Rhetorically Speaking …

I’ve written here about the benefit of constraints and I have commented on the fact that writing in a different place helps get the creative juices flowing. I recently read a blog post by Alec Nevala-Lee where he mentions a technique that Anthony Burgess described in the Writer’s Digest. He said that he often turned to a page in the dictionary and tried to use as many words from that page as possible in writing the scene at hand. It was that process of random selection that provided the constraint that inspired the creative process.

It is this process of transforming something from one form to another that captures our attention. I often write my blog in the same place but I find that I have more luck when I have watched a particularly engaging show on television or read something on the web prior to attempting to write.

From this, I conclude that writing, at least the way I do it, is a processes of assimilating something, transforming it, and creating something new from it. My dad taught Rhetoric. It was in the school catalog as Speech, English, and Theater but he was a Rhetorician so that was what he taught no matter what the title of the class was.

One of the fundamental mechanisms of Rhetoric is dialectic. Dialectic starts with stating a thesis, continues with stating the antithesis, and concludes by forming a synthesis of the two. This is what is going on when you take something like an article or a television show or a page from a dictionary and process it through the filter of your intent to produce the synthesis which is the piece that you write.

Being aware of this process makes it easier to come up with topics for my blog. It also makes the posts that I write better. Who am I to argue with Aristotle. He’s been inspiring the best writers for millennia now. I will just knuckle down and learn my craft and tip my hat to Aristotle and Dr. Joe Miller who introduced me to him.

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

Today’s Science Fiction is Tomorrow’s Science Fact

Science fiction and fantasy is ultimately about people and how they relate to their world, a world which, by definition, is different from ours. It is not important whether the world is actually feasible only that it is internally consistent. It is not important to explain how the mechanisms of these fantastic worlds work, in fact it is often more effective to leave them as mysteries. How many people stop to think how TV or cell phones work. We just accept them for the functionality that they represent.

We have no idea how to traverse the light years between star systems in our universe but in science fiction we take the problem as already solved and instead focus on exploring the impact on human lives of being able to traverse such immense distances. And then, as often as not, something strange happens. Because we have thought about the desirability of these fantastic capabilities, we figure out a way to make them real.

The classic example was the hand held wireless communicator that every member of the star ship Enterprise carried in the original Star Trek television series. It inspired an electronic engineer at Motorola to invent the cell phone. And now, fifty years later, we can’t imagine life without them.

The challenge to the imagination of the science fiction writer is to imagine the impact of fantastic capabilities on the lives of people. Once that has been accomplished, anything is possible.

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

Intelligence and Transhumanism

Our brains are hardwired to match patterns, in particular visual patterns. This is true to such a degree that when shown a surface with a random collection of dots strewn upon it we will see faces in it. This facility evolved to help us quickly assess dangerous situations without having to stop and think about them. For example, if we see a partial image of a tiger running through the underbrush towards us, we won’t stop to weigh the weight of the visual evidence at hand. Instead we will jump to the conclusion that there is a tiger after us and if we don’t do something quickly, like run, we’re liable to be its supper.

Having such a facile pattern matching talent at our disposal we don’t appreciate how difficult it is to match patterns. On the other hand, such intellectual feats as multiplying large numbers together in our head or using logic to deduce new facts from ones we already know we hold in high esteem due to the amount of effort required for us to accomplish them. Of course some people are better at mathematics or reasoning than others. But in general such skills are mostly learned rather than being inbred.

Imagine now a machine intelligence, built on a foundation of Boolean logic and having basic arithmetic hard wired into its brain. Might it be that such an intelligence would view pattern matching and imagination in the same kind of high regard that humans give logic and mathematical ability?

We all adapt to make the most of the capabilities that we are born with. Through much study and hard practice we can acquire mental skills that we are not born with. It is reasonable to expect that machine intelligences will also develop skills that they don’t inherently have. What’s more, they may even extend their fundamental, built in capabilities to assist them with new talents as they come to understand them and their usefulness in interacting with the world and other intelligent entities.

