December 12, 2012
If you’ve never read or seen Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, I’d like to introduce you to Marvin The Paranoid Android. Built as a failed prototype of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, Marvin suffers from extreme depression and boredom. Why is this? Well, having a brain the size of a planet comes at a cost. Combine this with the fact that he has to serve human masters who are far from his equal, we can all understand his unending frustration.
During the series he’s kidnapped by a race of fierce robots who interface his giant mind with their war computer. Marvin not only manages to plan the entire planet’s military war strategy, but he also simultaneously solves, “all of the major mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philosophical, etymological, meteorological, and psychological problems of the Universe except his own, three times over.”
The only thing he found slightly difficult was writing poetry. Of his many poems, only one is known to us, particularly his personal lullaby How I Hate The Night, “a short dolorous ditty of no tone, or indeed tune.”
Now the world has gone to bed
Darkness won’t engulf my head
I can see by infra-red
How I hate the night
Now I lay me down to sleep
Try to count electric sheep
Sweet dream wishes you can keep
How I hate the night
Marvin was constructed much against his own wishes. In his own words,
“I didn’t ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter. I don’t think it even occurred to them that I might have feelings. After I was made, I was left in a dark room for six months… and me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side. I called for succour in my loneliness, but did anyone come? Did they hell. My first and only true friend was a small rat. One day it crawled into a cavity in my right ankle and died. I have a horrible feeling it’s still there…”
Despite his near limitless wisdom, his human masters rarely listen to his advice.
The other robot from the same series is the giant super-computer Deep Thought, constructed by an advanced trans-dimensional species to find the answer and meaning of the universe.
After millions of years of thought, it concluded the answer to life, the universe, and everything else is the number “42″. Not satisfied with its conclusion, the advanced species demanded an explanation. This leads to the creation of Earth and our universe. Our world is a special “program” written by Deep Thought where life itself is part of its “operational matrix”, specifically engineered so that we could find out the meaning of life for them.
As a side note, Deep Thought was later commissioned by the Consortium of Angry Housewives to create the Point Of View Gun. Anyone subjected to it immediately understands the point of view of the gun’s holder. Marvin ends up using this weapon on the Vogons in the clip above, which is why they all fall to the ground exclaiming, “What’s the point… I’m so depressed.”
December 10, 2012
You’ll find an excellent talk at edge.org given by Dr. Phillip Tetlock on political forecasting. He’s a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania who is known for a book he wrote several years ago called Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is it? How Can We Know? He conducted a twenty-year study in which he interviewed 284 experts, everyone from Marxists to free-marketeers, journalists, economists, governmental officials, and professors, asking them to make political predictions about the future on a wide range of issues. How often were they right?
It turns out that their expert predictions are only slightly better than chance and sadly, even basic algorithms which simply extrapolate trends consistently beat them. During his talk he made a lot of great points.
There’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for nearly three decades now and trying to get a research handle on, and that is why is the quality of public debate so low and why is it that the quality often seems to deteriorate the more important the stakes get? … There is quite a bit of skepticism about political punditry, but there’s also a huge appetite for it. I was struck 30 years ago and I’m struck now by how little interest there is in holding political pundits who wield great influence accountable for predictions they make on important matters of public policy.
When hearing that, I leaned back in my chair and thought, “Yeah, well, they’re not in the business of offering objective information or helping us make informed decisions. They’re propagandists. They’re more like salespeople. No, take that back. They’re more like entertainers who cheerlead for a particular side.” Then a few minutes later he confirms my thoughts.
It’s easy for partisans to believe what they want to believe and political pundits are often more in the business of bolstering the prejudices of their audience than they are in trying to generate accurate predictions of the future. [...] So, we found three basic things: many pundits were hardpressed to do better than chance, were overconfident, and were reluctant to change their minds in response to new evidence. That combination doesn’t exactly make for a flattering portrait of the punditocracy.
It’s nearly impossible to predict what the future will bring. Especially in the long term. Apparently political experts can make accurate short-term predictions, but we’re all blind as to what will happen in the distant future.
How do people react when they’re actually confronted with error? You get a huge range of reactions. Some people just don’t have any problem saying, “I was wrong. I need to rethink this or that assumption.” Generally, people don’t like to rethink really basic assumptions. [...] If you have a theory how world politics works that can lead you to value avoiding one error more than the complementary error. You might say, “Well, it was really important to bail out this country because if we hadn’t it would have led to financial contagion. There was a risk of losing our money in the bailout, but the risk was offset because I thought the risk of contagion was substantial.” If you have a contagion theory of finance that theory will justify putting bailout money at risk. If you have a theory that the enemy is only going to grow bolder if you don’t act really strongly against it then you’re going to say, “Well, the worst mistake would have been to appease them so we hit them really hard. And even though that led to an expansion of the conflict it would have been far worse if we’d gone down the other path.” It’s very, very hard to pin them down and that’s why these types of level playing field forecasting tournaments can play a vital role in improving the quality of public debate.
