufacturing microspheres, just like Neal Stephenson said they would. These are not like popular 3D printers, which require a single material to be used throughout. Instead, these microspheres can be programmed to consist of a variety of mixtures.

At the beginning of Hidden Scents: The Language of Smell in the Age of Approximation, I pose the following question, half-jokingly:

“What if the internet was not a textual phenomenon? What if, instead of words, the internet was a world of volatile organic molecules? What if we could search this organic world with our bodies? What would we do with it? With ourselves?”

With advances like those seen here in the creation of programmable, artificial molecules, this question becomes much less outlandish.


April 2016,

Ni S, Leemann J, Buttinoni I, Isa L, Wolf H: Programmable colloidal molecules from sequential capillarity-assisted particle assembly, Science Advances, 1 April 2016, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501779

May 2016, Popular Science

Saturday, June 4, 2016

On Randomness and Certainty

Let’s say you read a headline announcing an advance in the way we generate random numbers. You might think to yourself, "First of all, why do we need random numbers in the first place?" Random numbers are important for many science experiments, and the field of statistics is ultimately based on randomness. Scientists and mathematicians need random numbers as a part of their toolbox in order to do good work. Next, you might ask, how do we get random numbers then? Old school methods involve the flipping of a coin, or the rolling of dice. These methods take a lot of time if you’re trying to produce a huge list of random numbers. Nowadays we use computers. The problem is, even computers produce results that are predictable. Hard to predict, but predictable nonetheless.

What are the chances? You mean to tell me that we can’t actually produce randomness? The paradox is that computers generate random numbers based on an algorithm. Everything they do is based on an algorithm, a set of instructions. Yet, nowhere in a set of instructions can it say, “Generate a random number.” Algorithms cannot think for themselves; technically, we the human programmers do the thinking. (And yet even we can’t generate random numbers.) I’m starting to confuse even myself here, so I should cut to the chase.

In a world where information avails itself to us in an ever-accelerating fashion, we might be led to think that one day we will be sure about everything – a  theory of everything, an omniscience of all future events. But if we remember that science – the thing we use to “be certain” about things – needs randomness to work, and yet we don’t really know how to get absolute randomness, then we can temper our visions of a fully programmed world where all existence is automated. Uncertainty will always be with us.

May 2016, BBC News

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Sweat vs Smell vs Robots vs Humans

Kevin Grennan’s Robot Armpit Prototype. Yup.

Thanks Japan. Humanoid robots are doing really well over there. Even the artificial skin is starting to sweat. This technological development is lauded in the world of humanoid robots because the artificial skin has all of the proper parts to be a functioning thermoregulating membrane, i.e., it sweats. But is it humorous to note that Japanese folks have very few apocrine glands themselves? People of East Asian descent are less likely to have body odor than others. I’ll bet if the robots had a choice, they would smell like their Japanese creators, i.e., not at all.

April 2016, Riken Institute