« I believe it when I see it ». This simple sentence tells us that perception is a very important matter. A study from the University of Quebec in Montreal states that 83% of what we learn comes from our sight, only 11% from our hearing, and that we remember 30% of what we see. But sight isn’t only here to make us remember and learn, it also helps us understand things.
What is visualization ?
Albert Cairo defines visualization as “[…] any display intended to reveal evidence, making the invisible visible”.
We could say this is some kind of metaphor. We use visualization all the time. If I tell you to think of a red motorbike, your brain will build an image of it in your head, and you’ll be able to “see” this motorbike. Even if its representation varies from one person to another, it still is a red motorbike. This representation helps us understand what we’re talking about by imagining it. Having some sort of visual reference seems important to us, and it’s by creating such references that our brain is able to infer links between what we see and what we know. It is a key concept in facial recognition, for example, as it is this type of visualization that tells us that this man right in front of us is someone we know. In other words, visualization is the act of imagining a statement, a person or even a concept, in order to better understand it, grasp its meaning, and this is true even if we don’t all share the exact same representation of something.
Visualization and understanding
As we’ve seen before, visualization serves several purposes. First, it plays an important part in memorization, as our brain takes some sort of picture of the things we see and the things we learn. It builds links between them so that we can store the picture in our memory. Visualization also helps building new memories, but most importantly, it allows us to understand complex concepts. Consider face recognition again; imagine now that you see one of your friends crying. Here, visualizing her face and seeing tears rolling down her cheeks make you 90% sure she went through some emotional shock recently. At this very moment, visualization allows you to understand her condition, and act accordingly. The expression on her face generates an emotional response in your brain: fear, sadness, annoyance, etc.
But visualization can diverge from one person to another. As we’ve explained earlier, the image that we have of one thing is not necessarily the same for everyone, and having two identical representations of the same thing is actually quite rare. But it’s when these differences exist that creation happens. People can share the same global vision about an idea while seeing something completely different when it comes to details. Therefore, two people can interpret the same image very differently, just like a symbol can have several definitions, and therefore several visualizations. This is why we must be careful and always take context into consideration to demystify information.
Finally, visualization allowed great scientific leaps forward. Take scanners for examples, or MRI, or echography. Each of these inventions allowed mankind to see things we could only make suppositions about before. We can now understand the status of a patient, and more importantly understand what’s making this patient ill. It allows us to better understand the world and the way it works. Visualization gives something a common meaning, even if an image can be interpreted differently. It also allows us to see things we didn’t know existed. Think of the microscope for example, that makes us see things on a microscopic level, things invisible to the naked eye. Think of its opposite, the telescope, showing us planets light-years away from us. Galileo’s invention allowed mankind to make huge progress in astronomy, and was used along many other visualization tools to confirm or disprove theories which were until then never entirely proved true by the lack of actual visual data. “I believe it when I see it”. And this is exactly like this, by visualizing everything that surrounds us and by comparing it with what we’ve already seen, that scientific progress is made.
Visualization, or how to explain and transfer knowledge
Understanding a concept is one thing, but explaining it to someone is something else. Think about having to explain a complex concept to a friend who doesn’t know anything about it. How would you do it without some sort of sketch or drawing? How do you explain something to somebody who’s entirely new to it if he can’t visualize it? We’re not saying it’s impossible, but it is difficult. “I don’t see what you mean”. It’s part of our language. We don’t see. To visualize is to make visible something that is invisible, but it’s also to make something complex understandable. Visualization makes understanding easier.
Visualization is a very common principle in today’s era, but it wasn’t always that way. Not so long ago, the knowledge we had wasn’t enough to visualize things the way we do today. Still, it’s always been there: in the rock art drawn by the Cro-Magnon man, in each symbol written on papyrus by scribes, in Aztec calendars, and up until today with 3D printers. History shows that visualization is both universal and timeless. It just evolved with its time, providing images that became more and more precise and accurate. History also shows that all these visualizations have something in common: they were used to share knowledge. They allowed us to trace our History, and to this day, we keep on looking for new ones that weren’t discovered yet.
Visualization and debugging
How do you figure out the solution to a problem when you’re working blind? As it turns out, it’s extremely difficult, impossible even. Visualization helps solving problems, and in computer science, it helps fixing bugs. Just like doctors who use radiography to find a tumour in a patient, computer scientists have their own visualization techniques. It can be very basic, like scanning line after line of code to find a bug. But it can also be much faster by using a 2D or 3D visualization of our system. All the data is right in front or our eyes, all the links are here, we can have a “user feedback” on what our system is doing, and this makes it much easier to spot a bug. Visualization can also provide a new angle on a problem, and thus help us see if a better solution exists.
Knowledge visualization is universal, timeless and essential. It allows us to analyze, understand, explain, share and solve a lot of things. It’s also essential in science, as it allows us to take huge steps forward when it comes to understanding our World and Humans in general. Visualizing Daneel’s cognitive system will allow us to understand data transmission, and the way the knowledge is shared between symbols in the system. Just like our brain makes connections between neurons when there’s a stimulus, Daneel creates connections between symbols during a search. It is these connections, these links created between them that we’ll be able to visualize, understand and explain. It is these same connections that will allow us to say “Look, Daneel is thinking”.