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Society of Mind

15.7 memory rearrangements

Let's return to moving mental furniture. What would we need to imagine moving things around a room? First we'd need some way to represent how objects are arranged in space. In our Block-Arch scenario, the scene was represented in terms of the shapes of the objects and the relations between them. In the case of a room scene, you might also relate each object to the walls and corners of the room; you might notice that the couch is about midway between a table and a chair, and that all three are lined up near a certain wall.

Once we have a method for representing rooms, we also need techniques for manipulating these representations. How could we envision the result of exchanging that couch and chair? Let's oversimplify, and suppose that this can he done simply by exchanging the states of two agencies — an agency A, which represents the couch, and another agency B, which represents the chair. To exchange these states, let's assume that both agencies have access to two short-term memory-units, called M-1 and M-2, which can record the states of agencies. Then we can exchange the states of A and B, first by storing away the states A and B, and then by restoring them in reverse order. In other words, we could use the following simple four-step script:

1. Store the state of A in M-1. 2. Store the state of B in M-2. 3. Use M-2 to determine the state of A. 4. Use M-1 to determine the state of B.

A memory-control script like this can work only if we have memory-units that are small enough to pick out couch-sized portions of the larger scene. M-1 and M-2 would not do the job if they could store only descriptions of entire rooms. In other words, we have to be able to connect our short-term memories only to appropriate aspects of our current problems. Learning such abilities is not simple, and perhaps it is a skill some people never really master. What if we wanted to rearrange three or more objects? As a matter of fact, it is possible to produce any rearrangement whatsoever, using only operations that exchange two objects at a time! When you approach an unfamiliar kind of problem, it's best to start by making only one or two changes at a time. Then, in the course of becoming an expert, you discover schemes that make several useful changes in memory at once.

Our pair-exchanging script needs more machinery. Because each memory-unit must wait until the previous step is finished, the timing of each script step may have to depend on various condition sensors. Shortly we'll see that even this is not enough to solve hard problems: our memory-control processes also need ways to interrupt themselves while they call on other agencies or memories for help. Indeed, the problems we must solve when managing our memories are surprisingly like those we face when dealing with things in the outside world.