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Mindful Cyborgs: Perverse Intimacy with Our Machines

This week on Mindful Cyborgs, Alex Williams, Chris Dancy and I talked about Hollywood’s obsession with “freakish AI killing off humanity or making love to it”:

We’re just becoming more and more intimate with our machines all the time and I think that’s where that fear of AI’s and that – that’s where those plots are coming from.

On the other hand, a lot of this stuff has been – a lot of these ideas have been around for a long time. I’ve just been reading some of Isaac Asimov’s old stories. I just read his first robot story, Robbie, and it’s all about a parent being afraid that her daughter is spending too much time with a robot companion, which you could totally transfer that to modern days; worried that my kid is spending too much time with her cell phone.

CD: Or on her Xbox, yeah. Insert Gadget X.

KF: Yeah. He also wrote a story – so Robbie was his first robot story. I think it was 1939. He also wrote a story in, I think, 1956 called The Last Question that was essentially a story about the singularity; about the hive mind, artificial intelligence thing that just lives in the – an alternative dimension of the galaxy after humans have become extinct, after humans have become immortal and then left their bodies and essentially just become some sort of thing. This is long before the word ‘singularity’ was on anyone’s lips. These fears and ideas and dreams have been with us for a long time.

Download and Full Transcript: Mindful Cyborgs: Automation for the Entitled and the Impending Data Revolution

Computer Chips That Work Like a Brain Are Coming — Just Not Yet

I wrote for Wired about computer chips designed specifically for building neural networks:

Qualcomm is now preparing a line of computer chips that mimic the brain. Eventually, the chips could be used to power Siri or Google Now-style digital assistants, control robotic limbs, or pilot self-driving cars and autonomous drones, says Qualcomm director of product management Samir Kumar.

But don’t get too excited yet. The New York Times reported this week that Qualcomm plans to release a version of the chips in the coming year, and though that’s true, we won’t see any real hardware anytime soon. “We are going to be looking for a very small selection of partners to whom we’d make our hardware architecture available,” Kumar explains. “But it will just be an emulation of the architecture, not the chips themselves.”

Qualcomm calls the chips, which were first announced back in October, Zeroth, after the Isaac Asimov’s zeroth law of robotics: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

The Zeroth chips are based on a new architecture that radically departs from the architectures that have dominated computing for the past few decades. Instead, it mimics the structure of the human brain, which consists of billions of cells called neurons that work in tandem. Kumar explains that although the human brain does its processing much more slowly than digital computers, it’s able to complete certain types of calculations much more quickly and efficiently than a standard computer, because it can do many calculations at once.

Even the world’s largest supercomputers are able to use “only” one million processing cores at a time.

Full Story: Wired: Computer Chips That Work Like a Brain Are Coming — Just Not Yet

See also:

Palm Pilot Inventor Wants to Open Source the Human Brain

Yorkshire Pigs Control Computer Gear With Brain Waves

If You Plug Twitter Into a Digital Avatar, Can You Live Forever?

New article from me at Wired:

In one episode of Black Mirror — the British television series that explores the near future of technology with an edginess reminiscent of The Twilight Zone — a woman’s husband dies, and she replaces him with a robot.

This walking automaton looks like him and talks like him, and it even acts like him, after plugging into his Twitter account and analyzing every tweet he ever sent.

Yes, that’s a far cry from reality, but it’s not as far as you might think. With an online service called Lifenaut, an operation called the Terasem Movement Foundation offers a means of digitally cloning yourself through a series of personality tests and data from your social media profiles. The idea is to create an online version of you that can live forever, a digital avatar that even future generations can talk to and interact with. Eventually, Terasem wants to transform these avatars into walking, talking robots — just like on Black Mirror. And today, it provides a more primitive version, for free. [...]

But Dale Carrico, a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, is skeptical. To say the least. He says that the folks at Terasem and other “transhumanists” — those who believe the human body can be radically enhanced or even transcended entirely through technology — are pursing pipe dreams. He doesn’t even give them create for trying. “The trying is evidence only of the depth of their misunderstanding, not of their worthy diligence,” he says. Simply put, an avatar isn’t a person — in any meaningful sense.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: If You Plug Twitter Into a Digital Avatar, Can You Live Forever?

My avatar is embedded in the story so you can chat with it.

Twitter ‘Joke Bots’ Shame Human Sense of Humor

@horse_ebooks

My latest for Wired:

One of the funniest people on Twitter isn’t a person at all. It’s a bot called @Horse_ebooks.

It was originally built as a promotional vehicle for a series of digital books, but in the years since it has developed a life of its own — not to mention a sizable cult following. Its tweets range from the cryptic (“I Will Make Certain You Never Buy Knives Again”) to the bizarre (“No flow of bile to speak of. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later. later.”).

OK, it’s no George Carlin, but it’s funnier than most of the Twitter one-liners from your friends and family — and it’s not even trying. It’s randomly grabbing text from e-books and websites.

Hackers Darius Kazemi and Joel McCoy believe there’s a larger point to be made here. For years, people have worked to build machines with a sense of humor — researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently created a program that can actually learn from its past jokes — but Kazemi and McCoy believe these academics are working too hard. Since most people aren’t that funny, the two hackers say, why not replace everyday humor with remarkably simple bots that spew boilerplate phrases over Twitter?