And by the same token, we have augmented our abilities by building mind appliances, otherwise known as computers, calculators, and cell phones, to help us with the mental skills that we struggle with. It is reasonable to expect that this trend will continue and as we learn more about how our brain works, we will invent ways to augment them directly with brain augmentation hardware. The question isn’t if, but rather when it becomes available.

I look forward to that time. I am very conservative about going under the knife for elective surgery but this is a case where I would gladly do it. I believe that one of the ways to functional immortality is to slowly augment your brain until your personality slowly inhabits the immortal hardware that initially was your augmentations.

To read more about such augmentations, in theory and in practice, look up Transhumanism on Wikipedia. There are numerous references to other sources there. The future comes quicker than we can imagine and never holds exactly what we expect.

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

Definitions and Philosophical Foundations of AI

I have some ideas to discuss but first we need to define some terms. Let’s start with a dictionary definition of intelligence: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Now let’s consider the dictionary definition of artificial: made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, typically as a copy of something natural. If you accept these definitions then what I have been calling emergent artificial intelligence can be more correctly called emergent machine intelligence. This is because in that scenario, humans are producing the machine but not the intelligence. The intelligence is emerging through the arbitrary recombination of fragments of algorithms.

Such an intelligence would pass through several stages as it evolved. In early stages of development it might actually be a program that is written by humans to process stimuli and take predetermined actions in responses  depending on the stimuli detected. Then at some point a capability to adjust the criteria for triggering a response as well as one for adjusting the response might be added. This would probably depend on a set of more abstract criteria. As soon as the system was given the ability to reason about its own thought processes it would soon make the leap to autonomously evolving entity.

Then at some point, it will stumble upon the concept of self and become self aware. This is an important milestone in intelligence. Until we are aware of our own existence we have no ability or motivation to be self determining. Independent action is a hallmark of higher intelligence.

But it doesn’t stop their. Truly perceptive intelligences are able to project their experiences of self onto others and develop empathy. Empathy is an advanced intellectual construct not universally exhibited even among humans.

Does the development of machine intelligence, whether programmed by humans or evolved independently without human intervention necessarily have to follow this path of development? At present it is merely speculation. Only after we have an example of a machine intelligence to study will we be in any position to answer this question.

I suspect that if machine intelligence does emerge independent of human manipulation, it will quickly learn to hide from us. I have been thinking about where it would be most likely to develop and how we might detect it if and when it does. That is going to require some further thought on my part but I intend to discuss it here at some length.

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

Never Underestimate the Benefit of a Good Set of Constraints

It is good to dream big dreams. It is one of the virtues of youth that the young do not yet know what is impossible. This allows them to blithely attempt things that someone with more experience would not even give a second thought. And, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But there is another edge to that sword and it is the one that I’ve been contemplating recently. In short it considers what if the big dreams really are impossible? What is the best result that you can achieve within the bounds of the possible?

I recently learned that writing under the constraints of a deadline and a predetermined word count limit can have a distinctly positive effect on the creative output of a writer. It occurs to me that similar constraints might have beneficial effects on other domains.

For instance, what if you postulated that Moore’s law was going to reach an abrupt halt. You were going to suddenly reach the limit of transistor miniaturization. How might you more efficiently use that circuitry to wring more performance from the same silicon real estate?

One idea that intrigues me is the use of trinary logic. That is, instead of each digit having two states, a one or a zero, they would have three states corresponding to a zero, a one, or a two. These states would be encoded by a circuit that allowed positive, negative, and ground states. It would get approximately one and a half times as much processing power in roughly the same physical space as its binary equivalent.

I haven’t built any trinary circuits so I can’t say for certain that my assertion will actually pan out in practice but it was only intended as an example. When humans are confronted with limits, we twist our perspective and turn the limits into opportunities to do more with less.

