Red Nose Day

It is amazing how the British go all out for fund raising on their Red Nose Day. It is part of the fund raising shenanigans of Comic Relief. We are a much bigger country here in the USA so we manage to raise phenomenal amounts of money for various charities without focusing so much on a particular day like that. It is both admirable and a little bit annoying but it seems to be a part of the national character of the UK.

Another aspect of being such a compact geographic region, Australia and Canada not withstanding, is the fact that their entertainment industry is small enough that all of their celebrities seem to know each other. This is seen to some extent in the US but there tend to be more regional pockets here than in GB.

Perhaps it is an offshoot of the cultural significance of the local pub but they seem to like quiz shows a good bit more than we do. This is demonstrated by the fact that many of the quiz shows that have been produced in the US in recent years have been imported from the UK. For example, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Deal or No Deal, The Weakest Link, and Cash Cab to name a few.

There are a number of shows that would play well in the US market that haven’t jumped the pond yet. My favorite is a parody that they have done of one of their own popular game shows. The original is called Countdown. It features two contestants that compete to make the longest word from randomly selected letters within thirty seconds. These word building rounds are alternated with rounds where a number game consisting of randomly selecting six numbers and a three digit target number. The goal  is to figure out how to combine any or all of the numbers using the four basic arithmetic operations to get an answer as close as possible to the target number also within thirty seconds.

Countdown has much the same following in the UK that Jeopardy has in the US. The unexpected twist was when the cast of another quiz show, 8 Out of 10 Cats, decided to do a parody of Countdown. They enlisted the talents of Rachel Riley, the mathematics whiz that presides over the numbers game on the straight Countdown as well as Susie Dent, the demure but brilliant lexicographer that judges the word game, and added the comedy talent of Jimmy Carr as the quiz master with Sean Lock and Jon Richardson as team captains. The result is hilarious and must be seen to be appreciated. In fact, old episodes can be found on You Tube. Search for 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown to see for yourself.

While this blog post has been somewhat of a ramble, it’s theme is an attempt to characterize some of the aspects of the British psyche that feeds my anglophilia. It was inspired by the fact that today was Red Nose Day in the UK.

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

Apollo vs. Dionysus

The last couple of nights that I have written my blog post in the evening I have noticed a strange phenomenon. I have been trying the technique of reading something to try to inspire a topic. On these several occasions I have found myself nodding off about three quarters of the way through the piece that I was reading.

This is not because it was boring. Honestly I think it is because I still haven’t totally adjusted to daylight saving time. In any case, when I wake up from that short snooze and finish my reading, I find that I am refreshed, wide awake, and somehow inspired. This seems in accordance with an article that I read the other day that asserted that a short nap of fifteen minutes or so had the effect of rebooting your mind. Any longer and you ended up sluggish and dull witted for half an hour or so.

The other possibility is that when you hover around the edge of sleep you allow your subconscious a chance to surface and affect your conscious thought processes. Which ever theory holds, or perhaps they both have a measure of truth, it has served to enable me to write some of the better blog posts to date.

The blog post that I was reading tonight was another one by Alec Nevala-Lee. He astounds me with his riveting blog posts, day in and day out. In this post, he was talking about the fact that there were two extremes of researcher. At one extreme you have the regimented, orderly type that knows exactly what he is going to do and allegedly what he is going to accomplish. He terms this type Apollonian. On the other extreme is the Dionysian that works entirely from intuition and has no idea what it is that he will discover.

In practice, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We attempt to plan and organize but can usually attribute most of our success to persevering until we happen upon something worth while. Some would contend that the trick there is to recognize the brilliance discovery when you trip on it. The blog post in question was lamenting the fact that most institutions where you have to write a proposal to obtain funding unfairly favor the Apollonian researcher.

While that is certainly true it also explains the fact that true break throughs often come from someone totally outside the field of study. This is because they don’t know what is impossible and they don’t have to justify their funding by writing a proposal. They also often have the passion of the amateur who does something purely out of enthusiasm instead of personal advancement.

Here’s to all the Dionysians that blaze the new trails. May they find their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and never lose their enthusiasm for the pursuit of their dreams.

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

Summer Afternoons on the Carport

When I was a boy my grandmother lived in a house on the edge of Murray, Kentucky. She had a two car carport. She parked her car on one side and kept several pieces of lawn furniture on the other slot. There were two or three chairs and a long, two person couch like thing called a glider. It moved back and forth and was a favorite of my cousin and me.

On hot summer afternoons we would sit in the shade of the car port, drink iced tea, and listen to my grandmother tell stories about our relatives. She would start out telling one story but soon she would get side tracked and tell the story about someone peripherally involved in the first story. This would have been fine except soon she would get diverted again telling the story of yet another peripherally involved person.

We didn’t mind. We didn’t know any of the people involved anyway. We just enjoyed hearing about all these people and their antics long before my cousin or I were born. And my grandmother enjoyed telling these stories. In a way it was like revisiting all these people, most of whom were long passed.

Today I had a particularly good session at my psychologist. I initially started seeing him for help dealing with free floating anxiety. He has helped me learn to cope with my anxiety. He has helped me deal with other minor problems. But now, he often just serves as a sympathetic ear to listen to my stories, no matter how disjoint or rambling. He listens without judgement and in total confidence. As I leave I realize that my cousin and I provided a similar service to my grandmother.

I called my cousin on the way home. She is getting married again soon. She has outlived three husbands now. This time she has found someone who is, she tells me, her spiritual soul mate. I am happy for her. Everyone needs someone to grow old with. It has been shown to increase your lifespan. I feel lucky that I have married my soul mate as well. I start to understand now how lonely my grandmother was after my grandfather died. In her day widows of her age didn’t remarry. They told stories to their grandchildren.

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

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.