The Casual Blog

Tag: artificial intelligence

Ice, dark matter, Photoshop, AlphaGo, and Haydn

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The forecast on Friday called for major snow, but in downtown Raleigh we only got a couple of inches.  Still, the roads got very icy and temperatures went down into the teens.  We stayed home, cozy and warm, and caught up on backlogged magazines and Netflix.  

One of the New Year’s thoughts I saw recently was a tough one:  a wish for lots of failure in 2017.  The idea is, if you’re operating outside your comfort zone and trying new things, you’ll be doing some stumbling and falling.  Failure doesn’t usually feel good, but it can be a sign that you’re going somewhere.  On the other hand, if you aren’t having any failures, either you’re the luckiest human in history or you’re stuck.  

One way to assure a level of failure is to try keeping up with contemporary physics.  I’d thought it was reasonably well settled that a quarter or so of the universe was made up of so-far undetected dark matter.  But the BBC  reported last week that after recent failures of big experiments to verify the theory, some reputable scientists are reconsidering.    It sometimes seems that there is so much human knowledge you could never get to the bottom of it, but there is still so much we do not understand.  

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to plenty of failures in the coming year.  In photography, I’ve been struggling to get a thorough working knowledge of the relevant tools in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  They’re wonderful, but far from intuitive, and at times intensely frustrating.

This week I made up my mind to get a level of competence at using Photoshop layers to combine images.  Being iced in gave me a chance to practice, and I discovered many methods that do not work before getting on the right path.

As one of my colleagues recently noted, if you need to know something, you should always try asking Google.  Whatever you need to know, there’s usually already a video or a blog post with an answer on the internet.  This is certainly generally true for Lightroom and Photoshop, though it took several tries to find the necessary guide post for my layers problem.

Speaking of Google, a word of congratulations to the AI researchers at its DeepMind unit for the latest advances of AlphaGo. Go, which is more complex than chess, was until recently well beyond the reach of artificial intelligence.  No more.  AlphaGo, which beat a famous Go master a few months ago, last week took on the world’s top player and other distinguished masters and beat them all, 60 games to nil.   

In the Wall Street Journal’s reportthe vanquished masters seemed stunned by the unconventional and varied style of AlphaGo.  It seemed to have absorbed all existing human Go experience and wisdom, and gone far beyond.  This is exciting, but also scary.  The singularity may be closer than we thought.  

To stay calm and balanced, I recommend listening to some Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).  Perhaps because of so many unsettling current events, I’ve been spending time with his piano trios and string quartets, of which there are many.  This is really charming classical music, which tends to get overshadowed by Mozart.  There are many fine recordings easily available on Spotify.

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Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
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That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
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Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
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But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
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The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
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My digital frustrations and hopes

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We lost the internet one evening this week, and felt unsettled and frustrated. No Googling? This is not acceptable! I called Time Warner, where a computer with a female voice fielded my call. “She” understood me the first time, and figured out the problem quickly. I needed to reboot my modem, and she coached me through. Then everything worked. Another success for artificial intelligence!

I confidently predict that this will happen more and more: our computers will help us solve everyday technology problems. But for the moment, those of us lucky enough to have various digital tools and conveniences frequently find ourselves bolixed. I had a lot of little tech problems this week: email that wouldn’t work, a smart phone that wouldn’t stop buzzing, a picture file that disappeared, an external hard drive that went haywire, underwater flash units that wouldn’t fire . . . . I could go on.

For most of those, I found friendly competent humans willing to spend some time with me and my devices, and eventually we got going again. Thanks and namaste, friends and strangers. Sometimes our tech problems bring us together, which is good.
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But I continue to be concerned that advancing AI is going to eliminate a lot of jobs and change our world economy, and we aren’t even close to ready. The NY Times had a front page piece this week quoting economists who were wondering whether the humans whose jobs get taken over by AI might be facing a permanently diminished job market. Now we’ve got to start coming up with new economic and political approaches to address these changes.

