Doors, Computers, Tigers

Friday, 29 September 2006, 22:06 | Category : Philosophy
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Here’s where this mental exercise started… Loren got me interested in reading Space and Place by Y-Fu Tuan. More on that book later, when I’ve read further. My thought process began with a door, then ran through computers, and ended up at a tiger. As I read tonight, I happened to glance across the room. Not at anything in particular, just one of those random glances you sometimes make in the midst of a prolonged ponder. I focused on the door, about 12 feet away, the bookshelf beside it, then another door nearby. I thought about how my brain seemed to synthesize several responses to the scene in a package: the door is about 12 feet away, the wall is white, there are about 6 books on each shelf (it’s a narrow bookshelf). Then I thought about how a computer would “see” that scene, if it had a camera attached. I can grasp how it would characterize color. I can understand how it might deduct the presence of multiple books on a shelf, by an algorithm that would note the different roughly parallel rectangles formed by the book spines. But then I thought about distance. How would a computer know distance? Certainly, it could use a laser range finder – but in the absence of a direct measurement tool, how would it do this? Our brains, I’m sure, use a combination of experience and knowledge to perform a quick calculation – but even when there aren’t reference objects available, like the futon between me and the door, our brains can do a pretty good distance calculation in most situations. I don’t know how a computer would do this type of intellectual gymnastics. Then I thought about tigers. Tigers are very good at leaping. Along with many other things, I learned this from Winnie The Pooh. And the Discovery Channel. And Wild Kingdom. Tigers leap very well. But I don’t think they calculate distance. Tigers don’t say to themselves “Let’s see, the deer is on top of that earthen bank, the bank is about 13 feet away, I have to clear a 3 foot shrub…”. I think tigers think effort. They don’t know how far they need to jump, they just know how hard they need to jump. I’ll admit I have no scientific basis for making such a statement, it just seems to me that distance is a concept that tiger brains don’t handle. They don’t experience the world that way, in the same way that we don’t calculate the distance to the basketball goal, we just know we need to shoot the ball that hard. We can, however, stand on the basketball court, look at the goal, and estimate that we are 18 feet away. Same physical setting, 2 different ways of experiencing it. When we shoot the ball, we’re tigers. When we mentally calculate the distance, we’re people. But neither of these experience sets is applicable to a computer. So I go back to wondering how a computer would devise a value for a distance. If you have knowledge of how this is done, feel free to enlighten me. Just remember, no laser range finders.