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Unpacking Understanding

Unpacking Understanding

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Published by: andresmh on Sep 18, 2008
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06/16/2009

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Understanding: unpacking another suitcase
By Andrés Monroy-HernándezSociety of Mind, Spring 2006Professor Marvin Minsky
Introduction
In this paper I try to unpack Understanding using the framework and style for theunpacking of Consciousness presented in Chapter IV of the Emotion Machine[1]. The relevance of this analysis for Artificial Intelligence is exemplified by thefierce debate over John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument [2]. Similarly, this topicis also the focus of study of educators, particularly those interested in apedagogy centered on teaching for understanding, as eloquently stated by DavidPerkins. My goal is to bring together different perspectives on the subject tobetter dissect it or, as Minsky would put it, to unpack the suitcase of Understanding.
The nature of Understanding 
To understand is to perceive patterns
.”
Plato
Understanding is joyous.
Carl Sagan
Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” —
Albert Einstein
Understanding is the reward of faith
.”
Saint AugustineWhile not as
mysterious
as consciousness, understanding is yet another everyday word that Minsky would identify as a “suitcase word”. It used for “manytypes of processes, and for different kinds of purposes”, we apply it to “feelings,emotions and thoughts” [1].Definitions are not useful either. For example, we find short definitions like“mental grasp” [3] being too broad, while others too specific that do not fully
 
describe all its uses: “a psychological process related to an abstract or physicalobject […] whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to dealadequately with that object” [4]
Opening the suitcase
Similar to the analysis of consciousness, one can wonder what kinds of creaturespossess “understanding”. Recent studies in animal behavior suggest that someanimals have more advanced behavior that previously thought. For example, arecent study [5, 6] suggested that wild bottlenose dolphins “know each other’snames”, that is, they seem to share the human ability to develop “an individuallydistinctive signature […] which appears to be used in individual recognition”.Analogously, if we were to find a non-human being with “higher level” cognitiveskills than us, the concept of “true” understanding could be challenged.
Minsky: “A Martian, or some alien machine that had a trillion of parts might consider us to be simple machines without any genuine understanding--because of being a trillion times simpler than them. They might just regard us as very cute toys” [7] 
Also, like with Consciousness, one could challenge the idea that understanding isan “all-or-none” trait. Educators have encountered detrimental effects in learningwhen using this way of thinking about understanding. For example, when theapproach is that people either “get Math or they don’t” the results are a lot poorer than with an incremental approach where a learner is thought to be able toperform their understanding in variety of different in ways. This is in line withsome of the AI work that identifies understanding as the ability to representsomething in multiple ways.
How do we recognize Understanding? 
In the same way that “consciousness” gets detected by a “conscious recognizer”resource [1], I hypothesize that our minds also have an “understandingrecognizer” resource. However, people experience that often times the mindincorrectly detects understanding, something that does not happen with
 
consciousness. For the most part, people are always able to tell with certainty if they are “conscious”. For example, let’s look at this imaginary conversation:
Charles: “Joan, are you conscious now?” Joan: “Yes, I am.” Charles: “A few seconds ago you blinked. Did you do that consciously?” Joan: “No.”  An hour later….Charles: “Joan, an hour ago you told me you were conscious. Was that assessment correct?” Joan: “Yes, of course!” Charles: “You also told me that you had blinked unconsciously. Was that assessment correct?” Joan: “Yes.” 
Typically, Joan’s ability to detect her state of mind as conscious or unconsciousdoes not change over time. On the other hand, let’s look at this other imaginaryconversation:
Teacher: “This is how you multiply 15 x 14…” The teacher shows the student the process on the chalkboard starting by multiplying 4 x 5, and so on…Teacher: “Did you understand what I did?” Student: “Yes” (student honestly believes he does)Teacher: “Could you multiply 16 x 17?” Student tries but fails…Teacher: “You have said before that you understood. Was that assessment correct?” Student: “No, now I realized I had not really understood. I was just able tofollow the steps you did and I recognize that I had that in my memory, but I cannot generalize it to other numbers.” 
This caricaturized version of a teacher-student interaction represents somethingwe all have experienced at some point in our lives. Why does our “understandingrecognizer” create false positives (and sometimes even false negatives) more

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