I find myself wrong about politics all the time. I was against the GM bailout but that seemed to work out alright. We were paid back and millions of jobs were saved. I was honest about it and said, “Well, I was wrong.” But I could see a free-marketeer say, “Yeah, but that just kept a bad company in business. If we would’ve let them go under, a new, better company would have taken its place. We can’t pick winners and losers.” Then I think, “Yeah, OR a foreign competitor could’ve come in and taken over, leaving all those workers unemployed and in need of government assistance.” Here’s the problem – a lot of political and economic ideas are non-falsifiable. What would need to happen in order to convince you that you’re wrong? If the economy thrives then you’ll say, “See, the free market works!” But when things go south, and a bailout was successful, we’ll hear, “Well, it would’ve been even better had we left things alone.”
That’s the thing about politics – you can interpret the same event in so many different ways. Events are spun every which way, and when pundits and experts are wrong, nobody seems to care. I have a lot of respect for the social sciences, but as a scientist, a lot of the prediction making of political “experts” is no different to me than astrology. That goes for every side of the aisle. And don’t get me started on political blowhards.
Pundits and politicians have to give off this sage aura that they’re in control, that they know what’s going on, and that we need to follow them. They’re sleazeballs and their feigned confidence is divisive. I think it’s all bad theater.
I’m a concerned citizen who tries to stay informed, but it’s almost impossible to get good information. We drown in misleading polls, loaded statistics, and rhetoric. I remember once trying to learn what’s wrong with our healthcare system. You know what happens when you Google it? You get floods of articles from MSNBC, Fox News, and ABC News, all saying the same few things. None of them teach you how things work, or compare our system to what other countries are doing. I literally searched hundreds of pages. Who has time to sift through all that garbage? I eventually got fed up and quit. I was hoping to find a professor somewhere who has spent his life studying healthcare systems, unbiased and willing to teach me how it all works. By chance I stumbled upon a Coursera offering, a full course on what I was looking for. I plan to sign up but it hasn’t started yet. It’s called Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act. Finally, someone without an agenda who will teach me what’s going on in detail.
It’s hard to find quality information. As Noam Chomsky points out, media sources are not out to inform, they’re out there to make money.
You’d think with the internet we’d have an easier time finding information, but that’s not always the case. There are so many blogs and websites who just make stuff up, and news sources aren’t reliable either. It’s really no wonder why we have such trouble discussing important issues. The incentives for our leaders and media sources are all screwed up.
December 5, 2012
This is a short film which was made to illustrate just how crazy Big Brother is going to be in the near future. Do you want to live in a society with ‘The Grid’?
December 4, 2012
I hope that robots achieve human level intelligence within my lifetime. When I’m old and gray, and my body is starting to give out on me, it’d be nice to have a nice light-hearted robot to take care of me. I’d prefer that to a real life nurse or maid.
A machine would never be frustrated, tired, or bored. It’d be without ambition, fully content with a life which solely consists in helping you do mundane things. It would clean the floors, wash clothes, and do your tax returns. It’d run you to the store, cook for you, and even help you in and out of bed when you’re feeling ill. Always dependable, always happy to be there, always willing to help.
Even if I was very old and feeble, I could still easily live alone in a log cabin, away from society, quietly working on theoretical physics at my desk, with this wonderful robotic companion taking care of me. I could ask it to help me work on things, or do complicated background research for me. It’d be like my own personal assistant.
You could use them for other creative things as well. They’d make wonderful partners in crime.
When we think of robots today, we think of the clunky, noisy, stupid machines of today, but I imagine something more like that in the video above. They’ll be cheerful, funny, and always ready to lend a hand.
It’s interesting to consider what would happen if all of these robots were linked together into a giant network, sharing information with one another about human behavior and psychology. They’d be able to quickly read your personality and perfectly adapt based on encounters with tens of thousands of people just like you. They’d know how to cheer you up, calm you down, encourage you, and anything else. It all sounds so nice.
November 28, 2012
As I mentioned not too long ago, I’ve been slowly watching each of Woody Allen’s movies. In one of them, the narrator quotes Shakespeare,
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
- Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act V, Scene V)
In his movie September (1987), there’s a scene where an author (Peter) asks a physicist (Lloyd I believe) about the universe. Lloyd tells him that our cosmos is, “…Haphazard, morally neutral, and unimaginably violent…” Peter mistakenly believed that Lloyd worked on the atomic bomb and asks him if he found it terrifying. Lloyd tells him that while the atom bomb is indeed frightening, it’s much harder to live with the knowledge that none of it means anything. The universe was created from nothing and will eventually vanish back into nothing. At its root, our universe is aimless and random, a temporary, violent convulsion. ”It doesn’t matter one way or the other.” When we relate our lives to that big picture, it’s as Shakespeare said, it signifies nothing.
