On Qualia

Looking for some info online, I stumbled upon the following piece. Not being sure whether or not Mr. Mogi is associated with Sony, but knowing about Sony's high-end Qualia line, I felt compelled to read it. It makes for an interesting read, especially for those earning their existence at the intersection between aesthetics and technology. This reminds me of the ad page model, put together by Mr. Ogilvy, and some more.

Ken Mogi
A Familiar Yet Mysterious Concept

Many facts about the workings of the brain have been uncovered with the advance of neuroscience. We now know what part of the brain becomes active with which activity, and what ability becomes lost when a certain part of the brain is damaged. But one significant problem remains: we still cannot explain the nature of consciousness.

Since the late 1990s, the enigma of consciousness has been the focus of much research in neuroscience. Though it is clear that our consciousness results from activity in neurons, not much more is known about it. It cannot, for example, be understood just by looking at the discrete functions of the brain. It was in this predicament that the concept of “qualia” emerged as the key to the missing links.

The word “qualia” is a Latin plural meaning “qualities.” It is an ancient word and appears as early as the fifth century, in Augustinus’s De Civitate Dei. It was first used in the discourse of consciousness in the 1980s by an Australian philosopher, who proposed that the various elements that make up our subjective experiences – qualia – cannot be explained by existing science. This work had a significant impact on the neuroscientific world, and “qualia” has since become a central issue in cognitive science.

The concept of qualia should be familiar to all of us, since the world offers us a multitude of sensory qualities (like colors and textures) to perceive. However, in cognitive research, it remains an elusive subject.

In scientific research, “qualia” poses a perplexing problem, because qualia generally cannot be represented with numbers. Science thus far has targeted concepts that can be counted or measured. How much there is of a certain substance, how long it is, how fast it is – most things can be described using numerical representations.

But qualia –like the sting of cold water, like the sweet strains of a violin, like the perfume of a rose – are experiences that cannot be replaced by numbers. For this reason, the usual tools of science we use to solve a problem, like expressing a characteristic in numbers and using values in a formula, do not help us here.

Of course, though qualia cannot be quantified, they are still phenomena that accompany physical processes in the human brain. Yet the natural laws governing the intricate processing of qualia are still to be discovered and may pose one of humanity’s greatest intellectual challenges yet. It would probably be difficult to solve the puzzle of qualia completely. My guess is that if qualia were to be explained in a theory, it would be far more difficult than Einstein’s complicated theory of relativity. But everyone can understand the idea when it is explained. One’s view of the world changes just by being aware of it. “Qualia” has this interesting twosided quality.

Humans Seek Qualia

Often in Japan, you see groups of women taking a trip together. What do you suppose they are expecting from this trip? Some will climb a mountain, and others will explore a tourist area. Some will soak in a hot spring, and some will enjoy the local cuisine. Destinations and activities may vary, but in the end, all of them are looking for the same thing.

Human desires differ from those of other animals because of their bigger, developed brain. Desires are not limited to nourishment, longevity, or ease, for example. People additionally seek new, undiscovered qualia. Wanting to eat a manju (a sweet) particular to an area, for example, is a manifestation of this human desire. The traveler is not seeking nourishment or notable healthfulness from the manju. No, she hopes to experience qualia heretofore unknown to her.

Qualia have the quality of being unknown until experienced. The qualia of food, for example, cannot be understood until eaten, no matter how much someone tries to describe its delicious flavor. The fact that qualia cannot be ours unless experienced makes untried qualia all the more appealing. We travel, watch movies, and go to the theater to satisfy our desire for and to consume qualia.

This idea, that humans are driven by a desire for qualia, applies as well to romantic relationships. Remember how you felt when you were a teenager? You wondered what it would be like to date a boy. You wondered what it would be like to date a girl. Such feelings akin to curiosity stirred something deep inside you.

This idea also applies to our appetite for culture. We want to delight in good literature. We want to enjoy beautiful music. We want to experience new things in movies.

These desires are particular to humans. The drive for qualia does not appear to result from biological necessity and cannot be found in any other animals. Humans seek qualia.

The Qualia of the Grand Canyon

Sometimes you need to go to a particular place to experience certain qualia. That is why people travel.

