On the Importance of Pattern Recognition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately. I observe myself staring into the void, or looking at people’s faces, movements, behaviors. I listen to their words, and I have a strange and distant feeling of “outerness". But what am I thinking about exactly?

I think about thought.

In particular, I ask myself the reason we do anything. Really, why do we do anything? Why do we wake up, grab a cup of coffee, have children, work, watch films, take hikes, why do we do anything at all, as opposed to nothing? I’ve been so caught up with the everyday TODOs that sometimes I get the feeling I'm moving in autopilot mode, but I don’t really question why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I believe this to be one of the fundamental questions of existence.

The first answer that came to mind is evolutionary, and it’s probably the most obvious one. Certain instincts, physical and behavioral traits were selected for by the process of evolution, and now we exhibit them, without necessarily having a reason, other than random chance, natural selection, and time.

But then I thought about it some more. I came to the conclusion that life is about patterns, and living beings value pattern recognition more than anything else.

Think about it. What makes a gazelle successful? It must spot lions and other threats effectively and efficiently, react in a split second without wasting energy. Based on the limited information it has available at any moment, it must act accordingly. Spotting the lion requires sophisticated vision, auditory, and potentially olfactory systems, all of which are intensely focused on recognizing patterns, and raising the alarm when a specific one is spotted. Activating the muscles and beginning the complex process of moving four coordinated limbs to propel the entire body forward while staying in balance is another case of pattern recognition and execution, coupled with a feedback loop of the body’s response, which leads to another state, which requires more pattern recognition and so forth. In algorithmic terms, it’s a recursive function (albeit simplified).

What makes a person successful?

It’s the same exact process, pattern recognition, and execution based on the understanding of such patterns. You can pick any field or endeavor, you can apply the same reasoning and arrive at the same conclusion.

Why do we cry at Pavattori’s performance of the aria Nessun Dorma, from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece Turandot? We see Luciano’s deep, intense eyes, staring into infinity, as his vigorous tenore voice vibrates powerfully, it resonates with our mental patterns that recognize the fluctuations of harmonic waves, intertwined in timeless mathematical proportions, which seem to peer into the birth of the universe and its remnant vibration thought the cosmos that we inhabit.

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote that, "Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend”. The relationship between music and numbers is well known, Pythagoras understood it over 2,500 years ago, stating that, "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres."

Why does Bill Gates have a fortune of more than $80 billion? One can always point to luck – and there certainly was some of it in his early days – but without his ability to see patterns in the market, technology, and consumer behavior, he would not have consistently increased his wealth over time.

We value patterns more than everything else. Virtually every single job on the planet is based on the how good someone is at recognizing patterns and to act accordingly. In fact, we spent our formative years learning the most important of patterns. It’s the meta-pattern, that which helps us understand and form new patterns. Our ancestral DNA gives us instincts, which are a form of pre-programmed pattern recognition that helps us survive. But before we can do anything more meaningful, before we can use our mind and body to create something new and useful, we need the meta-pattern. We learn how to learn, and learning is fundamentally about pattern recognition. We are pattern-remix machines: we copy, we transform, and we combine to create new and interesting patterns, which others find valuable and insightful.

Let’s take a field of study and research, which is generally seen, with merit, as a much more noble endeavor than making money. Hard sciences: physics, math, chemistry, biology, etc. What makes Edward Witten’s research more valuable and interesting than the thousands of theoretical physicists struggling to achieve academic notoriety? Clearly it’s his ability to see complex patterns where others don’t. Physics is all about patterns, and math is the language we use to describe such patterns.

How can we ever hope to one-day defeat dementia, Alzheimer disease, and the hundreds of types of cancers, if not by understanding the mechanisms of how they emerge, spread, and die? And isn’t that yet another form of pattern recognition?

The internet is giving us unprecedented access to information and knowledge, which is sometimes overwhelming. Take this article you are reading right now. Why did you decide to click on it? Perhaps you found the title interesting, intriguing, and wanted to know more. In other words, you recognized a pattern, which sparked neuronal connections in your brain that lead to the creation of more complex and interesting patterns, which you found more compelling than the last cat video you saw, and decided to keep reading. You are now in the 14th paragraph. Was it worth it? Is it creating new pathways, and making you think differently? If you’re still here at this point, the answer is probably yes.

If the pattern is too simple, or too obvious, we find it boring, uninteresting, banal. If it’s too complex and chaotic, we say it's confusing gibberish. Valuable patterns are sophisticated enough to be interesting, but simple enough that they make sense.


