Pragmatics in Praxis


This morning, I read a New Yorker article on A.I. entitled “Why Can’t My Computer Understand Me?”  It’s worth a read.  The article’s protagonist, Hector Levesque, denounces the Turing Test as too easy to scam.

I agree…with the proviso that, in the development of useful expert systems, we’ve reached a historic plateau in which, for business purposes, a useful metric is:  “Time to Turing-Complete” (TTTC).

My thinking on general AI still orbits a praxis-to-pragmatics approach, as opposed to development of highly specific algorithms that remain in the realm of mere semiotics or semantics:  (e.g. Explicit / Latent Semantic Analysis, Cluster analysis, Inverse Word-Frequency Analysis, HMM, etc.; e.g. Google search, Google Knowledge Graph, Evi, Siri, Wolfram Alpha(?), etc.)

However, lately I’ve been pondering a radical pragmatic expansion of Dedre Gentner’s “ad hoc categories.”  A popular stock example of an ad hoc category would be “Things you’d grab from your house in a fire.”  (Of course, life is always even more ad hoc:  “Things you’d grab from your house if there was a fire in the kitchen and you knew you had at least two minutes, but probably not five.”)

The radical pragmatic expansion is prompted by meditation on the social.

In every social system we engage, we generate an entire Gestalt, ad hoc, fabric of meaning (e.g. shared meanings, shared allusions, private codes, inside jokes, et al).  It’s as if there’s a pragmatic “terroir” to our everyday actions (e.g. My girlfriend appreciates the subtle inflections of what it means for me to do dishes these days, given my current projects.  On another level of granularity, every time I do dishes, I use an ad hoc cognitive map of which regularly-used bowls in our apartment fit inside other bowls).  In a social context, ad hoc categories are the rule, not the exception.  We live a social tapestry of ad hoc categories, an ad hoc cognitive tapestry.

To get what I mean by “pragmatics”, a concept as simple as J.L. Austin’s “performative utterance” suffices as an initial springboard: “By saying X, I hereby do Y.”  E.g. “By saying ‘I do,’ I hereby commit myself.” But Austin cared about “how to do things with words.”  Praxis approaches pragmatics from the action side rather than  the semantics side.  Thus, I envision a sort of socially-aware “performative activity” / “performative agency”:  when J does X in context Y, it means Z to M.  How to signify things with actions.

For General AI, then, one requires:

– Machine Learning
– Basic self-awareness (can represent and manipulate its own code) **not strictly necessary, but super cool…and perhaps easier to code.
– Social awareness & social self-awareness (awareness of oneself as a social agent among other social agents)
– Event ontology – Event matrix, Causality matrix, Pragmatic matrix (notion that every event derives meaning from social fabric)
– Rules for principled norm-keeping & norm-breaking
– Multi-modal & cross-modal representation paradigms (requires at least two sensors…e.g. audio, visual, text)
– Socially engaged experience
– Abstraction to rules from particular experiences, integrated with a
– Categorical ecology (continually updated “ontology”) derived from the social realm (others in this situation, do X, mean Y, etc.).

For the AI envisioned by the New Yorker article (let’s call it “Alligator-AI”) you need much less (for an initial prototype):

– Machine Learning
– A general pragmatic ontology (including all relevant facts about, say, an alligator…like its body plan)
– Precise grammatical parsing (proliferate potential grammatical models, then use a semantics parser / neural net to narrow down to a frame)
– The ability to invoke an answer-frame appropriate to the question-frame (Alligators can’t run 100M hurdles. Gazelles, on the other hand….)

…or we could just rest on our laurels with the accomplishment of AI in Twitterbots with the same satisfaction as if we’d just built the Great Pyramid.


Rhapsody On Metaphor & Intellectual Pleasure

Further, metaphors must not be far-fetched, but we must give names to things that have none by deriving the metaphor from what is akin and of the same kind, so that, as soon as it is uttered, it is clearly seen to be akin….

– Aristotle, Rhetoric 1405a

What are we doing when we aim for a semantic performance to be apt, profound, suggestive, provocative, poignant, obscure, entertaining, funny, or shocking?