The time I visited the Grand Canyon, for example, I experienced qualia that could not and cannot be experienced elsewhere. I knew of course about the Grand Canyon before going there. I had seen numerous photographs of it, and I even knew how far down it was to the river. But the experience of the Grand Canyon exceeded the sum of these bits of acquired knowledge. The qualia were indeed particular to the site.

When I actually stood there and gazed at the distance to the opposite cliff (twelve kilometers) I suddenly felt faint and had to sit down – and it was not a fear of heights. I was hit by the realization that I could not possibly throw a rock to the other side, no matter how hard I tried. The canyon was that vast. This new qualia experience, of unconquerable distance, overwhelmed me and made my head reel.

If you think about it, there are very few situations in everyday life when you can experience distances between yourself and a certain visible place that deny all possibility of your approaching it. The moon and the stars are examples of vast distances that cannot be overcome, but you are quite aware that they are celestial, not terrestrial. Thus you can make excuses for their inapproachability. The top of a city skyscraper is also unapproachable, but you can easily give up the idea because it is so high up. In contrast, the opposite side of the Grand Canyon is at eye-level, yet it cannot be walked to, and it is too far to throw a rock to. The great abyss between me and the opposite side awed me, and I felt qualia that were somewhat similar to dizziness.

It does not matter how intimate you are with the facts. The qualia of the Grand Canyon cannot be experienced unless you actually go there. It cannot be felt otherwise. People travel in pursuit of such qualia.

The Qualia of Chateau Latour

Wine, too, has qualia that cannot be perceived unless they are actually experienced. I was once at a French restaurant in Tokyo, celebrating a special occasion with two friends. On this occasion we ordered a bottle of Chateau Latour. This much-acclaimed red wine is really quite expensive, but we decided to treat ourselves this one time. The bottle was brought to the table in a reverential manner and poured. The glasses glowed a dark ruby red.

The first glass, however, did not make an impression upon me. In all honesty, I could not tell whether it was any good. Although my friends were clearly already excited with it, I did not know what to say about it, and still uncertain, I took a sip of my second glass.

Then, all of a sudden, the qualia of Chateau Latour made sense to me. It was like a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with a truly attractive, magical person. The emotion is not simply one of happiness or pleasure; your heart is in fact racing at an alarming rate. You have no idea what to do with yourself because everything is terribly exciting. It is the long-awaited arrival of spring with all the flowers bursting into bloom. That was my stunning qualia experience with Chateau Latour.

Until that moment, I had never tasted an expensive wine with any seriousness. That was the first time I realized that the qualia evoked by a really good wine cannot be described just in terms of tannin, bouquet, or acidity, as with an ordinary wine. The experience exceeds the sphere of this limited vocabulary.

Ideas that can be expressed in numbers can often be imagined to a certain extent without actually being experienced. Four meters is two meters doubled and so is probably this long. 200 km/hr is twice 100 km/hr and so is probably this fast. The comparative method works. But the qualia of good wine are not two or three times better than the qualia of ordinary wine. The analogy fails here. The qualia are of a different nature altogether.

I remember the first time that I tasted konowata, I felt that the qualia could not be compared to the qualia of any other delicacy I had ever tasted. Konowata is a Japanese delicacy on a par with caviar, and is made by pickling the entrails of sea cucumber. The taste is a little similar to pickled squid, but as those of you who have had konowata know, it has a strange and mystifying citrus fragrance.

Qualia, when new or very good, cannot be compared to that of past experiences. This characteristic is true of all qualia, not just of food.

But sometimes, even familiar qualia can suddenly become unfamiliar. For example, when we eat or drink something, we are usually prepared for what we will experience when we put it into our mouths. If completely different from expectation, qualia of even the most ordinary sort can jar.

Once, while watching a movie at home, I reached for a glass of milk thinking it was soda. With my eyes still glued to the screen, I took a gulp. The shock was great. For several moments, I could not tell at all what it was. I could only think that I had put something unrecognizable into my mouth. Then, after some time, I realized that the qualia were of milk. Perhaps this experience is similar to a baby’s experience when he first tastes milk.

My initial incomprehension upon tasting Chateau atour was perhaps due to the fact that the qualia were completely new to me. The qualia of Chateau Latour were utterly unlike my expectations of a wine.

