Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Does Santa exit?

At the end of the year 2001, I found myself in Haneda airport which serves the metropolitan Tokyo. I just came back on an early morning flight from a southbound trip, and was eating curry and rice in a passenger restaurant. There was a family seated next to my table. A girl, about 5 years of age, was chatting with her smaller sister.

"Hey, do you think Santa Claus exists? What do you think?"

Then, the little girl went on to state her opinion.

"Well, I think in this way......"

I could not hear what she went on to say, as a sudden surge of emotion overwhelmed me. I put down my spoon on the plate.

"Does Santa Claus exist?"

It struck me that that was the most important question that a girl, or indeed any adult, could ask of the world.
As it happened, seven years had passed since I came to realize the problem of qualia, the enigma of the relation between the mind and the brain.
The heart-throbbing reality with which Santa Claus emerges for a 5 year old girl has its origin in imagination. Santa Claus has its full reality only in the domain of the imagined. The proof of the existence of Santa does not rest on the physical appearance of a fat man with a white beard dressed in red.
A five year old girl knows fully well that Santa would never emerge as a physical reality in front of her eyes. Santa Claus is never "here" and "now". We never experience Santa in a vivid phenomenality as in the case of an apple on the table. In spite of the lack of physical existence, or rather, because of it, Santa Clause has an acute reality for the 5 year old girl and the rest of us.

(Opening sentences from "Brain and Imagination" (Nou to Kasou), by Kenichiro Mogi (2004), winner of the 4th Hideo Kobayashi prize. Translation from Japanese by the author himself).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Something watery

I never thought of Tokyo as a beautiful city. Even the masterful touch of Ozu films such as "Tokyo Story" can barely turn it into a fantasy land of aesthetic joy. I love the city, though, because my life and work are in it, my friends, my beloved ones, and my past, present, and most probably the future. After all, I went to the university in Tokyo, have a bunch of graduate students working with me in the lab, commute a few times a week to the NHK broadcast center in Shibuya to host the "Professionals" chat show, and dine and dream on a daily basis.

When I came back from Kolkata a few weeks ago, I had a refreshing experience. In a nutshell, Tokyo never looked that beautiful. After the scenery I encountered in the Indian city, everything in Tokyo seemed to be glittering and smoothly plastic, a place ever throbbing with water-surface-wavering sensitivities. As I passed by the ANA hotel Tokyo near Roppongi, bound for a lecture and shoot session in T.V. Asahi, I could almost cry for the sheer joy of sensuality that the Tokyo night vision provides. It was a revelation that stayed with me ever since.

I am not saying that Kolkata was dirty compared to Tokyo. I am only stating that Tokyo has its unique features as regards its appearance, especially in reference to the texture of materials that make up the buildings. There's something watery--reflecting the abundant moisture of weather consisting of distinct four seasons--which became very apparent after the exposure to a contrasting climate in India.

I always thought that Tokyo lost its exquisite charm that it used to possess, captured in the great Ukiyoe woodprints in the Edo era. If there is still charm apart from being the "world-capital-of-otaku" in the capital city, I as a resident have got to find it, in the bustling noise of mobile phones and trains that operate on precision.

A Ukiyoe woodprint from the Edo era depicting Nihonbashi, or the "Bridge of Japan" in Tokyo.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dreaming of, but never actually reaching

My native tongue is Japanese. I started learning English at school when I was 12. I read the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy when I was at senior high. Gradually, I awakened to the universe of English, and have started to write, speak, and think in this language.

English is certainly useful. However, it is not the only medium of soul. When you come to realize that there are several thousand tongues on the globe, you are dazzled by the very fact and realize that you are truly living in the post-Babelian era. Even if you become well versed in several leading languages, you can never hope to come to appreciate the richness, subtlety, and the bliss of living in the respective cosmoses of the speech that cover the earth. A complex set of multiverses is a reality of life, not a purely theoretical construct.

The other day, I was in Atlanta, U.S.A, attending the society for neuroscience annual meeting. As I was leaving the city on a cab, bound for the airport, I was suddenly reminded of the fact that there are all these different climates on the earth. Autumn was deepening in Atlanta, the leaves turning into red and falling to the ground. In other parts of the globe at that very moment, however, monkeys would be hopping from bough to bough in a steamy jungle, icebergs persevering in the northerly wind, the sun scorching the desert, and the ocean slowly waving beneath a mellow spring sunbeam. All these diverse climates co-exist at the same time, embraced by the capacity of this chunk of rock that we call "the earth".

