Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Approaching Technological Singularity

The Singularity:  “a technological singularity is a predicted point in the development of a civilization at which technological progress accelerates beyond the ability of present day humans to fully comprehend or predict.”

The singularity most under discussion these days will occur when artificial intelligence (“AI”) achieves the ability to mimic human consciousness.  The idea is all over the place.  News websites run articles about it, TV shows incorporate elements of it in their plots, and more or less serious publications like The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair run big, almost scholarly stories about it.  Not to mention that granddaddy of cultural icons, the Terminator movies, which are all about machine intelligence run truly amok.  What, people wonder, will happen when machines outstrip us in intellectual ability?  What indeed. 

I would suggest that modern computers, the Internet and smart phones have already confused us sufficiently to fit the above definition of a technological singularity, but that’s just me.

The AI Debate

The advent of machine intelligence, in the form of primitive computers, came during World War II and immediately featured speculation about what might happen when these machines really get some wind in their sails.  Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, was already thinking about it.  When will computers become able to mimic human intelligence?  He came up with a test that is still used today, Turing’s Test.  Human interrogators blind test a few people and one computer to see if the computer can fool them into thinking that it is one of the human test subjects.   They’re getting pretty close by this time. 

Part of the discussion is Moore’s Law, which hypothesized that the capabilities of computer chips will double every two or three years.  This is actually what has been happening for some time now, and the signs are that the progress will continue apace.  But for how long?  Will this tendency go on indefinitely?  If it does continue to grow at that pace AI will achieve capabilities that we can only guess at, and very likely this will happen in our lifetimes.   (Not mine, perhaps, but probably yours.) 

There is a very active debate in progress regarding this impending breakthrough.  Many talented scientists and tech geniuses are understandably fascinated by the prospect of machines that can think like people do.   The discussion is very heavy on “when,” and the “if” seems to be a given.  On one side are people who are very gung ho about the coming breakthrough in machine intelligence, the coming singularity.  Call them the Utopians ; they are also being referred to as “Singularitarians.”  On the other hand are the Cassandras, the nay sayers.   In the middle are many people who range from mere curiosity to a mild but active interest.  The curve is surprisingly flat; both extremes contain lots of people and the middle is only slightly more populous.  This is an area where opinions can be very, very strong.

The Singularitarians make amazing claims for the potential benefits of machines that can mimic the thought process of people.  Ray Kurzweill is a big time Utopian in this debate.  He claims that the Twenty-First Century alone will see 20,000 years of progress rolled into a mere hundred years.   Peter Diamandis, another Singularitarian, says that AI will achieve “exponential price-performance curves” and provide “plenty of clean water, food, and energy for all earthlings as well as decent educations and adequate health care.”  (In his book, “Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think.”)  Speculation about the coming changes and benefits are really wild, including the prediction that machine intelligence will marry with human intelligence and spread throughout the universe.  That seems like a stretch.  I’ll spare you a full reading of some of the famous techies that are waxing poetic about this new computer revolution.

There is a big push going on right now to bring about this singularity, to design and build computers that will mimic the human thought process with almost supernatural levels of power.  Many of our great minds are at work in the area.  There is actually a Singularity University in Silicon Valley.  It is located at the NASA Ames Research Center, no less, and it is funded by Google, Cisco Systems, Genentech, Nokia, and G.E.  Yes, I did say Nokia.  Their Nokia Research Center Cambridge at M.I.T. in Massachusetts is also working on the problem. 

The nay-sayers are a high powered bunch too.  They include such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, who has been all over the news in the last year warning that machine intelligence is coming, that it may not have our best interests at heart, and that it may indeed have the capacity and the inclination to do away with all of humanity.  That got my attention. 

Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford is worried too.  He is afraid that “human labor and intelligence will become obsolete.”  If we're lucky, the machines won’t bother to get rid of us all, but they may just allow us to live out in the woods somewhere as long as we are quiet and don’t make any trouble.  He points out, rightly I think, that it will be very hard to program goals into these new machines, goals that will not allow for any mischief.  It is, he says, “quite difficult to specify a goal of what we want in English, let alone computer code.”  He has a point there, doesn’t he?  I’d go further and suggest that if the machine were to actually think like a human being it could easily decide to disregard instructions in any case. 

Human Thinking and Behavior Are Messy

 The problem here is that the current discussion is about computers that will actually think with a naturalistic human thought process, ones that will be “fluent in the full scope of human experience” including “unusual but illustrative analogies and metaphors.”  (Mitch Kapor).  And the stated goal is to create such machines.   I believe that that is not only undesirable, but also impossible.  A machine intelligence will always be a machine. 