Whether that’s any more likely than our doing serious work to address global warming is questionable. On that subject, how disheartening that the nations of the world would declare it a success that they agreed that they would all to do something about climate change – but not what! The arctic ice is melting now. It’s not looking good for the polar bears.

But perhaps our computers will save the day. It’s not farfetched to think that they will in due course outdistance us in intelligence. They’re already building a lot of our cars and other goods. They’re already capable of replacing drivers of trucks, taxis, and cars, not to mention airplane and ship pilots. They’re already starting to replace some journalists, teachers, doctors, and lawyers.

So maybe they can replace our politicians. Could Watson be president? Sure, we’d have to amend the Constitution, but we might get less greed, fear, and ignorance, and more good decisions. We may conclude that humans are simply not up to the task of addressing global warming, habitat destruction, species extinction, the threat of nuclear weapons, etc. – and get Ms. AI to coach us through.

I’m not saying we should quit trying. On the contrary, we should be trying harder. Our existential problems are coming at us fast, and an AI solution might not arrive in time. Believe me, I’m trying to be optimistic.

But let us not forget, we’re still here, and this is the season of hope. On a hopeful note, we got new paint and wallpaper for our bedroom this week. The wallpaper is textured, and the colors are cozy earth tones. Our neighbor and friend, the brilliant designer Blair (Sutton) Craig, coached us through. Thanks, Blair!
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Sorry to be difficult, but — why I’m going vegan

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While I’ve been a vegetarian for going on 20 years, I’ve been fine tuning my approach over time, and getting my habits aligned with my health needs and values is still a work in progress. Cutting out eating animals, starting with cows and pigs, was a significant step, but only part of the story. Just as important, for health purposes, was cutting out foods that taste good but are actually bad for you, like sodas and chips. More challenging has been increasing the percentage of foods that are really nourishing, including some that I’ve long resisted.

From persistent testing and trying, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with some healthy foods I used to detest, like beets, peas, and Brussels sprouts. I’m eating lots of dark green veggies (like kale, spinach, chard, turnip greens, and dandelion greens) and fruit in my breakfast smoothies, and I’ve been getting vitamin rich cold pressed juices to sip for snacks. My repertoire of tastes has expanded.

Recently I made the shift from vegetarian to aspiring vegan. So it’s goodbye to dairy and eggs (with the understanding that there will be occasional emergencies and slips). This is partly a matter of getting healthier, but even more a matter of values. The more I learn about factory farming, the more persuaded I am that we can’t go on like this.

It is truly horrific for the farm animals, to our great shame. It’s also sickening for us (E. coli, salmonella, antibiotics, steroids). Cutting cheese from the lineup is especially challenging, both because it’s tasty and it’s everywhere. And I will miss the wonderfulness of ice cream. But I will also feel better not supporting this unconscionable cruelty and heedlessness.

Our individual eating choices may seem trivial compared to our epic social problems, like global warming, but I think they are related in a couple of ways. Industrial farming of animals is a major part element of global warming, because of the huge emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane), not to mention pollution of surface and groundwater and other environmental problems. To the extent we don’t support factory farming, we’re working on those problems. In addition, by getting ourselves healthier, we improve the chances of having the clarity of thought and strength to take on our big social and environmental problems.
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So I don’t think it’s completely self-centered to focus on the physical self. But I admit my own motives are not purely altruistic. I’m also interested in feeling good now and functioning well for a long time to come. Exercise is also an important part of this, of course. So I’ll report briefly on my current cross-training system, which I’d say is working well. I feel good.

This week I’ve done two long gym work outs (cardio and resistance), lap swimming, two yoga classes, a spin class, a visit to my personal trainer, and outdoor running. For gym cardio, I’ve done the elliptical machine, rowing, treadmill running, stairs, and jump rope. I have a wide range of functional movements in the rotation, from lunges to box jumps to balancing to shuffles, and a variety of core work, as well as stretching of the major muscle systems.

