Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for November 2023

Photo of a
                reflected and distorted city view with buildings old and
Getting things straight 
November 27, 2023

  Unnaturally Unintelligent

As I have been suggesting for some time, people's interactions with words, and their meaning, can cause considerable confusion. Months ago, I briefly discussed what I think is confusion related to "artificial intelligence" (AI), and particularly Large Language Model (LLM) text generators. More recently, the much-hyped quest by some entrepreneurs for "Artificial General Intelligence" (AGI), has been promoted in the media. This notion proposes some sort of supra-human intelligence that will somehow surpass/replace/eliminate human intelligence. Oh, and create new ways for some people to make more money. The fundamental confusing factor in all this seems to be "intelligence" (and the lack thereof).

People use the word intelligence all the time, as if it were generally understood: "so-snd-so is very *intelligent*". How or why, exactly? No specifics necessary. But there is considerable disagreement about what intelligence "is". Different definitions benefit different political agendas and vested interests. Most often, the functional definitions of "intelligence" used in written and oral communications are implicit and/or vague enough to escape examination.

Intelligence cannot merely consist of accumulations of "facts", or collections of words. Books contain both and are not intelligent. If we try to say that books contain intelligence, then we are describing intelligence as a thing. "Things" can be placed in containers, and can be bought, sold, or traded. Humans are generally considered to be intelligent, and some are additionally described as extra intelligent - often by other people who think of themselves as less intelligent. Humans, unlike books or computers, are living creatures. Countries have "intelligence agencies" that collect forms of information. And then, there are also "intelligence tests" that "measure"...something...and have a controversial history of misuse.

Whatever "intelligence" is, the concept has properly been ascribed to humans and some other living creatures. Whatever we consider intelligence to be, what sense does it make to claim that computers somehow have "artificial intelligence"? Is so-called "deep learning" in computers really like the process of learning that is experienced by living creatures? Maybe the appropriation of terms like "intelligence" and "learning" in a machine context is evidence of lazy thinking. How about artificial humanity? Artificial empathy? Artificial authenticity? Artificial artificiality? Where is all this really going? It seems like "Artificial Intelligence" might be just another brand name, being used in a pervasive ad campaign.

Photo of a
                natural clearing in a mature forest
Simply untidy? 
November 20, 2023

  On Getting Some Satisfaction

I was wondering if people somehow need simple stories, but it is pretty clear by now that they "want" them. Maybe life is stressful and simple stories reduce the tension temporarily. In North America, traditions of environmental simplification have lead to the conversion of forest into tidy suburban neighbourhoods with manicured lawns and landscaped shrubbery. Evidently the artificiality is satisfying - everything is under control. That appears to be what people want.

It doesn't cost anything to walk into a forest, or other natural ecosystem, and learn something about it, all the natural untidiness notwithstanding. Well, there is that matter of "opportunity cost" - any time spent observing in a forest is time that could have been better spent in gainful ways. This is for those who see time as temporal capital that can be "spent" from their account for some profit. (Must be a frustrating sort of account, one that draws down constantly no matter what you do and cannot be topped up.) In this context, there would be no point learning about a forest if instead time can be spent removing it for profit which might be used to procure some future satisfaction.

We are motivated to do things to get what we "want" - but how do we learn what to want in the first place? Of course, advertisements are always promising satisfaction through the purchase of whatever product, but when a person "wants" to preserve some aspect of nature, there is something different going on than when a person "wants" material goods. If we start thinking about the differences between "wanting" manufactured objects, or good looks, or a healthy environment, or peace and gets complicated. We seem to learn all sorts of things as we develop, including what and how to "want".

It is perhaps understandable when people surrounded by cityscapes don't think much about natural ecosystems. (They might think about ants, or cockroaches, or other "pests" as discrete problems.) The environment that people inhabit has a profound effect on their sense of reality. The simple stories people in cities learn (it's really all about humans, right?) may seem potentially satisfying...

