Deep Thoughts by Marvin Minsky

Minsky has been a driver of research in Artificial Intelligence since the fifties. In an interview for the Jan 2007 issue of Discover magazine, this exchange really struck me as interesting:

Q: Usually AI refers to an exploration of the utilitarian uses of the brain, like understanding speech or solving problems. Yet so much of what humans do isn't clearly utilitarian, like watching TV, fantasizing, or joking. Why is all this behavior necessary?

Minsky: Watching sports is my favorite. Pleasure, like pain, is though of as being a sort of simple, absolute, innate, basic thing, but as far as I can see, pleasure is a piece of machinery for turning off various parts of the brain. It's like sleep. I suspect that pleasure is mainly used to turn off parts of the brain so you can keep fresh the memories of things you're trying to learn. It protects the short-term memory buffers. That's one theory of pleasure. However, it has a bug, which is, if you gain control of it, you'll keep doing it: If you can control your pleasure center, then you can turn off your brain. That's a very serious bug, and it causes addiction. That's what I think the football fans are doing - and the pop music fans and television watchers and so forth. They're supressing their regular goals and doing something else. It can be a very serious bug, as we're starting to see in the young people who play computer games until they get fat.

I think that there is some truth to that. I know that when I am really wrestling with learning new math, I feel very compelled to take frequent breaks to do things I really enjoy (like read Discover magazine and post to my blog.) And oddly, even though I spend more time in leisure than I do in study, it tends to be more productive than trying to sit still and just chug through study without breaks for long durations.

Important note #1: anything that brings with it pleasure has the potential of taking over the whole of your brain if it is endulged more than necessary to temporarily restore the mind.

Important note #2: the purpose of the brain is to learn.

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