I think that the real danger here is that a true artificial intelligence could become a true machine entity of some new kind.  That it could become self-aware and that it could come to possess certain negative human characteristics, like ego, self-interest and the instinct for self-preservation.   Not to mention free will and autonomy.

This new machine entity would almost certainly not exhibit any of the sometimes messy intangibles of true human thinking.  Human consciousness includes components such as altruism, empathy, sentimentality, nostalgia, love, and the willingness to cooperate.  It is unlikely that a machine intelligence would develop these things on its own, and if they were programmed into the machine it could easily reject them out of growing self-interest or because they seemed ridiculous.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if a self-aware, self-interested, self-duplicating machine intelligence decided to just get rid of us as a bunch of ridiculous anachronisms.   What could we add to the new prosperity?  Humor?  Drama?  What could be more ridiculous to a machine than humor or drama?  And our life-support would be an expensive, unnecessary budget item. 

Machine intelligence will arrive as any number of separately constructed and programmed entities, and isn’t there a real element of danger in the fact that all of these machines will be able to communicate with each other and could choose to join forces in the name of self-interest?  That would be logical after all, and machines are nothing if not logical. 

So, I’m dubious about this whole thing.  I’m not going to get too nervous about it though, I’m sure that you’ll agree that other issues are making greater demands on our worrying time.  And a “Bengazi!!!” to you too.


Uncredited quotes in this post are from “Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence,” by Kurt Anderson, a recent article that appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine. 

Also of interest:  “AI May Doom the Human Race within a Century, Oxford Professor Says,” an interview with Nick Bostrom of the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute that appeared in August, 2014 on Huffington Post doc com. 

Also check out the movie:  “Colossus:  The Forbin Project.”  Computers such as those envisioned here are created and it all goes to hell faster than you can say “Jack Robinson.”  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

My Wedding Speech

I went to a nice wedding last week, as something slightly more than an invited guest.  The groom is from Singapore, and he speaks no Thai.  There were a lot of traditional, ceremonial things before the wedding, and I was stationed at his elbow to explain what people were asking him and feed him lines in Thai, sometimes just be the lawyer and speak for him.  It was a lot of fun.  None of it was rocket science, so I could handle it okay.  I know something about Thai people, and I've learned to keep things light and just have fun. 

I was told on the way that I was to give a little speech at some point, ten minutes or so, please make it a little bit funny.  Okay, I can do that.  I made some notes and ran through it a few times, but in the event the opportunity never came up.  Here's the gist of what I was going to say:

"(Greetings and thanks, etc.)  I've been asked to say a few words, and I guess I do know a little bit about marriage.  From the husband's point of view, of course.

My standard advice to young husbands is to practice in the mirror, look in the mirror and make a nice, relaxed smile and say, "yes, dear," over and over again until it becomes second nature, "yes, dear."  I say this because the husband's most important job is making his wife happy.  If the wife is happy, the husband is happy.

I think this works in both directions, and it's really a selfish act.  You make your spouse happy as a good way to make yourself happy.

Love is a simple thing, but it's never easy.  The hard part is learning enough about your spouse to find out how to make them happy.  Men are not famous for understanding women, and I'm not sure that women are any better at understanding men.  But it's important to try.  Find out what your spouse likes, find out what they need.  And then do your best to do those things, to make sure that your spouse gets the things that they like and need.

I said it's hard, maybe it's very hard.  I saw a book one time, "Everything That Men Know About Women."   When you opened the book, all of the pages were blank.  So you both have your work cut out for you, and I wish you the best of luck and success."

The bride is a fellow prof at the law faculty of my university, and I've known her for years.  She's a very nice young woman, she has a great temperament and she is a lovely woman in every way.  It was quite a relief to meet the groom.  These Thai weddings are a lot of work for the bride and groom, and he took the whole experience very good naturedly and with great patience.  I like them both, and actually I think they have a good shot.  I think they'll be fine.  Good luck! 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Arthur Conley - Sweet Soul Music (HQ)

There's another version up on the 'Tube that has a lot more hits, and it's great too, it's a really nice performance video.  I highly recommend it.  I shared this one because the sound quality is much better, and doesn't Mr. Conley look like a fine young man in the promo pictures? 

(This one is in HD, so it might crap out.  If it does, look up the other one.)

