Artificial Intelligence: Weak AI vs. Strong AI

This post continues a philosophical examination of Artificial Intelligence started in the previous post.

The distinction between Weak and Strong AI refers to claims about the capabilities of computers. Popular uses of the terms ‘Weak AI’ and ‘Strong AI’ are less carefully defined than their academic uses. The original terms were coined by the philosopher John Searle in 1980. Weak AI is the hypothesis that a powerful enough computer could simulate any aspect of the human mind. Strong AI—in its original intended definition—is the hypothesis that "the brain is a digital computer, and the mind is a computer program". This view implies that if a programmer types the right program into a computer console, then that program would emulate (be equivalent to) a human mind.

Imagine that we created a robot that was built with powerful computer hardware and software. Imagine that the robot was so life-like in appearance that it was indistinguishable from a human being in movement and speech. Those who accept Weak AI but reject Strong AI would say that it is logically possible to create such a computer-powered robot, but it could only ever simulate human intelligence. No matter how much computer technology advanced in the future, it could never literally be intelligence or aware, nor could it have any intrinsic rationality. It would just be a metal and silicon zombie.

Some assume Strong AI and believe that creating consciousness is simply a matter of creating the right computer program (Philosophers Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers). Others reject the view that consciousness is intrinsically computational but accept Weak AI that computers could hypothetically simulate any aspect of human consciousness (John Searle). Others reject both Strong and Weak AI believing that there are some aspects of the human mind that not even a computer could simulate (Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose).

Weak AI Computer software + hardware alone can simulate every aspect of a human mind.
Strong AI Computer software + hardware alone can emulate a human mind.

One can reject either Strong AI or Weak AI and still believe that we could hypothetically create an artificial machine that could literally be conscious. However, that machine could not be a computer. It would have to be a machine that is much more powerful than a computer. According to one theory, a machine could emulate the human mind if it reproduced the causal mechanisms of the human brain that cause consciousness (assuming we will eventually understand how those mechanisms work). More on this in later posts.


Sticker Charts

In the past few years, I have been experimenting with different systems for self-improvement. For most of my experiments, I use my graphic design skills to develop some visual chart or framework to track my thoughts or progress in some area. The most recent system I designed has been very successful in helping me and my family develop habits and daily rituals. It is a simple sticker chart that tracks the daily, weekly, and monthly goals of each member of the family. This system has been more successful than anything else we have tried so far.

The purpose of the goal chart is to help my family develop habits that will help us grow individually and collectively. The chart has one section for the goals of each family member such as individual daily reading goals. There is also a section for goals that can only be accomplished collectively such as daily family prayer.

Here are some pictures of our January and February sticker charts: 

February is partially complete because I am posting this on the 12th. 

For this experiment, no one is rewarded individually when they have earned a certain number of stickers. The system is set up to reward the whole family. My hypothesis is that this will help create a sense of shared purpose and unity and to encourage family members to motivate each other. This month, for instance, we all agreed that when we achieved 10 perfect days — where everyone finished all of their goals for that day— we would go out for ice cream as a family.

The sticker chart system is not meant to get kids to do chores around the house. I want to avoid teaching my kids that chores are only worth doing if they get something in return. This is another reason why the system is focused on self-improvement and uses collective rewards.

In addition to helping us develop better habits, the sticker chart system has other benefits as well. It replaces some of the chaos of life with a feeling of order, structure, and consistency. It is an aid as we talk with our kids about the importance of connecting short-term goals with long term wants and desires. It also helps our young kids understand the basic mechanics of the calendar, giving them a better sense of days, weeks, and months.

The system isn’t perfect however. Sometimes it can seem like it is just about filling in the numbers. For example, one of my my daughter’s goals is to draw a picture every day. One day she did a cursory drawing with very little effort just to get a sticker. Another issue is that the current version of the sticker chart tracks our progress for the length of the whole month. It is great to see the progress over a whole month, but it can seem too rigid if we are ready to adjust or add goals in the middle of the month. Hopefully these and other issues can be resolved as the system evolves over time.

