ghost in the machine

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ghost in the machine

Post by Shelley » Wed Mar 22, 2006 7:05 pm

Exactly what is meant by computer scientists and techno-wizards when they are referring to the “ghost in the machine”?
Until recently, I’d known it only as the title of an album from The Police. However, lately I hear "ghost in the machine" used in the context of computers and the tendency to make errors for unexplained reasons after considerable use. It’s unclear to me whether the errors are committed by the machine, or by the human using the machine. Is the “ghost” an unexplained bug in the machine, or is it the human? There's an article in Business Week Online titled, The Ghost in Your Machine, about a plan to introduce "consciousness" into the machines to monitor user fatigue, and help us correct our mistakes when we don't catch them ourselves (scary thought, actually).
I looked it up on the internet, and read (on Wikipedia) that "ghost in the machine" was coined in 1949 by a British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, to counter Descartes' theories about dualism ("ghost" being mind, I guess, and "machine" being body). I also saw the phrase used by physicians and others to talk about the “mind/body” connection in healing.
Is this phrase moving away from philosophy/religion and into the realm of science and/or artificial intelligence? Or is it just a literate, poetical name given to that which otherwise would be called something spelled with mathematical symbols?
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ghost in the machine

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Mar 22, 2006 7:29 pm

.. Pandora stepped back from the table wondering at the beautiful ghost that was rising from within the small box she had just opened ............................

WoZ of Aus 23/03/06
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ghost in the machine

Post by Shelley » Wed Mar 22, 2006 7:32 pm

I was afraid of that . . . !
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ghost in the machine

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Thu Mar 23, 2006 11:05 am

It's a good job Wiz didn't mention the spirit duplicator then, Shelley.
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ghost in the machine

Post by hsargent » Thu Mar 23, 2006 3:14 pm

Having worked several years with computers (in the trenches in the early 70's in assembly language), we always used the term "bugs in the program" which of course meant mistakes.

"Ghost in the machine" is not a term I have heard but my first impression would be that things are happening that can not be explained or are unexpected. I have experienced this many times usually in the middle of the night!
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ghost in the machine

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Mar 23, 2006 4:46 pm

Is that the same as "a little touch of Harry in the night"?
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ghost in the machine

Post by Shelley » Thu Mar 23, 2006 5:01 pm

That, or Harry's a little touched in the night.
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ghost in the machine

Post by Ed Prue » Thu Mar 23, 2006 5:47 pm

You caught my eye, I am going to risk getting shot down in flames because this is a memory of an english lesson too many years ago, talkng about ancient greece and the tragedies and comedies. Many of them had a stylised plot device where a narrator who was usually one of the gods or an agent of them.... came onstage, and resolved some confusion in the narrative or gave an aside so the audience were primed for the next scene . the Romans translated many of the Greek plays and this convention was known as the "deus ex machina" which has been poorly rendered as the ghost in the machine, and used ironically as a backward reference whereas I was taught it meant the god (or supernatural being) outside real events taking place as a literal translation from the latin.
And that the greek original wasn`t "god" but something more vague like an ethereal, that latin didnt have snappy concept for, so ghost is finally a better rendition (?)

if my memory serves correctly Woody Allen explains it very well in one of his films, "all you wanted to know about sex......." (? I may be wrong it was one of his earlier films)) where he is complaining about being a mere narrative device and not an actual god or anything useful or powerful.

if you search for deus ex machina and ayschlus or euripides, (dont trust my spelling I`m dyslexic) or greek tragedy I`m sure you will find the above is not complete underwear :-) fingers crossed and relying on 30+ yr old memory.

the ghost in the machine is now the tendency for any piece of technolgy to not do what you want it to, when you want it to especially if it has the dysfunctional hand of Gates and his kiddy coders anywhere near it <vbg>
bests
Ed.
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ghost in the machine

Post by Shelley » Thu Mar 23, 2006 6:34 pm

Thanks, all. I can add the following: was told that the ghost in the machine is what you get when people (programmers?) who are "writing code" make the occasional mistake. The result is that the computer does weird things that cannot be explained or are unexpected. So, it seems your bugs, hsargent, have become ghosts. The person also informed me that the movie, "I, Robot", explains it perfectly. Hollywood seems to be in love with this phrase, but it might have twisted the meaning a little.
Ed Prue, I know the term deus ex machina, and it never occurred to me to connect the two. It's odd that Gilbert Ryle is given credit in 1949 (at least on Wikipedia) for coining something that existed for centuries as a bad translation for a really well-known concept. I'm going to keep looking at this for a while: especially the deus ex machina/ghost in the machine connection, although it doesn't strike me that they are really the same thing. "Curiouser and curiouser . . . "
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ghost in the machine