In some sense, we’re looking to “do things with words:”   we’re aiming at perlocutionary uptake.  Examined from a somewhat absurd, but nonetheless traditional, (Cartesian-solipsistic) standpoint of isolated (but somehow linguistic) consciousnesses:  we intuit certain entailments of our metaphors we hope our audience also intuits.  Suppose, however, that we acknowledge that we’re out on parole from brutish apedom specifically because we’re on this langue journey together.  Then, it’s hard to say which is more remarkable:  (1) that we use the metaphor function of speech (Gr. metapherein) as a vehicle for the telepathic transfer of intelligence or (2) that we use the same function to invite the kind of social bonding that spawns political community and democratic co-navigation of our sociopolitical, economic, and physical cosmos.   Metaphor isn’t just simile sans feature-mapping.  Part of the intellectual pleasure we derive is “figuring out” the entailments of the metaphor–just as we intuit the logic of a joke, or trace the curve of a sexualized body past the regime of obscuring couture.  Following Locke’s theory of property, because we performed the intellectual labor, its fruits belong to us:  entailments, punchlines, fantastic jouissance.

In another sense, we’re exploring the “adjacent possible.”  Since a metaphor is a narrative in miniature, these remarks apply equally to metaphors and narratives, allegories and stories.  The adjacent possible is always qualified by topic (however technical) and by the mindsets & mindsettings of the interlocutors involved.  Physicists expect aptitude from their peers.  So too chemists, biologists, botanists, sci fi aficionados, philosophers, moralists, and even ordinary purveyors of pop culture.  Blockbuster movies sell tickets.  Jokes succeed or fall flat in social settings.  So too peer-reviewed journal articles, books, songs, paintings, fashion statements, scientific theories, proverbs, and parables.  All of these meme-laden semantic performances function as mental suggestions, whispering, “Join me in these realms of possibility.”

Similarly, by means of hortatory metapherein, every semantic performance is an invocation, a future-naming.  Each is an open-canon meme-set, rhizomatically extending into sparkling projections of dasein.  All culture (indeed all nature, so transformed) is a holistic and myriad-voiced, open invitation to “get in where you fit in”–aesthetically, logically, and morally–in all of your existential, social, creative, and intellectual capacities.  We mold the world’s potential to our own.  Archimedes had a very specific adjacent possible that transformed his altered bathwater levels into a eureka experience.  The same thinker, enjoying a cordial, sativa-elevated conversation on a cool summer’s evening, may perceive entire worlds in the same grain of sand she nonchalantly trampled after her last department meeting.

At our most salient, as we “name the nameless” together, we craft magic words that cast powerful social spells on our common future, and the long tails of our shared imagination summon a world that our psychosomatically-primed neurochemistry finds worthy of dopamine release.


Select References:

Aristotle, Rhetoric.
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.
Ted Cohen, “Metaphor, Feeling, and Narrative.”
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, “Rhizome” in A Thousand Plateaus.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
Stuart Kauffman, Investigations.
George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics.

An AI Direction for Today’s Giants


Google claims to have built “a web of things” to help drive its new Knowledge Graph.  From words to concepts and back?  Just as third-party researchers are using Google’s search algorithm to find biomarkers that cure cancer, Google is claiming to have “found concepts.”  What kind of concepts?  Google’s Norvig explains, “We consider each individual Wikipedia article as representing a concept (an entity or an idea), identified by its URL.” So Google’s using a Wikipedia-derived Explicit Semantic Analysis to achieve Semantic Search.  Novel.

Meanwhile, Bing is doing Social Search…using Facebook’s Social Graph.  Great for seeing what shoes or hotels or articles your friends like…and other “niche knowledges.”  Not so great outside your community’s niches, your communal “filter bubble.”  (Google ‘s Knowledge Graph tackles the problem from the other direction:  start with the most generic knowledge niches.  If you’re not searching for Da Vinci, you might not get Knowledge Graph.)

Then there’s Apple getting sued over SIRI for “overstating the abilities of its virtual personal assistant.”  Who’s not overstating these days?  Apple’s ad teams have tailored a message that achieves the precise amount of ambiguity to maximize sex appeal and plausible deniability.  The suits won’t stick.

Of course, everyone’s attempting to build brand loyalty so they can rake in dollars.


Deleuze & Guattari define philosophy as the creation of concepts.  I marvel at Google (+Wikipedia), Bing (+Facebook), and SIRI.  They are creating concepts–at least of a certain kind.  When you search for Da Vinci on Knowledge Graph and it groups renaissance painters together, this appears as abstraction, generalization.  When you search SIRI for Indian Food and she finds restaurants in your area, this is a form of pragmatic localization.  When you search Bing for fashion, and it tells you what your friends are wearing, it’s creating concepts in the space of social awareness.