For one thing, this is a great song.  Arthur Conley, Jr., a one hit wonder I suppose, I don't know his regional history.  Maybe I'll ask Professor Google.

But the point is, this is a paean to the great soul singers of the day, and the only singer mentioned in this song that remains alive today is Sam Hicks of Sam & Dave.  The rest, including Mr. Conley himself, are dead, dead, dead, Mr. Conley earlier than most.  So, an age has well and truly past and gone.

And what has replaced it?  I'll leave it for others to say.  Otherwise I'll start to sound like an old man chasing kids off of his lawn.  Maybe there are artists working today who are as great as Otis or James Brown, not to mention 'Trane and Miles, maybe, I suppose that it could happen.  It's not my call.  Those with greater wit than me by far can analyze the situation.  I hope that the answers are not too depressing. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Our Supreme Court And Our Future

In the run up to the Bush v. Gore election I came of the opinion that the Supreme Court, and nominations therefor, had become the most critical issue in presidential elections.  The Democrats were still in the habit of nominating high quality judges who possessed good judicial temperaments and fine legal minds.  President Clinton had nominated Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, both on the liberal side but very good, fair minded Justices.  Republicans, on the other hand, had taken to nominating partisan political operatives.  President Reagan had nominated Justices Kennedy, O’Connor, Rehnquist, and Scalia.  Justice Thomas, an acolyte of Justice Scalia, had been nominated by President George H.W. Bush, as had Justice Souter.   Justice Stevens, a fine justice and a Liberal,  had been nominated by President Ford in more bi-partisan times.  There would very soon be a demonstration of the political activism of this court. 

Republicans and Democrats, and their nominees for the Court, were and still are at considerable odds mainly over social issues, maybe also on issues of criminal procedure.  On matters economic they generally share a top-down Neo-Liberal mindset, although the cost-benefit analysis of the more Liberal members of the Court features more of an element of social justice.  The conservative members of the Court are more on the Libertarian side, with a heavy states’ rights component.  For better or worse, all of the justices, and indeed all of our politicians except for outliers like Bernie Sanders, seem to agree on the importance of globalizing the world’s economies and favoring the interests of large corporations and their investor class.   

The 2000 Election

Candidate Al Gore came out ahead in the straight up vote count, and appeared to be winning the Electoral Vote count too, but something happened.  In Florida, where the governor was candidate George W. Bush’s brother, the counting of the very close popular vote was stalled over hanging chads and other improbable details.  "Hanging chads" is still my definition of ridiculous.  How does a chad come to hang?  Answer:  by someone poking that spot with the poker, as in voting for that spot, that's how.  Any other chads hanging?  No?  Then it's a vote, asshole.  Both sides lawyered up and the stalemate went on for days.  The Supreme Court stepped in and ultimately they decided the issue.  George W. Bush was declared the winner in Florida, and thus took the election. 

The vote went like this:

For:  Justices Kennedy (appointed by Reagan), O’Connor (Reagan), Rehnquist (Reagan), Scalia (Reagan) and Thomas (George H.W. Bush).
 
Against:  Justices Breyer (Clinton), Ginsburg (Clinton), Souter (George H.W. Bush) and Stevens (Gerald Ford). 

This activist court decided the election, and George W. Bush became the President of the United States.  We all know how that turned out.  We’ll be paying for it for a long time, with nothing positive to show for that lost eight years.  The loss in dollars is variously reported to be between four and ten trillion dollars, resulting from the unnecessary reduction in tax revenue, the senseless, counterproductive wars in the Middle East, the losses of the financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting bail-outs, and the years of negative economic growth that were all directly attributable to George W. Bush and the policies of the Republican Party.  So thanks for that, Reagan appointees. 

The Serendipity of the Post-2000 Court

Appointments by President’s Bush and Obama have had a beautiful symmetry to them.  With two appointments each, all successful nominees have replaced justices with similar legal styles and political inclinations. 

President Bush the Younger put John Roberts on the court after Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justice Sam Alito after Justice O’Connor.   Let’s not even get into Bush’s unsuccessful nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers. 

President Obama has put Justice Sotomayor on the Court, after Justice Souter, and Justice Kagan, after Justice Stevens.  

No major shifts in the conservative/liberal balance there. 

Imagine what would have happened if candidate John McNasty, I mean McCain, had won in 2008.  (I am informed, and believe, that “McNasty” was McClain’s high school nickname.)  Before that election I was feeling very Chicken Little about the potential effect on the Supreme Court.  If McCain had appointed two justices to replace Justices Souter and Stevens there would have been a seven to two conservative majority, and the sky would actually have fallen. 

