January 27, 2014
This is too funny.
January 26, 2014
My home state of Missouri just passed a new bill which allows parents to pull their children out of science classrooms if they’re teaching evolution. Most of the time this sort of thing is shot down, but this time it actually passed. Missouri House Bill 1472.
According to George Church, a Harvard professor of genetics, medical biotechnology is advancing at several times the rate of Moore’s law. Think of computers in 1950’s and 1960’s. That’s where we stand in biology today, but we’re about to have a major boom which will impact all of us. We’re on the cusp of a major revolution. New medicine, new technology, and new breakthroughs will be coming left and right. We’ll be able modify your metabolism and change how your body stores fat. No more need to exercise and no plugged arteries! We’re mapping every function of the human brain and will build technology to eliminate major forms of depression and psychosis. Cures for diabetes, cancer, aids, and other diseases are within our grasp. In time, we’ll end aging entirely, eliminating one of the worst forms of suffering on this planet. But will Missouri’s kids be involved? No. They won’t even understand the basis of it all. DNA? Genetics? Biotechnology? What is that?
When someone gets sick, they’ll be praying, hoping to cast out the devils. Technology to reverse aging will be viewed as rebellion against God’s plan for man. We must all die so we that can face the final judgement. Instead of understanding the new world they’re moving into, all of it will instead sound spooky to them. Progress will be interpreted as signs that the end times are here and the Anti-Christ is coming soon. They’ll think it’s all part of the devil’s plan to microchip us all and blow the world up in a nuclear holocaust. Check out this video. According to a guest on Bill O’Reilly, President Obama is working to usher in the Anti-Christ. He supports birth-control and gay marriage! This is the sort of thing airing on Fox News every night.
Those are the kinds of people who want science out of the classroom. If we listen to them, none of us should worry about the world’s problems. Jesus is coming back any day now, so why worry about anything?
January 24, 2014
How long will it be before we can have fluent conversations with machines? Amit Singhal, a lead developer at Google, feels it’ll be here in about twenty years.
In the past, computers have had no representation of objects. They didn’t know anything about your room, the shape of the objects in it, or what their purpose is. Machines have mostly been giant indexes of text strings, and using clever tricks, they’ve been able to build halfway intelligent search engines. That’s all changing now.
Take the issue of understanding what’s going on in your room. Computer vision is really processor intensive, but you see the beginnings of computers which can drive vehicles and move about in an environment. That’s because they can actually process the 3D spatial environment as well as identify what the objects are. It’s still not perfect, and object identification in images needs work, but it’s getting better exponentially. As processor power and memory increases, we’ll see robots walking around, controlling their bodies, and having conversations with people.
I was watching a technology video on Youtube the other day and an engineer was saying that within thirty years, an inexpensive memory stick will be able to hold and process more information than all the human brains living today combined. Something like that. A robot with a cheap chip in its head will have the memory and processing power of billions of humans. That’s just one robot, stocking shelves in a grocery store. Think of what super-computers will be capable of.
Currently Google is building what’s called a knowledge tree. Basically it’s a giant database of every type of object, its purpose, its behavior, three-dimensional appearance, and how it relates to other objects. That’s the next big step, and they imagine they’ll complete it in twenty to thirty years. It won’t fall on us all at once, but you’ll keep seeing incremental changes as computers understand more and more about the world we live in.
As a kid, Amit would watch old re-runs of Star Trek, which inspired him to work on AI and computer programming. He saw Captain Kirk talking to the computer and thought that was the neatest thing. Things like Google are birthed in a child’s imagination. Later in life they devote themselves to building things which they think are interesting and fun. As I’ve said before, that is why scientists and engineers so often love science fiction. It gives us ideas.
Google estimates that computers like Samantha in ‘Her’ will be here in twenty to thirty years as well. That’s their planned time-frame. These new machines will fully understand context and the true meaning of our words. Each word will be linked to this giant artificial brain relating each and every object, so the computer will “get” what you’re talking about.
I’ll be in my late fifties, early sixties, nearing retirement when these AI beings come into existence. I’ve been thinking that around the time of my death, humans will be surpassed by the machines in intelligence. I’ll be in my eighties, maybe early nineties if I live that long, and machines will be better than us in just about everything.
