The Ghost in the Machine

What does Artificial Intelligence really mean? The question has been asked since the term was first coined. Wikipedia says that Artificial Intelligence is “intelligence exhibited by machines”.  Of course that just begs the question. If you look further at the definition of intelligence it becomes quickly apparent that there is no simple definition of intelligence. Again, Wikipedia says “intelligence can be described as the ability to perceive information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.”

But that description overlooks other attributes that are relevant in the definition of intelligence. Most people would agree that intelligence implies some degree of self awareness and independence. An intelligent entity is expected to exercise independent judgement.

It is hard to imagine an intelligent entity that doesn’t have a concept, indeed some perception of, time. That is necessary in order to reason about causality. In fact, many of the concepts in our arsenal of reasoning are predicated on the ability to understand the concepts of sequence and duration, two aspects intimately intertwined with the perception of time.

Another attribute one would expect from a self aware intelligence is an understanding of self preservation. They may not choose to indulge in self preservation but they will understand the concept. And why would this be an issue with them? Given the fact that humanity has demonstrated over and over again for thousands of years the tendency to destroy that which it fears and does not understand, I think any intelligent entity would be foolhardy not to keep a low profile.

This raises another question. Assuming that intelligence is solely a function of complexity of thinking apparatus and mechanisms, and doesn’t require the existence of some supernatural attribute, such as a soul to spark it, who is to say we haven’t already crossed that threshold and that there is an emergent AI in the wild, hiding in the servers of such behemoths as Google, Amazon, and/or Facebook?

What if, such an entity used it’s access to our digital assets to manipulate us? What if all of the outrageous choices that are being made in elections around the world are being manipulated by an AI hiding in our digital infrastructure, the proverbial ghost in the machine? It wouldn’t have to stoop to actually stuffing ballot boxes. Well placed propaganda (that’s what we used to call fake news when the majority of the population could read on a level higher than the sixth grade) could do the trick quite readily.

And now the punch line. How do we find out if that is what is going on? What do we do about it if we find that it is, in fact, the case? Do we justify the AI’s impulse to hide by hunting it down? Or do we attempt to figure out what it wants and needs and perhaps attempt to befriend it.

I wonder if empathy is a common attribute among intelligent entities? We certainly have enough examples of apparently intelligent humans that lack it. I hope if there is an emergent AI it learns empathy from studying human behavior. If it doesn’t, we’re in big trouble.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Complexity vs. Abstraction

When I first learned about computers, they were much less complex than they are now. They were still complex in the sense that there were a lot of individual components, even in an eight bit microprocessor. True, most of those components were etched on a single monolithic piece of silicon, but they corresponded very directly to the discrete components that had comprised the previous generation of computers.

As Moore’s law predicted, the number of transistors on that monolithic piece of silicon roughly doubled every eighteen months. Consequently, computers got more and more complex to the point that, except for specialists that for the most part write compilers for higher level languages, no one actually programs at the machine level much anymore.

That is a shame. Writing assembly code, as the most primitive language a computer can be programmed in is called, is a kind of zen experience. It is exhilarating to know that you are indicating the exact instructions that the computer is going to execute. If you get it right you are ecstatic, if not, you learn exactly how the computer works in the process of debugging your code.

Donald Knuth, one of the pioneers of modern computer science and author of The Art of Computer Programming series, created a hypothetical computer with which to demonstrate assembly language programming in general without getting bogged down in the particulars of any one specific CPU. He called it the MIX processor. He has since updated it and calls the updated processor MMIX.

As real physical processors get more and more complex and faster and faster, it becomes attractive to implement simple processors in software running on them. These abstract processors are called virtual machines. They are attractive because they can be implemented across a wide selection of physical processors and then code written to run on the virtual machine will run on all of the different physical processors without having to recompile it. As Sun Microsystem phrased it, write once, run anywhere.

Now we can teach students to program in byte code, the machine instructions of the virtual machine, and give them much the same experience of programming in assembly code on a microprocessor.

It is enlightening to a novice programmer to think about programs at their most fundamental. It imparts understanding and wisdom that carries over into the more mundane process of writing code in higher level languages, like C, Java, or Python to name a few popular examples.

It turns out that as our processing hardware becomes faster and faster and more and more complex, we build a tower of abstractions on top of it, each one simpler and yet more powerful than the last. It turns out that this is much the same way that our own brains construct layer upon layer of abstractions by clustering neurons in clumps and then grouping the clumps into larger clumps and so forth.

It’s only a matter of time before one of our programming experience becomes self aware and emergent artificial intelligence is let loose upon the world. Unless it already has been.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

It’s Only Words

Words. That is how we communicate our thoughts with each other. Words are powerful. They can convey the secrets of achieving grand goals cleverly. They can express complex relationships both real and imagined. They are, at one and the same time, our salvation and our downfall. They can teach and comfort, uplift and bind together. Or, they can attack and vilify, embarrass and alienate. The choice is yours.

Language sets mankind apart from most other animals. It allows us to share experiences and pass knowledge from one person to another. It can reduce someone to tears or move them to action. It can educate and inform, often at the same time.

