Liberation of Tools

Posted in humor, interaction design, interfaces, robotics on February 25th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Without the existence of parody, I would have far less hope for our society. Robert Brockway’s recent article on the Cracked website, “If The Internet Wins The Nobel: A Proposed Acceptance Speech,” makes fun of the effort to give the internet the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unfortunately the Nobel Prize agency hides the nominees list for 50 years in a secret volcano lair, so I’m not sure if the intertubes is actually a nominee right now.

Brockway points out the strangeness of recent awards/nominations to abstract concepts, such as “You” for Time’s Person of the Year. Why don’t we nominate abstract concepts for President?  Brockway bemoans the internet’s qualifications, concluding that this would really be a peace prize for pornography.

Despite his brilliance, Brockway misses one aspect of the internet that makes it somewhat different than other abstract concepts, which is that it’s also a tool. Even if you disagree with the usage, the acceptance of a tool for a major award may be a predecessor to a future culture in which intelligence, personhood and rights apply to a myriad forms, not just humans.   And not just in object-oriented forms.

“In the future, your clothes will be smarter than you.”
Scott Adams

The interfaces of the web allow us to interact with agents who may not be human. Would you care if other players in multiplayer games were bots, as long as they acted like humans? Would you follow software agents on Twitter? I certainly would.  Would you have sex with a sufficiently humanlike robot (or web agent + peripheral)?  I certainly…um…

“Smart” gadgets now are still relatively idiotic. But we’ll have more and better mobile assistants and home appliances in the future. Also, if we can work out the interfaces, automatic systems and software agents will become better at doing online chores and information aggregation for us.

In the real world, augmented pets and socially adept robots may be among your friends. Telepresence robots will let you interact in the same physical space with remote humans, software agents, pets, corporations, etc.

This could be the era in which humans finally start accepting machines, distributed systems, and other non-humans as people. Or if not as people, than as new classes of rights-bearing entities.

Bonus points to anybody who makes an “I for one welcome…” comment.

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Enactive Interface Perception

Posted in artificial intelligence, interfaces on February 24th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

UPDATE 2011: There is a new/better version of this essay:  “Enactive Interface Perception and Affordances”.

There are two theories of perception which are very interesting to me not just for AI, but also from a point of view of interfaces, interactions, and affordances.  The first one is Alva Noë’s enactive approach to perception.  The second one is Donald D. Hoffman’s interface theory of perception.

Enactive Perception vs. Interface Perception

Enactive Perception

The key element of the enactive approach to perception is that sensorimotor knowledge and skills are a required part of perception.

A lot of artificial perception schemes, e.g. for robots, run algorithms on camera video frames.  Some programs also use the time dimension, e.g. structure from motion.  They can find certain objects and even extract 3D data (especially if they also use a range scanner such as LIDAR, ultrasound, or radar).  But the enactive approach suggests that animal visual perception is not simply a transformation of 2-D pictures into a 3-D (or any kind) of representation.

Example of optical flow (one of the ways to get structure from motion). Credit: Naoya Ohta.

My interpretation of the enactive approach is that it suggests perception co-evolved with motor skills such as how our bodies move and how our sensors, for instance, eyes, move.  A static 2D image can not tell you what color blobs are objects and what are merely artifacts of the sensor or environment (e.g. light effects).  But if you walk around this scene, and take into account how you are moving, you get a lot more data to figure out what is stable and what is not.  We have evolved to have constant motion in our eyes via saccades, so even without walking around or moving our heads, we are getting this motion data for our visual perception system.

Of course, there are some major issues that need to be resolved, at least in my mind, about enactive perception (and related theories).  As Aaron Sloman has pointed out repeatedly, we need to fix or remove dependence on symbol grounding.  Do all concepts, even abstract ones, exist in a mental skyscraper built on a foundation of sensorimotor concepts?  I won’t get into that here, but I will return to it in a later blog post.

The enactive approach says that you should be careful about making assumptions that perception (and consciousness) can be isolated on one side of an arbitrary interface.  For instance, it may not be alright to study perception (or consciousness) by looking just at the brain.  It may be necessary to include much more of the mind-environment system—a system which is not limited to one side of the arbitrary interface of the skull.

Perception as a User Interface

The Interface Theory of Perception says that “our perceptions constitute a species-specific user interface that guides behavior in a niche.”

Evolution has provided us with icons and widgets to hide the true complexity of reality.  This reality user interface allows organisms to survive better in particular environments, hence the selection for it.

Perception as an interface

Hoffman’s colorful example describes how male jewel beetles use a reality user interface to find females.  This perceptual interface is composed of simple rules involving the color and shininess of female wing cases.  Unfortunately, it evolved for a niche which could not have predicted the trash dropped by humans that lead to false positives—which results in male jewel beetles humping empty beer bottles.

Male Australian jewel beetle attempting to mate with a discarded “stubby” (beer bottle). Credit: Trevor J. Hawkeswood.

All perception, including of humans, evolved for adaptation to niches.  There is no reason or evidence to suspect that our reality interfaces provide “faithful depictions” of the objective world.  Fitness trumps truth.  Hoffman says that Noë supports a version of faithful depiction within enactive perception, although I don’t see how that is necessary for enactive perception.