The multiverse of different languages and climates could not have possibly co-existed if the capacity of the earth was smaller. It is impossible to co-host the spectrum of climates in an artificial dome, however large. The earth capacity is a blessing and curse at the same time, the curse being that we cannot hope to see all that goes on in the world as we know it, making it impossible to actually construct a "panopticon" (Jeremy Bentham).

The limits of experiencing all that be is a noteworthy fact in the era of the small world network, where people can easily have the illusion of being able to connect to and experience all that goes on. We mortal souls are encapsulated evermore in the respective specimens of flesh, dreaming of, but never actually reaching, the dazzling totality of the life's experience on earth.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Qualia and Contingency

Lecture Records

"Qualia and Contingency"

Ken Mogi
Sony Computer Science Laboratories & Tokyo Institute of Technology

Talk given at
Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics
Kolkata, India

22nd November 2006

audio file(MP3, 44.9MB, 50 minutes)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

To do everything you can

Google has been one of the great things that happened in our life. That's probably every person's fair assessment. Why it is so, however, merits examination.
It is true that google is using good old fashioned artificial intelligence. It was more or less agreed upon in the 1980s that computer algorithms and programs are not sufficient to reproduce something akin to human intelligence. People argued that perhaps we need "embodiment" to realize human intelligence, turning to robotics research, making robots play soccer. So it was in the air that good old fashioned A.I. was something "passé", not meriting further attention.
Then google came into the picture. It made use of the mundane old technology, but it did not stop at midpoint, it went on and on to do everything it could. As a result, it has grown into one of the most useful tools on the internet today.
It is an important intellectual rite of passage to realize that what computer networks can do at today is a far cry from what the human brain can achieve. It is a fallacy to assume that the internet can evolve to have something similar to human intelligence, let alone consciousness. On the other hand, these difficulties in principle should not stop us from doing everything we can today. There are infinitely many possibilities still to be explored and actualized, even in the mundane old technology of algorithms and programs.
Google taught us the power of the mundane, if it is tried real hard.

The Professional Way

"The Professional Way" (the same URL translated into English by the google engine) is a weekly T.V. program broadcast by NHK, Japan's national television. It is a chat show where various "professionals" are invited from miscellaneous walks of life, revealing the secrets of their success and their continued commitment to better the already best. I have been hosting this show since January 2006.
I sometimes wonder what kind of a person I am. I am doing brain science at a corporate lab (Sony Computer Science Laboratories), have a lab in a University (Tokyo Institute of Technology), have written many books, write essays in magazines, have won a literary prize, and am hosting a chat show on T.V.
The other day I had the realization that I am perhaps a "hopeful monster", an anomaly seen from the regular stream, with many strange features, perhaps on the fringe right now, but hoping to be recognized as a genre of its own some day.

Friday, June 30, 2006

My blog in Japanese

I keep my blog in Japanese more frequently than this one. The Japanese blog is fairly popular, with > 5000 visitors every day. Here's your chance to see what's going on in my life in more details. The translated version of my "Qualia Nikki" (qualia diary) "Qualia Nikki" (qualia diary).

The results of translation is very clumsy and reads like a mad man's scribbing (maybe it really is!).

