Thoughts on the Evolution of Communication

My dog and I engage in a lot of signaling. But it is not always deliberate, and it is not always conscious, and it is not always a two-way process.

In the morning, Otto licks my bald head. He can probably smell what I have been dreaming. I hold him and we have a nice cuddle. Just one of our many routines. He looks at me and I look at him. He is always checking me out. In the process of getting to know each other over several years we have come to read each other’s signals – our body language, interactions, responses, vocalizations…and smells.

image from

Semiosis emerges in the process. If there is a coupling of signals – a mutually-reinforcing signaling loop – two-way communication emerges. It is not always conscious – for either of us. Sometimes, a mutually-reinforcing signaling process which I was previously unaware of becomes apparent to me. When this happens, I become an active agent in that semiosis.

Otto is so intensely attentive to me – my routines (and deviations from them). He probably tunes-in to many more of my signals than I do to his. But then again, I am a human: I generate a lot of signal. Does he see this as “communication?” It is not clear: his brain is a dog brain, and mine is a human brain. We don’t share the same word for this experience (he only knows a few English words, and “communication” isn’t one of them).

I can be sure of one thing: we share a lot of signaling. And, as members of two highly-social species, we both like that.

I would conclude from this that communication among organisms in general (the biosemiosis that has emerged on Earth over the last few billion years) came about pretty much the same way that Otto and I established our own little world of emergent semiosis. As life evolved, trillions of coupled signaling channels reinforced each other over time and became more elaborate. Eventually, this signaling became conscious and intentional.

And so here we are: human communication has reached a level of sophistication such that I can type these words – and you can read them. And we can share the experience – across time and space.

Thelonius Monk’s Shapeshifting Chord


One of my part-time hobbies is being a Monk interpreter. A Monk interpreter not only learns how to play Monk’s compositions, but also makes a point of getting into the head of this eccentric man. The reason to do this is that Monk was an improvisor – and he was driven by an inner vision. If you can tap that inner vision, then you can generate Monk-like music – and improvise on it…even while playing Beatles songs.

I wrote a piece in 2013 about Monk as a mathematician.


Math can be about patterns (visual or sonic). Math does not always have to be expressed in numbers. Monk once said,“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians”.

A Symmetrical Chord

The chord I’m talking about has four notes. It is typically used as a dominant chord – which naturally resolves to the tonic. Unlike the classical dominant-seventh, this chord has a flatted fifth – which makes it slip into a symmetrical regime – as shown in the picture above – inscribed in the circle of fifths.



According to Wikipedia, this chord is called the “Dominant Seventh Flat-Five Chord“. The cool trick about this chord is that it can resolve to either of two different tonics – each being a tri-tone apart.

So for instance, a chord with these notes:     Eb   F   A   B      can resolve to either Bb or E as the home key.

This chord also happens to contain 4 of the 6 tones in a whole tone scale, which Monk famously used (often as a dominant arpeggio).

If you are not familiar with music theory, you may still appreciate the beauty of sonic geometry and how it can generate such variety. If you apply similar concepts to rhythm as to harmony then you have a wonderfully rich canvas for endless musical expression. I like the way Monk wove these geometries together in a way that makes the foot tap and the ear twinge – and the brain tweak.

Monk was of course not the only one to apply these ideas – but he did accomplish something remarkable: the application of embodied math. If you have spent as much time as I have learning his language, listening to him improvise can cause a smile – or the occasional giggle – to pop out. Like an inside joke.

There is plenty of material on the internet about Monk. Here’s one voice among the many who have acquired an appreciation for Monk:  How to Listen to Thelonius Monk – by George H. Jensen, Jr.

“The Gene” doesn’t exist. It’s always a tangled hierarchy of genes plus environment

Maybe I’m obsessing over a tiny bit of language here, but I really believe that the language we use has a large impact on the way we think about things, and thus, the way we go about solving problems. Take the concept of “gene” for example.

Everything I’ve leaned about genetics tells me that there is no clear obvious separation of genes and environment. It’s like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set.

seepferdseepferdIf you try to untangle the source of something to determine whether it is from genes or environment (nature vs. nurture), you usually fail. And that’s because the interactions of genes with the environment is really like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set. You can keep zooming in, but you’ll never find the boundary.

