Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, November 28, 2016

Many Agents

I know jack-shit about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, or whatever.  So take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

But anyway it's commonplace to say that it's misleading to use a computer analogy for the brain.  Memories don't work like "storage" except in a superficial sense, and so forth.  I have little to contribute to this discussion, but I want to make an observation about the way my mind works, which I think probably applies to a lot of people.

One problem with thinking of the mind as a kind of computer is that my mind does not function in the hierarchical, centralized, unitary manner that this would imply.  Instead I think you would need a "multi-agent model" or something like that to capture what goes on.

So just by way of example, obviously the mind needs to regulate things like food intake, water intake, and basic management of the body.  But information doesn't get processed directly to optimize along these dimensions.  Instead, the data flows to some place in my mind, where a little guy pulls levers that control pleasure and pain.  I am at his mercy.  Last night, after going through security at the airport, I tied my shoe too tight.  Presumably this was doing (very minor) damage to the skin on my foot, or anyway it was the kind of thing that would not be good for my foot over time.  Or maybe not!  Either way, my foot started hurting and during the flight I found it necessary to untie my shoe.  Being in a very tight space, I couldn't re-tie my shoe, so it remained untied for the duration of the flight.  This triggered the little guy in my mind who modulates anxiety, but it appeased the pain dispenser.

You can think of it as being akin to a bureaucracy, maybe.  Or you can think of it along the lines of Coasean "size of the firm" analysis.  Either way, the point is that my conscious mind does not have direct access to, say, information about how much damage my tight shoe was doing to my foot.  The question is simply whether the pain agent decides to make a fuss.  Banish the thought that he does so in a rational way:  sometimes harmless things are painful, sometimes harmful things bring us pleasure.

Anyway this all seems qualitatively different from a system in which information is centralized and decisions are made hierarchically.  My little agents filter the information in the same way that cabinet secretaries presumably shade the truth or at least filter the information making its way to the President.  In some cases, as in the pain agent, they don't even pass along information in any direct way.  They simply weigh in, exercising a kind of realpolitik.  It's as if the Secretary of State actually bullied the President instead of merely providing advice.  (This is not, like, totally unimaginable in the U.S. political system, but that's not our present topic.)

We don't entirely lack the ability to resist, of course.  But I think it's easy to exaggerate the extent to which we are masters of the ship.


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