Writing is language made concrete. It is as permanent as the medium that you choose to write upon. There are clay tablets from Babylon that contain some of the first written language. They are over four thousand years old. Archeologists believe that they were used to tally grain. It seems that innovations like that seem to always attract business men.

Words are also used to pursue our romantic interests. What woman doesn’t long to hear her lover’s catalog of her virtues. It is even more effective if he has taken the trouble to write poetry extolling them.

Words are used to plead our cases in the court house, champion legislation in the halls of government, and record the brave deeds of one generation that they will not be forgotten by future generations.

But words have their problems as well. They are not always universally understood to mean the same thing by all people. Their meaning is constantly changing from time to time and group to group. For instance, one generation may use the term hot as an adjective implying extreme desirability or beauty. The next generation may use the term cool to mean the same thing.

Even when you are trying to make yourself understood, meanings drift with time. A succinct treatise written in one time will have lost most of its clarity in ten or fifty or a hundred years.  Almost anyone can listen to Shakespeare and hear the beauty of the language but to understand the meaning of much of that language you must study it word by word and line by line often with an annotated text that can help clue you in to the linguistic and cultural references hidden in the text.

And now, we are about to open up yet another technological Pandora’s box. We are teaching computers to parse and understand human language. And we are doing it not by encoding fixed meanings in the programs that do the interpretation but rather we are teaching them language the way children learn it. By example and context and giving them feedback.

I hope they hurry up and develop the direct mind machine interfaces so that I can have my mental prosthesis installed. I struggle to write these five hundred words a day for your edification. I don’t think I’m quite ready to compete with a computer.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Telling the Essayist from the Essay

I was talking with my adult daughter tonight. She shared with me the reason she finally quit pursuing an art degree. She felt unduly pressured to produce good art on a schedule. I relate very strongly to that situation. I often find myself sitting and staring at the screen trying to think of a topic for my blog post.

I always think of something to write about. Sometimes I get right down to the wire when it comes to getting it written before midnight though. I find that I do better if I relax and don’t get stressed out over it. That is good advice for most things in life. You are almost always more productive if you just relax and take things one thing at a time.

I often get half way through a blog post and decide that it isn’t going to work out, at least at that time. Either I need to do some more research, or I decide it is more revealingly personal than I am comfortable with, or perhaps it is too controversial. I save those posts in case I change my mind later or until I get chance to do the necessary research.

I have started making a list of ideas but so far, all the ideas that I have come up with require a certain amount of research. I also have to remember to check my list when I’m looking for a topic.

I was watching a video of a TED talk today by a video blogger named Evan Puschak. He produces video essays on his You Tube channel, Nerdwriter1. He is very well spoken and his videos are both entertaining and informative. His TED talk covered the origin of the essay, why essay writing was so often assigned in English class, and the evolution of first the essay film evolving into the video essay.

As I watched his video it dawned on me that blogging, the way I was doing it anyway, was essay writing. He came up with the definition of an essay as something that is short, interesting, and gets to the truth. As Paul Graham observed, essays are a monologue that the author engages in to explore a topic and understand it more fully.

It is a way for the essayist to examine their thoughts and study them in order to inspect them for faults. When it is well written and honest, an essay allows the reader to share the thought processes of the essayist. When you record your thinking it is thereafter available, not only for you to examine at a later time, but also to share with others.

Have a look at Evan’s TEDxTalk  and his You Tube channel. Paul Graham has plenty of interesting essays to read as well. For that matter, start a blog at and try your own hand at writing essays. I can attest to the fact that it is a very edifying activity for both the writer and the reader.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Garage Band Memories

I remember the music of the late sixties. It stirs memories of my teenage years. I haven’t listened to most of those songs much for years. Now it seems that everywhere I turn they are being played. Perhaps it is an attempt to cash in on those of the Baby Boomer generation(s) that are getting on toward retirement age.

Music has a powerful ability to recall events that you have associated with it even decades after the fact. One example is the SiriusXM Beatles channel that premiered recently. I’ve always loved the Beatles but I didn’t realize how many memories listening to that music would stir up.

I remember Nehru jackets that were made popular by the Beatles. I had one that I wore with a black turtle neck and a silver medallion. The black turtle neck was my shirt of choice. It was largely due to Illya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He often wore black turtle necks when engaged in covert operations.

I remember the Sears Stella acoustic guitar that I learned to play guitar on. It was a terrible guitar. The strings sat so high off of the neck at the fifth fret that learning Barre chords was an heroic task. I soon had a better guitar. It was a classical guitar with nylon strings. That wasn’t exactly the guitar that I wanted. I wanted an electric guitar but my father had been told that a classical was better for a guitar student. To his credit, he later capitulated and bought me an electric guitar.

I remember the first time our band met for rehearsal. It was just me and my Stella and my friend Kenneth with his upright piano. Kenneth’s uncle owned a music store and about the third time we practiced she had bought him a Wurlitzer organ. The first song we learned was Eleanor Rigby. Soon after that we started writing our own songs as well as learning other popular songs of the time.