I was happy I could find the scene on Youtube.
I struggle with those same thoughts as well. I look at the world, at how fragile our lives are, and how much we humans have struggled just to live day to day. I find myself wondering about the point of it all. If you look behind us into the past, contemplating the first stars being born, the supernovas, the violent formation of our planet, and all the animals fighting and eating one another during our evolution, this place is terrifying. It certainly looks “…haphazard, morally neutral, and unimaginably violent…” But what if we instead direct our eyes to the future?
The Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov has formed a project called Global Future 2045. Take a look at this video and the sorts of things he’s funding and promoting.
When I see a video like this, I can’t help but think they’re way too optimistic and are getting ahead of themselves. I can’t imagine things changing so drastically so quickly. But that’s not really why I’m bringing this up. Let’s just assume that humans perfect this sort of technology in the next century or two. What does life look like to a child being born in the year 2230? Or 2330?
If they’ve learned to make peace with one another (not a small feat), their world doesn’t seem all that scary or violent. They have bodies which were constructed by nanorobots, remote controlled by a brain/mind which isn’t even present in their body. They can be impaled, smashed, or burned alive and all they have to do is “respawn”, asking the nanobots to rebuild them a new body based on those same specifications. They’d feel no pain and wouldn’t suffer at all.
There is no hunger or disease. In fact, their bodies are no longer aging. With each new wave of technology their body gets better. They keep upgrading both their minds and bodies similar to how computers receive updated hardware and software today. No longer needing to eat, no body odor, no taking showers, no pointless exercise to lose weight. They harvest energy from either fusion power or solar panels which they’ve launched into space and the energy is directly beamed into their body. That, or there will be new forms of super-batteries. And as for the sun, formerly terrifying with its radiation, heat, and bright light, is now more like a warm heater, a big bright ball to adore from spacecraft.
I imagine one of these “neo-humans” landing on a desolate planet, equipped with their nanobots. They send a small probe to the planet’s surface which then releases the nanobots into the soil. They start breaking down the rocks and soil and transform the surface into a deep mat of nanobots and organized materials.
Once the planet is prepared, the neo-human lands, equipped with his ship’s quantum-computer filled with all sorts of blueprints, designs, and tools. He turns on his augmented-reality system which is embedded into his highly modified brain and pulls up a sort of “editor”. It’s sort of like the editors game designers and CAD workers use today, but far more powerful with the assistance of AI and vast pre-made blueprints. He uses his mind to control small devices the size of modern day insects, hovering over the planet’s surface and starts terra-forming, creating a landscape and his own personal castle.
You know what blows my mind? That world we just described is the same universe as the one we live in. All of that is possible though it’ll take a lot of work to improve our technology to that level. Future generations could be living lives like that if we keep at it.
This place could eventually turn into a giant amusement park filled with nothing but joy, fun, and mystery. What a change that would be! No toilsome work, no pain, no suffering, no death, at least not for billions of years. You spend each day exercising your creativity and enjoying the things others create. Could you imagine planet after planet, totally terraformed into splendor and beauty, designed by the world’s most talented artists? One planet may be a giant water park, and with bodies made from the strongest materials known to science, they could make the rides pretty intense! And don’t forget virtual reality. Video games by this time will be as real as real life and you’ll be able to immerse yourself in them like the Matrix.
People will be living out fantasies as Jedi masters on theme park planets or in virtual reality online games. Couples will go on dates, visiting cities which make Paris look like a trash dump. With improved technology, scientists will be flying out into deep space, exploring alien worlds, black holes, quasars, and the great beyond. Who knows what they’ll be finding!
Notice something about this future world — digital technology and reality blend as one. That’s what nanotechnology will eventually lead to. I see a world which can be resdesigned into practically anything you can imagine. It’s like we live in a complex machine that’s completely programmable from the inside. The problem is that we have no manual into how it all works, and we’re having to slowly figure out what’s going on. We haven’t been able to get a hold of this universe’s controls yet, but we’re quickly getting the hang of things.
From our lowly human perspective of evolved pond scum, weak, frail, and barely hanging on to life, yes, this world is terrifying. But if technology progresses and the human race further evolves into something much greater, this cosmos may be very inviting and entertaining to them. Though I guess it doesn’t make much of a difference though considering I’ll probably be dead and gone.