To Recognise A Chair

involves: cognition, categories, lists, Borges

"To recognise a chair or a dog, our brain separates objects into their individual properties and then puts them back together. Until recently, it has remained unclear what these properties are. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have now identified them, and found that all it takes is 49 properties to recognise almost any object"
News release from the Max Planck Institute
Full paper (paywalled)

The Max Planck Institute does serious science. Two of its directors shared Nobel prizes in 2020, in chemistry and physics. A paper from this source, claiming to have discovered the building-blocks of human perception, demands to be taken seriously.

And yet, at first read, it appears almost ridiculously flimsy, starting with the notion of "49 properties". In real life there is never 49 of anything, though there may be 48 or 50. The only place where you expect to find 49 is in a multiplication table, or on the front of a London bus going to Shepherds Bush.

God prefers to work in single figures. 49 is just too many properties to constitute a fundamental set of anything. The Universe rubs along with three primary colours, three or four dimensions, five basic tastes, five platonic solids.

There again, if we are going to go big, then 49 seems an absurdly small number of properties to contain all the perceptual experiences of the human race. One might just about hope to disambiguate the inventory of IKEA with the Planck variables; but if 49 variables can capture the known Universe, we ought surely to have created artificial intelligence on a pocket calculator fifty years ago.

The methodology for the Planck study consisted mainly of showing selections of images drawn from a database of 1,854 objects to 5,983 users of the Amazon Mechanical Turk remote-working platform, and asking the users to tag the objects.

The objects shown to the users included the following: "bazooka, bib, crowbar, crumb, flamingo, handbrake, hearse, keyhole, palm tree, scallion, sleeping bag, spider web, splinter, staple gun, suitcase, syringe, tennis ball, woman, workbench, and wreck"

I sense your impatience. What "49 properties" can distinguish a hawk from a handsaw, or a flamingo from a staple gun? According the Planck paper, they are:

— made of metal / artificial / hard
— food-related / eating-related / kitchen-related
— animal-related / organic
— clothing-related / fabric / covering
— furniture-related / household-related / artifact
— plant-related / green
— outdoors-related
— transportation / motorised / dynamic
— wood-related / brown
— body-part-related
— colourful
— valuable / special-occasion-related
— electronic / technology
— sport-related / recreation related
— disc-shaped / round
— tool-related
— many small things / coarse pattern
— paper-related / thin / flat / text-related
— fluid-related / drink-related
— long / thin
— water-related / blue
— powdery / fine-scale pattern
— red
— feminine (stereotypically) / decorative
— bathroom-related / sanitary
— black / noble
— weapon / danger-related / violence
— musical-instrument-related / noise-related
— sky-related / flying-related / floating-related
— spherical / ellipsoid / rounded / voluminous
— repetitive
— flat/patterned
— white
— thin / flat
— disgusting / bugs
— string-related
— arms / legs / skin-related
— shiny / transparent
— construction-related / physical-work-related
— fire-related / heat-related
— head-related / face-related
— beams-related
— eating-related / put things on top
— container-related / hollow
— child-related / toy-related
— medicine-related
— has grating
— handicraft-related
— cylindrical / conical

Scientists are wise to prefer the language of mathematics. Using plain English, as here, exposes their work to non-peer review. Some properties on the list overlap with others, some seem like sub-sets of others, some seem to incorporate category errors. But, even so: Viewed simply as a list, it is a masterpiece. Suggestive, surreal, provocative, enigmatic.  

I can think of only one precedent: The taxonomy of animals supposedly derived from an ancient Chinese encyclopædia called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that is cited in Jorge Luis Borges's short story, The Analytical Language Of John Wilkins.

Borges's list assigns animals to 14 categories:

— those belonging to the Emperor
— embalmed ones
— trained ones
— suckling pigs
— mermaids
— fabled ones
— stray dogs
— those included in this classification
— those that tremble as if they were mad
— innumerable ones
— those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
— et cetera
— those that have just broken the vase
— those that from afar look like flies

I prefer Borges's list, even for Planck's purposes. It captures the workings of my mind far better than the Planck list does. I often come across things that resemble "stray dogs" in their demeanour, or which "look from afar like flies"; I have never seen anything about which my first thought is, "it has a grating" or "it is beams-related".

For their next iteration the Planckers could try priming the Turkers by requiring the latter to read Borges's list just before starting to tag their bazookas and bibs and crowbars. Then we might move towards a fusion of the two lists, in which the "many small things" of the Planck list converged with the "innumerable ones" of Borges's list. Art and science would reach agreement on the name of everything, and the world could come to an end.

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