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Puns and Judy
Tom Sgouros finds the funny in cognitive science

Multi-talented Renaissance Men should have been obliged to have a sense of humor. Then we could have gotten some knee-slapping commedia dellíarte out of da Vinci as well as The Last Supper and a one-man helicopter.

If only heíd lived in the age of Tom Sgouros ó the son, not the Providence artist ó he too might be performing his seventh smart and quirky one-man performance piece at Perishable Theatre November 7 through 27. Judy, or What Is It Like To Be A Robot? gets into cognitive science in ways that make you laugh and think ó and in that order.

" It's a performance, not a polemic, " Sgouros says.

Although no less than Douglas Hofstadter, author of the pop-sci best seller Gödel, Escher, Bach, has described the show as both " humorous entertainment for a general audience " and " a profoundly stimulating colloquium for a technical audience. "

But more about that later. (A review of the 2000 premiere is available online by searching at www.providencephoenix.com . Find more on Sgouros at www.sgouros.com)

What makes the performance what it is are those eclectic, Renaissance interests, which might indicate attention deficit syndrome from a guy who isnít as good at them. Sgouros, 42, is a responsible, lawn-mowing Wickford homeowner and devoted father of two, just like a grownup. But his inclination to range widely was firmly established by his college days, of which there were many ó after studying physics at Swarthmore College, he went on to get a second BA, in film and video, at Rhode Island School of Design in 1988.

Sgouros has freelanced his video and filmmaking skills, at Trinity Rep and Perishable and for many other productions, and produced short documentaries on subjects ranging from solid waste recycling to CIA nefariousness. He has worked doing public policy research for political candidates and lobbying groups ó as well as for his online newsletter, Rhode Island Policy Reporter (whatcheer.net/ripr). Two years ago Sgouros received an Independent Scholars grant from the Rhode Island Committee on the Humanities for research on a book on into the misuse of scientific metaphor. Oh yeah ó in downtime, Sgouros gets jobs as a computer programmer ó machine code, LISP, Perl, whatever.

His performance career began in 1985, as a silent clown. In 1992, in addition to being producer and writer for Pan-Twilight Circus, in Providence, he joined its ranks as a tightrope walker. He has studied performance with new vaudevillian Avner Eisenberg, mime Tony Montanaro, and solo theater actor Fred Curchack.

The first of Sgourosís seven one-man shows, all developed at Perishable, was in 1990. Titled Plastic Alligators, it was designed as a historical/ hysterical circus sideshow slide-show. To fill out an evening, he paired it with Fish, which he described as " a meditation on swamps, malls, seafood, and hubris. " Subsequent subject matter and subtext have included lying and the fragility of memory. He described Millennium as " a love story about delusions through the ages. " Heís currently working on a performance piece that deals with misunderstanding as communication.

Detecting a thread there? Sgouros has been fascinated with the fallibility of human consciousness for some time.

In Judy, he converses with whatís ostensibly an intelligent robot, and his invisible magic in cuing her mini-CD recording will have you half-convinced that Judy is responding for real. However, in the three years since Judy made her first appearance, what has fascinated Sgouros even more than the subject of artificial intelligence are the foibles of human intelligence.

For he has been to three dozen colleges over the past three years, in six or seven tours ó from California to the Carolinas, and this year to Ontario. His sponsors typically have been departments of cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology. He has provided post-performance give-and-take with those specialists as well as with biologists and actual robot makers.

Although Judy presents sophisticated AI as a fait accompli, Sgouros came to the exploration ó and to those academic departments ó skeptical about the prospect.

" I do think that a lot of cognitive science, as itís done, is kind of on a misguided path, " he says. " There are all these people that are in love with abstraction and how the mind is supposed to be abstracted: a pattern that could be replicated in neurons or replicated in silicon. Those are people that are extrapolating from a set of experiences with computers, and they leapt ahead, making this analogy to brains ó and thereís no justification at all for that kind of a leap.

" So what drove me to be reading in psychology and philosophy of the mind was a deep-seated disagreement with that kind of point of view, " Sgouros explains. " You canít just disagree with that, you have to be able to defend yourself. "

He sat outside at a coffeehouse, finishing a sandwich. Sgouros has a boyish appearance and gentle manner that make you wonder whether he was perceived as a pushover in those Q&A discussions, before he responded. Those hard-boiled academics have intellectual turf to protect and sport the psychological knife scars to prove it.

Sgouros notes that academic specialization can foster intellectual tunnel vision.

" I meet lots of neuroscience people who donít know about control theory as a model for what nerves do, " he says. " And I meet psychologists who donít have enough math to understand that some of the things theyíre looking into are pretty straightforwardly modeled phenomena. "

As far as the vested-interest optimism of many academics about Judy or Kubrickís HAL being invented/born some day, Sgouros thinks that outcome is unlikely for fundamental reasons.

" The reason that you and I can communicate is because we share so much. We share English. We share the 20th century, " he begins. " We also share knowledge of what itís like to be hungry. What itís like to be embarrassed, angry or left out. They are all these human feelings that I can count on you having, and I rely on them.

" Imagine a machine, " he continues. " Thereís so little that I share with it, that to try to find a basis for communication I think would be almost impossible. So what I think instead: we may get a creative and interesting machine that can think things on its own, but we wonít have any idea what itís saying. What itís trying to say will be as mysterious to us ó it will be harder to figure out what itís trying to say than itís going to be to make it in the first place. "

So, will he make a flat-out prediction that silicon intelligence equivalent to our own is not possible?

" I figure that itís bad policy to bet against engineers, " Sgouros replies. " You donít ever want to be on record as saying such and such cannot be done, that this is a bad idea. So Iíd be willing to believe that they could create something that was intelligent and creative. The real question is: How would you know when theyíve done it?

" Whatíll be happening: Youíve got a computer thatís endowed with some creativity and it wakes up some morning ó maybe it wakes up while youíre typing along and it does something thatís new and different and exciting, and you look at it and you say: ĎOh, shoot. I thought I fixed that.í "

Sgouros smiles mischievously. " And then you go fix it and set back computer science 50 years, you know? "

Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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