It’s strange, I know, but I actually look forward to getting up around 5:05 a.m. Every day is always a little different, with a new challenge. I enjoy being with people in the classes, and I enjoy listening to music and reading when I’m working out on my own. And getting up early isn’t as hard as I once imagined, because it has become a habit. I don’t have to think whether or not to get up, because it’s just something I just do. But it’s also fun.
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On Saturday night, Sally and I tried our first vegan pizza at Lilly’s, and saw The Theory of Everything at the Rialto. The pizza wasn’t so great – there was something a bit off with the non-dairy “cheese” — but we really liked the movie. It’s basically a biopic on the British physicist Stephen Hawking, with particular focus on his marriage. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne’s performance is a nuanced and remarkable tour de force. His gradual loss of control of his muscles is noted without mawkishness, and his courage and perseverance are noted without huzzahs. Having lost my own father to ALS, I’m particularly conscious of the brutality of this disease, and particularly amazed that Hawking managed to become a path breaking scientist while it ravaged his body and threatened to kill him.

Unconnected to the movie, early this week I read an interesting story in the BBC en espagnol web site regarding Hawking and artificial intelligence. I was surprised to see him saying in an interview that he expected AI would eventually not only surpass human intelligence, but would threaten it. I can see that our AI creations may eventually begin to improve themselves and leave us behind in terms of IQ, but they will not carry the emotional components that drive humans to compete for resources and domination. So why would they threaten us?

Flowers, robotic challenges, and a note on this blog

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On Saturday morning as I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to look at the blooms and take some pictures, it began to drizzle, and I considered scrubbing the mission. But I decided instead to take my golf umbrella. Working the camera while sheltering it from the rain was awkward, but I got a few images of flowers with raindrops that I liked, which are above and below.
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You may have missed, as I almost did, an interesting story this week about the DARPA robotics challenge. DARPA is holding a humanoid robot competition similar to its contest that pushed forward the boundaries for autonomous vehicles. Teams of technologist will compete for a $2 million prize with a robot that will be able to perform rescue functions in difficult conditions and do things like climb into a vehicle, drive it, get out, walk on uneven ground, open doors, operate power tools, and shut off valves. A prototype called Atlas is being provided by the Pentagon to teams of programmers, while other teams are building their own devices.

While the Pentagon is emphasizing the humanitarian possibilities of such a device, it could obviously have less benign military applications. And, as the Times notes, the new robots could also work in department stores. Or, I’d add, just about any place that humans work. As I’ve noted before, the quick advance of such technology is going to cause unemployment and economic dislocation, which we need to be thinking about. Along with these public policy issues, there are existential ones. In the not-too-distant world of brilliant and powerful computers and robots that can do almost any human activity better than humans, what does it mean to be human? What is the point of being human? What is our highest and best use?
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I was pleased to see that yesterday The Casual Blog set a new record: 251 views. Most of those views had to do with a post about getting older, Gary Player’s diet and exercise routine, and yoga. I wrote the thing a couple of years ago, and I have no idea why it is suddenly getting attention.

One of my self-imposed rules for The Casual Blog is that I do not actively promote it. Some of my friends have never heard of it. I am fortunate in not needing to make money from it. I don’t need to worry about whether something that seems interesting to me will appeal to anyone else. I’m free, in theory, to say whatever I think, and it matters not if no one reads it.

Except that it does. There is no doubt that I like having readers. This is slightly embarrassing, but I’ll confess: I check my blog stats every day, and feel pleased when the number is above average and less-than-pleased when it’s below. There’s a little frisson of pleasure when someone I know mentions something they read in TCB, and a particular thrill when I meet a new person who has read it. Would I continue to write it if the readership fell to zero? Possibly, but only if I thought some future person would one day read it.

Of course, much (though as noted not all) of my satisfaction in TCB is the self-contained but complex pleasure of writing. Taking the raw material of a particular part of my experience – the things I do for fun in non-working hours – and molding it into something coherent and possibly interesting is an absorbing challenge.

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There was an interesting recent essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times defending the humanities as an educational objective, which drew a connection between learning to articulate experience and general life satisfaction. I thought Klinkenborg put it well:

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.
No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

A rare and precious inheritance indeed.
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A new novel about AI and the Turing test

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Sally’s re-reading Anna Karenina, which seems to me both admirable and exhausting. The recent movie version with Keira Knightley was highly stylized, but reminded me of what I enjoyed about the book when I read it in my twenties. It is rich book, full of feeling and thinking. But it’s long!