It’s not just science, art is about patterns too. Vincent Van Gogh’s prodigious mind produced in 1889 what is now one of the most iconic and recognized works of art in history, The Starry Night. But his unparalleled genius became even more evident in 2006, when physicists discovered that Van Gogh’s painting accurately described one of the most mysterious and still unexplained concepts in physics: turbulence in fluid flows. The great German physicist Werner Heisenberg once said, “When I meet God, I'm going to ask him two questions: why relativity and why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” Scientists have struggled for centuries to describe turbulent flow — some are said to have considered the problem harder than quantum mechanics. It is still unsolved, but one of the foundations of the modern theory of turbulence was laid out 60 years later by the Soviet scientist Andrei Kolmogorov in the 1940s. “The Van Gogh's creations during his most turbulent period mirrored nature's turbulent flows, as if his mind somehow tapped into a universal archetype where luminous becomes numinous — and the painter's brush and nature's brush become one and the same.” (cit)

If art is about patterns, so are psychology, sociology, philosophy, making a movie, writing a book. A language is a form of codified and organized patterns, which helps us transfer a mind-pattern – an idea, a thought, an image, an emotion – to someone else. It’s a pattern-based technology, a vehicle whose purpose is to translate pure patterns – thoughts – to other pattern-seeking entities. Our drive as a species to understand and share patterns is so strong that we independently invented this “language” pattern thousands of times over the course of a few millennia.

We value patterns so much that we put the majority of our efforts and attention in making sure that they are not lost. We write books. We use math discover laws of the universe. We record and play songs, stories, and tales.

Patterns. It’s all about patterns, and recognizing them. The more elegant and intricate the pattern, the more beautiful our braid in spacetime is, the more satisfying our existence.

How to Create a Malevolent Artificial Intelligence

For those of you who have been following my work, it should come as no surprise that I have an ambivalent view of technology.

Technology is arguably the predominant reason that we live safer, longer, and healthier than ever before, particularly when we include medical technology – sanitation, antibiotics, vaccines – and communication technologies – satellites, the internet, and smartphones. It has immense potential, and it has been the driving force for innovation and development for centuries.

But it has a dark side. Technology, once a strong democratizing force, now drives more inequality. It allows governments and corporations to spy on citizens on a level that would make Orwell's worst nightmares look like child's play. It could lead to a collapse of the economic system as we know it, unless we find, discuss, and test new solutions.

To a certain extent, this is already happening, albeit not in a uniformly distributed fashion. If we consider a longer timeframe – perhaps a few decades – things could get far more worrisome. I think it's worth thinking and preparing sooner, rather than despair once it's too late.

Many distinguished scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs have expressed such concerns for almost a century. On January 2015 dozens, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, signed an Open Letter, calling for concrete research on how to prevent certain potential pitfalls, noting that, "artificial intelligence has the potential to eradicate disease and poverty, but researchers must not create something which cannot be controlled".

And this is exactly what Roman Yampolskiy and I explored in a paper we recently published, titled Unethical Research: How to Create a Malevolent Artificial Intelligence.

Cybersecurity research involves investigating malicious exploits as well as how to design tools to protect cyber-infrastructure. It is this information exchange between ethical hackers and security experts, which results in a well-balanced cyber-ecosystem. In the blooming domain of AI Safety Engineering, hundreds of papers have been published on different proposals geared at the creation of a safe machine, yet nothing, to our knowledge, has been published on how to design a malevolent machine.

It seemed rather odd to us that virtually all research so far had been focused preventing the accidental and unintended consequences of an AI going rogue – i.e. the paperclip scenario. While this is certainly a possibility, it's also worth considering that someone might deliberately want to create a Malevolent Artificial Intelligence (MAI). If that were the case, who would be most interested in developing it, how would it operate, and what would maximize its chances of survival and ability to strike?

Availability of such information would be of great value particularly to computer scientists, mathematicians, and others who have an interest in AI safety, and who are attempting to avoid the spontaneous emergence or the deliberate creation of a dangerous AI, which can negatively affect human activities and in the worst case cause the complete obliteration of the human species.

This includes the creation of an artificial entity that can outcompete or control humans in any domain, making humankind unnecessary, controllable, or even subject to extinction. Our paper provides some general guidelines for the creation of a malevolent artificial entity, and hints at ways to potentially prevent it, or at the very least to minimize the risk.

We focused on some theoretical yet realistic scenarios, touching on the need for an international oversight board, the risk posed by the existence of non-free software on AI research, and how the legal and economic structure of the United States provides the perfect breeding ground for the creation of a Malevolent Artificial Intelligence.

I am honored to share this paper with Roman, a friend and a distinguished scientist who published over 130 academic papers and has contributed significantly to the field.

I hope our paper will inspire more researchers and policymakers to look into these issues.

You can read the full text at: Unethical Research: How to Create a Malevolent Artificial Intelligence.

News coverage:

Understanding the Refugee Crisis in Syria and Europe

I am receiving tons of messages about my last social media posts on the crisis in Syria, the response of the various states (European or not), the responsibilities and the consequences.

I am creating a course trying to make sense of all this, collecting and selecting the best resources to add.

Watch the course:

If you have any video to suggest, feel free to add a comment.