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Friday, April 28, 2006

To hear language as music

It has been sometime since my last entry into this journal. Lazy boy!
(As a matter of fact, I am keeping my blog in Japanese with punctuality, having chunked out tons of texts. For those with a spirit for venturing into the unknown, here's the URL. http://kenmogi.cocolog-nifty.com/qualia/ . )
A few weeks ago I met with the famed free jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita. The conversation gave me several insights, the most significant of which being concerned with how you may go about in your life with foreign languages.
I am not a native in English, so I find myself sometimes clumsy and uncertain in the universe of the great Shakespearean language. However, affairs are much worse when it comes to Russian, Chinese, Swahili, and God knows what languages scattered all over the globe. I heard that according to some estimates several thousand languages are known on the earth. How can I ever hope to understand them all?
We are all surrounded by a rich forest of linguistic glories and intricacies we miss, or even don't imagine that they exist. As a native in the Japanese language I am very aware that some of the nuances that can be expressed in this speech is inaccessible for the English speaker. And vice versa. Imagine what subtle nuances all the different languages in the world nurture in their inner cosmos! I just have to sigh facing the infinite difficulties involved here, as a free and open-minded individual eager to make cross-cultural communication happen.
It is easy to say that all the languages on earth are created equal, but in practice it is an English monopoly game with speakers of other languages feeling dizzy and deprived of the basic right to express themselves and distribute ideas in the global village.
What can we do? Nothing in the practical sense. But at least Yosuke Yamashita gave me such a deep inspiration. He said that he sometimes listens to foreign languages as music. He doesn't understand Swahili, but he listens to it and enjoys the rich mannerisms of rhythm and intonation that are foreign to him, but yet so awe-inspiring and rewarding. Listen to an unknown speech as music--maybe we can all do that. We can enjoy the several thousands of various linguistic music rampant in the world, and even if the understanding of their literal meaning does not bless us, we may absorb an important take-home message instead. That we are such a musical species of great diversity, addicted to communication as well as the aesthetic enjoyment of listening into the vocal expressiveness of the human species.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Back in London (in my dream).

I was not well. I had a cold, and yet kept drinking with my friends until the small hours. The folly had a destructive effect the next day. I lay in the sofa, sighing. At nightfall I went to bed and had a serious sleep. Then the dream took hold of me.
I was in London. I found myself in front of a railway station. I sensed that it was in the suburbs, somewhere in the northeast. The time of the day was ambiguous. It could be late afternoon, or early morning. In any case, the sunbeam was shifting, and I needed to get to central London. I wondered if I could walk the distance. After some thought, I judged it better to take the train to King's Cross.
As I entered the station, somebody called my name. I looked back to find an old acquaintance. I was trying to converse with him, but the train was about to leave. I started to run. He seemed to follow me, and got on the same train.
The train was crowded. I stood next to the window, and looked out. There was a park passing by, and then my view was flying out into the sky. I could examine the London area from the vantage point of high above. I would look for the greens, and fly through the air to be immersed in the forage.
When I came back from the reverie, I realized that my friend was gone. I did not know where I was. Then I realized that I passed the King's Cross station already. It was too late to repent. I could sense that there was music. "Calling you" by Natalie Cole. I awoke, and realized that it was coming from the T.V. , which was left on as I went to sleep. I realized that I was still in Tokyo, in my room. I had to get up to do some work.
After a few minutes, I was in a practical mode, drinking my coffee, nibbling chocolate. Soon I would be working like a diligent robot, forgetful of distractions.
And yet the London dream had a strange effect on my spirit. I taste the aftermath still. After all, dreaming is another form of experience.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Abstracts for SFN 2005

Abstracts presented by our research group at the
Society for Neuroscience annual meeting 2005
(Washington D.C., U.S.A.)

Reactivation and consolidation in long-term memory
Fumiko Tanabe and Ken Mogi.

Role of meta-cognition in decision making under uncertain conditions
Fumihiko Taya and Ken Mogi

Robust perception of phonemes in complex stimulus conditions.
Kei Omata and Ken Mogi

Spontaneous ongoing dynamics and plasticity in neural networks.
Toru Yanagawa and Ken Mogi

Perception of objects in the pantomime effect and real pantomimes
Q. Zhang and K. Mogi

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

ICONIP papers

Papers presented at ICONIP 2005
(Taipei, Oct 30 to Nov 2 2005)

Omata, K. and Mogi, K.
Robust phoneme perception in complex stimulus conditions.
Proceedings of ICONIP 2005
pdf file

Sekine, T. and Mogi, K.
Effect of hand posture on tactile perception in crossed fingers.
Proceedings of ICONIP 2005
pdf file

Zhang, Q. and Mogi, K.
Proceedings of ICONIP 2005
pdf file

Sunday, October 30, 2005

My life as a Neanderthal.

