The Distortion That is Learning

Ada Lovelace, they were talking about the other day, on the radio. They pointed out that she was the first person–working under Charles Babbage–to describe the computer as more than an adding machine. It could add, of course, but more importantly, it could follow instructions. It was–more than a mere calculator–a decision maker.

I’d been thinking about this the last few months–that the role of a programmer isn’t just to give instructions, but to bestow meaning into the machine. Of the infinitudes of programs accessible to a programmer, they choose the ones which are meaningful. Otherwise, we could just generate programs at random and call it a day.

There seemed to be something profound about this convergence of thoughts–that Lovelace and I had been thinking about the same thing, as if the whole universe pointed to my own thoughts.

That, of course, is absurdly egotistical at best. I’ve seen myself wander into this thought a number of times, though, and I’ve paid more attention as I’ve seen it arise. In some cases, it’s something I’d probably heard before, but at the time, had nothing particularly interesting to do with that fact. With nothing to peg the idea to, it wandered back to hyperuranium. Only when I had some context to apply it to–a probabilistic dimple in my brain etched deep enough to pull the idea in–did the fact seem soon so profound.

It’s a lot like digging through a pile of Legos, wherein the digger develops an ever-changing myopia. With a certain problem at hand, some Legos are extremely prominent, relevant to the problem that needs to be solved at that moment. Others are just noise and join the irrelevant static of the rest of the pile.

As the digger builds, though, the process changes. The experience gained from the process of building–or simply progress in building–changes the needs of the process. What was once a piece of noise is now very valuable, once one sees a fit in what’s being built. The digger’s own perspective, through the learning that’s done through building, becomes distorted from how it had previously been.

The same goes for any other learning process. As one works, one’s apparent needs change, and what once seemed irrelevant can suddenly pop out as a solution. The way one sees the world literally changes as learning occurs; the world, though, is the same as it was.