Intelligence is metaphor all the way down.  All the services described above metaphorize in some nascent fashion. Lakoff and Johnson summarize:  “the essence of metaphor is understanding andexperiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”[1]  General AI can be achieved by building out multi-dimensional metaphorizing algorithms.

Interestingly, SIRI, Google and Bing each assume a specific want (desire) in the user, and tailor their service accordingly.  SIRI assumes you don’t want abstract knowledge about the history or characteristics of Indian Food, but that you want to eat some, nearby, soon.  Google assumes you want general knowledge of Renaissance painters or other search topics.  Bing assumes you want to know what your friends and acquaintances think.

What if what you wantis general AI?  To achieve AI, concepts need semi-permeable membranes between them.  From Turner & Fauconnier’s “Conceptual Blending” to Ridley’s When Ideas Have Sex, ideas need room to breed.  As a first step in the right direction, I envision service that understands and generates metaphor.  At first, I want it to be capable of understanding why and when it might be apt to say  “Juliet is the sun,” “Man is a wolf to man,” or “You made your bed, now lie in it.”  For this, we need a Pragmatic Ontology, a subtle notion of what makes daily human actions meaningful.  Step two involves metaphorically extending the algorithms necessary for the first form of metaphorizing…finally achieving, for instance, an understanding of how identification with the hero of a story is a form of metaphor, how the move from string to a thing is metaphor, how the metaphorical process is ubiquitous.   That’s what I want to see built.

Afterward, I’ll be satisfied enough to navigate to a local Indian restaurant to contemplate Donatello’s brushwork like my friends do.


[1] Metaphors We Live By (1980), 5.

Slices & Traces

Slices & Traces
In graduate school, I once heard a medieval scholar remark that we now knew what Thomas Aquinas did on nearly every day of his life.  While such a feat is perhaps the wet dream of a medievalist, technology is reaching the point where the same may soon be true of me or you.

Historians compile numerous traces (any historical artifact that says “Thomas was here”) into slices (e.g. a biography).  In the digital age, what fascinates me is that numerous ready-made slices of our virtual lives may be compiled easily from databases that archive massive amounts of our personal digital traces.

I recently had the opportunity to experiment with Stanford’s Muse Project, which provides various analyses and visualizations based on personal email history and browser history (sentiment analysis, social group change over time, et al.)  Pros:  the program provides an interesting slice of one’s virtual self.  Cons:  the slice of my personal history recorded in my email database feels partial and one-sided.[1]  For another example, consider Facebook’s recently released “timeline.”  The history embedded in your Facebook timeline is yet another  slice of your personal history.  Each slice tells its own story, albeit an incomplete story.  A slice is just a slice.

What if, like an fMRI, we were able to capture and compile slice upon slice?[2]  Would the slices add up to a complete picture?[3]  What if one were to aggregate and integrate all the slices of one’s virtual life?  What if you had the tools to capture & integrate your own personal data from email history and browser history and add that to your data from social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), dating sites (eHarmony, Match, OKCupid), bookmarking sites (Stumbleupon,, digg), music sites (Pandora, Grooveshark), movie sites (Netflix, Blockbuster), video sites (Youtube, Vimeo, Dailymotion), commerce sites (Amazon, ebay), banking sites (Mint, Quicken), location services (FourSquare, GPS), SMS history, and blog corpus?  What if, to that already rich textual and social data, one added perceptual data capture via webcams, haptics, and EEG/GSR?  What if one were to sift, analyze and integrate the data using textual algorithms (corpus linguistics, LSA, ESA, sentiment analysis), social algorithms (network & influence analysis), and perceptual algorithms — replete with visual recognition (facial, gesture, object, movement), audio recognition (voice, music, sound), and touch recognition (texture, heat, pressure)?  (See Figure 1)

Slicing & Tracing
Such a system of integrated personal data, collected en masse (even if anonymized), would prove invaluable to social scientists, historians, marketers, Big Brothers, and researchers of all ilks.  Although we’d never achieve Rankean history “wie es eigenlich gewesen ist,” (as it actually happened) through such a system, it represents a potential tool (among other tools we’re developing) that will soon get us closer to historical realism (or even hyper-realism).  What I’d like to discuss today is not the fine-grain detail we may someday achieve by integrating slices and traces.  Instead, today I want to talk about the slicing and tracing.

