The Casual Blog

Tag: robots

A new novel about AI and the Turing test

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.

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.

My new free smartphone, and some thoughts about technology and unemployment

I got my first free (aka open source) smartphone a couple of days ago, a Samsung Galaxy S III with the Android operating system. I love the larger screen, with its excellent resolution, and the form factor in general — light, thin, and rounded, and still small enough to go in my pocket. It comes with a good array of apps, and there are thousands more available at free or low cost. The touchscreen interface is intuitive. The voice command option does not seem as smart as Siri is reported to be, but other apps load fast and work beautifully.

Will this change the place of a smartphone in my life? Probably a bit, because the bigger screen and faster speeds (4G) make it easier to use. The civil libertarian in me worries somewhat about the ability of such devices to track me and potentially invade my privacy, but I’m also amazed and happy with all the useful things it can do, such as helping me with directions, accessing every type of knowledge on the internet, performing word processing and other computing functions, entertaining me with movies, music, and photographs, and connecting me to people through text, email, and phone. Smartphones can potentially make us more productive and happier.

At the same time, our technology is transforming us in other ways that are more worrisome. This morning’s New York Times has a long story on remarkable advances in robotics, which are replacing skilled manufacturing jobs in electronics and logistics, along with lots of others. The story cites a book I recently read and would recommend: Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

The authors, economists at MIT, present a clear overview of technological change, which they describe as increasing exponentially. Moore’s law continues to double processing power every 18 months, and software advances are moving much faster than that. Technology harbingers like Watson the Jeopardy champion and the Google self-driving car are the tip of the iceberg.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee recognize that computers can’t yet do everything humans can do, but they have already replaced many kinds of routine work, and inevitably will replace more and more skilled work. This accounts for part of our persistent problems of unemployment even as the economy is growing. Traditional economics assumes that new technologies will eventually produce new jobs, but B and M point out that if technology continues to improve exponentially, computers will be able to perform more and more human jobs better and more cheaply. It’s difficult to see how new jobs could equal those that are eliminated.

If they’re right (and I think they are), we’ve got major social dislocations ahead. In our society, people work not only to earn a living, but also define each other and themselves in large part according to their work. Thus unemployment is not just financially threatening — it’s humiliating. With more and more people unemployed, unable to buy goods and services and without social moorings, our social and financial system will face an existential crisis.

What is to be done? We’ll need to change the way we organize ourselves, the way we distribute wealth, and the way we think about value. We’ll need to find new approaches for valuing and caring for others, and for thinking about the meaning of our own lives.

I had a small epiphany on this yesterday when our friends Ken and Carol took us out on Falls Lake for some water skiing. They both retired early, and do things they enjoy doing, like boating, tennis, and travelling. I have trouble imagining myself retired in this sense. But as we sat on their boat on the lake in the late afternoon, we talked about our lives, told stories, and swam a little, and enjoyed the lake and surrounding forest. Then we took turns getting pulled by their quick little boat on one of their various toys. Ken rode a hydrofoil chair and a wakeboard, and I had a go with old school water skis, which I enjoyed enormously. These things have deep value: sharing stories and experiences.

My Father’s Day trip to a new race track (CMP)

Last weekend, I took Clara down to Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C. for some track driving. My Garmin GPS guided us down country roads and through small Baptist towns. I’ve gotten to like as a companion the Garmin’s female voice, except when she says, “Recalculating.” This can be interpreted as, “Can’t you even follow a simple instruction!” I’d like to defend myself, for example, when she didn’t describe a particular turn clearly, but we cannot have a dialog — yet. Anyhow, this was a pleasant trip of just three hours.

CMP is a road track with 14 turns, and my first objective was to learn the line for each turn. Even with this clear commitment and my experienced teacher beside me, I found it challenging to memorize the exact turning points of the track. There’s so much kinetic sensation, so much noise. After a dozen or so laps, I started to build up a body of knowledge, but even then, I had a few lapses.

In addition to learning the track, I learned more about performance driving techniques, including rev matching, dealing with understeer, the beginnings of trail breaking, and assorted other bits of car stuff. Not surprisingly, almost everyone at the event was into cars, and some were clearly crazy for cars.

