Spike activity 13-02-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

US Governor proposes that welfare recipients should be drug screened and have negative results as a condition for a payment. A fascinating Washington Post piece looks at past data on similar schemes.

BPS Research Digest launches the PsychCrunch podcast. First episode: evidence-based dating.

The brain, interrupted: neurodevelopment and the pre-term baby. Excellent Nature piece.

Fusion has a great piece on *how* we should worry about artificial intelligence.

“The world’s first hotel staffed entirely by robots is set to open in Japan” reports the International Business Times. Clearly they’ve never visited a Travelodge.

Forbes reports on the ‘coming boom in brain medicines’. Personally, I won’t be holding my breath.

There’s an excellent update on new psychoactive substances and synthetics drugs over at Addiction Inbox.

The Scientific 23 is a great site that interviews scientists and there are lots of cognitive scientists discussing their work.

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win” is the title of Allen Newell‘s 1973 paper, a classic in cognitive science. In the paper he confesses that although he sees many excellent psychology experiments, all making undeniable scientific contributions, he can’t imagine them cohering into progress for the field as a whole. He describes the state of psychology as focussed on individual phenomena – mental rotation, chunking in memory, subitizing, etc – studied in a way to resolve binary questions – issues such as nature vs nature, conscious vs unconscious, serial vs parallel processing.

There is, I submit, a view of the scientific endeavor that is implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the picture I have presented above. Science advances by playing twenty questions with nature. The proper tactic is to frame a general question, hopefully binary, that can be attacked experimentally. Having settled that bits-worth, one can proceed to the next. The policy appears optimal – one never risks much, there is feedback from nature at every step, and progress is inevitable. Unfortunately, the questions never seem to be really answered, the strategy does not seem to work.

As I considered the issues raised (single code versus multiple code, continuous versus discrete representation, etc.) I found myself conjuring up this model of the current scientific process in psychology- of phenomena to be explored and their explanation by essentially oppositional concepts. And I couldn’t convince myself that it would add up, even in thirty more years of trying, even if one had another 300 papers of similar, excellent ilk.

His diagnosis for one reason that phenomena can generate an endless excellent papers without endless progress is that people can do the same task in different ways. Lots of experiments dissect how people are doing the task, without constraining sufficiently the things Newell says are essential to predict behaviour (the person’s goals and the structure of the task environment), and thus providing no insight into the ultimate target of investigation, the invariant structure of the mind’s processing mechanisms. As a minimum, we must know the method participants are using, never averaging over different methods, he concludes. But this may not be enough:

That the same human subject can adopt many (radically different) methods for the same basic task, depending on goal, background knowledge, and minor details of payoff structure and task texture — all this — implies that the “normal” means of science may not suffice.

As a prognosis for how to make real progress in understanding the mind he proposes three possible courses of action:

  1. Develop complete processing models – i.e. simulations which are competent to perform the task and include a specification of the way in which different subfunctions (called ‘methods’ by Newell) are deployed.
  2. Analyse a complex task, completely, ‘to force studies into intimate relation with each other’, the idea being that giving a full account of a single task, any task, will force contradictions between theories of different aspects of the task into the open.
  3. ‘One program for many tasks’ – construct a general purpose system which can perform all mental tasks, in other words an artificial intelligence.

It was this last strategy which preoccupied a lot of Newell’s subsequent attention. He developed a general problem solving architecture he called SOAR, which he presented as a unified theory of cognition, and which he worked on until his death in 1992.

The paper is over forty years old, but still full of useful thoughts for anyone interested in the sciences of the mind.

Reference and link:
Newell, A. You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win: Projective comments on the papers of this symposium. in Chase, W. G. (Ed.). (1973). Visual Information Processing: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Carnegie Symposium on Cognition, Held at the Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 19, 1972. Academic Press.

See a nice picture of Newell from the Computer History Museum

What gambling monkeys teach us about human rationality

We often make stupid choices when gambling, says Tom Stafford, but if you look at how monkeys act in the same situation, maybe there’s good reason.

When we gamble, something odd and seemingly irrational happens.

It’s called the ‘hot hand’ fallacy – a belief that your luck comes in streaks – and it can lose you a lot of money. Win on roulette and your chances of winning again aren’t more or less – they stay exactly the same. But something in human psychology resists this fact, and people often place money on the premise that streaks of luck will continue – the so called ‘hot hand’.

The opposite superstition is to bet that a streak has to end, in the false belief that independent events of chance must somehow even out. This is known as the gambler’s fallacy, and achieved notoriety at the Casino de Monte-Carlo on 18 August 1913. The ball fell on black 26 times in a row, and as the streak lengthened gamblers lost millions betting on red, believing that the chances changed with the length of the run of blacks.

Why do people act this way time and time again? We can discover intriguing insights, it seems, by recruiting monkeys and getting them to gamble too. If these animals make dumb choices like us, perhaps it could tell us more about ourselves.

First though, let’s look at what makes some games particularly likely to trigger these effects. Many results in games are based on a skill element, so it makes reasonable sense to bet, for instance, that a top striker like Lionel Messi is more likely to score a goal than a low-scoring defender.

Yet plenty of games contain randomness. For truly random events like roulette or the lottery, there is no force which makes clumps more or less likely to continue. Consider coin tosses: if you have tossed 10 heads in a row your chance of throwing another heads is still 50:50 (although, of course, at the point before you’ve thrown any, the overall odds of throwing 10 in a row is still minuscule).

