Knowledge Technology as the Muse Learns to Compute

Literate cultures use writing as a kind of ‘knowledge technology.’ Unlike older, oral cultures, they are able to store human intelligence outside the human brain. Literate cultures change the kind of knowledge that humanity can experience. In the coming era of machine intelligence, we face a transformation that will similarly transform what humans can know.

Epic Knowledge

I just finished reading Eric A. Havelock’s 1986 book, The Muse Learns to Write. It focuses on the transition that occurred in Greece with the development of the modern alphabet. Havelock makes a compelling case that the Iliad, Odyssey and other epic works offer a rare window into the gradual transition from an oral to a literate culture. These epics retain elements of the memorization and story-telling techniques that oral cultures used to retain shared cultural knowledge in the minds of individuals.

In classical Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the goddess of remembrance and mother of the nine sisters known by the Greeks as the Muses. In our modern, literate culture, the Muse is often pictured as an inspiration to writers, but she was originally performative in nature, a key aspect of oral culture. The Muses used rhythm and story to channel Mother Remembrance and embed knowledge within the human mind.

Remembrance was the original knowledge technology of an oral culture.

Alphabetic Knowledge Technology

Greek epics are stories of action and repetitive verse, remembrance techniques trapped in an amber resin of a new knowledge technology called the Greek alphabet. The Greeks added the consonant to the Phoenician alphabet, thereby greatly enhancing their ability to capture phonetic information. In this sense, unlike hieroglyphics and cuneiform writing, the Greek alphabet actually spoke. By better tapping the fluency of human speech, this new alphabet could harvest the full dynamism of humanity’s spoken knowledge. It was a major advance in knowledge technology.

It makes sense that the Greeks first used their alphabetic technology to capture the same types of knowledge of earlier, oral times. Writers restricted their subjects to the kinds of human characters portrayed in the Iliad. Over time, things began to change, however. Writers moved away from a sole focus on human characters and began focusing on concepts. As they explored topics like honor and justice, these writers began to shift the tense of their writing too. The action-oriented language of story telling shifted to the kind of timeless present tense needed for defining ideas. Out of these changes emerged the timelessness needed for objects and logic, and it is not hard to see the eventual connection to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Algorithmic Knowledge Technology

This transition from oral to literate culture holds lessons for the ways we are beginning to use artificial intelligence to manage our knowledge. Just as the Greek alphabet’s phonetic approach improved the way we converted spoken knowledge into written knowledge, today’s digital technologies represent a new, flexible and universal, medium for extracting human knowledge. By enhancing this new medium with algorithms, we are able to automate our knowledge extraction processes, driving down their cost and growing them to unimaginable scale.

In this sense, we are still very much in the “epics” phase of our transition to algorithmic-based knowledge. When it comes to the new medium of artificial intelligence, we still echo the patterns of our older, oral and writing-based traditions for storing knowledge. Much like Homer and Hesiod, we are so immersed in these patterns that we are unlikely to see the brilliant expansion of human knowledge that this new medium will make possible.

For that, we will need the next Plato.

8 comments

  1. Great writeup, good point! With new knowledge technology comes new knowledge. But will humans understand AI knowledge?

    • Thank you, Walter. That’s a great question. I guess the way I would try to answer that is to say that AI will be able to explain things to us in ways that will be far more customized to our individual cognitive capacity to understand. And yet, the networks of machine understanding themselves, the web of interconnected ideas, would be very difficult for the unmodified human brain to grasp.

  2. Gideon, what a wonderful perspective to the written word. And that book is a discovery for me, looking forward to reading it.
    In a recent whitetepaper about text analytics I was involved in translating into plain English, this was one of my a-ha moments:the transition from oral to written and then to machine-ibterpretable culture. Isn’t that really amazing? First, the transition itself and second, the different paths we took to arrive at similar conclusions.
    Thank you for sharing this. The headline is perfect 🙂

    • I’m so glad that you enjoyed it, Teodora. There is really interesting work happening these days on the language front and I think it’s great that you are increasingly focusing in this area. I look forward to discovering together.

  3. Hi Gideon,

    What an eye-opening piece you have written. I’ve stumbled upon your website last year perhaps even late 2015, but at the time, I didn’t really comprehend what I was reading about. It’s really nutty how perspectives have changed since then.

    Merci, merci, merci!

    Angela

  4. Hi Gideon,
    AI, algorithmic-based knowledge, and for that matter ancient history ‘is all Greek to me’ (pun intended!); but what I do know is that the more we continue to discuss, contemplate, and explore this field in ways that the layperson (like myself) can better understand and identify with, the more likely we will generate a 21st century “Medici Effect.”

    The expanses (and potential) of the mind are the true ‘final frontier’ and you, my fellow Toad, are one of those few “‘philosopher kings” who will help lead us to discover and understand this new world of knowledge and reason.

    Keep up the great work..
    Ken

    PS – Marvin Shagam would be so proud!

    • Hi Ken. Thanks so much for the kind note. I really do appreciate it, and just had a vision of Marvin Shagam standing over my shoulder, urging me on. What a great thought!

      It does feel like we are on the verge of a great, great shift in the way that we link ideas together. I hadn’t heard of the “Medici Effect”, so I looked it up. That really is a perfect way to describe the role I see myself in: someone looking at these issues from the outside. Interestingly, it’s also where I see the technology itself going: innovation that happens when disciplines and ideas intersect. That is what the next wave of AI will be doing: linking concepts so that we humans can more easily extend them with our questions.

      Thanks again for the note. I hope you’re doing well.

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