Suppose you mummify your information…all of your information.[4]  You’re still just a data-fossil in a museum exhibit a millennium from now (and if everyone gets mummified, probably a poorly-visited exhibit).  But your data doesn’t even make it to the museum without first undergoing some form of condensation and selection.[5]  I don’t care how much you love your grandpa, you’re not going use your entire life to watch a second-by-second video of his entire life.

Before the digital age, condensation and selection happened naturally in places like family photo-albums and dinner-table stories.  These human-sized brain-morsels could be chewed and digested comfortably.  In the digital age, a deluge of data makes you cross-eyed and bloated while historians babble about Kim Kardashian and advertisers hypnotize you with french fries.  As we speak, historiography is being asked to develop some frighteningly powerful tools to condense uncompressed information, select salient aspects, and present us with soundbites (Think Robin Williams in The Final Cut).  Too much data is the first challenge facing next-gen story-telling gurus.

But too much information (TMI) is merely the prima facie challenge.  The real challenge, as I see it, is not TMI but too little intelligence.  I’ve often said that “after the Information Age comes the Intelligence Age.”  I want to see a generation of “intelligence scientists” rise up to replace today’s “information scientists.”  Would you rather preserve your intelligence (creativity, intuition) or your information?[6]  What would that even look like?



In the spirit of Aristotle and Nietzsche, I’ve nicknamed the data-integration algorithm-hub “VirtuAlly.”


[1] Also, the sentiment analysis engine in Muse is amateurish.

[2] The current discussion assumes that the capture, aggregation and integration of data would be for private and personal use only.  With increasing sousveillance, each of us may be able to compile an increasingly complete picture of our personal histories.  As technologies for personal data capture, aggregation, and integration progress, the following philosophical stance will also snowball in importance:  an individual’s data is his or her inalienable property.

[3] Temporality is a dimension common to each of the following data slices.  Each slice is like a layer of bedrock, and data archived in each aggregates many fossilized traces of one’s virtual life.  Time-stamps are common in each digital trace, making chronological sorting easy.  Who will standardize the aggregation and integration of these slices, as we once standardized the USB port?

[4] offers a digital (and biological!) time-capsule for would-be immortality-seekers.

[5] By condensation I mean something like summary, and by selection I roughly mean meme-discrimination.

[6] Arguably, neither is any good without the other, so my answer is “both.”


What story does your data tell?
New York Times data analyst on visualization

Creates a slice of your personal history using your EMAIL, with capabilities for BROWSER HISTORY (best in Firefox).  The program runs securely on your local machine, so there’s no chance your data will make it to the cloud.  I’ve experimented with this program with interesting results.
Capture your LOCATION DATA.
Capture BROWSER HISTORY.  a friend of mine built this.


Interactive time capsule, digital self-storage space (digital locker)
Also, they store your DNA…free (suggested donation $399)

from high mountains

“on the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.” – nietzsche

i wake early this morning to a thin mist–the kind that promises to burn off in a few moments.  i know immediately what i have to do.  foregoing my normal coffee-routine, i don workout gear and hiking shoes, grab my camera, and start up the mountain.   like everything around me, my lungs and skin drink in the steam, silently thanking me for this trot through the vapor.  along the way, the world dances into my irises with a surreal, ever-shifting blend of golden light and mist.   trees drink and drip.  birds chirp, aflutter in the underbrush.  all of los angeles has its head in the low-lying clouds.

up, up i hike, up to the roof of the fog.  suddenly, i’m above it all.  everything around me is clear blue sky and piercing yellow light.  below, all is fog.  truth is like weather–everywhere undeniable, everywhere local.  i, a lone hiker, somehow move between these two worlds this morning.  i ascend.

i summit.  here i am, alone, atop the mountain.   from here, i put my question to the clouds.  a thin line of brown lies above the white blanket of moisture, slouching westward.  brown tinges this rolling sea of mist, complicating the aesthetic.  a piece of burbank is sunlit, just as the drifting cloud-cover circumvents the mountain before reuniting past it.  in one pocket of sun, a long procession of vehicles already moves down the superhighway.  downtown and hollywood are shrouded.  greater los angeles has only a few pockets of clarity.

i meditate on the history of humanity and our relation to heights, mountains, ascent.  our ancestors knew the value of vantage-points.  treetops are one thing, mountaintops another.  up here, one can see for miles around.   ancient metaphors link seeing to thinking, visual acuity with mental acuity.  seeing is believing.  see what i’m saying?  this mountaintop-experience inspires me to continue to weigh visionaries on the value-creativity of their vision.  this morning, for a brief moment, i am above it all.  time to descend once more.