The Present

Our current Supreme Court is very politically active.  The Republican appointed conservative majority decides which results best serves their political point of view and then invents legal rationales to support their decisions.   Sure, corporations can have religious views and act on them to the detriment of the rights of others!  Take that, homosexuals and women!   Sure, giving unlimited money to politicians is a free speech issue, a First Amendment right!  Take that, democracy!  Sure, we don’t need that Voting Rights Act anymore, we’re Post Racial!  Take that, minorities!  This is just the beginning.

Very soon the honorable ladies and gentlemen of the Court will be revisiting a well settled but still politically volatile issue, the Affordable Care Act.  I say well settled because it was passed by both houses of congress, signed by the President, and it has already withstood a test in the Supreme Court.  It’s the law of the land, according to our precious rules.  That’s as settled as law gets.  But the political winds changed with the recent mid-term elections, so it appears that the issue is back on the table. 

The ACA has performed very well in the real world, increasing the percentage of the insured, bringing healthy, young paying customers into the pool of the insured and starting to bring overall health care costs (spending) down.  It has enhanced health security for millions of Americans and it has brought increased efficiency to the American economy in general.  It is, however, politically anathema to conservatives, and it is, however, associated with a president who is being subjected to unrelenting, irrational opposition by conservatives in general and Republicans in particular.  Our current court is siding with the irrational forces on this one.  There is a good chance that this cabal of politically motivated, activist justices will void an important element of the ACA, the tax credit for health insurance purchased pursuant to the act.  That would destroy all of the benefit of it and we’d be back to square one. 

The Future

The recent mid-term election saw the turnout of eligible voters at about 37% (thirty-seven percent).  Of these, approximately half voted for Republicans.  Slightly more than half, allowing Republicans to achieve majorities in both houses of the national legislature and both houses of the legislatures of many states.   Now we are being told that this was a mandate for Republicans, that this eighteen or so percent of American voters are the voice of the American Public, demanding a return to failed Republican policies and illustrating a general rejection of President Obama’s policies. 

What will happen in 2016 cannot be seen clearly at this time.  The presidency, congress, where will it all go?  The voter turnout in the mid-terms is a bad sign.  Are people really so apathetic?  Are they so disillusioned?  And the ones that actually voted, are they really so ignorant about what is going on in America?  Are they really so afraid of things like immigrants, homosexuals, science, Muslims and black Americans?  The pattern of voting in the mid-terms seems to indicate that people have no objection to losing their civil and political rights, that they prefer corporate prosperity over their own prosperity, that they are thrilled to work harder for less, that they enjoy health insecurity, that the infrastructure of America is fine just as it stands, and that they believe that short term profits to corporations are more important than long term economic security for the United States.  So there is reason to be concerned about the 2016 election. 

Beyond 2016, of course, it is even more difficult to see what will happen.  Who gets elected?  Who dies, and when?  What unforeseen events will overtake us, and by whom will they be manufactured?  It would be too much to expect that any possible result of the 2016 election would precipitate the sudden appearance of peace, equality, security and prosperity.  But given the choice between the alleviation and the exacerbation of the very real horrors of our current situation, I’ll take alleviation if I can get it.   

Time will tell, I suppose. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Little Deuce Coupe - The Beach Boys (HQ)

In 1962 and '63 I was all about the Surf Music.  Very upbeat, very cheerful.  Those were simpler times.

They were the Camelot Years, with that beautiful, smiling young family in the White House, the City on the Hill. Much of the popular music on the radio had become stale and saccharin, but there were jems in the mix.  Great hits from New Orleans, the classic Girl Groups from New York, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were doing fine work.  And there was Surf Music, iconic endless summer stuff from California.  I was in high school, freezing in the winter and city-bound in the sweltering summers.  California looked like heaven.  Heaven with a great soundtrack. 

It was almost enough to distract one from the seemingly imminent threat of nuclear destruction and the growing suspicion that something terrible was about to happen in Vietnam.  Almost. 

Great pictures with the video too.  Nice cars.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Spin Easy Time!: Black People In Thailand

This is a link to a retread, a post that I wrote a couple of years ago.  It has started showing up in my stats, so I checked it out.  The information in the post is still good, but a couple of things sprang to mind:

For one thing, I have corrected the problem of not having a black American friend in Thailand.  Thanks, Eddie!  Great guy, and a fine cook too.  I'm very happy to know him.

