Lawyer bots

A friend, a lawyer and a judge, sent a link about a company in San Francisco trying to replace lawyers with robots. A professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology said artificial intelligence couldn’t tackle more than 10 percent of legal issues with today’s technology.

I wrote back saying that I didn’t think the law would be that difficult, since law was encoded in words with rules applied that resulted in patterns of outcome. I envisioned case studies and decisions, the history of law in the U.S. going back to the Constitution, being fed to the machines which would learn it in about five minutes.

”… it is just a bit more complicated than that!” the Judge replied.

He pointed out that judges and lawyers often bring more than case law and rules to their arguments. They think about how a decision might affect society, bring inputs from their lives that are not part of any legal history.

To my statement about law just being language, he pointed out that language is not always clear. When teaching, he used to show pictures of a stump. a stool, a kitchen chair, a toilet, and a throne. Which was “chair?” he would ask his students. Where did “chairness” begin?

One of my favorite arguments also involved “chairs.” Is it a kitchen chair, or is it “legs, seat, and back,” or is it “steel, wood and plastic,” or is it “carbon, iron-nickel, and heterochain polymers?” The answer is, yes.

So the simplicity of “chair” quickly becomes more complicated. To say that “The Law” is just words and rules was an oversimplification.

And yet…

An article in Quanta Magazine covers research at University of California Berkeley to give AI “curiosity,” or a “reward which the agent generates internally on its own, so that it can go explore more about its world,” according to one of the researchers.

One problem was that the AI could get “stuck” in an environment that offers too much stimulation. So researchers engineered their AI to “translate its visual input from raw pixels into an abstracted version of reality. This abstraction incorporates only features of the environment that have the potential to affect the agent…” wrote author John Pavlus.

I suggest that human intelligence does the same thing and among our primary mechanisms of abstraction, or filters, are… words. Words describe not just what “is,” but “what is not.”

When we teach infants to speak, we teach words, but also contexts and associations. The wiring of the brain forms patterns that associate the feeling of hunger with the word “breakfast.” We associate furry with dog. Some patterns are reenforced, others wither. The word “dog” is not associated with pancakes.

Repetition of words create “fields of context.” Listeners bring unstated contexts, conscious and subconscious, to conversations about things even as simple as “chairs.” This unstated understanding between speaker and listener allows one to understand what is meant by “chair” in different conversations without elaboration.

It’s also a source of friction, when the context brought by listener is not the same as that of speaker, such as when discussing “love.”

As we extend the reach of AI’s by giving them “curiosity,” and perhaps someday “love” and “lust” and “fear” and “anger,” along with tools to seek and avoid, these entities will need to abstract their environment with ever more effectiveness. Some of the filters  will be words, which will reference “things” or patterns or contexts and allow them to read and understand the entire history of law by comparing inputs to outcomes.

The judge points out there may be difficulty with irony, and I admit there is one arena that may elude Artificial Intelligence longer than others. This was illustrated by the philosopher Marx in the last century, when he said, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

According to Dolson’s Theory of Comedy, all humor is based on something being “out of context,” and humor is our way of communicating to each other similarities in intelligence. But patterns of brain activity are becoming ever more accessible to scientists who may soon be able to “see” brains work and predict thinking. In other words, read minds: Will they see the joke?

While the law may be accessible to machines in the not-to-distant future, we’ll know machines really “think” when they’ve learned to laugh.

* (Groucho Marx, 1965?)

Dudley’s, at 1 p.m. tomorrow

A few people are going to join me at Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe in downtown Bend tomorrow, at 1 p.m., to discuss some of the philosophy tucked into various passages of “Chalice.” Whether you’ve read the book or not (Dudley’s has a few for sale), or have questions about the book, writing or publishing, come on down for a bowl of soup, cup of coffee or tea, and some conversation. We’ll be upstairs.

You’re just a wave, you’re not the water.*

At the end of his wonderful 2011 book, “Who’s In Charge,” Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist, writes: “Understanding how to develop a vocabulary for those layered interactions (at the interface between mind and brain)…constitutes the scientific problem of this century.”

Not just the interface between brain and mind. Also the interface between self and other, pieces and the whole, man and society. That was the job of philosophers: To develop a new vocabulary, because the vocabularies that evolved since we stood on two legs have failed to keep up.