The hot hand and gambler’s fallacies both show that we tend to have an unreasonable faith in the non-randomness of the universe, as if we can’t quite believe that those coins (or roulette wheels, or playing cards) really are due to the same chances on each flip, spin or deal.

It’s a result that sometimes makes us sneer at the irrationality of human psychology. But that conclusion may need revising.

Cross-species gambling

An experiment reported by Tommy Blanchard of the University of Rochester in New York State, and colleagues, shows that monkeys playing a gambling game are swayed by the same hot hand bias as humans. Their experiments involved three monkeys controlling a computer display with their eye-movements – indicating their choices by shifting their gaze left or right. In the experiment they were given two options, only one of which delivered a reward. When the correct option was random – the same 50:50 chance as a coin flip – the monkeys still had a tendency to select the previously winning option, as if luck should continue, clumping together in streaks.

The reason the result is so interesting is that monkeys aren’t taught probability theory as school. They never learn theories of randomness, or pick up complex ideas about chance events. The monkey’s choices must be based on some more primitive instincts about how the world works – they can’t be displaying irrational beliefs about probability, because they cannot have false beliefs, in the way humans can, about how luck works. Yet they show the same bias.

What’s going on, the researchers argue, is that it’s usually beneficial to behave in this manner. In most of life, chains of success or failure are linked for good reason – some days you really do have your eye on your tennis serve, or everything goes wrong with your car on the same day because the mechanics of the parts are connected. In these cases, the events reflect an underlying reality, and one you can take advantage of to predict what happens next. An example that works well for the monkeys is food. Finding high-value morsels like ripe food is a chance event, but also one where each instance isn’t independent. If you find one fruit on a tree the chances are that you’ll find more.

The wider lesson for students of human nature is that we shouldn’t be quick to call behaviours irrational. Sure, belief in the hot hand might make you bet wrong on a series of coin flips, or worse, lose a pot of money. But it may be that across the timespan in evolution, thinking that luck comes in clumps turned out to be useful more often than it was harmful.

This is my BBC Future article from last week. The original is here

A refocus of military influence

The British media has been covering the creation of 77th Brigade, or ‘Chindits’ in the UK Army which they’ve wrongly described as PsyOps ‘Twitter troops’. The renaming is new but the plan for a significant restructuring and expansion of the UK military’s influence operations is not.

The change in focus has been prompted by a growing realisation that the success of security strategy depends as much on influencing populations at home and abroad as it does through military force.

The creation of a new military structure, designed to tackle exactly this problem, was actually reported last year in British Army 2014 – a glossy annual policy publication. The latest announcement of the 77th Brigade is really just a media-friendly re-branding of the existing plan.

You can read the document online (warning it’s a 50Mb plus pdf) but here’s a crucial section from page 121 onwards:

Our potential adversaries and partners are increasingly blurring the lines between regular and irregular and between military, political, economic and information activities. At least three nations who operate large conventional ‘traditional’ armies have now also adopted the Chinese concept of Unrestricted Warfare.

Author Steve Metz describes this as involving “diverse, simultaneous attacks on an adversary’s social, economic and political systems. It ignores and transcends the ‘boundaries the boundaries between what is a weapon and what is not, between soldier and non-combatant, between state and non-state or suprastate.” If we wish to succeed in such as environment we need to compete on an equal footing.

To do this, we must change not only our physical capabilities but our conceptual approach, our planning and our execution. This is not to say that the virtual and cognitive domains now produce a ‘silver bullet’ that will mean the end of combat, but that “superiority in the physical environment was of little value unless it could be translated into an advantage in the information environment”…

In order to shift the Army’s thinking in the approach to this new manoeuvre, the Security Assistance Group (SAG) will form in September 2014. It will form through the amalgamation of the current 15 Psychological Operations Group, the Military Stabilisation Support Group, the Media Operations Group and the Security Capacity Team.

However, these structures are merely the start point for a fully integrated capability that will harness a wide range of powers to achieve the desired effects – from cyber through to engagement, commercial, financial, stabilisation and deception. At the heart of the new structure must be a culture and attitude that is both Defence and civilian orientated.

And that is really what the ‘newly announced’ 77th Brigade is all about.

To see how seriously the British Army are taking this, the 77th is reportedly going to be made up of up to 2,000 full-time and reserve troops. Think Defence report that the combined strength of all the existing relevant groups that will be incorporated is just 300 people.

The idea is to make Information Operations a much more central part of military doctrine. This includes electronic warfare and computer hacking, physical force targeted on information resources (like taking out infrastructure), psychological operations – traditionally focused on changing belief and behaviour in the theatre of war, media operations – essentially corporate PR, and a wider use of media to influence external populations and potential adversaries.

The Daily Express reports that “the brigade will bring together specialists in media, signalling and psychological operations, with some Special Forces soldiers and possibly computer hackers” which seems likely to reflect exactly what the Army are aiming for in their new plan.

From this point of view, you can see why governments are so keen to hold on to their Snowden-era digital monitoring and intervention capabilities.

They typically justify their existence in terms of ‘breaking terrorist networks’ but they are equally as useful for their role in wider information operations – targeting groups rather than individuals – now considered key to national security.

The formation of the 77th Brigade is a mostly reflection of a wider refiguring of global conflict that puts cognition and behaviour at the centre of political objectives.

It is simultaneously more and less democratic that ‘hard power’. It makes the battle of ideas, rather than the use of force, central to determining political outcome but attempts to shape the information environment so some ideas become more equal than others.