Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Matrix Fallacy: Know-what ≠ know-how

Alvin and the ChipmunksI remember an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks from when I was a kid, where, for some reason, the ‘munks were involved in a baseball game. At a crucial plot moment, Simon was called up to bat, and the drama of the scene came from the fact that Simon wasn’t athletic (for those of you not familiar with the characters, Simon, on the far left, was the nerdy one). However, before Simon stepped up to the plate, he took a quick moment to work out the physics of the ball’s trajectory (I can’t remember the details, but if you want to optimize the distance of a projectile, you should launch it at a 45º angle; to go a specific distance—say, over the outfield wall of a baseball field—you just need to know how much force to put behind it) and he then promptly stepped up to the plate and knocked the ball out of the park.

Matrix jacking-in chairEven though I couldn’t express why at the time, I knew that wasn’t right. Simon’s baseball heroics reminded me of those scenes in The Matrix where the characters have skills—karate, flying a helicopter—imported directly into their brains through the data ports in their heads, the implication being that the mere fact that they have received this information makes them able to physically perform specific tasks. However, know-what does not equal know-how.

I know there are examples where people have brought physical processes into coordination with abstract information; one example that comes immediately to mind is musicians with perfect pitch. With the right kind of training, a person can be taught to distinguish individual notes purely by sound or hit a ball with so many pounds of force or at a particular angle. However, the key word here is “training.” The knowledge wouldn’t be sufficient to the skill, for the skill could only be acquired through bodily training.

It seems far more likely that physical processes like hitting a baseball or kicking Agent Smith’s ass are dependent on embodiment; that is, the process is learned through the combination of the mental and physical systems of the body (see Varela, Thompson, and Rosch’s The Embodied Mind). For that reason, merely having information about something does not necessarily translate into having the skill—or know-how—to accomplish a task.

I started thinking about this recently because of Bionic Woman. On an episode from a few weeks ago, Jamie has to stop a whirling fan so Dr. Burke can practice his karate moves on terrorists. As she prepares to grab the spinning blades, we get a shot of her bionic vision, and there is a readout showing the fan’s rotation speed in m/s*s.

This struck me as another example of the Matrix Fallacy. Knowing how fast a fan is spinning doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing when to reach in and grab the blade.

I suppose you could argue that Sommers’ bionics have solved this problem for her by interfacing between her physical systems and abstract ideas like m/s*s. However, this kind of abstract processing has been the goal of AI since its inception, but has so far seemed impossible. At any rate, it would be more interesting if the show illustrated the bionic woman’s skill in ways that made more sense in light of embodiment.


Anonymous said...

While I understand where you are going with your argument,in your third paragraph the example you put forth is not necessarily an accurate representation of the point you are trying to make. Many work to attain perfect pitch, this is true, however, the vast majority of people are only ever able to learn relative pitch. This means they can identify the note, but they cannot say whether or not it is flat or sharp and to what degree. For the most part, those who have perfect pitch are born with it. They might not have had the resources or musical background to know the note/pitch names, but their minds register what they are hearing. They don't need "training" to be able to identify with specific pitches, they can already do that, they just need to be shown how to put a name to what they are hearing.
I am definitely not denying that most skills or so called "natural" abilities are actually the product of practice and education, but perfect pitch does not fall neatly into this same category of skills.

John Jones said...

Thanks for the comment. Can you point me to any research that would support the claim you're making here?