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08 Feb The Power of Inference

Joe RousharJoe Roushar – February 2024

Sense Perception and Cognition

What can you infer about the things in this picture:

Our senses are constantly feeding information to our brains, but how much can we trust? Inference is guesswork performed by the frontal cortex based on circuitous electrical signal pathways from the sensory parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex. Any inference may be incorrect because inferences are deductive reasoning based on prior knowledge and context. Furthermore, this is not a photo at all, but an AI generated image. For the purpose of this discussion however, let’s assume that in a certain milieu, a photo exactly like this could have been taken using a camera. Though not true, it helps illustrate the power of inference.

The stitch pattern of the ball indicates that this is most likely a volleyball though the image gives no indication of the ball’s size. It could be the wrong size for a volleyball, or it may be just what it look’s like. Someone with familiarity may immediately infer they are looking at a volleyball with a statistically high probability of being correct.

We can infer that the setting is outdoors, though indoor settings could be fabricated to mimic the ground and trees that are apparently in this picture. Our knowledge of trees tells us that the blurred shapes in the background are probably large coniferous trees. Our experience watching volleyball games, combined with the color and texture of the lower quarter of the image suggest that this is sandy ground, like a beach, even though there is no indication of water nearby.

We can assume that, although the image shows no motion, the fact that gravity doesn’t normally permit anything heavier than air to float steadily, the ball is in motion. We don’t know the direction the ball is moving but it could be nearly any direction except flying parallel to the ground – this would require a high velocity and would not remain parallel to the ground for long due to gravity.

It’s impossible to tell how far above the ground the ball in this picture is, but the shade pattern of ripples in the inferred sand suggest it is not too high. I could go on and on, but when I first saw this picture, I thought of a two-on-two game of beach volleyball in the pacific northwest of the United States in which the ball was recently spiked and is about to hit the sand (either in-bounds or out-of-bounds) and result in a point.

Inference is a beautiful thing and our brains do it constantly. Correct or good inferences can lead us to making good decisions, including where to place our foot next as we walk. Poor inferences can lead us to very bad decisions such as supporting an authoritarian leader that ends up having us imprisoned on suspicion of not liking her. AI is like that too: it can make good inferences and bad. The key is to wrap good validation and verification processes around any AI that is making inferences. Caveat rogator!

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