Sunday, April 24, 2011

Not so foolish anymore..

Chaucer’s celebrated ‘Canterbury tales’ published in 1392 makes reference to April 1st and its association as being the April Fool or All-Fools Day. This is that month of the year and the tradition has shown no respite when friends and relatives pull tricks of jokes and make fool of us on that day. When these tricks reach the level where ones’ tricks makes a fool of many, it becomes even more interesting and one of the leaders in this field has been Google. Did you hear about Google Motion? If not, I give a brief below. They published this article on their blog at 12:01 AM on 1st April and was truly their joke on their social network. Google wrote thus:

“In 1874 the QWERTY keyboard was invented. In 1963, the world was introduced to the mouse. Some 50 years later, we’ve seen the advent of microprocessors, high resolution webcams, and spatial tracking technology. But all the while we’ve continued to use outdated technology to interact with devices. Why?

This is a question that we’ve been thinking about a lot at Google, and we’re excited to introduce our first attempts at next generation human computer interaction: Gmail Motion. Gmail Motion allows you to control Gmail — composing and replying to messages — using your body.

To use Gmail Motion, you’ll need a computer with a built-in webcam. Once you enable Gmail Motion from the Settings page, Gmail will enable your webcam when you sign in and automatically recognize any one of the detected movements via a spatial tracking algorithm. We designed the movements to be easy and intuitive to perform and consulted with top experts in kinestetics and body movement in devising them.

We’ve been testing Gmail Motion with Googlers over the last few months and have been really excited about the feedback we’ve been hearing. We’ve also done some internal tests to measure productivity improvements and found an average 14% increase in email composition speed and12% reduction in average time in inbox. With Gmail Motion, Googlers were able to get more done and get in and out of their inboxes more quickly.

To use Gmail Motion, you’ll need the latest version of Google Chrome or Firefox 3.5+ and a built-in webcam. If it’s not already enabled on your account, sit tight — we’ll be making it available to everyone over the next day or so.”

You might ask what is different this year? Google and other technology companies play this prank every 1st of April and what relevance has this to the title ‘not so foolish’ ? They had after all fooled the world through their in-depth video that swinging a first backhand in the air would allow you to reply to the message, swinging two-fists would do a reply-all, and licking your hand and tapping the knee would send the email.

What is not so foolish? You mean, can this not be done? Well here is some development. Inspired by the Google blog, hackers at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies wanted to make it a reality! Towards this, a group of developers took Microsoft Kinect sensor and some software they had done for previous projects; and tied them together to create a fully working prototype of Google Motion! This was their response to the Google blog:

“This morning, Google introduced Gmail Motion, allowing users to control Gmail using gestures and body movement. However, for whatever reason, their application doesn’t appear to work. So, we demonstrate our solution — the Software Library Optimizing Obligatory Waving (SLOOW) — and show how it can be used with a Microsoft Kinect sensor to control Gmail using the gestures described by Google.”

While this whole episode was funny (or foolish), what it brings out are the technological advances in sensors and image processing – that what we think is fantasy can become real in no time. So, the bar for being creative has been raised significantly, for it to remain a fantasy for a while, otherwise folks watch out, technology will catch up in no time!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Days of "Altruism"

Last week India was upbeat with Anna Hazare’s social cause. It can be be classically defined as truly altruistic endeavour. But, was it altruism? What is altruism? In a pure sense, it is the selfless concern for welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures. There is no expectation of reward. Is pure altruism possible, though? Social evolution is a discipline that is concerned with social behaviours, i.e. that have fitness consequences for individuals other than the actor, does classify altruism as one of the accepted social behaviours. Social behaviours have been categorized by W D Hamilton in 1960s as follows:

  1. Mutually beneficial - a behavior that increases the direct fitness of both the actor and the recipient
  2. Selfish - a behavior that increases the direct fitness of the actor, but the recipient suffers a loss
  3. Altruistic - a behavior that increases the direct fitness of the recipient, but the actor suffers a loss
  4. Spiteful - a behavior that decreases the direct fitness of both the actor and the recipient

Hamilton proposed the above classification saying that Darwin’s natural selection favoured mutually beneficial or selfish behaviours while kin selection could explain altruism and spite. The closed we come to understanding altruism scientifically is by understanding biological altruism. In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce. This biological notion of altruism is not identical to the everyday concept. In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the biological sense there is no such requirement. Indeed, some of the most interesting examples of biological altruism are found among creatures that are (presumably) not capable of conscious thought at all, e.g. insects. For the biologist, it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness that determine whether the action counts as altruistic, not the intentions, if any, with which the action is performed.