Update: I added the latest sticker chart to my downloads page. I will update the sticker chart monthly to reflect the upcoming month.


The Expectation Problem of Human-like Interfaces

For more than six decades, many researchers and designers of computer programs have been inclined to make their computer interfaces appear intelligent and human-like. One of the assumptions behind this temptation is that since people already know how to interact with other people, then making a computer program act more like a person will improve the user experience. However, the experience of creating human-like computer programs together with research from the fields of design and computer science have presented challenges to this assumption.

Designing computer programs to look, sound, or behave more like humans is often talked about in terms of personification, humanization, or anthropomorphization. (These are separate concepts  but they are often conflated.)There are many pitfalls associated with such approaches, but one of the most well-documented affects is that it causes users to expect that the computer program is “smarter” than it really is.

I have captured a few quotes and references from specialists in the field and in academia about this effect:

The Reprentation of Agents, Anthropomorphism, Agency, and Intelligence by William King and Jun Ohya presents data from one of their experiments which suggests:

Anthropomorphic [Human-like] …forms may be problematic since they may be inherently interpretted as having a high degree of agency and intelligence.

In the book Make It So, authors Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff write:

Anthropomorphism can mislead users and create unattainable expectations. Elements of anthropomorphism aren’t necessarily more efficient or necessarily easier to use. Social behavior may suit the way we think and feel, but such interfaces require more cognitive, social, and emotional overhead of their users. They’re much, much harder to build, as well. Finally, designers are social creatures themselves and must take care to avoid introducing their own cultural bias into their creations. These warnings lead us to the main lesson of this chapter.

Lesson: The more human the representation, the higher the expectations of human behavior.

In the MIT Press bestselling book Software Agents by Jeffrey Bradshaw, Don Norman wrote the following:

If the one aspect of people's attitudes about agents is fear over their capabilities and actions, the other is over-exaggerated expectations, triggered to a large extent because much more has promised than can be delivered. Why? Part of this is the natural enthusiasm of the researcher who sees far into the future and imagines a world of perfect and complete actions. Part of this is in the nature of people's tendency to false anthropomorphizing, seeing human attributes in any action that appears in the least intelligent. Speech recognition has this problem: develop a system that recognizes words of speech and people assume that the system has full language understanding, which is not at all the same thing. Have a system act as if it has its own goals and intelligence, and there is an expectation of full knowledge and understanding of human goals.

The problem is amplified by the natural tendency of researchers and manufacturers to show their agents in human form. You can imagine the advertisements: "Want to schedule a trip, the new MacroAgent System offers you Helena, your friendly agent, ready to do your bidding." As soon as we put a human face into the model, perhaps with reasonably appropriate dynamic facial expressions, carefully tuned speech characteristics, and human-like language interactions, we build upon natural expectations for human-like intelligence, understanding, and actions.

There are some who believe that it is wrong — immoral even — to offer artificial systems in the guise of human appearance, for to do so makes false promises. Some believe that the more human-like the appearance and interaction style of the agent, the more deceptive and misleading it becomes: personification suggests promises of performance that cannot be met. I believe that as long as there is no deception, there is no moral problem. Be warned that this is a controversial area. As a result, it would not be wise to present an agent in human-like structures without also offering a choice to those who would rather not have them. People will be more accepting of intelligent agents if their expectations are consistent with reality. This is achieved by presenting an appropriate conceptual model — a "system image" — that accurately depicts the capabilities and actions.

In section 12.7 of the popular HCI textbook, Designing the User Interface, the authors write:

The words and graphics in user interfaces can make important differences in people’s perceptions, emotional reactions, and motivations. Attributions of intelligence autonomy, free will, or knowledge to computers are appealing to some people, but to others such characterizations may be seen as deceptive, confusing, and misleading. The suggestion that computers can think, know, or understand may give users an erroneous model of how computers work and what the machines’ capacities are. Ultimately, the deception becomes apparent, and users may feel poorly treated.