Also, the post reminded me that I have changed my mind about capitalizing "black" and "white."  I had been capitalizing them because to call American Negroes "black" seemed to me to be selling them short, it seemed too casual.  My intentions were good, but "Black" and "White" were not popular designations.  Mostly because the "White" seemed aggrandizing.   So I've gone to the lower case.  I think that some people were offended, and I apologize for that.

Here's the old post.

Spin Easy Time!: Black People In Thailand: No, I don’t mean “black” in the local sense, which merely means “copper colored and darker than the usual Thai person.” I mean Black in the ...

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Life Amongst The Races

It would be too much to say that I have always been a great friend to the races, but I hope that a casual observer would at least admit that I have, on balance, done alright.  Okay.  Something like that.  Mediocre isn’t always a bad thing. 

I do try my best to be reasonable about matters of race in America.  I do think about it, and I always have.  Sometimes it sneaks up on me, like this time.

In my early 20’s I carried the mail in New York City’s borough of Queens.  It was hard work then, most routes were carried in a bag on our shoulder.  It probably still is hard, even with the little vans they use now.  I was a substitute carrier, a sub, a “floater,” meaning that I had no route of my own.  My days started variously at five, six, seven or eight o’clock, and they could really stretch out.  I usually took out a route and a half, often two entire routes.  It could be a long day.

Thinking about this the other day, I recalled one evening when I punched out at about 6:30 after twelve hours of humping the boonies.  The bus that I caught to go home was almost empty.  I took a seat near the back and opened the window.  The breeze was like a tonic.  Another young man got on the bus and took the seat in the back, left corner, directly behind me.  “It’s freezing in here,” he said, “shut that window.”  I had long hair at the time, and maybe he had mistaken me for a peace loving hippie that could be pushed around, willy-nilly. 

Now you should know that I had grown up in a very tough part of Queens.  There was always a lot of fighting, and we got hit by the nuns, and we got beaten by our parents too, most of us.  I was never one of the really tough boys, nor was I particularly big or athletic, but I was in the mix and I had learned the dance.  One of the rules was:  never even appear to be backing down from an even fight.  No good could come of it, and it would probably lead to bullying.  No, if the other boy was about your size and seemed to have about your capabilities it was best to get up in his face and fight him if necessary. 

So I turned in my seat and gave him the eyes.  We all knew how to do fifty shades of gathering storm with our eyes.  And not like Steven Seagal either, with all of that ridiculous brow knitting.  All eyes.  The look that I gave him was somewhere between “you’re on my radar” and “are you sure that you want to do this?” 

“I’ve been working since seven this morning, and the breeze feels good,” I said, “I doubt if I’m closing this window.”  Then I just turned my back on him, like the matter was settled.  And it was, too.  The window stayed open and the rest of the ride was quiet. 

This particular young man was white, like me.  I could read him like a book, I knew him even though we had never seen each other before.  Recalling this incident recently, I wondered what difference it would have made if the young man had been black.  Same size and age as me, also not particularly tough or athletic, but black.  I had to admit that it would have made a big difference.  I would still have given him the eyes, that much was habitual, but I don’t think that I would have said anything.  I think that I would have simply closed the window and moved to another spot on the still almost empty bus.  The question becomes:  would I have been acting out of fear? 

Honestly, I don’t think so.  It would have been uncertainty, not fear.  Fear would be too strong a word.  I just didn’t know enough about black people to be able to read them with any confidence.  I was ignorant on the subject.  It occurs to me that in some people this uncertainty may turn into fear, but somehow I got lucky.  All it made me was curious. 

Up until the age of fifteen I don’t think that I had ever interacted with a black person, maybe a few clerks in stores, that’s it.  Black singers and baseball players?  That’s another story.  But no interaction.  After that I had black school chums, black friends in the Navy (which pissed the white people off!  Go figure!), and I had worked with black men, but still, what did I really know about them?  About their lives?  On what would I base predictions about black behavior?  The ice was forming, but it was still too thin to trust by walking around on it.  My understanding of black people was woefully inadequate.  It probably still is!  "Probably" my ass!  It still is!  Even less then.  Hence, that uncertainty that would have occurred on the bus, if that young man had been black. 

It’s important to consider these things.  One of the more disagreeable aspects of our shitty world is the myth that America has become some kind of “post-racial” society.  Only a charlatan trying to sell a flush that included four hearts and a diamond could even say the words “post racial” with a straight face.  Maybe I should write more on this subject.  Maybe it would be helpful, and you know how much I love to be helpful!  Maybe.  It could happen.