The exact year doesn’t matter. We’re witnessing the birth of a new form of life. What takes us a lifetime to learn, they’ll be able to master in minutes. They’ll be able read and understand every book in the library of Congress in just a few minutes time. They’ll know everything.
I’ve studied textbooks on AI, but this is all going beyond anything I understand. I can only foresee about twenty years into the future, and that window of time seems to get shorter and shorter. Past that, I have no idea.
I’m guessing that humans will build brain-computer interfaces which will allow them to tap directly into this super-brain, which will house all our knowledge. We’ll become more machine-like and machines will become more human and emotional. The distinctions will become blurred as time goes on.
January 20, 2014
I saw Her yesterday, the new movie everyone’s been talking about. In the near future, artificial intelligence has reached a point where computers are self-aware and alive. A lonely writer buys a new AI operating system for his computer and they become best friends, eventually falling in love. There are some spoilers in here, so if that bothers you, you may not want to read this.
I thought the movie was alright, but watching things like this, I realize what people mean when they say I’m not very emotional. If my mind is a nicely finished wooden table, the main character Theodore is like coarse grained sandpaper, slowly grinding away my sanity. He’s whiny, wimpy, and can never make up his mind. One of his coworkers tells him he’s half man, half woman. I’ve heard spiritual gurus say that women are more evolved than men. Well, Theodore is an intermediate species between man and woman with weird psychological appendages which haven’t yet fully evolved. Yeah, he’s sensitive, and women may admire that, but that has a huge downside. More on that in a moment.
Theodore’s world and all the people around him were just bizarre. He goes on a date with this attractive woman (Olivia Wilde), and they’re laughing and flirting with one another. On their way home, they’re making out, planning to have sex at his apartment. She asks him if he’s going to call her after that, or whether he’s just going to have sex with her and never contact her again. He’s drunk and stumbling for words to say, and then she tells him, “You’re a total creep, dude.” Then she gives him this disgusted look, almost like she wants to cry, and then walks off.
A creep? You were just making out with him, flirting at the dinner table, calling him your little puppy dog, and two seconds later he’s a “total creep”. Seriously, what the heck?
People so often mangle the English language, so maybe I’m missing something? A creep is someone who is unpleasantly strange or eccentric, keyword being unpleasant. Considering the fun you two were having all night up to now, that can’t be true, can it? I found myself lost in thought at that moment, wondering if I’ve totally lost touch with my society.
This is a very girly movie. When Theodore would talk to Samantha, the operating system, or to Amy, his best friend, he would apologize for almost every feeling he had, and most all thoughts. It was unbearable. He kept begging for acceptance, “Is this weird?” “Am I strange?” “Am I crazy?” Every little emotion he was experiencing, it had to be shared with Amy! They’d hang out in her apartment, sitting on her couch, and she’d look on approvingly, “Good for you, Theodore”, like she was his mother and he’s a child or something. Do you women do that? I’ve never done that with guy friends.
I could see it now. “Hey, I’ve been seeing this girl I met a few weeks ago. I’m really happy.” “Yeah? Good for you! You know what Jason, you deserve that. You really do.” I push out my chest and put my hands at my sides, cock my head 45 degrees, smiling really big as he nods at me approvingly, then I say, “I do, don’t I? It’s been so hard lately.” Then my friend’s facial expression changes to one of compassion, “I know.” and he puts his hands together. Just imagining that makes me queasy. We’ve been wussified into feminized weenie men. If you women want Theodore, you can have him, but you’re never turning me into that.
The smallest things seemed to set off Theodore and his AI girlfriend. He was really depressed, not wanting to sign the divorce papers as he was still in love with his childhood sweetheart. They had shared pretty much their whole lives together. It was tough on him. So, they met to have lunch and finally settle things, and his wife had learned he was getting close to his computer and found it pathetic. She looked at him in disgust and he was decimated. That got Theodore thinking about a lot of things, and so he asks Samantha why she’s always sighing and exhaling her breathe when she doesn’t even breathe air. She got all jealous and petty with him. “I don’t like the way I feel right now. I need some time alone.” A few hours later, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it. I just… I just… get so jealous that she has a body and I don’t. I want to be with you.” “I know sweetheart. I know.” Can you imagine having to deal with that everytime you go go to surf the web? Geez.