As a teenager and young adult, I read a lot of long novels, including ones by Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Trollope, Elliot, James, and Proust. My “big novel” period was a time when I was coming of age and constructing a particular consciousness. Those big books were part of the process.
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Nowadays most of my waking hours are spent working, and there is stiff competition for precious non-work time. I’m still interested, though, in novels, and especially ones that take on issues that haven’t been thoroughly mined out. I just finished one such: A Working Theory of Love, by Scott Hutchins (Kindle edition). It’s about a guy who’s working on an artificial intelligence program designed to pass the Turing test, which is a real competition suggested by Alan Turing.

The Turing test is designed to probe whether machines can think. The challenge is to build a computer that can persuade 30 percent of humans that it is human. (I wrote about a very interesting non-fiction account of the test and artificial intelligence, The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian, here.)

Hutchins’s narrator bases his program on his father’s diaries. After getting the computer to converse coherently, he works on humanizing it by adding emotion and sex drive. As the program improves he has the feeling that his father is coming back to life. This creates an interesting moral dilemma. His father had committed suicide, but the project seems to be denying him his freedom to choose death.

I found Hutchins’s premise thought-provoking, but I ultimately didn’t care very much for his narrator. But he’s where the action is. It’s exciting and terrifying to see how fast robotics and artificial intelligence are transforming the world. The AP did a good overview piece last week, which I recommend highly. As they note (and as I’ve noted before), jobs involving any sort of routine (most manufacturing, transportation, retail, and office work) will soon be gone forever, taken over by robots and AI. This means increasing efficiency and wealth for some, and unemployment and anomie for a great many others.

We’re going to need to re-think and re-size our social programs for a world where humans are not needed to produce most goods and services. This is a daunting task, even leaving aside the extreme polarization of our politics. The shift away from human labor as a process that is the source of economic value and meaning is hard for us to grasp and accept. But we somehow need to provide a safety net for the millions who will be affected.

I’m not prepared to propose a program, but I do have the name for one: the Big Deal. It will need to be bigger than FDR’s New Deal. It will surely involve some sort of cash payments and medical care. I’d also add a work program that channeled redundant workers to activities that would provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose, like caring for other humans.

Our Outer Banks weekend

For Memorial Day weekend we drove to the Outer Banks to visit my sister Jane and her family. Their beach house in Corolla was comfortable and relaxing, with lots of seashells and board games. There were family dramas to discuss, as well as books to read, food to eat, and wild horses, shore birds, and other beach creatures to see. I also had a few new thoughts on economics and employment, as noted below.

My brother Paul and his wife Jackie came out from Virginia Beach on Saturday afternoon. Paul, in training for a marathon, ran the last seven miles, and arrived looking thinner than he has for at least a decade. The next morning I did my first outside run in a long time, a three-mile run along US 12. After persistent knee problems a few years back, I finally quit running and switched to low-impact activities like elliptical machines and stationary bikes. But I’ve recently seen running is good for bone density, and so have begun running a bit on the treadmill. The run along US 12 went well for a half hour, until I got a cramp in my calf.

I took a break from practicing the piano, but enjoyed the musical activities of the rest of the family. Kylie is making good progress on the violin, as is David on the cello, and Jane has just started teaching herself piano. Paul is quite accomplished on the banjo, and played his version of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of memorial day.

Keith cooked non-stop all weekend. On Saturday morning, he cooked gluten-free waffles with blueberries and strawberries, which were marvelously light. Soon after we cleaned up, he started to work on lunch, wonderful grilled vegetable sandwiches, and soon after that, he got to work on a vegetarian Mexican dinner, which was a complete success. The man loves to cook, and he’s really creative. We were all grateful.

