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Posts published in “Research”

Posts and pages about my scientific research and the scientific topics I’m interested in.

[twenty twenty-four day nineteen]: our precious emotions

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It's hard to believe nowadays, but the study of psychology for much of the twentieth century was literally delusional. The first half was dominated by behaviorism, a bad-faith philosophy of psychology - let's not stoop to calling it science - which denied the existence of internal mental states. Since virtually everyone has inner mental life, and it's trivial to design an experiment which relies on internal mental reasoning to produce outcomes, it's almost inconceivable that behaviorism lasted as long as it did; but, it nevertheless contributed a great understanding of stimulus-response relationships to our scientific knowledge. That didn't mean it wasn't wrong, and by the late twentieth century, it had been definitively refuted by cognitive architecture studies which modeled internal mental behavior in enough detail to predict what brain structures were involved with different reasoning phenomena - structures later detected in brain scans.

Cognitive science had its own limits: while researchers such as myself grew up with a very broad definition of cognition as "the processes that the brain does when acting intelligently," many earlier researchers understood the "cognitive" in "cognitive psychology" to mean "logical reasoning". Emotion was not a topic which was well understood, or even well studied, or even thought of as a topic of study: as best I can reconstruct it, the reasoning - such as it was - seems to have been that since emotions are inherently subjective - related to a single subject - then the study of emotions would also be subjective. I hope you can see that this is just foolish: there are many things that are inherently subjective, such as what an individual subject remembers, which nonetheless can be objectively studied across many individual subjects, to illuminate solid laws like the laws of recency, primacy, and anchoring.

Now, in the twenty-first century, memory, emotion and consciousness are all active areas of research, and many researchers argue that without emotions we can't reason properly at all, because we become unable to adequately weigh alternatives. But beyond the value contributed by those specific scientific findings is something more important: the general scientific understanding that our inner mental lives are real, that our feelings are important, and that our lives are generally better when we have an affective response to the things that happen to us - in short, that our emotions are what make life worth living.

-the Centaur

[seventy-nine] minus ninety-two: it’s OVER

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After almost a year's worth of work, at last, the Fourth Annual Embodied Artificial Intelligence Workshop is OVER! I will go collapse now. Actually, it was over last night, and I actually did collapse, briefly, on the stairs leading up to my bedroom after the workshop was finally done. But don't worry, I was all right. I was just so relieved that it was good to finally, briefly, collapse. A full report on this tomorrow. Off to bed.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A rainbow that appeared in the sky just as the workshop was ending. Thanks, God!

Announcing the Embodied AI Workshop #4 at CVPR 2023

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Hey folks, I am proud to announce the 4th annual Embodied AI Workshop, held once again at CVPR 2023! EAI is a multidisciplinary workshop bringing computer vision researchers, machine learning researchers and roboticists to study the problem of creating intelligent systems that interact with their worlds.

For a highlight of previous workshops, see our Retrospectives paper. This year, EAI #4 will feature dozens of researchers, over twenty participating institutions, and ten distinct embodied AI challenges. Our three main themes for this year's workshop are:

  • Foundation Models: large, pretrained models that can solve many tasks few-shot or zero-shot
  • Generalist Agents: agents capable of solving a wide variety of problems
  • Sim to Real Transfer: learning in simulation but deploying in reality.

We will have presentations from all the challenges discussing their tasks, progress in the community, and winning approaches. We will also have six speakers on a variety of topics, and at the end of the workshop I'll be moderating a panel discussion among them.

I hope you can join us, in the real or virtually, at EAI #4 at CVPR 2023 in Vancouver!