The other day I went to a studio in central Tokyo and had my photos taken. Mr. Yamada of Bungeishunju publishing was with me. These photos were for the cover of my new book on literature ("The Descent of Qualia", to be published in December from Bungeishunju). The photographer used HUGE polaroid sheets. When the pictures came out, he stuck them on the studio wall. My life as a Neanderthal came into full view gradually.
I never thought of myself as a savage person, but these photos did depict me as a primitive man. Maybe there is something primordial within me.
On 20th October 2005, I turned 43. You could say that at may age it is good to be primitive and savage. For a start, I made a vow to go for jogging at least once a week. Let's see if I can manage that. It is difficult to live up to the reputation of a Neanderthal. All the more so in the hectic Tokyo, although where I live, there are some nice forests still left. What a relief for the Neanderthal.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

For the love of pampas grass

Autumn is probably the best season of the year for me. I particularly love the sight of the Japanese pampas grass swaying to and flo in the sunshine. The pity is I seldom have the time to take a good look at them for a long time. I am sure I can spend hours admiring the scene. Most often it so happens that I pass a spread of pampas grass in the car, on the train, and take just a brief glimpse of it, leaving my longing behind. Maybe they would be tossing the leftover particles of my soul in the blowing wind.
The pampas grass season is a long one. From late September until well into December, whenever you travel, you are sure to capture a sight of these beautiful plants. Japan in autumn becomes a pampas grass land, at least in my fond imagination.
One of these days I would walk though a pampas grass field and take in the autumn air deep into my lung, and thank for the occasional bliss that this frequently prosaic earth brings to us.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Transparent runner on the second base!

Many people have said various things about video games. Although there are many pros and cons, one thing is strangely missing from the current video games. A huge deficit of functionality, seeded in the game and then required for the human to conform, is apparent if you once notice it. Let's call that functionality "meta-cognition for rule-making" What does the meta-cognition signify here? Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I used to play the baseball a lot. The reality of suburban Japan at that time was that you wouldn't play in a proper baseball field. You had to make do with what vacant space there happened to be, either in the small playgrounds or chunks of land being vacant temporarily before the construction began. You sometimes chose to play with "triangular base", instead of the regular "diamond". You discussed with your friends whether there should be a catcher. The "strike" and "ball" counts were also optional. Stealing the base was seldom allowed. All these things had to be negotiated before the actual game started. You also had to decide what handicaps needed to be allowed for the weak and unskilled. All these negotiations were aimed, with the benefit of hindsight, at making the game the most enjoyable possible. You didn't simply play the game, you had to make all these rules. That's what I call meta-cognition. Standing out of the gaming itself, and observing it with the eye of an outsider.
There were even times when you had to resort to exotic rules. Like when there were only insufficient number of players, and you had to declare that a "transparent runner" was on the base. That happened when a player on the base had to be the next batter. He would then shout "transparent runner on the second base", and run to the batter's box.
All these meta-cognitive functions are lacking in today's video games. You don't make the rules, the computers make the rules. You simply try to maximize your performance under the dictatorship of the computer. Thus a whole area of human capabilities is forced to be dormant.
When you observe small kids playing, you would often notice that they are making their own rules. Like granting handicaps for the small and weak. The meta-cognition comes so naturally to children. It is a grand challenge for makers of video games to install that functionality. It is certainly a tall order.

A triangular base game. Everything so free and chaotic. You have to make your own rules.

Friday, August 12, 2005

"To Sir Georg Solti"

It was always a treat to go to the opera at the Covent Garden during the two years I stayed in the U.K. At one time, my best philosopher friend, Ken Shiotani, came to visit me with his wife. We went down from Cambridge to London on the train. We went to see the opera at the Covent Garden. I do not quite recall what we saw. In any case, the most memorable moment visited us outside the theatre, not inside it. Beside the theatre, there was a black, luxury car. As we passed by, we happened to glance inside. On the seat next to the driver, there was an envelope. "To Sir Georg Solti", the letters on the surface could be read.
At that time, the great conductor was still with us, and he was apparently doing something in the house, although he was not conducting on that evening. The envelope brought a sense of intimacy with the man, and although it was of course an illusion, that was a wonderful one even so. I and my philosopher friend later discussed that it was the highlight of the whole evening.

Sir Georg Solti 1912-1917.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

In the middle of rice fields.