Full Story: Wired: Twitter ‘Joke Bots’ Shame Human Sense of Humor

Photo by Lindsay Eyink

The Corporation Who Would Be King

Some design fiction from Tim Maly, who wrote that thing about corporations being bad AI:

“…if a firm, partnership, company, or corporation owns real property within the municipality, the president, vice president, secretary, or other designee of the entity is eligible to vote in a municipal election…”
-Montana Bill Would Give Corporations The Right To Vote by Ian Millhiser for Thinkprogress

A broader version of this law passes, leading to an explosion of algorithmic corporations owning nominal fractions of land to meet the real property requirement.

Eventually, the corporate hordes overrun their human voter counterparts. A ballot measure is introduced allowing corporations to stand for election. It passes. Now, their dark work begins.

Full Story: Quiet Babylon: The Corporation Who Would be King

Corporations Are “Bad AI”

Tim Maly writes:

One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us. [...]

And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.

I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.

Full Story: Quiet Babylon: The Singularity Already Happened; We Got Corporations

See also: Yes, There is a Sub-Reddit Dedicated to Preventing SkyNet

Scientists Plan To Upload Bee Consciousness To Robots

A bee

George Dvorsky writes:

A new project has been announced in which scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex are hoping to create the first accurate computer simulation of a honey bee brain — and then upload it into an autonomous flying robot.

This is obviously a huge win for science — but it could also save the world. The researchers hope a robotic insect could supplement or replace the shrinking population of honey bees that pollinate essential plant life.

io9: New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

Previously: Can You Imagine a Future Where London Police Bees Conduct Genetic Surveillance?

Photo by Steve Jurvetson / CC

Coders Can’t Put Writers Out Of A Job Yet, But We’d Better Watch Our Backs


Screenshot from Current, see Ethan Zuckerman’s post for an explanation

I wrote for TechCrunch about the way automation and machine learning algorithms may start putting writers out of jobs:

Discovering news stories is actually the business that Narrative Science wants to get into, according to Wired, and CTO Kristian Hammond believes finding more stories will actually create more jobs for journalists. I’m not so sure. It will depend on a few things, like how much more efficient writers can be made through technology and how much risk publishers will take on “unproven” story ideas vs. safe computer generated ideas. The idea behind Current was that it could help publishers find lucrative stories to run to subsidize more substantial reporting. Of course publications will continue to run original, differentiating human written reporting. But the amount resources dedicated to that sort of content may change, depending on the economics of automation.

And the possibilities get weirder. Look at drone journalism. Today drones, if they are used at all, are just used to extend journalists capabilities, not to make us more efficient or replace us. But how could drones change, say, event or travel coverage in coming years? Will one reporter with a suitcase full of drones and a server full of AI algorithms do the work of three?

TechCrunch: Coders Can’t Put Writers Out Of A Job Yet, But We’d Better Watch Our Backs

Previously: DARPA Training Computers to Write Dossiers

DARPA Training Computers to Write Dossiers

DARPA is trying to put me out of a job:

They look a bit like communally written Wikipedia pages. But these articles—concise profiles of people and organizations, complete with lists of connected organizations, people, and events—were in fact written by computers, in a new bid by the Pentagon to build machines that can follow global news events and provide intelligence analysts with useful summaries in close to real time. [...]

On the new site, if you search for information on the Nigerian jihadist movement Boko Haram, you get this entirely computer-generated summary: “Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram is led by Ibrahim Abubakar Shekau. (Former leaders include Mohammed Yusuf.) It has headquarters in Maiduguri. It has been described as ‘a new radical fundamentalist sect,’ ‘the main anchor for mayhem in the state,’ ‘a fractured sect with no clear structure,’ and ‘the misguided extremist sect.’ “

Lucky for me:

The profile of Barack Obama, for example, correctly identifies him as the president of the United States, but then summarizes him this way: “Obama has been described as ‘Nobel Peace Prize winner,’ ‘the only reasonable guy in the room,’ ‘an anti-apartheid campus divestment activist,’ and ‘the most trusted politician in the CR-poll.’ ”

At another point it notes, “Obama is married to Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama; other family members include Henry Healy, Malia Obama, and Ann Dunham.” (Healy is a distant Obama cousin from Moneygall, Ireland. Obama’s younger daughter, Sasha, isn’t mentioned.)

The system lacks real-world knowledge that would help a human analyst recognize something as false, humorous, or plainly irrelevant.

MIT Technology Review: An Online Encyclopedia that Writes Itself

Yes, it’s a far cry from replacing your favorite non-fiction writers, but the possibility that this sort of thing could start to cut into the total number of paid writing and editing positions in the next few years is starting to get real.

See also: Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

Free Online Artificial Intelligence Course from Stanford

I just did a brief post at ReadWriteWeb on the free online artificial intelligence class at Stanford:

The course will be taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. The course will include online lectures by the two, and according to the course website both professors will be available for online discussions. And according to the video embedded below, students in the online class will be graded on a curve just like regular Stanford students and receive a certificate of completion with their grade.

ReadWriteWeb: Take Stanford’s AI Course For Free Online

One of the interesting things here is that you can, for the most part, get the full education of the course. You just don’t get the course credit. But maybe students at other universities could take the class and then test out of their own school’s AI course? What impact would it have on professors if universities accepted certificates like this to count towards credit toward a degree at their school?

John Robb has speculated that an Ivy League education could be provided for $20 a month. Andrew McAfee has asked what a higher education bust would actually look like. One possibility is that thousands of professors get laid off as a smaller number of more prestigious professors can teach larger numbers of students via the Internet.

You might also be interested in this collection of free lectures from the Stanford Human Behavioral Biology course (via Dr. Benway). And of course, there’s always The Khan Academy.

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