We’re blinded by these limits of our inherited languages, the evolved systems of our brain, and the obvious material success of abstraction. Except for mystics, who spoke in riddles: everything is nothing, the void, being itself, be here now.

But the words, and the images, have  been right in front of us the whole time, we just couldn’t see: It’s a wave, an organization, created by simple sets of rules, that communicates across the interface between systems.

A school of fish has coherence, but there isn’t time for a message to spread to each fish to turn “left.” The school remains organized because each fish inherited simple rules about how far to stay from its neighbor. Rules about proximity keep a flock of geese together in the wind.

Similar rules allow traffic to flow on the freeways. We don’t think of water molecules as having free will, but the very same mathematics that describe the flow of a fluid describes the flow of traffic. Someone hit their brakes when their coffee spilled, and set up a whorl that persisted for hours.

All we know at the interface is a set of simple rules. Don’t change lanes if someone is there. Don’t rear end the car in front of you. Those rules result in behavior that is wave-like when viewed in the aggregate.

Quantum mechanics gives us fits. A photon is either particle or wave… depending on how we measure it. A wave with no medium but one that is organized, and at times described as “coherent.”

We can’t imagine an ocean wave without water. But we can imagine that wave as an organization of information about an earthquake that occurred hours ago and thousands of miles away. Time and space. Look closer. Several waves. Closer still, a single wave. Peak and valley. Each part of the wave reflects information about the earthquake, a hologram, a fractal.

Clarity decreases the tighter we focus, according to Heisenberg. The wave disappears, organization disappears, when we look only at a water molecule and don’t know where it’s going.

What’s worse: that monad may be influenced by more than one wave at a time. Another wave from a squall near Hawaii interferes with the earthquake message, sends information that reenforces or perhaps cancels, temporarily, the movement of one molecule. Our driver pulls to the side of the road to let an ambulance pass. Different rules apply, then don’t, and traffic flows like water.

Blended chords wash over us, conveying laughter, or sadness. Remove the oboe, then the violins. Look small enough and the last musical note is nothing but a blip, as frequency disappears. Then, what we see is the result of what we have chosen to look at, and it’s no longer a symphony.

At the interface, simple rules convey information between systems in ways that seem like magic, when spoken in our old languages, to brains that evolved subsystems to dodge snakes and run from tigers. That brain never needed to know that neural net subsystems process, reenforce and cancel, to achieve results feeding other nets, waves of information flowing in both directions.

We talk as if we live in a binary world. Yes/No, zeros/ones, self/other, alive/dead. But we do not. We live in a world of potentials, of gradients, of transmission — of waves that bounce, bend and reflect upward and downward, information conveyed by simple rules at the interface that lead to organization, causation in both directions.

Mathematician Gödel blew up one of the grandest efforts of philosophy in the 20th century with the observation that any self-referencing system could not be both coherent and complete. For wonderful explanations of this, see Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by  Douglas Hofstadter.

But if we assume that any such system both refers to itself and does not, then incoherence, or incompleteness, disappears. Is that itself incoherent? Not if we let Gödel pet Schrodinger’s cat, a potentiality, a wave, peak and valley, pressure and not, created by rules that govern observation of elements in the subsystem.

Waves exist because of alternation over time communicated by rules between elements. For a single molecule, there is no wave, just a monad in waiting, ready to follow rules that don’t apply until it moves. Hit the brakes to keep the distance, then accelerate, change lanes to fill the gap and traffic flows like water, or sand through an hour glass, described by simple equations that do not reference free will.

Here is the tricky part. Where do those rules come from? Why does the spiral of sunflower seeds match the spiral of a conch, and both match the spiral of this galaxy? Fractals may be Fibonacci’s children, but math does not govern, it describes something that does. What is that? Being as such, the Hand of God, a chance collection of rules that may or may not apply in the universe of dimensions next door?

I don’t know. But a key to the door may be that simple rules between entities create organisms of information that have the power of causation  between systems and subsystems that otherwise seem unrelated, to our old paradigms. I believe this crossing at the interface can best be described by the mathematics, and metaphor, of waves.

*Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Chalice is available

Late last night, I received notice that “Chalice” is now available on Amazon, Apple’s iBook store (go to iTunes and search on “Erik Dolson”), Barnes and Noble (not quite yet), and the Vook Store.