I went to the municipality of Inashiki to give a public lecture on brain and mind. In Japan, railways are big. Although Inashiki is in the Kanto plane (in which Tokyo is situated), it is at least one-hour drive from any of the railway stations around. That means, in the railway-oriented Japanese psyche, Inashiki is very very far away. Perhaps these areas are one of the best-kept secrets for an incidental traveler. I enjoyed being driven by the organizers through the endless rice fields.
The great extension of plain land in summer means that there is a risk of thunder and lightening. We had a jolly loud one during my lecture. The air conditioning of the auditorium was malfunctioning, due to a heavy thunderstorm a few days earlier, I learned. The audiences were mainly teachers of elementary and junior high schools. The questions and discussions were enjoyable, with many insights gained from a direct interaction with the modern children, despite the heat.
It is always heartening to share thoughts with school teachers. You are reminded of your own past, when you were a small kid, being given many things by the well-meaning teachers, and then disappearing from their sight without saying enough words of thanks. Many essential interactions in this world are unidirectional. Teacher-pupil relations are representative of that truth in life.

A road in the middle of rice fields--a typical rural landscape in Japan.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Japan's postal reform is halted.

National politics is only the nation's residents' concern, so it may not be interesting for people outside Japan but yesterday was a historic day in Japanese politics. The postal reform bill proposed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was vetoed in the upper house. Koizumi dissolved the lower house, calling for a general election. He took the unprecedented measure to exclude the members of his party who voted "No" from the list of official candidates of the Liberal Democratic party.
The way the lower house is dissolved is rather dramatic and exciting. The Emperor in postwar Japan only serves a symbolic role in politics. The prime minister can, legally speaking, dissolve the lower house at any time. He asks the Emperor to sign the official order to dissolve. The order is carried to the house in a purple cloth, and the chairman reads the order. It is customary that the M.P.s cheer the dissolvement by repeating "Banzai", partly as a wish to come back to the house after the general election.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolves the lower house.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A world open only to the blind.

I had a public discussion with Yohei Nishimura, who is known for his arts education program for the blind. In addition, Nishimura is a famous ceramic sculptor in his own right. The discussion was a part of the Summer School for tactile art.
I began my discussion by stating how from the point of view of the brain's mechanism lacking the functionality of vision is not a simple case of deprivation. When you take one functionality from the brain, something else fills that space. It is not like "normal" people are on a 100 and blind people are, say, on 10 less. The "normal" and the blind are both on 100, with different compositions of functionalities.
There are worlds open to you only when you become blind. I remember the time when I visited the famous Kaidan-Meguri in Zenko-ji temple. In this ancient temple, you are led into an underground vault, which is totally dark. You cannot see anything, and you try to touch the "key to the paradise" hidden somewhere in the passage. The condition is supposed to symbolize the helpless condition of men before the almighty in this world.
When I was there, I was struck by the surprisingly rich wave of sensations and feelings that arise from walking in the dark, searching and touching with the hand in a hesitating and careful manner. For example, your forehead feels like it is burning, presumably expecting something to hit that part, should some obstacle be in your way. Although the search for the key to the paradise was not easy, I enjoyed the whole process.
When I came out of the pitch-dark vault, I was refreshed by the summer sunshine and wind. I reflected on what I had just experienced, in a totally sightless condition. I pondered on the contrast between inside and outside the vault. Then I suddenly realized that for a blind person there wouldn't have been a single difference. For them, the world would have been a continuous and homogenous condition of sightlessness, and they would not have noticed the transition. I realized what blessings I had as a sighted person, and at the same time appreciated the existence of a whole world that I missed.

Tourist guide to the Zenko-ji temple and other attractions in the vicinity

Zenko-ji temple at night.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

True Days of Infamy

Close scrutiny into history is revealing that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 and then on Nagasaki three days later, cannot be justified even on the premises of drawing the war towards the end. It was, simply put, a war crime, and the Americans should have the guts to admit that. These were the truly "days of infamy" for Americans. In today's highly unstable world politics climate, nuclear weapons are becoming much more vulnerable and lethal at the same time. We must come to the sane conclusion that any use of it, no matter how beautifully or bravely put, cannot be justified in any sense. Let's be brave enough to stop justifying a senseless use of brutality.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima just after the bomb. Today A World Heritage Site.