Wait, wait, isn't this really a gross oversimplification generalising what must be practically infinitely nuanced levels of awareness among city residents. Maybe...but considering the extent of environmental degradation we see everywhere, it's the totality of awareness that seems to create observed results.

Photo of
                a natural clearing in a mayure forest
Simply a matter of time? 
November 13, 2023

  Fear of the Un-simple?

Suppose the forest you visited last week has been partly clearcut since you were there (feller-bunchers make quick work of tree removal). Suppose the clearcut will soon be broadcast burned in preparation for "replanting". There are at least three simplistic stories that might be used to "explain" this sequence of events.

The first story will claim or imply that clearcuts are not detrimental to forests, and possibly that they enhance forest health and forest productivity. Besides, there should be no doubt that they are essential for economic well-being. And a few clearcuts here and there (and really everywhere) only amount to a tiny proportion of the "natural forests" - and far less than is consumed by wildfires. Oh, and the earth is so big, and there are so many trees.

The second story might "explain" how broadcast burning cleans up branches and debris left over from cutting, eliminates competing undergrowth, and provides fertilisation for new seedlings. Missing from this story will be discussion of destroyed and displaced largely-unknown wild animals and plants and their eradicated interactions. It will be assumed that "things will just return to normal" eventually.

The third story implies that spacing plantation seedlings in the cleared ground is a kind of natural "RE-planting", although the original trees were not planted, and resulted from natural propagation over a long stretch of time. The new trees might be presented as improved genetic stock, and not subject to the "inefficiencies" of natural selection. The structure of the ensuing plantation promises to be uniform and more economical to access for re-cutting.

Much, much more could, and should, be said about the oversimplifications presented in these sorts of stories - each seems to contain inaccuracies, significant omissions, and misrepresentations with respect to natural processes. Beyond that, it would be worth thinking about people's willingness (eagerness?) to embrace such flawed narratives. Do people really need simple stories, and if so, why?

Photo of
                an hour glass, toy dinosaur models, and a toy
What time is it? 
November 6, 2023

  Fear of the Unimaginable?

Natural processes seem to largely consist of cascading "chance" events. That is, "chance" in the sense of not guided by any purpose. Many people, perhaps most, appear to have formed a fundamental fear of this contingent nature of nature - even at the same time as they might be comfortable with the "tamed" chance in games of chance. Of course, they can pick and choose when to play around with chance effects during games. (Maybe the key to comfort is the illusion of control. Does uncontrollable unpredictability seem threatening?)

If an unusually severe storm happens to pour an extreme amount of rain on an unstable slope, causing a landslide that changes the course of a river, a portion of a wetland habitat might dry out. That would cause changes in the mix of species previously living there. If there were no human habitations involved, it is unlikely that the phrase "an act of god" would be invoked. If no humans were keeping track of the natural habitat, the changes might never be "known". The species affected would still have been subject to the chance event. Over many millions of years, unimaginably many such contingent events have shaped the natural environment. Instead of fear, shouldn't that process inspire wonder?

Actually, the term "chance event", singular, seems misleading. In nature, myriad interconnected processes occur all the time, over very long periods of time. In the shorter term, humans have begun to recognise and study some of those processes, especially ones that seem to affect humans. The general public may be exposed to an occasional media headline that warns of a "Superbug" that has developed resistance to antibiotics. The recent viral Covid pandemic, interacting with international travel and other human behaviours, has provided a cascade of confusing contingent events that have been widely reported in correspondingly confused stories.

If you walk into a forest, or another natural environment, away from human activity, it may seem quiet or uneventful. Unless you have studied the geoecology of the location, it may seem that there is not much going on. The apparent calm might be a major part of its appeal for people, but that is in no sense the "whole story". In fact, no story could encompass the extreme complexity of the natural processes occurring beyond our immediate awareness. To gain some insight into the long history of such processes, see for example A Natural History of the New World, by Alan Graham. As we enjoy the calming nature of the forest surroundings, there is a whole lot going on under our feet.