How Do We Know New Experiences to Be Completely New?

The world is filled with an infinite number of qualia, and there are many that a person may never experience in a lifetime. Had I not had the experience of Chateau Latour, I would probably have continued to believe that wine can be described calmly, in precise parameters of tannin, bouquet, and other commonly known factors. I would never have believed that the qualia of the wine can only be described as that of meeting a dream, a wonderfully mesmerizing person.

Qualia cannot be understood unless experienced. We are driven by curiosity and are constantly on a quest for new qualia.

The ability of the human brain to recognize the newness of new qualia – that the qualia are unlike any experienced before – has yet to be explained. You may not be able to describe the uniqueness or the subtlety of the new qualia at the moment of contact, but your brain recognizes immediately that the qualia are new. This wonderful feature of the human brain has not yet been explained by neuroscience.

There are many qualia in the world that I have not yet experienced. This thought is exciting. The yearning for new qualia, for fresh, unknown qualia, is in everybody’s hearts. This is the universal desire for qualia shared by all human beings.

Qualia must be experienced firsthand to be understood. Before coming into contact with certain qualia, there is no way of knowing what the experience will be like. But still we long to come into contact with them. Qualia have this mysteriously enticing quality.

Looking at photographs and reading descriptive text of the Katsura Palace in Kyoto will not tell you what kind of qualia you will experience once you step inside the gardens. But people are drawn to the yet unknown qualia that they anticipate, and travel to the Katsura Palace to experience them firsthand. I want to see things that I have never seen. I want to go places that I have never been. I want to eat things that I have never eaten. These wants exist inside everyone. This universal desire, in other words, is a desire for unknown qualia.

The Allure of Qualia

Sometimes we are unknowingly taken by something that we cannot quite explain in words. This is true of qualia.

People are naturally drawn to qualia that are not yet fully understood. That is why we are drawn to other people, for example; other people are wonderfully mysterious to us.

The impression of a person changes slightly with every meeting – ten years ago, five years ago, two years ago, today. It is the same person, yet he is somehow different. Sometimes he is an admirable character, and sometimes he seems a bit mean. Sometimes he is interesting, and sometimes he is dull. What results from all these experiences is the qualia of this person. This person’s qualia are not borne of just one meeting, but are formed from numerous meetings, and with every encounter, the sense of this person evolves.

The same can be said of wine (though of course, its complexity does not compare to that of human beings). The qualia of Chateau Latour will probably change with every encounter. Yet there will probably be something in the qualia that will help affirm that the encounter is undoubtedly yet another aspect of the Chateau Latour experience.

Every bottle is of course different. The vintage may be different; even two wines of the same vintage will be different depending on when they are opened. A wine is also dependent upon storage conditions and the manner in which it is served. And even if two wines were exactly the same, the qualia of one would differ from the qualia of the other depending on whom you share the bottle with. In this way, the personality of a certain brand of wine emerges from the many encounters with it. After a time, you begin to understand and recognize the qualia of this wine.

The discrete qualia are different every time, but a new form of qualia appears from experiencing all of the individual qualia. This total form of qualia is perhaps the qualia that we are most attracted to, and hence, continue to pursue.

Though we receive a different impression every time, when we process these many encounters, a new kind of qualia emerges. This mechanism may be analogous to the power of brands. For example, all animated films by Pixar have a certain “Pixar-esque” feel to them, even though each film is different. Each is different; yet they share a certain quality.

Something attracts us to people and objects and scenery, but a large part of the allure disappears as soon as we think we know what that something is. People are attracted most to those things that appeal to a subconscious place. Therefore, when a person feels that she has completely understood a brand, a wine, or a relationship, the wonder is gone.

One tries to get close to it, and sometimes it seems within reach – but it can never be fully grasped. This is the kind of qualia that is most alluring to us.

I would like to live in a world where nothing less should come as expected from the intersection of (personal) technology and aesthetics...

link to Sony QUALIA


fCh said...

Obviously, Qualia does not address needs but aspirations. Are those organic or synthetic aspirations? Of course there are few among us who long organically for the most delicate, sensual, and artistic expressions of existence. However, those few don't make a market, so the rest have to be seduced and inducted into this rarefied world. One makes it so hard to achieve something that rich snobs will re-unite!