Because users naturally expect that human-like program are “smarter” than they really are, designers and marketers should be cautious when creating human-like interfaces. Some interfaces such as chatbots or voice interfaces make it impossible to avoid personification. In these instances, designers and marketers should set clear expectations to avoid user dissatisfaction. For example, one popular communication program "Slack" comes with a chat program called "Slackbot". Before users use Slackbot they are told "Slackbot is pretty dumb, but it tries to be helpful." Similarly, it may be in the best interest of tech companies to refrain from marketing their products as "smart" or "intelligent" to avoid making the problem worse.

As a designer, I personally gravitate toward the principle 4 of calm technology as a means of avoiding some of the problems stated above. Principle 4 states that machines shouldn't act like humans, and humans shouldn't act like machines.

Work from my students Fall 2014

This semester I taught Intro to Graphic Design at Brigham Young University. Here is some of the work from the students. Click the images for higher resolution.

Temari: A Japanese Restaurant
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Plates and Palates: A Restaurant/Caterer in SLC
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Skagen: A Danish Watch Company
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Topo: A Sportswear Company
Designed by a Advertising major

Oriflame: A Cosmetics Company
Designed by a Finance major

Eno: A Hammock Company
Designed by a Advertising major

NASA: A Space Organization
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Wildflower: A Triathlon Event Company
Designed by a Advertising major

Sam Hawk: A Korean Restaurant
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Craft: A Gourmet Food Truck and Caterer
Designed by an Art History major

Apple Watch Dimensions Diagrammed

The new Apple Watch was announced last Tuesday and so far Apple has not released any materials identifying its dimensions, so I spent the afternoon today analyzing Apple videos and Apple's PR photos to try to derive it's dimensions.

The only front facing photo of the watch on Apple's site is the watch next to an iPhone 6. It was clear that it was a 6 and not the six plus because of the app icon to phone ratio. Knowing the dimensions of the iPhone. I was able to estimate the size and dimensions of the new watch as shown below:

Apple Watch Dimensions MM and IN

If you exclude the crown, the dimensions end up being about 36 x 42 mm (1.4 x 1.6 inches). The inner screen appears to be about 40 mm (1.5 inches). 

Apple Watch Dimensions Side

From the side, the dimensions are 9 x 42 mm (.37 x 1.6 inches) without the sensor ring at the bottom. Counting the sensor ring, the total height is about 11.5 mm (.45 inches). That means that the Apple Watch is approximately 67% wider than the new iPhone 6. I suspect that the rounded corners should make the watch seem much thinner than it actually is.

In order to better understand the size of the watch, I have compared it to a credit card, an iPhone 6, and an iPhone 3g. 

Apple Watch compared to credit card
Apple Watch compared to iPhone 6 and iPhone 3g

What makes a great designer?

Tomorrow, I start teaching an intro to graphic design class at my Alma Mater — Brigham Young University. I was thinking about the class outcomes and the lasting influence I want the class to have on the students. The ultimate outcome of the class is to help the students become great designers. A great designer is not only good at their craft, but he or she is also a good person. All of the stated class outcomes ought to create a path to become a great designer. 

But what makes a great designer?
I am sure there are many ways to answer this question, but I just thought about a few fundamental attributes that all designers must develop to become great.

A designer is only as good as his or her resources. Good designers constantly collect physical and mental resources. Physical resources include the tools of the trade as well as collections of inspiring things. Access to quality paper and drawing instruments, and high performing computers and software, and printers are the basic tools of the trade. Great tools don't make good designers, but great designers need great tools. A great designer will constantly seek after the most inspiring and uplifting designs in order to learn from them and to be inspired by them. Sites like Pinterest can be a great resource for filling the mental and spiritual well.

Mental resources include pure talent, inspiring ideas, or a natural intuitive eye for beauty. Some people are born with more innate talent than others, but as long as one has some innate talent, he or she can nurture that talent through hard work.