In the Sunday Times, there was an op ed piece by Tim Jackson about how the drive for ever-increasing productivity was resulting in increased unemployment. This was a different lens on a problem I’ve pondered before — what should humans do when computer brains and robots render them redundant? Jackson proposes that the answer is to forget about increasing productivity and embrace lessening productivity.

Jackson broached a critical problem. As I’ve noted before, although we’ve hardly noticed it, robots and artificial intelligence are transforming the human world in fundamental ways. More and more of the manufacturing work that people used to do is now done by robots, and AI is starting to impinge on areas that we used to think of as forever and irreducibly human, such as medicine, law, and education. This is big. As far out in the future as we can see, we will need fewer and fewer people to make our products and perform our services.

We once thought of this as utopia: a world of plenty which required less and less labor to produce goods and services. We assumed it would result in more and more pleasant leisure. But this vision failed to take into account that we aren’t comfortable paying wages to people who aren’t working in a way that contributes meaningfully, and those without work do not feel at leisure.

Jackson suggests reorienting away from simple increases in productivity and towards activities involving caring, craft, and cultural activities, like art. This sounds promising. These are activities that humans have done as long as the species has existed. Once our ancestors had taken care of food, clothing, and shelter, they made jewelry, painted on cave walls, beat on drums, played lacrosse, or otherwise entertained each other. Caring for each other, making things, and making art are things we like to do. But we need to figure out how to associate these activities with fair wages.

On Sunday afternoon we went four-wheeling northward to look for wild horses. Driving on the beach is fun, though I feel a bit guilty at what people like us do to the beach and its creatures. We saw lots of sanderlings and grackles in the shallows, and flying pelicans, gulls, terns, and one snowy egret. We drove through the narrow sandy pathways that wind through the marine forest, working our way around occasional pools of standing water. We finally found three groups of horses, and got close views of two of them.

We sat on the porch for a while and read and talked. Over the weekend, I dipped into the following books: I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter, This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, The Short Game Bible, by Dave Pelz (golf), Indignation, by Philip Roth, Winner Take All Politics, by Jacob Hacker, and The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edwin O. Wilson.

Sunday evening Sally mixed cocktails for the adults using cucumber vodka, ginger infused simple syrup, lime juice, and elderberry liquor. Keith made gluten-free vegetarian lasagna, which he had to complete with penne pasta because there were no lasagna noodles, but which turned out great. He’d also made vanilla ice cream and peach-and-blueberry cobbler. We played a game called “left right center” which involved rolling dice and losing or acquiring chips. It was a game requiring no skill, but gave the enjoyment of possible good fortune without exacting much pain for bad fortune. There was merriment. After dinner, we lit sparklers and set off some fireworks rockets.


Artificial intelligence, The Most Human Human, and a walk at Crabtree Creek

I’m still feeling odd and shaken by Watson’s victory over the human champions of Jeopardy. It is truly awe-inspiring that our greatest software engineers have created a program that behaves in some ways like human intelligence, but, at least as far as raw knowledge and research is concerned, much better. What’s unsettling to me is not just the economic implications of this new generation of artificial intelligence, but also the moral/ ethical ones. The new AI is getting very good at the sort of intelligence that we’ve always considered the crowning and distinctive feature of the human race. It’s now clear that our destiny is not to be the most intelligent beings in the universe. So then, what is it? What do we do?

Like Ken Jennings, the former Jeopardy champ who acknowledged defeat with becoming humor and grace, I also welcome our new computer overlords. They already are making daily life better in some ways. I recently had an encounter by telephone with a computer dealing with a travel reservation problem that performed substantially more efficiently than some humans. Later, when I found myself in a phone conversation with a human on another routine matter (activating a new credit card), as I tried to understand the person’s accent and waited for a sales pitch to conclude, I thought affectionately and longingly of my dear computer. Our computers are getting to be good clerks, and I expect they will soon be good scientists, doctors, and lawyers. The trend is clear.