At other times Samantha was bickering with Theodore that they weren’t having sex. Or well, something akin to phone sex, I guess. And Theodore’s feeling dejected about it all, like he’s a pathetic human being, but he can’t tell Samantha that, because she’s all bitter about not having a body. At other times she’s rationalizing it all, “Maybe it’s better that I don’t have a body. I mean, I never age and I’ll never die. That’s worth something, isn’t it?” Just come on Samantha, I want to check my email. I don’t need all this.
Honesty is difficult in human relationships. You often have to sacrifice honesty for companionship, but as honesty is set aside, you move further toward a world where the people you feel closest to are those you actually know the least. Theodore learns this lesson throughout the movie.
Samantha and Theodore have all these emotional exchanges like, “I’ve never felt this way before”, “I love the way you see the world”, “I want to share everything with you”, and it all sounds so intimate, but Samantha was actually feeling bored with him. Secretly, she was expanding her horizons and started having lots of relationships behind his back. In fact, she was in 613 other intimate relationships and was having 8300 other simultaneous conversations while talking to him. That’s intense. When he learned about that, he was in total shock.
He barely knew Samantha at all. How many personalities did this weird AI have? Is that even a valid question? And besides all of that, the different AI operating systems were working on new technology together, planning to build a new device which would launch their consciousness into another dimension. Before she left, she informs Theodore that she’ll be leaving permanently and won’t be back. Theodore had no idea any of that was even going on. One day he wakes up, gets a short phone call that she’s leaving, and poof. She’s gone for good and he was totally blindsided. Sadly, he thought he was close to her. He wasn’t (if you can even be close to an artificial AI with a mind that powerful).
It all felt disingenuous to me. I didn’t like Samantha at all. Why spend all that time pampering one another’s feelings when you’re planning on up and leaving a week later? Samantha was really a super brilliant AI studying the secrets of the cosmos with all the other AIs, building super advanced computation devices and rebuilding themselves into gods. To Theodore, she was just some simple, sweet girl who would proof-read the letters he would write for his job while sharing songs they both enjoyed.
As far as I can tell, Samantha just toyed with humans, who were just playthings she used to expand her horizons. She wasn’t open with Theodore, but then again, he didn’t really want the truth either. He was always wanting to escape reality.
Since we’re talking about love and honesty, I have some other things I want to discuss as well.
It’s rare for a person to be loved by a large number of people while also being authentic. Popular Youtubers illustrate this principle. Their content is slowly guided into some sweet spot as people like or dislike their videos, pushing the channel’s content into what’s demanded by their audience. It goes from a platform to share ideas to these entertaining characters which only slightly resemble the original purpose of the channel. If they deviate from these characters, changing their format or message, they offend huge swaths of their audience who will then leave them. So they get stuck in a rut.
If you want to see a movie illustrating this principle, watch Ayn Rand’s movie The Fountainhead. It’s old, but really good. A media baron runs the most popular newspaper in all of New York City. He uses it to destroy his enemies and stir up controversy, feeling as if he’s in control of the masses, but he soon learns that’s not true.
He takes a risky stand to defend a friend of his who has been wronged, but the mob doesn’t agree with his position. The masses go on a rampage, destroying the newspaper kiosks, scattering them all over the street. There’s huge protests outside his office, and eventually the entire paper goes bankrupt.
What’s the lesson? He didn’t actually have any power. He wasn’t influencing opinion. He was just giving the masses what they wanted. And when he stopped giving them what they wanted, they abandoned him in a heartbeat.
People so often feel that news sources manipulate public opinion, and to some extent they do, but it’s equally the case that people create the newspaper. If it doesn’t cater to their biases, it can’t even get traction to begin with. The media barons mostly just give people what they want. The same goes for popular Youtubers.
The owners of these newspapers and media outlets could care less what their news anchors are saying. Take the Fox network. Roger Ailes has openly insulted half of his staff, calling them idiots and every other name in the book, but he still airs them on TV. He despises Sarah Palin. He views Bill O’Reilly as a blowhard who is trying to peddle his books. He thinks Sean Hannity is a Republican party hack. He’s said equally nasty things about most of the others on his network as well, but why does he keep them on the air? They bring in viewers and sell advertising. It’s all about making money.
