Thursday, October 28, 2010

There’s a Land

There’s a land
Serene and blue
With golden meadows
In seamless hue

Where streams line
The mountain glow
While vapors convene
And slump below

Where dawn breaks
O’er groovy falls
In timeless grandeur
Like ivory halls

Where hearts feel
A faint caress
Burgeoning its woos
To repossess

There’s a land
Mangled yet free
Embracing distress
Until we see

Finney Premkumar (2010)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Can computers really “think”?

Apparently, computers can not only think but fool a person into thinking that they are human as well. The Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence ( AI ) is awarded every year to research uncovering this vivacious and alluring field. The contestants are awarded based on research undertaken to develop the most human-like computer. As such, the Loebner Prize is essentially a formal instantiation of a test named after Alan Turing, the great British mathematician.  Turing tackled the problem of artificial intelligence by proposing an experiment famously known as the Turing test. The test is principally an attempt to elucidate possible standards or what may be called demarcational necessities for a machine to be categorized as "intelligent".    According to the Turing test, a computer could be said to "think" if it could fool an interrogator into thinking that the conversation was with a human. The prospect of these “thinking machines” seem to defy thought and imagination to the extent that Professor Marvin Minsky (MIT) seems quite convinced that the next generation of computers will become so intelligent that “we’ll be lucky if they are willing to keep us around the house as household pets.” If that doesn't make you cringe, buy a leash, tie it around your neck and practice fetching the mail from the mailbox.

At one extreme, there are theoreticians who profess that thinking is essentially information processing reducible to computations based on symbol manipulation, in line with Turing’s basic outlook. A more moderate position would allow that thinking is infinitely complex and therefore incapacitates the possibility of complete analysis; however, this position would maintain the basic conviction that minds and computers are essentially of the same kind since the former is nothing more than an optimization of the latter. The discontinuity or chasm between the mind and the computer was developed, they would argue, to maintain the dignity and value of a human being; in reality, no such distance exists beyond what is erroneously sustained by our misguided perceptions. However, John Searle, a professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley has argued forcefully in his book, Minds, Brains and Science, that the chasm is unbridgeable in principle. His famous illustration often referred to as “the Chinese room argument” provides quite a convincing case against equating the mind and the computer. His carefully thought out scenario shows that observationally equivalent phenomenon might actually have contrary causal explanations. I happen to agree with Searle. Our unwarranted enthusiasm with technological innovations engenders certain uncritical dispositions that overlook the discontinuity that is implicit when comparing minds to computers; the discontinuity has nothing to with the progress we’ve achieved. It really does not matter how digital we become, how rapidly complex calculations are done or even if they can be given a purely algorithmic delineation. It is not a matter of progressive possibility but one of principled impossibility. All that computers or digital machines have ever achieved or will ever achieve can be exclusively placed within a syntactic category. The mind, though syntactic and computational in a certain sense, will always transcend any reductionistic tendencies due to its intrinsic semantic and intentional nature. As such, the greatest creations of our genius (computers/digital machines), can never duplicate but at best simulate the mind.

So……can a computer really think? Well, that depends. If consciousness can be reduced to syntax and a person to nothing more than a machine, then I guess we could possibly conclude that computers do in fact think. Alas, if everything is computational and essentially algorithmic, will it really matter if they do?

Finney Premkumar
(Published in The Clause, Copyright 2011)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reflections on Technology

The writer of an article I read recently cautioned that the “wise use of technology may well be to refuse to use its full potential”. I happen to agree with him. There is a peculiar delight that seems to reside in reducing everything to the digital or the virtual. What initially began as innocent conveniences have now become indispensable necessities. We can no longer do without cell phones, laptops and ipods (the list is unending). We want everything instantly manufactured and customized to our liking, and whatever challenges our proclivities is seen as a positive impediment to progress. It is true that the Ancients were concerned about interpreting the world, but they did so in order to understand the boundaries of reality. We are attempting to recreate reality by relocating the boundaries and testing angles that were once non-existent. We may do well to remember Chesterton’s cautionary remark, “There are many, many angles at which one can fall but only one angle at which one can stand straight.”