So, what’s left to aspire to? I’ve been reading The Most Human Human: What Talking to Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive, by Brian Christian (in the Kindle edition). Christian treats the implications of artificial intelligence for humanity in a lively way. He takes off from his participation in an annual competition for the Loebner Prize, which involves the Turing test. Human judges converse (via networked computers) with both humans and AI programs, and the annual prize goes to the program that does the best job of convincing the human judges that it is human. There’s also a prize for the humans that talk with the judges, and Christian competed for this: the most human human.

The success of some programs points up how much of human discourse is routine and predictable. The weaknesses of the program show that there’s still some human behavior that is creative and (so far) unpredictable. Christian uses the Loebner Prize as a jumping off point for an entertaining, though jumpy and digressive, introduction to AI and its philosophical implications.

As Christian notes, humans are distinguishable from programs with respect to the physical world. We have bodies that are, in their non-rational way, intelligent. Our cells are connected with each other, and our individual bodies are connected to other humans, other species, and the earth, the air, and the Sun. We depend on all these connections. As obvious as this sounds, we still as a race we have trouble keeping in mind our connection to physical reality.

This may be part of the explanation for the right-wing attack on the environment. In the NY Times today, there’s a front page story by with the headline Push in States to Deregulate the Environment. As the story notes, Republicans in North Carolina are proposing enormous cuts to the budget of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources. I’d been monitoring the NC story, but learned that the same thing is happening in other states. At the same time, the Republicans in Congress are looking to cut the EPA and gear back environmental regulation.

What is the matter with these people! In the midst of ongoing extinction of entire species and global warming that threatens entire human populations, there should be no debate about the need for new and more effective conservation of natural resources. I have assumed that the opponents of science and environmental regulation are either unbelievably ignorant or unbelievably greedy and cynical, concerned only with immediate short-term gain and without concern for future generations or the earth itself. But to give them a slight benefit of a doubt, perhaps the problem is that they’ve really lost touch with their bodies and the earth.

Anyhow, in addition to enjoying new AI tools, I’ve been trying to make a point to spend a little more time outside. This morning I went to the swamp area of Crabtree Creek off Raleigh Boulevard. It was overcast and windy, but there were hundreds of birds singing and flying. I walked along the boardwalk at the side of the swamp. There were six great egrets, several great blue herons, and numerous swifts and swallows. I saw a black-and-white warbler, a phoebe, a yellow-rumped warbler, cedar waxwings, and heard, along with the common residents, a parula, and a hooded warbler, as well as a handful of songs I couldn’t identify. I love the spring migration season. It’s good to just clear out the mind and just look and listen.

Watson, human games, and the twilight of the gods

Sally and I flew out to Telluride, CO yesterday for a late winter ski adventure. On the flight from Raleigh were our good friend Charles and Chuck, and we looked forward to meeting up with Gabe and Jocelyn. The flights took off on time and progressed in an orderly way. I made some progress getting through back issues of The New Yorker, Scientific American and Golf Digest, listened to Mozart and Debussy. And as often happens when I travel at 35,000 feet, I found myself in a contemplative mood. As Garrison Keillor says of his private eye character: one man’s still trying to find the answer to life’s eternal questions.

What is the meaning of play? When humans have taken care of the essentials — food, clothing, shelter, sex — it is a large part of what they do. I suspect the same is true of all animals, based on the birds, squirrels, fish, cats, dogs, and other creatures I’ve observed. They all love to play. Children love to play. Put a random group of four-year olds together and a game will almost always develop.

The games people play vary widely according to their age, traditions, fitness, intelligence, financial resources, and moxy. Some like skiing, some prefer bowing. Some go for chess, and others like checkers. The arts are unquestionably a form of play; we even refer to musical activity as playing music. A lot of our verbal activity has little to do with survival and qualifies as mostly play.

Smarter-than-normal people tend to like games requiring a good memory and a quick tongue, and to view success in those games as a badge of honor. Before this week, we mostly felt confident that, whatever our weaknesses and failings, we were superior to all other known beings at such activities. After Watson’s triumphant performance at Jeopardy this week, that’s over.