Such states of beautification used to be reached by prayer, meditation, and by embracing the humble condition of existence. Now, all this can be possessed, at a price. Or so they'd have you believe...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your words on Qualia. Yes, Mr. Mogi is with Sony, and here is his interview with Nobuyuki Idei. Nota Bene: The former is with Sony Computer Science Laboratories, and the latter used to be Sony CEO.

IDEI : If I remember correctly, my interview with Seiji Ozawa happened to be in the same magazine issue as your interview with...?
MOGI : Yes, I was being interviewed by a nonfiction writer, as part of a series of interviews with scientists.
IDEI : That's where I first saw the word "qualia". I thought, This is good, this is exactly the direction that Sony should take. Personally, too, I had always wondered why two people feel differently in face of the same thing, or why a person can be moved by a performance he wasn't expecting much of.
MOGI : I think it's great that you grasped the concept of qualia from that article. You must have a good sense for it.
IDEI : I keep a record in my head of things that I like. So when I see or hear something similar, I can pull out that file and do a replay. I think it would be difficult for people without a similar kind of reference to take note of the qualia around them. And you know, qualia never come to you when you're feeling irritated. You just sort of feel it - like that - when you're going about your own business as usual.
MOGI : Can you describe some of your qualia experiences?
IDEI : Oh, I have many, although they may sound rather dull when described. Let's see, there are many moments of qualia during a trip, for example. I remember the time I went to the Grand Canyon and rode a mule down to the Colorado River. It took four hours, and when we finally reached the river, I looked up and saw a sky full of stars. That was fantastic. Even now, when I look at starry skies, I remember the qualia of that time. Also, many years ago, I heard Mendelssohn's violin concerto being played by musicians who weren't very skilled. For some reason I can't forget that particular quality of sound. Why is it that we are so moved by things that can't be explained by logic?
MOGI : In terms of the brain's mechanism, the experiences that cannot be explained by logic are the most moving. Astronauts landing on the moon say they were moved by the sight of Earth, but I think they were also moved by the fact that they themselves were actually standing there at that moment.
IDEI : That makes sense. In a similar vein, I have always felt in my capacity as a business leader that people do not necessarily move in the most economically rational ways.
MOGI : The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, one of the winners of the 2002 Nobel Economics Prize, pursues exactly that problem of human behavior defying economic rationality.
For example, it's hard to explain from an economic point of view why some person may want to spend a lot of money on an expensive brand-name bag, but it is the most rational and obvious thing to do from the point of view of the human brain. Sony's QUALIA made me realize, actually, the potential of the concept of qualia.
IDEI : Economists believe in principle that people act rationally. But I'm not an economist. There's also the idea that if all of human society were to take rational behavior to the extreme, the outcome will be zero - although I have always argued that that won't happen. For example, take that Hasselblad the cameraman over there is using. I'm guessing only a very small percentage of people who bought that camera actually use it. Owning the Hasselblad is already the realization of a dream.
MOGI : The human brain is most susceptible to behavioral desires when the person doesn't understand why he is doing something. A neurotransmitter chemical similar to dopamine becomes active in the brain, and "units" of happiness and satisfaction are most probably determined according to a person's emotional system. For example, something that may be one dopamine-unit for you may be ten dopamine-units for me. Each person has a "currency" of emotion in the brain and that is the rational guiding principle.
IDEI : That's probably right.
MOGI : After starting to think about Sony's QUALIA, I was able to theorize why the Walkman produced qualia never before experienced. Before the Walkman, it was not possible for the two stimuli of music and city scenery to coexist simultaneously in the brain. But when they did, there appeared a new part of the brain "C" where both A and B were projected against. The activity of A and B were transmitted to C, and for the first time in history, there was born in the human brain...
IDEI : The city looked different all of a sudden.
MOGI : Yes, a new brain activity "C" was born. Of course, I only came to understand this principle twenty years after my first Walkman... But such things are difficult to explain rationally. I still don't fully understand why a certain wine is good, for example. When tannin and acidity and such elements combine in certain proportions, a completely new form of qualia appears.
IDEI : Do you know that there have been some discussions in France recently about what would happen if we stripped wine bottles of labels? For example, if the label reads "Romanee-Conti 1971", people are so taken by that information that they lose their sense of judgment when they actually taste the wine. This kind of question is always interesting.
MOGI : Qualia arise from the holistic processing of information by the brain, and the label would be one source of information.
IDEI : It's important, actually, because you suddenly expect more out of it. I was head of the Audio division at Sony for many years, and I know for a fact that I can't make any judgments regarding sound when I'm hungry. The datum of hunger overpowers the qualia of sound in the human body.
In the world, too, when there are not enough goods, people simply want quantity and low prices. But once there are enough things in society, people seek something else. I began to wonder, what would happen if the pursuit of qualia became a company's objective? I thought QUALIA might provide an answer. Some people think that Sony's QUALIA products are for a small group of wealthy people, but this is not right. They are not about a simple economic logic.
MOGI : When we have food and shelter, when our bodies are satisfied of drink and food, we look for something else. That something else is qualia, which is food for the brain. From now on, people will be willing to pay more for qualia experiences.
IDEI : I think so, too. For example, we are still concerned about CPU speed when we look at computers. That's because the speed is not fast enough. But there are no recent automobile ads that boast the machine's speed. Society has to move in that direction.
To propagate the idea of qualia, it will be important for qualia to be shared. People do not want to be told what qualia is by some pedant. But the concept is definitely gaining gradual acceptance.
MOGI : I think it has some similarity with the popular phrase "Slow Food." Qualia are "Slow Media." By working on the ecology of the soul - happiness - everyone will be able to live a creative life.
IDEI : I think so, too. From now on, the individual's happiness and delights, in other words, qualia, will become more and more important. I believe that the pursuit of qualia will make people happy, and I am hoping that Sony's QUALIA will help move the world in the right direction.