Unfortunately, our prodigal disposition seems bent on extracting “blood, sweat and tears” in order to usher in a technological utopia. We have reconstructed the tower of Babel and commenced our prideful celebration unaware of the cracks that are beginning to form. We may very well have added where we should have subtracted and multiplied where we should have divided. The broad margins of our conscious endeavor will soon be revealed and we may find our feet firmly planted in mid-air. Socrates believed that an unexamined life was not worth living because life as a whole must make sense before its constitutive elements do. We have redefined life, reworked its worth and reduced its value.  Having lost our point of reference, we continue to injure ourselves without the ability to navigate beyond the walls of our own reckoning. As we draw our dying breath from under the debris of our futile undertakings we may finally make the supreme discovery of our lives, the fact that we never learnt how to live.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me pause to dispel any notion that I am against technology. I am well aware of the good that it is capable of engendering. My family and I have been the recipients of its most generous offerings. My unease stems from the fact that most people don’t seem to perceive the built in limitations and the detrimental effects of being too techno-prone. From the pressure and need to access information with a sense of immediacy that is unparalleled in history to the recognizable and inevitable technological intrusions into areas uniquely human, one can only imagine the ramifications awaiting concrete expression in the near future. My perpetual fear is that the pace of the technological march will be transferred into human affairs unraveling the novel and sustaining rudiments of life. The world of computers, fax machines, texting and twitter keep us on edge in our endeavor to keep up with the demands of a hurried life-style by displacing cherished traditional norms. Our aptitude for aggressive data manipulation and instant exchange has reached its tentacles into what we may call “day to day living” through calculated enticements of profit and inevitable growth. We relentlessly run after what is faster and therefore “better” by neglecting what the wisdom of preceding generations held sacred: the virtue of process. There is something invaluable and significant about “the time it takes” or the duration of certain things in life. There are several lessons that can only be learnt within the crucible of an extended experience. We, on the other hand, seem to be living at such a rapid pace that one is left wondering if anyone has ever paused or taken a moment to consider our malady. Our misplaced compulsions have reconstructed our priorities and inexorably affected our focus and emphasis. For instance, due to the stress on quantitative realities we have lost sight of the irreducible qualitative elements that constitute life and living. What is purely quantitative (data, information etc.) can be subjected to rigorous processes and multiplied a million times over, and we rightly salute the geniuses who have in one way or another made the process time-efficient and cost- effective.  However, the human dimension is distinctively personal, relational and internal, necessitating a counter-factual and transcendent paradigm. Furthermore, it is this unique human dimension that essentially makes sense of data/information; without a human being (qualitative), information (quantitative) is utterly and hopelessly meaningless. As such, the symbolic notations, syntactic representations and propositional content comprising what we call “data flow”, presuppose the presence, priority and personality of the person. From the complex algorithms in software programming to the stylistic essays of the finest journalist and the most novel and exquisite mathematical dissertations one can produce, the “who” in communication is prior to and infuses meaning into the “what’ that is communicated. Our technical proficiency is increasingly doing away with the former while exclusively focusing on the latter thereby reducing us to self-sufficient centers of information processing and exchange, making us nothing more than a dispensable part of an overall technological architecture. Is it any wonder then that we are gradually beginning to reflect the image of the machines we ourselves have created.

Many more implications can be worked out, but time and space prohibit me from going any further. We truly need to ask ourselves some honest and vital questions. Do we seriously take time to think these things through? Do we have the time to think, not only about what we can do with technology, but more importantly, about what technology is doing to us? In the midst of a vastly complex and persistently engaging context, where does one find the time to be alone and reflective? It just seems almost impossible to be still, to focus and thereby draw to the fore things that really matter in our lives. If we are to recover our sense of identity, worth and value and if we are to capitalize on the qualitative aspects of humanity, things that cannot be quantified or externalized by technocrats, we must alter our course and take what may be a road less taken. We need to willfully resist the temptation of constant occupation. We must engage ourselves in constant disengagement to call into question the tide of popular opinion. It is in our solitary moments of silence, the ever evasive space between reasons within which we will rediscover our sense of purpose, meaning and destiny.  The space of silence creates space for everything else. Our regrettable plight is that we lack even the basic tenacity needed to regain our losses. We are constantly bombarded with a cacophony of voices demanding our attention and find ourselves incapable of directing our loyalties. We need to relearn the art of “being still”, to shut out the noises that seek our attention so that our conscience may be quickened and our minds nurtured. We need a radical reeducation to sweep the landscape, to repaint the fading essentials of our being and re-institute our lost doctrines. It can only happen when we purposefully practice the art of being alone in silence. Many people mistake being alone with being lonely. The latter is a state that obtains when you are by yourself, the former can be sustained even in the presence of others. There is a great need, especially for believers to put this into practice. To be more than just a stream of open-ended consciousness but to withdraw, to be alone and reflect constantly about what it means to be a Christian in the current context of technological innovations.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I learnt today that there are certain problems that must be managed and others that can be solved. My problem is that I often try to solve the ones that can only be managed and work on managing the ones that can actually be solved.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reasons Unknown

Reason not with reason alone
Our heart too has reasons unknown
The Oracle of Delphi may soon reveal
That cultured homily and human appeal
Are nothing more than Pythia's zeal

The mind surpasses too soon
As the sun eclipses the moon
Frail appellation seeks anew
In pride its wanton pledge renew
Only to wallow in disgrace
The deep seas and infinite space
Infantile, inept to appraise

The mask of reason seems so bright
Alive with pretentious delight
To exhaust the whole in single vein
The throne of reason proudly reign
Amuse and lure to isolate
All of man utterly negate
The remedy not in mind but heart
Where truth and reason come apart
The prodigal nature does return
When pride and profit finally burn
Man and religion in reason alone
Satisfy neither mind nor soul
For my heart still has reasons unknown

-Finney Premkumar (2009)