Car-philia seems to be less common today than in my youth, as young people adore their smartphones more than their wheels. I remember my dad talking to relatives, acquaintances, and strangers about their cars and his, Ford versus Chevy, this year’s models versus last year’s, and on and on, and remember wondering why adults were always so boring. But the worm has turned, and now I find it all enjoyable. Even technical discussions of specific engine problems that I know absolutely nothing about, which I used to make me feel incompetent and confused, now seem intriguing, even though part of me realize we’re talking about relatively ancient technology.

At this event, organized by the Tar Heel Sports Car Club, there were some cars like Clara, pretty street cars with lots of power and a racing heritage. A Lamborghini stood out as the exotic queen of this subgroup.

But there were also a fair number of cars that at first glance looked like sad junkers, and on closer inspection turned out to be highly elaborate racing machines. I began to see how it could be fun to have an ugly car for which the only concern would be track performance. It would be nice, in a way, to not worry that Clara’s beautiful body might be seriously maimed by a poorly judged turn followed by a high-speed encounter with the tire wall.

On the other hand, this would involve a significant investment in infrastructure: a trailer, a vehicle to tow a trailer, a place to stow the trailer and vehicle, more tires, tools, etc. And a lot more time to take care of it all. There’s the rub. This would be fun, but there’s an opportunity cost — other fun foregone, other thoughts unthought.

My teacher, John, was a friendly, funny guy who turned out to know not only a ton about driving and cars, but also a lot about contemporary technology. We had a great conversation about robotics and economics.

He predicted that in the not-distant future driverless cars would end the need to buy a personal car, as groups of people subscribe to a share of a fleet of driverless cars that can appear to convey them at any time. In his view, states will eventually put strict legal limits on human driving, on the grounds that driverless cars are so much safer and more environmentally sound. The driverless cars will go much faster safely, and work together in a network to police themselves. If one should go rogue, the others will cooperate to avoid being damaged and to deal appropriately with the offender.

I told John about a story the prior week in the WSJ about the bomb-squad robots of the US Army in Afghanistan. The robots have saved plenty of human lives, which is good. But the surprising thing was that the units get attached to their particular robots and treat them as companions. When a unit’s robot gets blown up, when feasible it is shipped to the robot hospital. Its companion soldiers at times are specific that they want their robot repaired and returned to the unit, rather than a replacement.

I stayed at the Colony Inn in Camden in a ground floor room that opened onto the parking lot. It featured the three c’s: clean, comfortable, and quiet, and entirely worth $65 dollars a night, even if they didn’t throw in breakfast. I watched some of the Master’s golf tournament on non-HD TV and sipped some wine from the Piggly Wiggly. At the urging of Larisa, my personal trainer, I’d bought some TRX portable trainer cables. In the morning, since the Colony had no gym, I hooked the the TRX systen to the door and got in a workout.

It is my custom in all hotels to leave a few dollars for the housekeepers, which I figure they can use and which may create good karma. I was glad that I followed this custom at the Colony. When I checked out I left behind my phone charger. The manager gave me a call to let me know, and I was able to retrieve the charger. This was excellent karma.

There was nothing remotely like healthy vegetarian food at the snack bar at the track, but happily I found a Subway sandwich shop a few miles down the road. Oh Subway, you are the best! In the ugly wilderness of industrialized and unhealthy fast food, so many times you have nourished me well. I ordered my usual: whole grain bread, a variety of greens and vegetables, and that delightful honey-mustard dressing. It was tasty. My Subway sandwich guy made eyes at Clara.

I did not have any serious driving errors on this trip, but as I increased my speeds I also increased the stress on my brakes, and learned what happens when brakes overheat. It is more exciting than desirable to have big speed approaching a tight turn, to hit the brake pedal hard, and find that it goes all the way to the floor with half the usual braking power. I somehow stayed on the track. John counseled me to take the last few laps of that session slower and to drive a few minutes afterwards to cool the brakes down.

On the trip back, I got a call from Jocelyn, who wished me a happy Father’s Day. I regard this holiday as even more synthetic than Mother’s Day, an occasion for retailers to encourage watch and tie consumption and, except to them, of little real value. Yet it was ever so sweet to hear her voice. As I told her, she was one of my two proudest achievements as a father.

She’s currently working her first retail job in a high-end sportswear store in Telluride. It doesn’t sound like her ideal career path, but at least it’s a job. She’s been going out with a cute guy, a river rafting and fly fishing guide whom she really likes. It seemed like she was doing OK.

Later I got a Father’s Day text from Gabe, which said I was the best dad, which I am sure is not true, but I was grateful for the thought.

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.