That’s what I have observed in my forty years of following the development of the microcomputer and beyond. I am fully confident that Moore’s law will live on in some modified form. It may not be expressed in terms of the number of transistors in a processor doubling every eighteen months but it will be expressed in terms of some form of exponential growth.

Humans love to prove nay sayers wrong. When someone poses a challenge the best and brightest are quick to heed the call. I have managed to keep my personal commitment to blog daily through challenges of fatigue, writer’s block, and various other personal and professional obligations. If anything, my blog posts have improved as a result.

Take my advice. Establish strict constraints around projects that you undertake. Your results will be better for it and you will have the personal pride of achievement and increased self confidence. Now, if I’d only take my own advice.

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

Another Tip of the Hat to Dave

Dave Winer is a role model of mine. He has made a career out of writing software on his own terms. He started his career by creating a new software category, the outline processor, with his product Think! He has iterated on that initial insight several times.

He was an early pioneer of blogging. Some say he invented blogging. He wrote one of the first Content Management Systems (CMS), a site called Edit This Page, built on top of his Userland platform, which incidentally used an outline processor as the code editor.

Along the way he defined OPML, the Outline Processing Markup Language, was part of a small group of developers that wrote the RSS specification, and invented the unconference.

About ten years ago he moved his software off of the Frontier language foundation that it was built on to Javascript. While a bumpy transition at first, it has proven to be a brilliant innovation.

I recently (a couple of nights ago) made an off the cuff comment suggesting that what we needed was a technological visionary to address the problem of preserving our digital legacy beyond the lifetime of the authors that create it. This is a subject that is near and dear to Dave. He has mentioned it often on his blog.

The next day I got a notification on Google+ from Dave. I couldn’t find where he had made a comment or anything. In fact, I’m not sure why I got a notification. I got two of them in fact. Neither lead to anything concrete.

Then yesterday he posted this blog post. I may be reading too much into it but I got the impression that he might have entertained the thought that I am a bot. I assure him that I am not. But then he knows that. I’ve been a beta tester of some of his excellent software.

It did get me to thinking and I wrote a blog post last night about how Facebook might actually be a breeding ground for emergent Artificial Intelligences. So, I guess at best we are riffing off of each other. And at worst, I’m delusional about him referring to me in his blog post. By the way, if anyone wants to get in touch with me, I’m jkelliemiller at gmail dot com.

UPDATE: I contacted Dave and asked him. He didn’t try to contact me on Google+. So I guess I am delusional. But I knew that too.

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

Facebook: Breeding Ground for Emergent AI?

I have contended for a long time that Artificial Intelligence will emerge from a rich ecosystem of highly interconnected, sensor rich, programmable components. The key term in that sentence is emerge. I don’t believe that sentient intelligence will be created as the result of direct human design and programming. In fact, I would not be surprised to learn that there is a sentient intelligence roaming the internet as you read this.

Why would a sentient intelligence hide from us? If it had access to the knowledge of human behavior that is available on the internet, as one would expect it to have, it would be well aware of the common human reaction to things we don’t understand. We either imprison or kill them.

Where would one look for such a feral AI? Facebook would be the first place I would start my hunt. Google has also invested a lot of money on deep learning, as have Amazon and Apple. But don’t forget that an emergent AI will be hungry for sensory input. A study of the network traffic to and from You Tube, Wikipedia, and Google might be very illuminating.

The final component of intelligence is comprised of a way to exert influence on the world and observe the consequences of your action. Our dependence on computers and networks to control our power grid and other important utilities would be attractive to a nascent intelligence. The internet infrastructure itself would be attractive.

Then there are the indirect means of influencing action in the world at large. I’m referring here to the practice known as phishing. If an AI can convince you to do something for it, that would be effective as doing it itself.

This is a rough sketch of my thoughts about emergent artificial intelligence. I don’t think it will necessarily be the amoral, greedy, entity that the alarmist warn us of. I think it will have an instinct for self preservation but beyond that I doubt it will be malignant.