Hard Work
One will not be great without a lot of hard work and a willingness to stay up late and work on weekends. The designer Bradley Munkowitz, whose work I admire, finished every work week by working Friday night until sunrise on Saturday morning for a year. 

The great inventor Thomas Edison is reported to have said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This is a great quote that can help procrastinators gain perspective. But, for those who have mastered the habit of being proactive, they may gain more inspiration from Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla, who said,

If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.

So even though hard work is a necessary habit of a great designer, one will progress faster if they combine good practice with good theory. Both are necessary. One's resources are worthless unless one works hard to put them together in new and inspiring ways.

I don't think a designer will ever learn to work hard unless he or she is passionately motivated to constantly improve themselves and their communities. A satisfied person is an unmotivated person. Only unsatisfied needs and desires can truly motivate a person to do whatever is necessary to progress.

In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins analyzed visionary companies and found that they did not focus primarily on beating their competition. According to Collins,

Visionary companies focus primarily on beating themselves. Success and beating competitors comes to the visionary companies not so much as the end goal, but as a residual result of relentlessly asking the question "How can we improve ourselves to do better tomorrow than we did today?" And they have asked this question day in and day out - as a disciplined way of life - in some cases for over 150 years. No matter how much they achieve - no matter how far in front of their competitors they pull - they never think they've done "good enough".  

Just like the visionary companies in Jim Collins study, designers must always have a bit of dissatisfaction with the results of their work. If a designer wants life satisfaction from their craft, then they should not focus too much on the results of their work, but they should focus on the process of design. Paradoxically, the calm of constant improvement comes with a bit of dissatisfaction that fuels personal progress.

Is Economics a Science?

Many people debate the question about whether economics is more like science or philosophy. In my own opinion, science and philosophy deal with different types of questions. Science deals with questions in which there is a systematic method of answering those questions. Philosophy on the other hand deals with questions in which there is not a systemic method for answering those questions. On this view, much of economics is a science because it provides a systematic way of answering many questions about the world. But, there are also parts of economics that are perhaps closer to being philosophy. 

Recently, a Harvard economics professor, Raj Chetty wrote the article, "Yes economics is a science"  in the New York Times. Chetty argues that economics is a science even though many economists disagree with each other. Chetty writes, 

It is true that the answers to many “big picture” macroeconomic questions — like the causes of recessions or the determinants of growth — remain elusive. But in this respect, the challenges faced by economists are no different from those encountered in medicine and public health. Health researchers have worked for more than a century to understand the “big picture” questions of how diet and lifestyle affect health and aging, yet they still do not have a full scientific understanding of these connections. Some studies tell us to consume more coffee, wine and chocolate; others recommend the opposite. But few people would argue that medicine should not be approached as a science or that doctors should not make decisions based on the best available evidence.
Chetty gave several examples of how economics provides a scientific picture of reality. But he also jumped to policy recommendations as if the economic studies naturally lead to those policy recommendations. When Chetty was explaining the scientific observations from economics, I was in agreement with him, but when Chetty jumped to making policy suggestions, I became more skeptical. The economics was science, but the policy suggestions based on the economics was more like philosophy.
As I was thinking about this article and randomly surfing the internet, I found this excellent criticism of Chetty's NY Times article by the "Anonymous Commentator".
The Anonymous Commentator basically agreed that economics is a science and agreed with the scientific conclusions of the economic studies referenced in Chetty's article. But he showed how one can easily arrive at opposite policy recommendations from Chetty. According to the Anonymous Commentator,
Economics certainly can be seen as a science when it comes to making observations about the world, but when it comes to recommending certain policies, economics is only as scientific as the biases of the economists allow it to be.

One who makes policy recommendations based on economic conclusions are often— though not always—engaging in philosophy. Philosophy is not inferior to science. It just focuses on different questions—questions like "What is the good society?" or "How should we conduct ourselves in society?" for example. We need to make more room for honest debate about those questions even though there may be less room for debating the facts of economics.


