Saturday, November 07, 2009

A model of thought: The Associative Indexing of the Memex

The Memex "Memory Extender" is an organizational device, a conceptual device, and a framework for dealing with conceptual relationships in an associative way. Abandoning the Aristotelian tradition of rooting concepts in definitions, the Memex suggests an association-based, non-parametric, and data-driven representation of concepts.

Since the mind=software analogy is so deeply engraved in my thoughts, it is hard for me to see intelligent reasoning as anything but a computer program (albeit one which we might never discover/develop). It is worthwhile to see sketches of the memex from an era before computers. (See Figure below). However, with the modern Internet, a magnificent example of a Bush's ideology, with links denoting the associations between pages, we need no better analogy. Bush's critique of the artificiality of traditional schemes of indexing resonates in the world wide web.

A Mechanical Memex Sketch

By extrapolating Bush's anti-indexing argument to visual object recognition, I realize that the blunder is to assign concepts to rigid categories. The desire to break free from categorization was the chief motivation for my Visual Memex paper. If Bush's ideas were so successful in predicting the modern Internet, we should ask ourselves, "Why are categories so prevalent in computational models of perception?" Maybe it is machine learning, with its own tradition of classes in supervised learning approaches, that has scarred the way we computer scientists see reality.

“The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” -- Vannevar Bush

Is Google's grasp of the world of information anything more than a Memex? I'm not convinced that it is not. While the feat of searching billions of web pages in real time has already been demonstrated by Google (and reinforced every day), the best computer vision approaches as of today resemble nothing like Google's data-driven way of representing concepts. I'm quite interested in pushing this link-based data-driven mentality to the next level in the field of Computer Vision. Breaking free from the categorization assumptions that plague computational perception might the the key ingredient in the recipe for success.

Instead of summarizing, here is another link to a well-written article on the Memex by Finn Brunton. Quoting Brunton, "The deepest implications of the Memex would begin to become apparent here: not the speed of retrieval, or even the association as such, but the fact that the association is arbitrary and can be shared, which begins to suggest that, at some level, the data itself is also arbitrary within the context of the Memex; that it may not be “the shape of thought,” emphasis on the the, but that it is the shape of a new thought, a mediated and mechanized thought, one that is described by queries and above all by links."