Here is more on Mr. Mogi:
Ken Mogi graduated from University of Tokyo with a degree in Physics and Law. He studied biophysics at the graduate school of University of Tokyo, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1992. After completing his research at Riken and University of Cambridge, he currently resides as a senior researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Tokyo. Ken Mogi is also a visiting associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology and lectures at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music on "The Brain and the art".

Anonymous said...

January 30, 2006
For Sony's Robotic Aibo, It's the Last Year of the Dog

There was sad news last week for enthusiasts of the Aibo Entertainment Robot from Sony: the doglike machine, which walks, barks and recognizes speech, is being put to sleep, the company said.

The Aibo, which was introduced in 1999, is being discontinued as part of Sony's move to improve its financial position. Last September the company announced that it would eliminate or scale back 15 product categories. In addition to Aibo, Sony has also stopped selling its Qualia line of high-end televisions and audio equipment, plasma TV's and car stereos in Japan, said Rick Clancy, a senior vice president at Sony Electronics.

With little marketing or promotion, the Aibo robot garnered a cultlike following around the world. Its programmed actions include barking, pushing a ball and lifting its leg, and it can "learn," becoming more adept at behaviors over time. Using different software stored on memory sticks, Aibo also gives the illusion of development by becoming able to perform different age-appropriate tasks.

Aibos from the latest litter speak 1,000 words and can understand more than 100, including some in Spanish. A videocamera in the robot's head can wirelessly relay images to a laptop, allowing owners to see the world from a dog's point of view.

Aibos cost about $2,000, and the company will continue to sell them on its Web site (www.sonystyle.com) until its inventory is depleted; it will then supply spare parts for another seven years (or 49 dog years). To date, 150,000 Aibos have been sold throughout the world.

Bruce Binder, an electromechanical engineer from Rancho Cordoba, Calif., has spent about $90,000 to acquire 56 Aibos. His love of his pets motivated him to take his only two trips overseas, both to Aibo meetings in England.

"I'm disappointed, but it's not a shock," Mr. Binder said. "I think Sony's making a mistake."

Many owners regard their possessions as more than just a piece of plastic coupled to motors and processors. For some, the machines have taken on a life of their own.

"I love them, they're great," said Craig Lee, a technical support specialist at a Chicago insurance company, who owns 40 Aibos. "I think of them as dogs."