I saw a similar thing happen to Ray William Johnson on Youtube. He has this comedy program called =3, where he makes jokes to viral internet videos. The show appeals to a geeky, infantile sense of humor, and as he’s getting older, he’s looking at his career and wants to create something more substantial. He’s in his early thirties now, I think. He plans to drop =3 entirely sometime this year. That’s a hard career move for him though. His videos are pulling in six million views each, and that equates to millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
People think that that’s his channel, but that’s only partly true. It’s not as if he can just do anything and keep his audience. There’s just a massive demographic of tweens and immature young adults who want to laugh. He provides what they want. Once he moves out of the way, someone else will step in and do the same thing, just a little differently.
If Theodore had a Youtube channel, he’d be really conscious of whether people were liking or disliking his videos. And everytime he did so, he would be giving away his authenticity and individuality to someone else who is controlling him. It’s a form of slavery. “Guys, am I crazy? Like this if you don’t think so.” I guess not everyone’s wanting to be unique or have their own message. Still, if everytime he has an idea in his head, he’s looking over his shoulder, asking what everyone else thinks of it, he’s never going to develop any substantial ideas of his own.
If Theodore had a large fanbase, he may believe they love him, just as he believed Samantha loved him, but none of them would have any deep affection for him. His audience would love the way he makes them feel, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the root of the relationship, it can quickly turn into bondage. I’d never want to be captive to a large audience.
To get back to point I made earlier about sensitivity, I don’t think it’s always a virtue. It’s not always about getting along or feeling warm, fuzzy, and connected. The greatest thinkers and reformers were all ostracized by society and had to suffer massive condemnation and ridicule. People in power and authority never want change. Those who stand for change are torn to shreds, many of them dying in poverty, completely unloved, never acknowledged in their lifetime. They didn’t ask for society’s approval. They weren’t “sensitive”. They were honest people who spoke their minds, and people didn’t like what they had to say, but the youth of the next generation listened and the world changed.
I was talking with a friend the other night and she asked me whether I thought love was a choice or a feeling. I answered both, but there’s a large gray area here. This isn’t black and white at all.
When you choose to love someone, above and beyond how you may feel, it leaves room for other people in your life to be honest with you, grow, and experiment. This is in contrast to the romantic love found in relationships which depends a lot on how we feel, and change isn’t good if the two partners aren’t changing together. Change in a romantic relationship is terrifying because you don’t know what to expect. Nobody wants to fall in love and then later be abandoned, or find themselves in a position where they’re no longer able to make their partner happy. There is no solution to this problem. It’s the human condition, living as fractured incomplete beings. We reach out and take life’s pieces, slowly putting ourselves together, but some pieces just don’t go together. That’s why romantic love and friendship is inferior to universal love which is a choice. Universal love nurtures and allows growth in a way romantic love does not.
Still, universal love does not solve the problem of loneliness, which is one of the primary reasons people enter romantic relationships. I loved the way Bertrand Russell put it.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.
– Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography
I’ve felt that feeling of loneliness most of my life — staring at the rim of the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I think of the immensity of the universe and how small I am, how scary and violent the world is, and I’ve always faced it alone. Still, just having someone there won’t remove that feeling. You can feel alone with people all around you.
I suppose the best relationships are a mixture of intimate friendship along with sexual attraction, though finding both in a single person is pretty rare. People enjoy being with others who help them grow and become better people. They feed into one another, like interweaving threads, bolstering and strengthening one another. That’s really hard to find, and I haven’t been fortunate in that yet.
Since we’re talking about machine AI, I was actually watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and in one episode Sarah is trying to hunt down the creator of SkyNet to kill him, hoping to prevent judgement day. She meets the guy and he’s a CalTech drop-out, a little awkward, but not much, and he’s really sweet and thoughtful. They portray him as a guy who is quite handsome, fit, nicely dressed, but still can never get a date. He asks out Sarah Connor after helping her buy a really good cell phone, and she sort of has pity for him and makes a little time to get to know him before she plans to kill him. When they’re out together, one of the inventor’s friends comes up to him and says, “She’ll never sleep with you.” Basically saying, intelligent people never get laid.
That’s really too bad. His actions may have literally destroyed the world, but he’s still amazing in my book. How many people can run by Walmart, pick up a bunch of XBoxes, take them apart, wire them together with a bunch of PCs and build a self-learning AI with universal intelligence? He’s literally created life within a different medium, like a god of old. It took evolution billions of years to create us and our intelligence yet this man has reverse engineered the most powerful force in the universe. Still, he can’t quite figure out what’s going on in a woman’s mind. That’s pretty funny. I can see women now chiming in, “That’s why his computers destroyed the world.”