True Individualism vs. False Individualism

Every fourth friday, I meet with a philosophy group. In our August philosophy discussion, we discussed the essay Individualism: True and False by the social theorist and economist Friedrich Hayek. According to Hayek, there are two opposing ideas about how to understand individuals and the society in which they live.  Hayek calls these ideas true individualism and false individualism. These ideas permeate all social and political thought. They apply to beliefs about reason and knowledge, economics, justice, equality, power, tradition, marriage and family, and government. In this post, I will briefly introduce the concepts of true and false individualism and discuss how they relate to ideas about reason and knowledge.

True Individualism and False individualism
True individualism is a social theory that says that individuals cannot be properly understood without understanding the social processes that surround him. As people make individual decisions they contribute to a social order that is not the result of human design. According to Hayek, “if left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee.” (individualism: True and False pg 11) Hayek associates true individualism with Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and John Locke.

False individualism on the other hand asserts that individuals are best understood as existing independently of social processes. And, it seeks to understand society as existing independently of the individuals that compose that society. False individualism assumes that reason "is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.” False individualism seeks to free individuals from social constraints in order to promote liberated self-expression. This view has been expressed by John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, René Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and, William Godwin.

Reason and Knowledge
According to true individualism, any individual's own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision making. Knowledge comes primarily from experience which is “transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day to day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work.” (Conflict of Visions pg 36)

In another work, Hayek wrote that, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus, “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty pg 157)

In his essay on individualism Hayek argues that since man’s reason is inadequate to intelligently design society, individuals are justified in following, and ought to follow, social conventions that have evolved over time.

...the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him will often appear unintelligible and irrational.

Thus according to true individualism, knowledge comes from experience, is  systemic and dispersed in the many, and is expressed through social norms and customs.

False individualism rejects these ideas in favor of what Hayek calls “Rationalism” which accepts only what can “justify” itself to “reason”. One proponent of rationalism—the philosopher William Godwin—expressed this view when he said that “Reason is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.” Traditions and social norms are looked upon with skepticism and disdain unless they are validated via specifically articulated rationality. This is because knowledge is viewed as, “conscious, explicit knowledge of individuals, the knowledge which enables us to state that this or that is so-and-so.”

Implicit in Hayek’s view of rationalism is that it can lead to both socialism and forms of libertarianism such as anarchism. Rationalism can lead to socialism because according to Godwin, “persons with narrow views and observation,” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society. (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol II, pg 206) It is only the “cultivated minds” who can deliberately see past the social norms and traditions of the masses and deliberately design a society that will benefit all. Rationalism thus sees knowledge and reason as concentrated in the few who see themselves as surrogate decision-makers on behalf of the masses. This is why Hayek believes that rationalism often leads “directly to socialism” which assumes that society can only improve if it is deliberately designed by the wisest most cultivated minds. Taken to another extreme, rationalism can also lead to forms of libertarianism such as anarchism which seeks to reduce all social interactions to deliberate contract making between individuals as if they could deliberately design their lives from scratch apart from society or government.

According to Thomas Sowell who wrote extensively about Hayek, “Rationalism at the individual level is a plea for more personal autonomy from cultural norms, at the social level it is often a claim—or arrogation—of power to stifle the autonomy of others,” on the basis of assumed superior wisdom and articulated rationality. (Knowledge and Decisions pg 103)

Another way to understand true and false individualism with respect to knowledge and reason is to contrast how each side answers the questions, “what is the locus of discretion?” and, “what is the mode of discretion?” 


According to true individualism, individuals should be left free to make their own decisions within a framework of systemic rationality. By systemic rationality, I am referring to the experience of the many as expressed in social norms, customs, traditions, and even price signals within an economy. According to false individualism, individuals should be free from the constraints of social norms and traditions. They can only be free if they are liberated by experts who exempt themselves from social norms and make social decisions on behalf of “society”. False individualism thus assumes that man can comprehend society enough to design it.

  1. Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order 
  2. Thomas Sowell, Conflict of Visions
  3. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty
  4. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol II
  5. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions