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3. The Symbolator project: A personal introduction (URL)

Here I will come to think about some of the technical details of the Symbolator project. What it is that I want to build, what it will be good for, and how much it will cost to build. More on this will of course be following in the later parts on organization, finance, and technical detail.

The first technological principle is: It doesn't have to be fully concordant with current academic consensus, in order to be workable. The theory of the Symbolator, as I am outlining it here, cuts across a full spectrum of academic disciplines from philosophy, linguistics, philology, semiotics, evolutional biology, neurology, informatics, and a few more, and it is impossible to completely validate the assumptions made beforehand by the standards of each discipline. The completed Symbolator is essentially needed to validate the hypotheses. It will be a complete conceptual and theoretical bootstrap. I think I am not mistaken that the works of Englebart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, and all the others who invented the current state of the art in hypermedia and virtual reality did not go through complete academic verification before they implemented what they wanted.

The chicken-egg problem with a new principle is always that in order to prove it, an apparatus must be built that shows that it is working. A little piece of new technology must be invented. This costs money. Therefore, if the principle is entirely new, then it may be hard to convince those who control the funding, that it is wise to spend money on exactly that project. Especially if resources are tight, and other, well established and well-credited projects are shrinking or even scratched. Then it is entirely understandable that research establishments as well as all the rest of society, stick to the "tried and tested".

I wouldn't be doing what I am doing here if I were not convinced myself that it is worth my time and effort to do it. I have invested about 10 to 15 man-years into the project. Most of it was funded through my work as industrial consultant. One hour of industrial consulting can be rated at around $ 200,-. So we can assume that I made a capital investment of between $ 4 million and $ 6 million. That is no peanuts, is it? And I consider this an investment and not just a hobby.

3.1. Autopoiesis, natural self organization, and machine intelligence

When academic computing, or informatics, adopted the natural scientific positivistic standard, it threw out a lot of cybernetic work in the 40's and 50's that didn't fit too well into that scheme. One notable proponent of this other view was Gotthard Günther . He had unfortunately proclaimed that his work was based on Hegel's logic which made his theories "non grata" in the scientific community. Had he just said he was doing neuronal morphogrammatics, no one would have noticed, and he might have become famous. It happened otherwise. Now, he had developed his ideas for a long time at the Uni of Illinois in Urbana, where Warren McCulloch had assembled a group of persons whose work continued in the following years. Mainly by Heinz v. Foerster , who founded the Biological Computers Laboratory in Urbana in 1957 and directed it until 1976. And from there emanated a stream of ideas from now well-known researchers like Ross Ashby , Lars Löfgren, Herbert Brün, Gordon Pask, and Humberto Maturana, whose theory of autopoiesis is of particular importance for this work.

What I am introducing here, is a principle for autopoiesis that cannot be thought through in the framework of the ontological assumption of science. In order to think this principle through, one has to pursue the track a little while outside the trodden paths of the last 300 years of scientific development.

3.2. The practical definition of the Symbolator

In this study it is not my aim to propose a new approach for intelligent machinery . I think that this is fine, for those who like their computer to be smarter than they themselves are. No, in this respect, I am very selfish. I want to have something that makes me smarter. If I can get that with a smarter computer, that is fine. But it must always serve my practical aim to make me smarter, or otherwise the whole thing will be useless, or rather, it will be terrifically dangerous. I always have to refer to the "Neuromancer " stories which are so incredibly accurate in the picture of a brain-dominated thousand-year-reich of cyber age they create. We already have a host of very dangerous influences of those darned little mouse- and icon computer interfaces that are exerting their detrimental effects on our mental processes. There are so many trojan horse s and mind-worm s ready to be hooked into our brains by a profit-seeking industry totally unencumbered by any ethical concerns. What if our computers became only half as smart as we are? God beware!

The trick of the trade is the same as with the old proverb of "the glass of water that is either half full or half empty". I want to have a computer that can be a hundred, or a thousand, or even ten thousand times smarter, than I am now, provided that:

I am always at least twice as smart as my computer

This is what I call a Symbolator . No great philosophical, semiotic, or technical definition, of the nature of the symbol process , of neural feedback loops. That can wait until I get around to it in the semiotics and technical sections. No, plain useful down-to-earth, pragmatic application. The only thing that counts for me is this thing between my ears: the brain . And if I can get any technical device that helps me use this thing between my ears in any better way, so much the better.

Now, as we all have found out using these little computers, as stupid as they may be, they have one devillish attitude: They make us feel so darn stupid! They have an unerring, unflinching, unforgiving, uninfluencible, determined, mechanical intelligence , that, may it ever be so primitive, instills a certain type if fear in us. There are whole sections of the population who still resist using the computer because of this fear, which is entirely justified, because there is a very specific danger in those devices, that those who are playing with them, the computer engineers, and the computer kids, have gotten used to, just as much as one gets used to wielding a chain saw.

To understand what is happening here, I had to go the whole way through human history, like an archeologist scraping through the mud, discovering shreds here, debris there, and vanished traces over there. Because what is happening here is just another layer of transformation of our mental processes as they are accomodating to just another new auxiliary device humanity has fabricated for its comfort, material improvement, utility, or out of sheer vanity.

The process is very similar to what has happened when civilizations adopted writing. Since we in the western industrialized countries are now a fully literate civilization, there is simply no way imagining any more what life, and more specifically, mentation [25] was like, before we had put anything that could be expressed in words into writing, and that, in books.

The Symbolator has to do with re-learning a whole lot of things that we apparently have forgotten: The most important of these seems to be: The world doesn't consist of words only, and it doesn't consist of only those things that can be described with words, patented with words, and put in legal contracts with words. And if we substitute "words" by "words and mathematical formulae" then it will be the same.
The widespread use of computers by large sections of society has the best chances to convert in a matter of maximally 50 years the whole global industrialized population to mental modes of functioning that are determined by the way user interfaces are programmed. A similar conversion needed about 5000 years to induce the mental states of world population to the mental modes of writing oriented verbal thought, the prose style of talking and thinking.

3.3. The mentation modalities of sounding and moving visual images

Ever since the days of ancient egypt , humanity has lost touch with the art of expressing symbolic thought in pictures. Of course, there has been art, and architecture. But since the main operational system of mentation became word and concept oriented, there had been a split. The egyptians still knew about these things, and it is not only by sheer conservativism, that they kept the hieroglyphics , even though they had the demotic cursive writing. And it is not completely true that hieroglyphics were just an archaic, incomplete, partial solution toward a full phonetic alphabet, a "partial writing". Even though Champollion rightfully debunked the phantasmagoric ideas that Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Athanasius Kircher entertained about them, these ideas had "a grain of salt" about them. Because there was a certain way of "picture thinking" hidden behind those hieroglyphics, even if their most common use was to just encode pieces of spech. Sauneron has demonstrated this in his work [26].

This is why I am making such a great detour through the whole of human cultural history, to find those traces that may lead us to a better appreciation of what it means to use the mentation modalities of sounding and moving visual images .

Because if we don't have a good idea what that means, we will always get stuck with the logocentrism , as Derrida calls it (Derrida 1974 ). The almost inexhaustible source of confusion that the ubiquitous, and 5000-year old domination of verbal mentation modes, what we usually call thinking, are playing their tricks on us.

And there has never been a symbolic memory technology available to humanity in the past that allowed the combination of sounding and moving visual images at the same time. This is completely novel ground. There is of course the whole field of theater , song , dance , puppet theater [27] kinematic arts , etc. But this was considered as art, not as mentation . (For further discussion of the connection of visual symbols and sound, see ->:HARMONICS ).

3.4. The infrastructure and technical representation of sounding and moving visual images

This is then the technical core of this work: Not just to have computer technology that lets us manipulate pictures, and moving images with an incredible pain***, as we have in contemporary CAD , drawing and drafting, and multimedia animating software . When you want to construct a reasonably complicated drawing with Corel Draw ®, or any other of the standard market systems, you can easily spend a day on just one drawing alone. That is allright, if you are earn enough with one picture. But if you are a teacher wanting to design a textbook of thermodynamics , and you want to put a very good picture next to each chapter you write, you are in trouble. ABRAHAM-DYNAMIC (Ralph Abraham) is a good example how a book like this has to look like. Of course the drawings there were hand-made. You will be in much worse trouble if you were audacious enough to design a whole course completely multi-media based. Or you must have a lot of pocket money to spend, or a rich uncle. Because you won't get that kind of money from your school board. The current user interface metaphors are just not suitable for this kind of work. And it is in the present mouse- and icon-technology where most of the problems are hidden.

I invite you to try to construct a drawing of a reasonably simple and normal biological system like the DNA with Corel Draw : Just try to design a double spiral: that is a spiral rolled up in a spiral. You will never make it. But if you use a Logo -like approach, it is almost trivial. Just use the basic subroutine that is creating a circle [28], let it increase one step in the z-axis, while it makes about ten steps on the x-y plane, and you have the basic spiral. Then you take that subroutine and apply it to a copy of itself, with the values for xyz multiplied by 20. Of course, you will have to use x(1,2) y(1,2), z(1,2) for the double indexing. You will see that with about half an hour of programming, you will have created a beautiful spiral, spiralling around itself, mathematically perfect, and so easy, every fifth-grader could do it.

3.5. The programming language of the Symbolator

This is exactly the kind of programming that none of the available design programs on the market can do (if I am informed correctly). Possibly Mathematica can do that. I didn't have time to check. But the design programs should let you do this also. There is a little story to this: every one of these design programs converts its output to Postscript® . Now Postscript is a programming language, albeit one that hardly anyone ever gets to see as live code, and if one gets to see it, one will regret it for life. But just imagine, that we use the approach of Postscript , call it 3-D Script , add some sound and motion gizmos, think the whole concept over a little bit so that it doesn't look as abhorrent and write-only as current Postscript does. Then one could add a little topping and provide an interface like Visual Basic , and presto, you will have the nicest Symbolator that I could ever imagine. And the cost? Just a trifle 50 to 100 man-years. That is nothing compared to the thousands of man-years that have cost the computer industry billions in the last operating-system wars of Windows NT contra OS/2 contra Windows 95 , contra NeXT Step .

3.6. The essential bootstrap principle, and beware of the traps

So we can parse the famous principle of the software-industry, the bootstrap , both ways, and it comes out right both ways: The boot-strap [29], by which you can lift yourself, and the boots-trap, of which you must be aware of.

Because if we want to really get right into this matter, we will have to find some new ways to think in visual and motional symbols. And to get into that thinking, we must implement working models on a computer. And while we are implementing them, we must perfect our own internal representation of what we are doing in software, reflect it into our own "thing between the ears" as I have called it above. In short: we must perform a whole visual and auditive conceptual cultural bootstrap , what would take thousands of years reality time "out there" in normal cultural evolution, but it can, and must, be done in just a few years if done with the right tools and with the right theories.

Of course some versions of this work are already in full swing all over the world since that is essentially what the computer industry is trying to get to. Except they don't really know where they are heading, what is driving them, and what is obscuring them. If it just were not for those few inconspicuous little hidden details of the project, those hidden traps of well-worn mental modes of logocentrism , that would invariably lure researchers and software engineers into by now well-filled pitfalls of former failures.


[25]I have to differentiate verbal and conceptual thinking, which has been most amplified by writing and the printing press, from other mental process, which we may call thinking or not. To stay clear of confusion, I call mentation anything that includes verbal thinking, but also forms of skills that have nothing to do with words, like learning to mentally transform a drawing into a 3-d object.
[26] L'ecriture figurative dans le temple d' Esna. SAUNERON.
[27]see: Heinrich v. Kleist: "Über das Marionettentheater"
[28]Forget about 2 r * ! It is "ten steps forward, one step to the left", repeated until you come back to where you started out with the turtle.
[29]German ingeniosity has found something quite as good, and about 200 years old by now: The famous tried-and-tested "Münchhausen lift-youself-by-your-pigtail" trick, which would even make an indian rope trick sorcerer look pale by comparison because Münchhausen managed to lift not only himself, but also his horse. He actually performed usable work with his trick, and not just some amusing spectacle like the Indians do.

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