I spend a lot of time thinking about mental flotsam and jetsam*, the junk we all have lodged permanently in our brains, but that we rarely stop to actually consider. And it turns out that if you do consider it, you start to notice how arbitrary and nonsensical much of it is. This came up recently while I was trying to help my kid learn French. I sang her Frère Jacques, which we all know: Frère Jacques / Frère Jacques Dormez-vous? / Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines! / Sonnez les matines! Ding, dang, dong / Ding, dang, dong Then, to help
When I was nine years old, I came down with a somewhat rare disease that left me hospitalized for several weeks. (Don’t worry, I’m fine now.) One day, I noticed a sequence of numbers printed on the side of my IV drip:
Quick: how many animals can you name in a minute? Done? OK, now think about how many of those animals have you seen, in real life, in the past year. Not many, right? Most of us live in a world devoid of wild animals, apart from maybe a few species like squirrels or raccoons. This means that we have few opportunities to compare our mental map — the idea of an animal that we carry around in our heads — against the real thing. And that means that sometimes, those mental maps can be off to a surprising degree.
Last month, Stephen Hawking caused quite a stir when he mused that advances in artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” Computer scientists quickly shot back, pointing out that today’s algorithms still struggle to recognize kittens, never mind plotting our ultimate doom. Still, with programs like Deep Blue and Watson outplaying humans on a regular basis, you might be forgiven a certain uneasy sense that the machines are gaining on us. Now, researchers at the University of Alberta have built an unbeatable card shark, a computer program that has ‘solved’ the game of heads up limit Texas hold’em