Post by Ed Prue » Thu Mar 23, 2006 7:45 pm

yes i know its a bit trite, thats why i said where it came from, I am pretty sure that it actually dates as mind in body in a philosophical/psychiatric context from late 19th century and the chap who first used it was german or danish, my OED doesn`t have a date, and I am relying on a memory of a 14 yr olds school lesson where someone considered an authority was derided for getting it wrong by someone who was an old style classical cambridge scholar, grumpy and eccentric but an absolute laugh as a teacher who went off into any territory without fear, and wanted a good dispute and debate.

I`m chasing my tail in trying to nail it and google is useless, mamma has pulled up some interesting threads but none has gone anywhere useful so far. I cant find anything definitive yet to confirm this or blow me out of the water on what i`ve asserted from memory. This needs the british museum reading room or the University of london library or my old school books.

If you get any leads let me know even if it only shows me i`ve been misguided for all these years ;-)
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ghost in the machine

Post by Ed Prue » Fri Mar 24, 2006 12:28 pm

this just in: insomnia bit and I tried to work the search engines and one sidewater washed up Das geiste in der machine ( or was it das machinen?) but no attribution. I`ve chased geiste through my references and on line and in modern usage it translates as ghost but it actually meant spirit in all senses as in will or intent or even mind.

the mind/will in the thing/machine seems more sensible than the ghost, but all the stuff around it points earlier than 19th century.
so we have possibly someone post renaissance and a generalist natural philosopher?

I`ve passed it on to an old mate in germany whose German no longer has an english accent, If there is a link to be found he will sherlock it out.

so far from what i`ve found I think there are 2 threads, and ghost in the machine/deus ex machina may be right, but as an oxford Professor Gilbert Ryle`s colleagues would probably have pointed out the previous uses.Perhaps it was a wry joke and deliberate?
the german thread seems to be most likely.

I have a feeling that in the back of concept of mind or dilemmas in the bibliography will be reference to kant or hegel or wittgenstein (or.....)or to a mathematician such as Godel or Euler ( yes he was swiss but published in german) where we will find the phrase originated (?)

I`m banging my head against pages in german that I can only grab about 25% of, and translate engines don`t give the subtleties needed.
its infuriating that i`ve probably skimmed over the page i needed to pull it all together because my german is a bit primitive.

I await news from the fatherland! watch this space...........
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ghost in the machine

Post by haro » Fri Mar 24, 2006 9:45 pm

Ed, 'der Geist in der Maschine' is a term that is about as fuzzy as 'the ghost in the machine.'

Some use it in the context of artificial intelligence, meaning to put a mind into a machine. (By the way, is there such a thing as natural intelligence?).

Others use it as if it where a translation of "deus ex machina," which is a bit sloppy.

It is also part of philosophical and psychological discussions in fields such as behavio(u)rism and determinism, roughly the same topics Shelley already mentioned. Yes, Kant can be found there too.

Moreover, since 'Geist' can mean 'mind' as well as 'ghost' in the sense of a spectre, it is also used to describe mysterious phenomena that happen to all of us poor computer users day by day. Having programmed computers since the early 'seventies (just like hsargent - yeah, various assembly languages too), I can confirm that 'bug' and 'glitch' (the latter meaning a bug that strikes only occasionally and never when the operator is watching) are the correct terms to be used for those annoyances.

So your German friend may come up with various stuff from all sorts of subjects ranging from ancient Greek philosophers or dramatists to Alan Turing to Noam Chomsky to William Henry III Gates.

Maybe my smoke screen sufficiently conceals the embarrassing fact that I, too, have no idea who first coined terms like 'Geist in der Maschine' or 'ghost in the machine.' Ok, back to square one, then.
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ghost in the machine

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Fri Mar 24, 2006 11:09 pm

A smoke-screen? Sounds more like TOAST in the machine, Hans.
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ghost in the machine

Post by haro » Sat Mar 25, 2006 12:08 am

Edwin, maybe you ought to update the operating system of your toaster. "Do you really want to char your toast? [OK] [Abort] [Help]"
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ghost in the machine

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Sat Mar 25, 2006 7:55 am

I tried to get hold of the Talking Toaster off "Red Dwarf" but it turned me down - it would only consider the upper crust. Called me a "waffle man".
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