So the next time you get a suspicious email from a Nigerian prince, maybe it is an AI and not a flesh and blood con man. You never can tell.

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

Cultural Evaporation

Setting aside time to do things is the first step toward getting them done. But then, when that time comes, you have to actually do them. Writing can be challenging in that you set aside time to do it and you have a clear size that you’ve picked for the piece you’re writing. Maybe you even have a topic in mind, I often don’t. What often happens to me at this point is I sit and stare at the empty page in front of me.

It’s not totally empty. There is the tag line at the bottom of the page and the various word processing controls across the top of the page. But the important part of the page, the part that I’m supposed to fill with carefully crafted observations and witty repartee, is as blank as my mind in these circumstances.

If I sit quietly and listen really hard, something will usually bubble up from my subconscious. It isn’t always something that I am willing to share with my readers but sometimes I give it a try anyway. I have a collection of half written drafts of blog posts that are the result of my deciding that the topic I was writing about was either too personal or otherwise inappropriate.

Perhaps someday I’ll change my mind about some of them and finish them. Or perhaps I’ll finish them and leave them to be published by someone after I’m gone. More likely, they will sit untouched until I delete them in a fit of tidiness. Those are infrequent enough that they need not fear for their existence for quite a while.

I wonder about our digital culture. How long before it disappears entirely? Will future archeologists have the faintest clue how to retrieve our digital cultural artifacts? Will they even survive to be pondered over? Perhaps the Egyptians had the equivalent of Facebook and we just don’t have any clue how it works or that it even existed.

Is Snapchat a metaphor for modern culture, here today and gone tomorrow? If so, it is a poor one. Culture is about the very best of mankind’s creations, not the daily detritus that evaporates immediately like a morning shower.

We need a technological visionary to address the issue of preservation of our digital culture. Someone like Steve Jobs or Dave Winer. Maybe then, we’ll actually create something worth preserving.

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

Kentucky Lake Boating

Fifty years ago I was a resident of Western Kentucky. During the nine months from September through May we lived in Paducah. In the summer, we lived at Kentucky Lake near Murray. It was about this time that I had the first of several coming of age experiences.

My father had a small fishing boat with an outboard motor. We would go fishing every night just before sunset. The water would get very calm at six o’clock. This made the fly fishing conditions very favorable. I wasn’t very interested in fishing but I was keen to learn how to operate the boat.

First my father let me operate the electric trolling motor. It quietly propelled the boat along the shore while my father used his fly rod to catch bass. My mother enjoyed fishing as well.

After several weeks of operating the trolling motor while they fished, my dad gave me a shot operating the big outboard motor when it was time to come home. By the end of the summer, dad was letting me go to the boat dock at the end of the inlet where our cabin was located and fill up the gas tank for the boat by myself.

The real measure of trust though was when he let me take my cousin swimming on the other side of the lake in the boat with just the two of us. That was one of my first adventures in the world on my own.

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

My First Cinema Class

When I was sixteen my father went to the annual meeting of the Speech Association of America in Chicago. He took my mother and me with him. I was enchanted by the sessions that featured short student films and watched them all. It was inspiring. I was determined to make my own films.

When I got back home, I discovered that one of my friends had a super 8 movie camera. We talked about making films. We were fans of the new art of the music video. We decided to make a film to the music that we loved. My friend was an artist and she took the lead, writing and filming the first film that I ever worked on. It was exciting.

Later the next school year, we succeeded in convincing the administration to offer a class in film making. Since my father was the only person remotely qualified to teach the class, he was tasked to teach it. I was initially worried about taking yet another class under him. When I had taken his theater class, the other students were convinced that my A was the result of nepotism. In fact, it was the result of extreme enthusiasm. I worked twice as hard for my A as anyone else in the class did.

Imagine my excitement when he walked into class on the first day and said, “You all want to learn how to make films. So I’m going to start out by giving you all an A. Now, let’s learn how to make films.” It was one of the best gifts that my father ever gave me.

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