And this is fundamental to how nature operates.

Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 9.50.56 AM

From Wikipedia:

Nature versus nurture debates assume that variation in a trait is primarily due to either genetic differences or environmental differences. However, the current scientific opinion holds that neither genetic differences nor environmental differences are solely responsible for producing phenotypic variation, and that virtually all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental differences.


it is rarely productive to talk about a “gene” in the singular. “Genes” is almost always a plural concept. And the reason is because the interaction of genes and environment (the fundamental basis for evolution) goes all the way down to the level of the genes themselves. In other words:

At a Basic Level: Genes are the environment for genes

The way a gene is expressed is influenced by the other genes who take part in the choreography of expression.

I originally learned this from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. From the point of view of the single gene, being the most atomic unit of selection, EVERYTHING other than itself…constitutes the environment. That includes other genes.

So, when you hear a science writer claiming that “Researchers determine that there is no ‘math gene’…”, you should conclude that the author is (1) correct, and (2) ignorant about biology.

Of course there is no math gene. Math skill (or any skill) grows out of a tangled interaction of inherited instinct (genetic makeup) and environmental factors (experience, learning, outside influences). The “nature vs. nurture” debate is counter-productive. The question should not be about determining which is the cause. It should be about determining the way these two factors come together to continually bring the natural world into being.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 9.55.55 AM

Because it’s a tangled hierarchy of influences, people get uncomfortable. Science is supposed to untangle these things, right? Not always. Science can help us understand that tangled hierarchies are actually the norm. That’s nature.

This is not to say that there are no culprit genes for certain diseases or observable traits. They do in fact exist in certain cases. For instance: there do exist “single gene disorders“. But these are usually mutations – deviations of an otherwise natural situation.

John Oliver recently made a compelling rant against science journalism, and how perfectly valid science often gets trivialized, simplified, and even rendered false…for mass consumption.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 9.36.12 AM

There is no single bullet theory in nature. Science writers should spend less time looking for a simple story to catch people’s eye with a punchy headline. Nature is complex…like the Mandelbrot Set. And that’s awesome.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 10.07.49 AM

Science writers who say machines have feelings…lack intelligence.

I saw an article by Peter Dockrill with the headline, “Artificial intelligence should be protected by human rights, says Oxford mathematician”.

The subtitle is: “Machines Have Feelings Too”.

Regarding the potential dangers of robots and computers, Peter asks: “But do robots need protection from us too?” Peter is apparently a “science and humor writer”. I think he should stick with just one genre.

Just more click-bait.

There are too many articles on the internet with headlines like this. They are usually covered with obnoxious, eye-jabbing ads, flitting in front of my face like giant colorful moths. It’s a carnival – through and through.

I could easily include any number of articles about the “terrifying” future of AI, “emotional machines”, “robot ethics”, and other cartoon-like dilutions of otherwise thoughtful well-crafted science fiction.

Good science fiction is better than bad science journalism.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.30.04 PM

Here’s Ben Goldacre:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 9.30.15 PM

Now, back to this silly subject of machines having feelings:

Some of my previous articles express my thoughts on the future of AI, such as:

No Rafi. The Brain is not a Computer

The Singularity is Just One in a Series

Why Nick Bostrom is Wrong About the Dangers of Artificial Intelligence

Intelligence is NOT One-Dimensional

homunculusbI think we should be working to fix our own emotional mess, instead of trying to make vague, naive predictions about machines having feelings. Machines will – eventually – have something analogous to animal motivation and human states of mind, but by then the human world will look so different that the current conversation will be laughable.

Right now, I am in favor of keeping the “feelings” on the human side of the equation.

We’re still too emotionally messed up to be worrying about how to tend to our machines’ feelings. Let’s fix our own feelings first before giving them to our machines. We still have that choice.

And now, more stupidity from Meghan Neal:

“Computers are already faster than us, more efficient, and can do our jobs better.”

Wow Meghan, you sure do like computers, don’t you?

I personally have more hope, respect, and optimism for our species.