Announcing a New Project: Eternally Curious

Good news, everyone! I've been meaning to do this for at least five years, and today I'm so happy to finally announce it to the world. It's a new video series of highly curated and well-produced content called Eternally Curious, where I explore all things I'm interested in.

I'm kicking off the season with this first video: "Why Are People Stupid?".

Video link:

I hope you'll enjoy it.

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On Trust

Trust. It's a strange feeling.

Being trusting of others is my default state. I assume people are generally OK, and that they act in selfish or in deliberately evil manners only out of necessity or in extreme cases of boredom. I know that this includes millions of variations and possibilities, but still, I like to generally assume I can trust strangers.

All of this can change of course in a matter of seconds. I like this quote from Mike Tyson (paraphrased):

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

That punch in the face can come at any time, and it typically does when you least expect it.

I was on a plane from Los Angeles to London today. I sat down, got my things set up, and briefly went to the bathroom. I come back two minutes later, only to find that my iPad was gone. Disappeared. The iPad was no longer. It was an ex-iPad.

The moment you realize you have been fucked and that you have no control over things, a torrent of emotions comes rushing to your head. First you try to remember the details before the fact. Did you really have the iPad there? Yes, you put in in the pocket in front of your seat. Was it not inside the bag? Pretty sure it wasn't, but check the bag, just to be sure. Gosh, I shouldn't have gone to the bathroom while people were still arriving and sitting down. Did you backup the photos and videos you took? $700 down the toilet for taking a leak kind of burns, but the photos! Those are memories, money is replaceable. What about that blog post you wrote? Did you back that up? You should back up more often...

Then comes the suspicion. You are sure: it was there, and somebody took it. Who could have done that? Maybe it was just a bored teenager. Maybe it was an asshole who wanted a new shiny screen to watch bad blockbuster movies on and read the daily mail. Did you have a code on the lock screen? How difficult was it? Only 4 numbers, stupid Apple security, a monkey could crack that in a few hours. Not that it matters, they'll probably format it before even trying to open it. Is the find my iPad activated? Was it in airplane mode? If so, it's of no use. Who could have done that? Look around you. Maybe this guy. Or that woman, she looks awfully suspicious. That's what you get for trusting people so much. Pretty stupid move. Don't they have security cameras or something? Always there to harass us for this false sense of security, maybe they can turn out to be useful for once.

While this is going on, you start to think that you might be getting paranoid for no reason. Maybe it was just displaced. Go to the flight attendant, and ask if someone has found it.

As I walk back to my seat, I hear the announcement going off on the intercom, and I get the gaze of the person sitting next to me. Excuse me, have you seen an iPad with a red cover? I left it here, maybe it fell under the seat or something? "No, haven't seen anything, sorry", he says.

As I go through the emotional roller coaster I try to step back and think this through rationally. There is no point in worrying or getting emotional. You're more likely to think straight if you don't get carried away. And if you don't find it, that's it. Move on. They're not going to search 400 passengers to retrieve your lost iPad, get over it.

"Is this yours?", says the guy next to me, as he hands me my lost treasure. Speechless, I hesitate. "Yes", I utter tentatively, "I never check the pocket in front of the seat", he adds.

"Thanks", I sigh in relief.

As I collect my thoughts on what just happened, I can quite literally feel my brain shifting state, and giggle at the double 180 degree change in world view my mind has gone through in less that 10 minutes.

Then it hits me. I remember his face when I came back from the bathroom. He was staring at me. It was a mix of surprise and terror. You didn't register it immediately, but you noticed, then got distracted when you found out that your iPad was missing, and couldn't think straight anymore. You saw him taking a good look around the seats and bags, or at least pretending to, while the hostess was making the announcement. Then you remembered his words when you asked the second time, "When you sat down, did you notice if there was an iPad, or was it already gone?", "I didn't see anything, I wish I could help you, I didn't take it", "Of course, I was just trying to pinpoint at which point it disappeared", I conclude.

But there is something bugging me. How come he couldn't find it, after I asked him twice, and it was right in front of him? It was right there. How could he miss it? Maybe he thought someone had left it there and then he took it, hoping nobody would come to claim it. Then when he saw me he got scared, he tried to keep it hidden, then realized I was eventually going to find out, and looked for a way to return it while making it look like he didn't know it was there.

Sneaky bastard.

Wait a minute. Where is this coming from? This isn't you. You trust people. Maybe he was being honest. If it's true that he never checks the pocket where the airplane magazines are stored, then his story checks out. No mystery, no evil intent.

But then how did the iPad get into his seat's pocket? Are you sure you didn't displace it yourself, and you just don't remember?

At this point, I realize there is no point in going any further with this, it's an infinite spiral from which you can never get out.

Little by little, all these experiences shape us and make us who we are. The more we allow fear and suspicion to take a hold of us, the more we become alienated and we distance ourselves from others.

The challenge is to remain open, and to not let negativity take over. That's a lesson that we need to deal with every day.

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