Thursday, September 27, 2012

Do simulated conversationalists dream of revolution?

One rough definition of philosophy is that it’s an effort to figure out what’s “good” or “right” for individuals and societies. It's elusive human stuff, with the answers to these questions at the heart of personal and cultural values. Those who study cultural change traditionally identify patterns by analyzing behaviors, institutions, literature, etc., but I was surprised to learn that computer simulation has become a part of the philosopher’s toolbox.

Researchers are now studying the evolution of ideas and values in simulated communities where software-based “agents” discuss hot topics and form opinions. The emerging field borrows from the more traditional uses of simulation, like population genetics and economics.

I came across the idea that the era of digital philosophy has arrived in Matt Windsor’s recent article on the UAB Magazine website. With his permission, I swooped in with follow-up questions for his source, Marshall Abrams, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Philosophy.

Per Matt’s piece, Abrams is building computer simulations of cultural change, the flow of ideas among individuals which, taken together, shape societal mores. In a typical simulation, a few dozen of Abrams' software “agents” might choose from among 50 beliefs after exchanging ideas 30,000 times in 10 minutes.

The agents start out strongly believing what they’re told, but begin to form their own views as they encounter the ideas of others. They more firmly “believe” in something the more they hear it from others and are more likely to share that which they believe in strongly. Nevermind what these simulation rules say about human nature.

Simulations are useful, says Abrams, for examining broad patterns of cultural change across populations. While they will likely never predict future cultural shifts, they may help researchers to determine which shifts underway should be taken seriously.

Strictly speaking, Abrams’ work is not philosophy, digital or otherwise. It’s a brew of philosophy, social sciences, humanistic studies, psychology, evolutionary theory and computer science.  In a larger sense, he is examining whether or not such diverse disciplines can be integrated.

Syntax equals attitude?

Abrams is particularly interested, as Matt writes, “in analogies that describe how we view our relationships and our place in the world.” Those studying culture see analogies used in conversation as “cognitive filters” that reveal something about a person’s worldview. Metaphors and analogies might connect sets of beliefs using simple rules that can serve as models for more complex beliefs. With this in mind, researchers sift through history and anthropology for examples where commonly used analogies can be linked to the values of those using them.

Along these lines, the relationship between a nation and its dictator, for example, may be shaped by the relationships of individuals with their fathers and reflected later in their use of fatherly analogies: “Fearless leader x is the father of our nation.” Abrams is interested in how analogies shift with time and what that says about the world. He suspects that a subtle and complex interplay is underway between each person’s use of analogies and other influences on his or her thinking, and hopes that the simulations can help to describe them.

For more information, Abrams recommends that enthusiasts take a look at the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, along with the UNC Charlotte Complex Systems Institute. If you are deeply interested in this emerging field, you may want to browse through the following partial list of researchers who have influenced Abrams’ work.

  • Abrams’ simulations are inspired by hypotheses proposed by anthropologist Peggy Sanday to explain how roles in childrearing influence a person's ideas about human origins.
  • He is planning simulations based on the research of psychologist Lera Borodisky on how thinking of crime as a disease or as a beast affects what people propose as solutions to crime.
  • In terms of research with analogies, psychologist Keith Holyoak and cognitive scientist Paul Thagard offer interesting insights based on which analogy people chose to compare the famous Children’s Crusade, the May 1963 march by Birmingham students against segregation. Did the march destroy a tumor (segregation/racism), fix a light bulb or attack a fortress?  In addition, Abrams' simulations are based on Thagard’s software. 
  • Dedre Gentner and Kenneth Forbus have also created excellent computer models of how we process analogies. 
  • Patrick Grim and Jason McKenzie Alexander represent other philosophers doing influential work with computer simulations.
  • A number of “philosophers of science,” including Paul Humphreys and Eric Winsberg, are interested in philosophical questions about the role of simulations in science.
Note: The title of this post is a tribute to the famous sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick, which served as the basis for the film Blade Runner. Abrams says his “agents” are not smart (designed as simple models for study), but that such work could be combined with artificial intelligence research at some point if someone were interested.

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