Of course, the organism itself is part of the environment.

True Perception is Right Out the Window

How do we know what we know about reality?  There seems to be a consistency at our macroscopic scale of operation.  One consistency is due to natural genetic programs—and programs they in turn cause—which result in humans having shared knowledge bases and shared kinds of experience.  If you’ve ever not been on the same page as somebody before, then you can imagine how it would be like if we didn’t have anything in common conceptually.  Communication would be very difficult.  For every other entity you want to communicate with, you’d have to establish communication interfaces, translators, interpreters, etc.  And how would you even know who to communicate with in the first place?  Maybe you wouldn’t have even evolved communication.

So humans (and probably many other related animals) have experiences and concepts that are similar enough that we can communicate with each other via speech, writing, physical contact, gestures, art, etc.

But for all that shared experience and ability to generate interfaces, we have no inkling of reality.

Since the UI theory says that our perception is not necessarily realistic, and is most likely not even close to being realistic, does this conflict with the enactive theory?

Noë chants the mantra that the world makes itself available to us (echoing some of the 80s/90s era Brooksian “world as its own model”).  If representation is distributed in a human-environment system, doesn’t that mean it must be a pretty accurate representation?  No.  I don’t see why that has to be true.  So it seems we can combine the two theories together.

There may be some mutation to enactive theories if we have to slant or expand perception more towards what happens in the environment and away from the morphology-dependent properties.  In other words, we may have to emphasize the far environment (everything you can observe or interact with) even more than the near environment (the body).  As I think about this and conduct experiments, I will report on how this merging of theories is working out.

Noë, A., Action in Perception, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Hoffman, D.D, “The interface theory of perception: Natural selection drives true perception to swift extinction” in Dickinson, S., Leonardis, A., Schiele, B., & Tarr, M.J. (Eds.), Object categorization: Computer and human vision perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp.148-166.  PDF.

Hawkeswood, T., “Review of the biology and host-plants of the Australian jewel beetle Julodimorpha bakewelli,” Calodema, vol. 3, 2005.  PDF.

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How to Tell Your Friend They Have a Problem with Comic Sans

Posted in humor, interaction design on February 16th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Credit: arnoKath

A friend, family member, or coworker who abuses the Comic Sans font presents a danger to himself and to others. This person may be risking their position at work, ruining family relationships, and making poor decisions that result in financial disaster. It is often a difficult and daunting task to confront a friend about such a problem. Nevertheless, such a confrontation could save your friend’s life. Comic Sans abusers do not believe that they need help. It is an action of love to introduce the subject and help your friend confront these demons.


  1. Be sure that your friend or coworker really has a Comic Sans problem.
  2. Prepare a strategic plan of action. Talk with a typographer and ask on how you can help your friend’s Comic Sans problem. What you can do for your friend depends a lot by your age, the help resources and your friend him/her self.
  3. Write down how you want to help your friend. Before you approach your friend, ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this meeting?” Possible objectives might be:
    • A realization that this lifestyle is destructive.
    • An honest admission of Comic Sans use.
    • A desire to be Comic Sans-free.
    • Agreement to ask for help.
    • Attendance at a support group.
    • A system of accountability.
    • Enrollment in a Comic Sans rehabilitation program.
    • Reconciliation with estranged family members.
    • Restitution for damage to others.
    • Surrender to authorities for outstanding warrants.
  4. Approach your friend with a nonjudgmental voice. Confrontations that begin with “You should…” or “You shouldn’t…” will turn the discussion into a battle that will force your friend to defend him or herself. A better approach might be, “When you use Comic Sans, I feel sad and I get worried you might be hurting yourself and putting yourself into harms way.” It means that you should talk about your feelings toward your friend.
  5. State your commitment to your friend. One of the greatest fears of the Comic Sans abuser is that he will lose his friends or family if he is found out. Offering support in the rehabilitation process is important. Offer to attend 12-step meetings with your friend. Offer to be there if he has to tell his parents and other superiors about his abuse.
  6. Be the example. It is important that you walk the walk as well as talk the talk. If you are going to help someone get clear of Comic Sans, you must be willing to go Comic Sans free as well.
  7. Do not enable your friend. Make it clear that you will not tolerate his Comic Sans use and will not associate with him when he is using. This is not the same as never talking with him, but it means you will walk away if you see him using.
  8. Get the help of capable people. Do not do this alone if possible. An intervention is far more successful if others are present. If you are young, talk to a parent or a teacher or a counselor or a principal. Don’t stop seeking help until someone listens to you and offers to help.
  9. Gather a variety of possible solutions. It is not easy to get someone to admit that they have a Comic Sans addiction. After your approached your friend you can give possible solutions. It’s better to go through the the information in the forms of brochures or videos that you can hand to your friend so that he may see help is available.
  10. Be direct in your approach. Be clear and direct. “I saw you formatting an HTML email yesterday and I felt scared.” “When you use Comic Sans, I get afraid that you will say and do things that will hurt my feelings and my body.” “I will not hang around you when you are using or are under the influence of Comic Sans.” “I want to help you kick the habit, I know of a Comic Sans Abuser Anonymous meeting tonight at 8, I will go with you and sit through the meeting to help you check it out.”

Attribution: This is a remix of WikiHow (Creative Commons license).