I should have a hard copy in my hands next Tuesday, with the first print run available soon after.

What an odd mix of emotions. Fear, elation, pride, anxiety. Chalice was close to two years in the writing, some of that the hardest work I have ever undertaken. After four or so hours, I would stagger from my table and run the river trail, lift weights, get the mail, or just vegetate away from where I work, unable to string two sentences together.

“Chalice” is not perfect. Every time I opened the file, I would find things that just had to be changed. So I finally “locked down” the file. After 20 or so readers reviewed writes and rewrites, after endless edits, after the second round of proofreading by a professional, I had to let it go and be what it is. And it is not perfect.

But it is the best I can do, at this moment, on this book. And I am proud of it. “Chalice” is an exploration of ideas that are significant to me and many of you. It is a sharing of my playground, an intersection of language, passion, and reflections on what’s real and what’s important.

“Chalice” is not for everyone. As an exchange of emails, “Chalice” is in a format that some  may find difficult to follow. The characters are flawed, and many might find their exchanges  unpleasant. There is a sex scene that was called gratuitous by one reader. It’s not, but it is graphic. If that’s going to disturb you, please don’t read. Another was put off by the fact that I dipped deeply into my personal experience to give the text “life.” Yes, I did, but “Chalice” is still a work of fiction.

But about a third of those who read early drafts found value in “Chalice.” Some said that value was significant for them. This validates the effort.

A word on pricing: I finally came to the conclusion that I had to be my own guide on this. I priced the ebook at $4.95 because I think “Chalice” is worth the price of two cups of coffee, even for readers who don’t like it.

I initially set the price of the paperback at $14.95, then learned I would receive 3¢ for each book sold. Three cents. At the print distributor’s suggestion, and his noting that the book would be discounted by book sellers anyway, I repriced at $19.95 and will receive about $2.30 of that.

If enough sell so we can go to offset printing, I hope the price will come down.

Thank you, friends, family, and readers I’ve never met but feel I know fairly well: You are the reason this book was written. I hope you think it was worth it.


Dead or Alive

From my couch, I look out at mountains mottled green and gray. Over the years, fire has eaten into the smooth blanket of trees; from life to ash where it bit most deeply. For now, draw no lines and call each shade part of the forest.

Forest fires, from very close up, are terrifying. They howl as they run among the trees, pulling life from each branch, each blade of grass. The sizzling crackle and rushing inhalation as flames suck needles from an incandescent pine is with me still, years after I last heard it.

I can only imagine the final moments of 19 firefighters who died recently in Arizona, then even my imagination flees.

Fire and forest, firs in flames, made me curious about the line between what we think of as alive and what we believe is not. Blame Disney.

Life is “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants … including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change…”

From an embryonic smolder at the base of a ponderosa struck by lightning, the fire gestated in pine needle duff, creeping outward to find small nourishment in drops of sap and drying decay. Four days after conception, maybe a week, a hot brisk breeze found the nest, brought oxygen and an appetite.

The fire changed. First, it climbed the tree that brought life from the sky. Lower branches gave it a ladder, and it grew upward with each step. It didn’t take long in the heat of August, and while it licked its way to the top, it dropped flaming sticks and cones into the breeze to land in the bushes at the base of other trees. With that, what we think of as “the fire” climbed the ridge outside my window.

Was this reproduction? Was it still one fire, or many? Ants or colony, cells or man, genes or species? Where is that line?

Did the men on that mountain feel they’d been ambushed? They were at the edge of the fire, they had a plan. How did everything change so suddenly, flames coming for them so quickly and with such lethal intent?

In 1943, physicist Erwin Schrödinger gave a lecture on “What is Life?” From that grew the knowledge that, locked in our DNA, is information. A code about structure, about what has been successful, that can be modified as needed to fit new circumstances.

Fire may have no such code within. Perhaps that’s why we do not think of it as alive. But perhaps the DNA of fire lies outside its skin, its code an ability to respond to the code of the forest, it adapts as it needs to once it has been awakened.

Two trees outside my window, one living, one dead, one growing upward and one crumbling to fertilize the next. They are part of the same living forest, itself an organism that grows and adapts and is rejuvenated, often by fire. The words are easy, but it is hard, at times, to find the lines.