In this article, Meghan makes sweeping statements about machines with feelings, including how “feeling” computers are being used to improve education.

The “feeling” robots she is referring to are machines with a gimmick – they are brain-dead automatons with faces attached to them. Many savvy futurists suggest that true AI will not result from humans trying to make machines act like humans.  That’s anthropomorphism. Programming pre-defined body language in an unthinking robot makes for interesting and insightful experimentation in human-machine interaction. But please! Don’t tell me that these machines have “feelings”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 3.44.18 PMThis article says: “When Nao is sad, he hunches his shoulders forward and looks down. When he’s happy, he raises his arms, angling for a hug. When frightened, Nao cowers, and he stays like that until he is soothed with some gentle strokes on his head.”


Pardon me while I projectile vomit.

Any time you are trying to compare human intelligence with computers, consider what Marvin once said:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.38.04 PM

The Information EVOLUTION

I remember several decades ago learning that we were at the beginning of an information revolution. The idea, as I understood it, was that many things are moving towards a digital economy; even wars will become information-based.

The information revolution takes over where the industrial revolution left off.

I am seeing an even bigger picture emerging – it is consistent with the evolution of the universe and Earth’s biosphere.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 10.20.47 AM

At the moment, I can hear a bird of prey (I think it’s a falcon) that comes around this neighborhood every year about this time and makes its call from the tree tops. When I think about the amount of effort that birds make to produce mating calls, and other kinds of communication, I am reminded of how much importance information plays in the biological world. The variety and vigor of bird song is amazing. From an evolutionary point of view, one has to assume that there is great selective pressure to create such energy in organized sound.

money+gorilla+teeth+omg+weird+primatesThis is just a speck of dust in comparison to the evolution of communication in our own species, for whom information is a major driver in our activities. Our faces have evolved to give and receive a very high bandwidth of information between each other (Compare the faces of primates to those of less complex animals and notice the degree to which the face is optimized for giving and receiving information).

Our brains have grown to massive proportions (relatively-speaking) to account for the role that information plays in the way our species survives on the planet.

Now: onto the future of information…

Beaming New Parts to the Space Station

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 10.29.58 AM

Guess which is more expensive:

  1. Sending a rocket to the space station with a new part to repair an old one.
  2. Beaming up the instructions to build the part on an on-board 3D printer.

You guessed it.

And this is where some people see society going in general. 3D printing will revolutionize society in a big way. Less moving atoms, More moving bits.

To what degree will the manipulation of bits become more important than the manipulation of atoms?

Not Just a Revolution: Evolution

My sense is that the information revolution is not merely one in a series of human eras: it is the overall trend of life on Earth. We humans are the agents of the latest push in this overall trend.

Some futurists predict that nanotechnology will make it possible to infuse information processing into materials, giving rise to programmable matter. Ray Kurzweil predicts that the deep nano-mingling of matter and information will be the basis for a super-intelligence that can spread throughout the universe.

Okay, whatever.

For now, let’s ride this information wave and try to use the weightlessness of bits to make life better for all people (and all life-forms) on Earth – not just a powerful few.

No Rafi. The brain is not a computer.

Rafi Letzter wrote an article called “If you think your brain is more than a computer, you must accept this fringe idea in physics“.

Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 12.50.53 PM

The article states the view of computer scientist Scott Aaronson: “…because the brain exists inside the universe, and because computers can simulate the entire universe given enough power, your entire brain can be simulated in a computer.”

Who the fuck said computers can simulate the entire universe?

That is a huge assumption. It’s also wrong.

We need to always look close at the assumptions that people use to build theories. If it can be proven that computers can simulate the entire universe, then this theory will be slightly easier to swallow.

By the way, a computer cannot simulate the entire universe because it would have to simulate itself simulating itself simulating itself.

The human brain is capable of computation, and that’s why humans are able to invent computers.

The very question as to whether the brain “is a computer” is wrong-headed. Does the brain use computation? Of course it does (among other things). Is the brain a computer? Of course it isn’t.

