This week in New Scientist

November 9th, 2005

Most of the content on is available only to subscribers, so I’m quoting heavily here. I’ve still linked to the stories though, just in case you happen to have a login.

  • Excellent anti-ID argument on the letters page:

    "The use of retrospective probability analysis by ID adherents as proof of God is fatuous. Try telling a lottery winner that they haven’t won because the probability of doing so is too small to be credible. Their loot won’t suddenly vanish in a puff of improbability. We’re here, no matter how improbable that may appear when looking in the reversing mirror. If life hadn’t won the lottery, we wouldn’t be around to calculate how unlikely we are. Life did win, and we’re part of the loot."

    “A puff of improbability” is pure Douglas Adams.

  • Capuchin monkeys show an innate understanding of economic principles, and exhibit the same loss aversion as humans. Anything featuring monkeys has to be good. Anything that reminds me that we’re all just a bunch of upright, hairless homonids whilst I’m sitting on the train, is priceless.

    "In one experiment, Chen and colleagues had the monkeys choose between two apparently different but actually identical gambles. In the first, for the price of one disc, the monkeys got one grape and also a 50-50 chance of getting a second grape, with the outcome determined by a coin flip. Alternatively, the monkeys could choose to start with two grapes but then risk losing one on the flip of the coin. Again, this led to a 50-50 chance of getting either one or two grapes. … As the chances of ending up with two grapes or one are the same in both bargains, a "rational" individual would be indifferent about which to take. The real monkeys chose the experimenter offering one grape plus the chance of another about 75 per cent of the time. "We were surprised," says Chen. "Psychologists we talked to thought the monkeys would simply trade with whomever initially showed the most food.

    There seems to be a parallel in human behaviour. Although the gambles were strictly equivalent, the second involved a potential loss and the first a potential gain, leading Chen to conclude that his capuchins are showing the very same "loss aversion" that researchers have found in humans. Although economic rationality suggests that we should give equal weight to small gains or losses, countless experiments indicate that the pain associated with a loss tends to outweigh the pleasure of an equivalent gain."

  • This week’s lead story: experimental robot with next-gen neural network points the way forward for AI:

    “Robots like Darwin might one day be seen as the ancestors of something much bigger. Some researchers, and even the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, are gambling that robots like Darwin will be the forebears of an entirely new approach to artificial intelligence (AI): building intelligent machines by copying the structures of living brains.”

    Which immediately makes me think of Skynet. Here’s the real gold in the story:

    "Before my eyes [the robot] is already adapting, discovering that the striped blocks are yummy and the spotted ones taste bad. Its exploration is driven by instincts: an interest in bright objects, a predilection for tasting things, and an innate notion of what tastes good. This, after all, is how babies explore the world and discover that pink, perky objects exist, and that they produce milk."

    I knew it! We’re not hairless homonids after all, just watery robots, searching for pink, perky objects. Somehow I’ve always known that was a part of my programming.

  • NS now podcasting.

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