-the Centaur

[forty-seven] minus twenty-one: i hear there’s a new ai hotness

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SO automatic image generation is a controversial thing I think about a lot. Perhaps I should comment on it sometime. Regardless, I thought I'd show off the challenges that come from using this technology using a simple example. If you recall, I did a recent post with a warped bookstore picture, and attempted to regenerate it using generative AI with Midjourney. Unfortunately, the prompt

a magical three-dimensional impossible bookstore in the style of M.C. Escher


failed to pick up the image for some reason. After a few iterations with the Midjourney Discord interface, I got the very nice, but nonsensical and generic, AI generated image you see up top. After playing around with the API, I realized that I likely had formulated my prompt wrong, and tried again to include this image:

On the second pass, I got another, more on-point, yet still nonsensical image as you see below:

These systems do LOOK impressive. But they work like ... amateurs who've learned to render well. They can produce things that are cool, but it's very hard to make them produce something on point.

And this is above and beyond the massive copyright issues that arise from a system that regurgitates other people's copyrighted art, much less the impact on jobs, much less the impact on the human soul.

-the Centaur

[thirty-nine] minus twenty-one: what a team effort

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Wow. We're done with the paper. And what a team effort! So many people came together on this one - research, infra, operations, human-robot interaction folks, the whole nine yards. It's amazing to me how interdisciplinary robotics is becoming. A few years ago 7 authors on a paper was unusual. But out of the last 5 papers I helped submit, the two shortest papers had 8 authors, and all the others were 15 or more.

And it's not citation inflation. True, this most recent paper had a smaller set of authors actively working on the draft, collating contributions from a larger group running the experiments ... but the previous paper had more than 25 authors, all of whom materially contributed content directly to the draft.

What a wonderful time to be alive.

And to recover from food poisoning.

-the Centaur

Pictured: this afternoon's draft of the paper, just prior to a video conference to hammer out some details.

[twenty-eight] minus twenty: re-ju-ven-ate!

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Oh, look, it's a Dalek acting as a security guard! Nothing can go wrong with this trend. :-/

Though, as a roboticist seeing this gap between terminals, I can't help but wonder whether it just undocked from its charger, whether it is about to dock with its charger, whether it needs help from a human to dock with its charger, or whether it has failed to dock with its charger and is about to run out of power in the dark and the cold where all the wolves are.

-the Centaur

Announcing Logical Robotics

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So, I'm proud to announce my next venture: Logical Robotics, a robot intelligence firm focused on making learning robots work better for people. My research agenda is to combine the latest advances of deep learning with the rich history of classical artificial intelligence, using human-robot interaction research and my years of experience working on products and benchmarking to help robots make a positive impact.

Recent advances in large language model planning, combined with deep learning of robotic skills, have enabled almost magical developments in explainable artificial intelligence, where it is now possible to ask robots to do things in plain language and for the robots to write their own programs to accomplish those goals, building on deep learned skills but reporting results back in plain language. But applying these technologies to real problems will require a deep understanding of both robot performance benchmarks to refine those skills and human psychological studies to evaluate how these systems benefit human users, particularly in the areas of social robotics where robots work in crowds of people.

Logical Robotics will begin accepting new clients in May, after my obligations to my previous employer have come to a close (and I have taken a break after 17 years of work at the Search Engine That Starts With a G). In the meantime, I am available to answer general questions about what we'll be doing; if you're interested, please feel free to drop me a line at via centaur at or take a look at our website.

-the Centaur

do, or do not. there is no blog

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One reason blogging suffers for me is that I always prioritize doing over blogging. That sounds cool and all, but it's actually just another excuse. There's always something more important than doing your laundry ... until you run out of underwear. Blogging has no such hard failure mode, so it's even easier to fall out of the habit. But the reality is, just like laundry, if you set aside a little time for it, you can stay ahead - and you'll feel much healthier and more comfortable if you do.

-the Centaur

Pictured: "Now That's A Steak Burger", a 1-pound monster from Willard Hicks, where I took a break from my million other tasks to catch up on Plans and the Structure of Behavior, the book that introduced idea of the test-operate-test-exit (TOTE) loop as a means for organizing behavior, a device I'm finding useful as I delve into the new field of large language model planning.