Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Perception, reality and engineering!

This is a short article on the concept of reality and our ability to perceive it. 
This was inspired by a Digital Image Processing Engineering class I took and my experiences teaching a course on Academic Argumentation to freshmen college students where we explored issues such as the the effect of language and culture on each other and on society.

If the world that we perceive is limited by our senses and our perception of that sensing, is there a way we can use this understanding of our limitation to, maybe, sense things beyond what our physically limited sensing capabilities may allow?

   This would require more imagination on our part, in terms of having to go beyond trying to "explain" what we perceive and the oddities in them, and actually probing further into the darkness that surrounds the circle of light which is our present understanding of the world. We would have to use our imagination and the understanding of our limitations, as a flashlight to  explore and discover new things about the world, to rethink certain aspects our present knowledge to account for possibilities we may  have missed, and to design perception systems which will enable us, in the future, to overcome the limitations of human perception.

For instance, take the optical illusion of the hidden triangle, where our mind unconsciously connects the dots or joins the edges to create an illusion of a triangle which does not really exist. Where else, are we joining the dots to make up lines which seem so real to us that it seems preposterous to think that they may not exist? Or would an epistemologically objective ( from philosopher John Searle's definition of the term ) statement qualify as reality, despite the fact that we are aware that our senses are limited. To put it in simpler terms, would the fact that ten blind men think that a thunderstorm is nothing but a lot of rain and thunder, mean that lightening does not exist?  

It would be easy to argue that, being home sapiens, since we have physical limitations on our sensing abilities, it is futile , therefore to try and use them to understand our world completely. But can we rise above that temptation and argue that knowledge of those limitations can themselves humble us into more careful interpretation of the data we get from our sensing systems? Can the knowledge that we are subconsciously connecting dots, make us consciously think twice about where we may be doing that? Going back to the illusion of the hidden triangle, we were indeed able to disregard our earlier perception of a triangle after consciously being aware of the illusion and the limitation that caused it. So what if we can teach ourselves not to do that in other cases where we may still not be aware that we are doing it subconsciously? Would that result in a "reality" that is radically different from the one we know and perceive today? There is no reason it might not. 

When we talk about limitations of human perception, we often think about physical limitations of the brain and the sensory systems. Equally important, and often disregarded, is the effect that intangible things like our culture and language can have on human perception. Research has shown that even something basic like the language we grow up with, can greatly affect the way we see colors. This short clip from a  documentary talks about this fascinating research finding . So in the spirit of scientific discovery, could we possible aim to sense objective reality or design systems which can do that for us, obscured not just by physical filters but also, cultural and linguistic ones? 

Advances in fields like ophthalmology, neuroscience, cognitive science and computer vision have brought us into an exciting era of scientific discovery where we are taking rapid steps in our understanding of how we sense, process and interpret visual data. Building on this understanding, we have started designing machine vision systems, which try to recreate the "signal to symbol" transformation which we do effortlessly, every waking second. Although present day systems may not be any match to the amazing powers of human perception, it is not hard to imagine a future where they can surpass human perception and shed light on things which were right there in front of us, but which we had no idea were present, simply because of those tangible and intangible filters which were blocking our perception. And it is this view of the future that makes this area of research so exciting to not just the engineer, but also to the philosopher, the scientist and every critical thinker.