For decades, selflessness - as exhibited in eusocial (true social) insect colonies where workers sacrifice themselves for the greater good – has been explained in terms of genetic relatedness. Called kin selection, it was a neat solution to the conundrum of selflessness. The dominant evolutionary theory and its influence on human altruism are now under attack.

On the face of it, self-serving humans are nothing like paper wasps, which along with their relatives, ants, bees and termites, are defined as eusocial, creatures that display the highest levels of social organization. Famed Harvard biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, who gave eusociality its first clear meaning, refers to such behaviour as “civilization by instinct”.

The evolutionary theories , in particular kin selection, go a long way towards reconciling the existence of altruism in nature with Darwinian principles. However, some people have felt these theories in a way devalue altruism, and that the behaviours they explain are not ‘really’ altruistic. The grounds for this view are easy to see. Ordinarily we think of altruistic actions as disinterested, done with the interests of the recipient, rather than our own interests, in mind. But kin selection theory explains altruistic behaviour as a clever strategy devised by selfish genes as a way of increasing their representation in the gene-pool, at the expense of other genes. Surely this means that the behaviours in question are only ‘apparently’ altruistic, for they are ultimately the result of genic self-interest? Reciprocal altruism theory also seems to ‘take the altruism out of altruism’. Behaving nicely to someone in order to procure return benefits from them in the future seems in a way the antithesis of ‘real’ altruism — it is just delayed self-interest.

To some extent, the idea that kin-directed altruism is not ‘real’ altruism has been fostered by the use of the ‘selfish gene’ terminology of Dawkins (1976). As we have seen, the gene's-eye perspective is heuristically useful for understanding the evolution of altruistic behaviours, especially those that evolve by kin selection. But talking about ‘selfish’ genes trying to increase their representation in the gene-pool is of course just a metaphor (as Dawkins fully admits); there is no literal sense in which genes ‘try’ to do anything. Any evolutionary explanation of how a phenotypic trait evolves must ultimately show that the trait leads to an increase in frequency of the genes that code for it (presuming the trait is transmitted genetically.) Therefore, a ‘selfish gene’ story can by definition be told about any trait, including a behavioural trait, that evolves by Darwinian natural selection. To say that kin selection interprets altruistic behaviour as a strategy designed by ‘selfish’ genes to aid their propagation is not wrong; but it is just another way of saying that a Darwinian explanation for the evolution of altruism has been found. As Sober and Wilson (1998) note, if one insists on saying that behaviours which evolve by kin selection / donor-recipient correlation are ‘really selfish’, one ends up reserving the word ‘altruistic’ for behaviours which cannot evolve by natural selection at all.

For the past four decades kin selection theory has been the major theoretical attempt to explain the evolution of eusociality,” writes Wilson and Harvard theoretical biologists Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita in an Aug. 25 Nature 2010 paper. “Here we show the limitations of its approach.”

According to the standard metric of reproductive fitness, insects that altruistically contribute to their community’s welfare but don’t themselves reproduce score a zero. They shouldn’t exist, except as aberrations — but they’re common, and their colonies are fabulously successful. Just 2 percent of insects are eusocial, but they account for two-thirds of all insect biomass.

Kin selection made sense of this by targeting evolution at shared genes, and portraying individuals and groups as mere vessels for those genes. Before long, kin selection was a cornerstone of evolutionary biology. It was invoked to help explain social and cooperative behavior across the animal kingdom, even in humans.

But according to Wilson, Nowak and Tarnita, the great limitation of kin selection is that it simply doesn’t fit the data. Wilson et al claim that looking at a worker ant and asking why it is altruistic is the wrong level of analysis. The important unit is the colony.

Their new theory of eusocialty may be useful in understanding, for example, how single-celled organisms gave rise to multi-celled organisms. Human selflessness and cooperation, involves interation of culture and sentience, not just genes and genetics. As claimed in the paper, ‘there are certain things we can learn from ants. Its easier to think about ants, but people are complicated’.

I am not proposing any scientific evidence for human altruism, indeed if it exists. Most definitely not for the last week’s event that drew me to read more about it. Was it pure altruism, or apparent altruism? Or kin selection? Or plain selfishness?