The Miracle of My Hippocampus – and other Situated Mental Organs

I’m not very good at organizing.

pilesThe pile of papers, files, receipts, and other stuff and shit accumulating on my desk at home has grown to huge proportions. So today I decided to put it all into several boxes and bring it to the co-working space – where I could spend the afternoon going through it and pulling the items apart. I’m in the middle of doing that now. Here’s a picture of my progress. I’m feeling fairly productive, actually.

10457290-Six-different-piles-of-various-types-of-nuts-used-in-the-making-of-mixed-nuts--Stock-PhotoSome items go into the trash bin; some go to recycling; most of them get separated into piles where they will be stashed away into a file cabinet after I get home. At the moment, I have a substantial number of mini-piles. These accumulate as I sift through the boxes and decide where to put the items.

Here’s the amazing thing: when I pull an item out of the box, say, a bill from Verizon, I am supposed to put that bill onto the Verizon pile, along with the other Verizon bills that I have pulled out. When this happens, my eye and mind automatically gravitate towards the area on the table where I have been putting the Verizon bills. I’m not entirely conscious of this gravitation to that area.

Gravity Fields in my Brain

What causes this gravitation? What is happening in my brain that causes me to look over to that area of the table? It seems that my brain is building a spatial map of categories for the various things I’m pulling out of the box. I am not aware of it, and this is amazing to me – I just instinctively look over to the area on the table with the pile of Verizon bills, and…et voilà – there it is.

Other things happen too. As this map takes shape in my mind (and on the table), priorities line up in my subconscious. New connections get made and old connects get revived. Rummaging through this box has a therapeutic effect.

The fact that my eye and mind know where to look on the table is really not such a miracle, actually. It’s just my brain doing its job. The brain has many maps – spatial, temporal, etc. – that help connect and organize domains of information. One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is associated with spatial memory.


User Interface Design, The Brain, Space, and Time

I could easily collect numerous examples of software user interfaces that do a poor job of tapping the innate power of our spatial brains. These problematic user interfaces invoke the classic bouts of confusion, frustration, undiscoverability, and steep learning curves that we bitch about when comparing software interfaces.

This is why I am a strong proponent of Body Language (see my article about body language in web site design) as a paradigm for user interaction design. Similar to the body language that we produce naturally when we are communicating face-to-face, user interfaces should be designed with the understanding that information is communicated in space and in time (situated in the world). There is great benefit for designers to have some understanding of this aspect of natural language.

Okay, back to my pile of papers: I am fascinated with my unconscious ability to locate these piles as I sift through my stuff. It reminds me of why I like to use the fingers of my hand to “store” a handful of information pieces. I can recall these items later once they have been stored in my fingers (the thumb is usually saved for the most important item).

Body Maps, Brain, and Memory


Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.03.46 PMLast night I was walking with my friend Eddie (a fellow graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where the late Marvin Minsky taught). Eddie told me that he once heard Marvin telling people how he liked to remember the topics of an upcoming lecture: he would place the various topics onto his body parts.

…similar to the way the ancient Greeks learned to remember stuff.

During the lecture, Marvin would shift his focus to his left shoulder, his hand, his right index finger, etc., in order to recall various topics or concepts. Marvin was tapping the innate spatial organs in his brain to remember the key topics in his lecture.

My Extended BodyMap

18lta79g5tsytjpgMy body. My home town. My bed. My shoes. My wife. My community. The piles in my home office. These things in my life all occupy a place in the world. And these places are mapped in my brain to events that have happened in the past – or that happen on a regular basis. My brain is the product of countless generations of Darwinian iteration over billions of years.

All of this happened in space and time – in ecologies, animal communities, among collaborative workspaces.

Even the things that have no implicit place and time (as the many virtualized aspects of our lives on the internet)… even these things occupy a place and time in my mind.

Intelligence has a body. Information is situated.

Hail to Thee Oh Hippocampus. And all the venerated bodymaps. For you keep our flitting minds tethered to the world.

You offer guidance to bewildered designers – who seek the way – the way that has been forged over billions of years of intertwingled DNA formation…resulting in our spatially and temporally-situated brains.


We must not let the no-place, no-time, any-place, any-time quality of the internet deplete us of our natural spacetime mapping abilities. In the future, this might be seen as one of the greatest challenges of our current digital age.