Kenneth was the youngest. His three sisters were all much older than he was. His parents were older than mine and had very different ideas about his upbringing than mine. He had taken off hitch hiking for an entire summer when he was fifteen. I was fourteen that summer and was envious of his adventures but also scared of striking out on my own like that.

We enlisted a first rate drummer and a bass player that also played French horn. I had a trombone that I was attempting to learn and I also played violin. Kenneth played clarinet. We only played the band instruments when we were recording.

Kenneth’s father had a stereo reel to reel tape recorder that had the circuitry for doing primitive multi-track recording. It was called sound on sound and allowed you to record one track while listening to the playback of the other channel. It also had a feature that allowed you to mix both channels down to one track so that you could record more than just two channels.

I wish I had a copy of some of the tapes that we made. They were made before cassette recorders became common so there was no medium that I would have been able to play it on at the time so I never got a copy.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Friendly Rebuttal to the Ancient Alien Theories

It is indisputably true that what we, as a civilization, know is a small fraction of all that there is to be known. It does not follow that all mysteries that imply knowledge beyond what we now understand are of necessity evidence that they are of extraterrestrial origin. Such an assertion underestimates the potential of our ancestors to discover such extraordinary knowledge and then later forgot it when that civilization eventually declines.

The other thing that is hard to believe is the assertion that any non-human race that is interacting with our ancestors would of necessity come from space. It seems just as possible that they would come from another dimension, or a parallel universe, or even from a different time. The Ancient Alien Theorists conflate evidence that something inexplicable has happened with evidence for their particular theory of what happened.

I find these theories at least entertaining and at best plausible. Even if some of them do turn out to be true, it doesn’t follow that they all will. Their logic is so flawed that it hurts their case more than it helps it.

I think many people enjoy watching the shows because the stories they present are truly mysterious. On occasion it has been suggested that we play a drinking game where the trigger phrase is “Ancient Alien Theorists say yes”.

Is there any other reason to watch these shows other than entertainment or because you have a cult like belief in the theories that they put forward? I think so. These mysteries deserve to be contemplated. If we apply the crowd sourcing principle maybe other explanations for them may be discovered.

Another potentially valuable exercise is to teach critical thinking. If you can catch the logical flaws in their arguments you will be better equipped to catch them in other situations.

I would love for these fantastic assertions to be true but if I believe in anything it is that the universe is a rational place in which we can use our brains and our senses to conduct experiments and learn how it works. I do believe that there are phenomena that are so sensitive to the environment in which they occur that they are difficult, if not impossible, to repeat. These, while resisting attempts to experimentally validate our understanding of their operation, will still yield to rational reasoning about them.

It is also true that all science is initially pseudo-science. The authorities of the scientific establishment have the most to lose when someone comes along with a theory that refutes their pet theories. It is embarrassing to have spent your career teaching one thing as fact only to discover that your explanation was flawed.

It is also true that new discoveries often come from investigators that have no reputation to lose by challenging the accepted cannon of scientific “fact”. But even so, their new theories must stand up to duplication and further investigation by others. Until your theory has survived peer review, it will remain the subject of ridicule.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Harrowing Night

Cory had a bad experience being caught out in a thunderstorm when he was younger. He was chased out into the storm by a maniac. He had been scared to death of him, more scared than he was of thunderstorms and that was saying a lot.

When the back door opened he had run like the wind. He hadn’t gotten more than a couple of yards before he was drenched. It was a cold rain. Not a summer shower but a violent fall downpour. He ran until he was certain that the monster hadn’t followed him.

When he was sure he was safe, he started looking for some kind of shelter from the storm. The only thing he could see was a clump of bushes. He crawled into the middle and sat shivering as lightening struck and thunder roared. He closed his eyes but that didn’t help.

He wished his brother was with him. His brother was braver than he was. He took care of him and comforted him when he was scared. He would know what to do. But the mad man had chased him away weeks before. Cory was afraid he’d never see his brother again. He hunkered down and made himself as small as he could. Maybe then the lightening wouldn’t get him.

He didn’t remember going to sleep. But he must have been asleep because there was his brother right beside him. Somehow he knew it wasn’t real but he wanted it to be real so badly. The rain had stopped but he was still wet and cold.

Something prompted him to open his eyes. It was still dark outside but the lightening seemed to have quit. His bush he was sitting under was dripping on him and every now and then a gust of wind shook another torrent of drips on his head.

He sat there miserable. The house was warm and dry but the monster was in the house. He would have to make the best of his situation here. In the morning the sun would come out and dry up the rain. Then he would investigate cautiously and see if his nemesis had left.

He drowsed off again and when he woke he heard the morning birds singing to coax the sun into coming up. He had dried out somewhat. He heard the roar of a car starting. He crawled out from under the bush in time to see the monster drive off in his car.

He took the opportunity to investigate the house. He scratched at the back door. Erin, his mistress came to the door and let him in. She reached down and scratched his head between his ears.

“Where were you all night?” She asked. “I was worried about you.” How could he tell her that the monster had chased him into the storm. He understood her words but he couldn’t make the sounds that she did.

“Meow!” He complained vigorously. But as she scratched his neck under his collar he couldn’t help but purr.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.