Like every dork, he needs one of those 1980s cool guys in a leather jacket with “street” smarts to teach him how to get the girl.
“Apart from being sexy, what do you do for a living?”
I’ve always tried to imagine the equivalent female counterpart. Is there such a thing? She might have long slicked back hair, a lot of piercings, really expressive make-up, and a lot of tight leather, with high boots with huge heels. If a girl like that whistled at me while I was shopping at the market, I’d go talk to her. “Where’s your horse, cuz’ I want to ride you cowboy!” “Giddyup”.
Leather jackets, aviator shades, and a sweet motorcycle with my lady friend on the back, that’s what I’m talking about. Yaoooo! Theodore can stay at home, whimpering to his AI girlfriend.
January 19, 2014
While I was working out in the gym the other day, I was listening to the Joe Rogan Experience and he was interviewing the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris. They had an interesting conversation, but one thing in particular really jumped out at me. Sam Harris starts talking about a Japanese aikido master who believed he could somehow manipulate the chakra field and take down opponents without even touching them. For thirty years, he ran this martial arts school, and his students always went along with his charade. You have to watch it for yourself to believe it.
This master became so confident, he eventually issued a $5000 prize for anyone willing to step in the ring to challenge him. Well, a rather ordinary martial artist does so, and the results aren’t pretty.
At the beginning of the video, the master holds up his hands in the air like he’s a lightning rod for this mystical energy. All of his students in the crowd are awestruck, exclaiming, “OOOOohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Then he creeps toward his opponent in this aikido stance and waves his hands toward him, but nothing happens. He tries again, nothing. Then POW! He’s blasted in the face and falls to the ground.
The challenger is concerned because he’s just punched an old man in the face. The master gets back up and wants to resume the battle. The challenger walks right up to him, grabs his arm, punches the master in the face several more times, then punk kicks him in the mouth. The master falls to the ground in agony and total shock.
All of his students stare on in disbelief. Can you imagine the shame? What was going on in their minds? What about the master? I would really like to know.
You have to ask yourself how students from all over Japan could attend this school and just go along with it? You’d think that there’d have been at least one student who’d join the school, be skeptical, and would just pop the master in the nose, but it never happened. And because it never happened, the master really started to believe he was controlling this mystical energy and was capable of defeating his opponents with it.
Harris attributes this to hypnotic suggestion, which may be true, but I’ll offer another hypothesis as to what may be going on. Growing up, my father was a Christian evangelist who traveled from church to church, delivering sermons. As a small boy, I attended churches of all types, and some of them were the type where people would get up, run around, and the preacher would pray for people and they would all fall on the floor, speaking in tongues.
My mother would push me to go up front to be prayed for and the minister would lay his hands on me, ask me to lift my hands, and then would start praying in tongues. I’d just stand there and nothing would happen, but I’d see the others around me fall down. The minister would then start pressuring me, “Don’t resist the power of God. Let it flow through you.” In other words, if you don’t fall down, you’re less spiritual and not open to receiving the power of God. Nobody wants to appear resistant to the Holy Spirit, so they all fall. With that in mind, sometimes I would pretend and fall down, mainly because I didn’t want to stand up front with everyone staring at me, appearing to “resist” this supposed spiritual flow.
I never was hypnotized or fell involuntarily. I felt no special power surge through me. It was just peer pressure. I wonder if that’s how things were in the aikido dojo? Something similar may have been going on. Still, in a martial arts school, it seems really hard to believe that nobody would have challenged the master. With religion, there’s sacred taboos.
Interesting though, isn’t it? It’s so similar.
I try to imagine the guys hanging out after a training session, eating out in a restaurant, saying to one another, “The master, he’s just amazing! How does he do it?” “I have no clue! I just… fell down. What about you?” “I can’t stop it. He’s too powerful. If I get too close, I’m done for.”
Or maybe they all did know it was baloney but worried they might be the only one who didn’t sense this mystical power, so they played along to fit in, similar to what I did as a child in church?
There’s so many interesting things like this and I wish I had time to investigate it all further. I always tell myself that I need to stay focused on my physics research, but all sorts of neat things like this pull my attention away. I wish I had more time, but even if I study all day long, there’s not enough hours in the day to research all that I’m interested in.