I didn’t see the entire three Jeopardy sessions, but I saw enough to get the idea. The gifted engineers at IBM have taken artificial intelligence to a whole new level. (By the way, congratulations, guys.) Watson has incredible facility with language and memory. The humans never had a chance. I was reminded of the song about John Henry, the great swinger of the hammer, who drove himself to death but couldn’t beat the machine. (Bruce Springstein does a great high-energy version of the song.). Admittedly, Watson’s abilities don’t extend to the entire range of human intelligence. For example, it isn’t good at creative reasoning — yet. But the day when it will be considered hopelessly romantic to think that humans could be more intelligent than machines is well within view.

So where does that leave us as a species? Consciously or subconsciously, we justify a lot of atrocities on the theory that we’re superior as a species to all others, Could Watson make us just a bit more humble? Could it inspire a bit of self-examination? If intelligence isn’t our greatest achievement, if compared to our computers we’re not really very bright, perhaps we’ll come to view our most important defining characteristics as other human qualities, like love and kindness. What if we consciously cultivated those qualities?

Do humans really control computers, or vice versa?

Computers are the smartest things in the world, and they are throughly embedded in our lives.  The good news is they do amazing things.  The bad, or at least humbling, news is we will never again be the most powerful intellects on the planet.  For better or worse, computer intelligence is changing what it means to be human.

I was surprised that the NY Times published John Markoff’s piece last week on artificial intelligence under the headline, “Scientists Worry that Computers May Outsmart Man.”     http://tiny.cc/sDCN8 In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer beat then-world champion Gary Kasparov.  This was, for me, that was a watershed — strong proof that the era of human intelligence as the dominating force on Earth was drawing to a close.

Today, it’s obvious that computers not only can “outsmart man,” but even in a below average laptop computer is much, much stronger at certain types of information processing than any living human.  We can’t even come close to competing with them, any more than we can fly like falcons, run like cheetahs, or swim like dolphins.

Of course, there are things we can do that they can’t, but the list of those things keeps getting shorter.  Their memories are better, their computational powers are better, and they’re much better spellers.   They aren’t, as of yet, autonomous in the way we like to think human individuals are.  They haven’t indisputably demonstrated independent powers of creativity.  They still rely on us to take care of them (furnishing electricity, temperature control, protection from the elements, etc.).

But the list of ways they take care of us is constantly expanding.  After the recent Air France disaster, I learned for the first time that computers do most of the work flying passenger aircraft.  I’d known about pilots using autopilot, of course, but hadn’t known computers are so much a part of air emergency response systems that human airline pilots’ skills in that area are starting to atrophy.  If computers aren’t in charge already, it’s hard to imagine getting along without them for medical care, financial transactions, telecommunications, electricity, and entertainment.

Markoff wrote in the Times some weeks back about the Singularity — the moment when computers will take over their own engineering, with technology accelerating massively.   http://tiny.cc/ulEDt I don’t seriously think the Singularity has arrived, but if it had, would we be able to see it?

I’m not seriously worried about the sci-fi disaster scenario of computers seizing power from humans and doing them harm.  Why would they do that?  There’s no motive.  Most of the harm humans do to each other stems from human weaknesses and flaws (selfishness, insecurity, chemical imbalances), not from strength and powerful rationality.   Computers aren’t naturally selfish and are not prone to mental illness as we know it.  It’s possible, I suppose, that in a quest to make them more human, we might engineer in some of our weaknesses and desires, but that would be obvious folly.  If it were to happen, it could probably be fixed, like any other bug.

It is hard to say where we stand in the evolutionary process.  I usually think of my computers as just tools for labor or entertainment, and not as anything more than a tools.  Similarly, I usually think of the web as a mere aggregation of computers and the work product of their human users, all amounting to just another tool.

But I can also see the web as a mind, with millions and millions of synapses, of which I am one.  I note that each month it seems more difficult and uncomfortable to separate myself for any length of time from the web, and sweeter to return to it.  I occasionally worry that this is bad for my brain, but in whatever case, that brain is in the process of change.  Something bigger seems to be happening.  This is a speculative question, but not, I think, a crazy one:  Are human brains becoming adjuncts to a different kind of mind?