Archive for the 'Technology' Category
October 21st, 2012 by Wil
Ray Kurzweil, in a recent issue of Discover magazine, argues that machines will become conscious by the year 2029. Such claims are always a bit suspect since there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on what consciousness really means. Kurzweil takes a pass at defining the term.
My own view is that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex physical system. In this view, a dog is also conscious but somewhat less so than human. An ant has some level of consciousness, but much less than that of a dog. The ant colony, on the other hand, could be considered to have a higher level of consciousness than the individual ant; it is certainly more intelligent.
By this reckoning, a sufficiently complex machine can also be conscious. A computer that successfully emulates the complexity of the human brain would also have the same emergent consciousness as a human.
We understand that there are machines now that “sense” light, sound, even smells (in the sense of sensing floating chemicals.) But we don’t believe that those machines have the interior sense of seeing, hearing or smelling that we do. Kurzweil seems to be saying that machines will get so complex that they will develop those interior senses, along with the ability to think and feel. It seems like a reasonable enough claim.
Now, a classic science-fiction narrative is the idea that machines become hyper intelligent and declare war on the human race or some such. (This is “The Terminator” storyline.) In the philosophical “Straw Dogs” book that I’m reading, this scenario is contemplated.
Humans are no more masters of machines that they are of fire or the wheel. The forms of artificial life and intelligence they are constructing today will lose human control just as naturally occurring forms of life have done. They may even replace the creators.
Natural life forms have no built-in evolutionary advantage over organisms that began their life as artefacts. Adrian Woolfson writes: ‘ it is by no means certain that living things constructed from natural biological materials would be able to outcompete their synthetic and ahistorically designed machine-based rivals’. Digital evolution — natural selection among virtual organisms in cyberspace — may already be at work…. But the new virtual environment is no more controllable than the natural world. According to Mark Ward, ‘once a system is handed over to the living, breathing software there is no turning back’.
The author of “Straw Dogs” then goes on to theorize that humans, struggling to survive in a world dominated by machines, might turn to bioengineering their selves (genetic engineering etc.) to better compete with machines. In the course of this, all trace of humanity as we know it would be destroyed.
October 3rd, 2012 by Wil
I was driving the other day, and was thinking about the following idea. What if you had some way of knowing pertinent safety information about all the cars around you? You would be aware that the person driving the 1987 Honda to your left has had two drunk driving convictions. And you would know that the Chevy Impala to your right is a model that has had numerous problems with brakes.
How would you know this? It’s not that hard, and I suspect it’s the wave of the future anyway. Basically, cars would all be miniature network hubs and would be broadcasting their identification information to other cars around them. Your car would be aware of other cars on the road and thus be aware of information related to those cars.
But what about applying that idea to people? Envision this scenario: you meet a new person. Your phone, which at that point has evolved to be something like an all-knowing miniature personal computer, picks up information from that person’s phone. (Or, perhaps the miniature camera you wear at all times scans their face and figures out their identification through face recognition software.) As a result, you can instantly beware of all public information about this person.
Now, let’s twist that scenario a bit. First, let me give you a bit of Internet history. Around 1998 or so I became aware of an interesting Internet plug-in. Basically, it was a component that would attach to your browser and would let you paste “sticky notes” to any website you are looking at, as well as see sticky notes other people had applied to any website you viewed. This was an understandably controversial piece of technology. I could be a dentist with a fancy website offering my services, and someone could paste a sticky note that says “Dr. Schmidt sucks donkey dicks and likes it a lot!” right on my picture. (I think the application might’ve actually weeded out cursing, but you get the idea.) To my knowledge, the controversy pretty much killed the application.
But imagine this. You meet a new person, your miniature computer digs up information on them instantly. But what if it also dug up any comments others have made about that person? In essence, every person would have a web guestbook attached to them and all sorts of comments could go on that guestbook. So, you might meet a new person and instantly be informed that they have herpes and smell in the morning. What would that do to human relations? For the most part, we meet a new person (romantically or platonically) and find them interesting. But, invariably, the more we get to know them, the more we’re disappointed by them. I’m proposing a technology that would take you right to the disappointment stage. You would instantly learn what a loser every person you meet is.
September 9th, 2012 by Wil
One of my recent themes around here has been that modern healthcare is in a state of crisis. This recent LA Times article entitled “Medical spending likely to remain high despite healthcare law” states (as is obvious from the headline) that healthcare costs are not going down anytime soon. One interesting reason…
Technology has helped other industries lower costs by eliminating waste and increasing efficiencies, but it’s done the opposite in healthcare, said Michael Thompson, a principal in Price Waterhouse Coopers’ health and welfare practice in New York.
Although engineers keep building more powerful CT and MRI scanners, for example, there’s no evidence that more scans are helping to prevent disease.
Still, we’re using an awful lot of them. A study published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that from 1996 to 2010, the number of ultrasounds conducted in the U.S. doubled, CT scans tripled and MRI scans nearly quadrupled.
This caught my attention. As I’ve mentioned in the past, at the onset of my unbalance issues several years ago, I had an MRI (which did uncover a brain lesion that doctors fundamentally decided wasn’t worth worrying about.) About a year later, I felt that I had uncovered the source of the problems: damage to my vestibular system. I went to an ear nose and throat doctor and… well, what I don’t let myself tell it (quoting from this blog post.)
[The doctor] was interested in the [first] brain MRI, but, during the course of the appointment, was willing to accept the findings of the previous doctors [that it could be ignored]. But at the very end of our meeting, he said something like, “Why don’t we go ahead and do another MRI just to be safe?”
So, I went ahead and did the MRI (at about $1500 cost to me, and much more to my insurance.) Several days later I called up the MRI lab. To help them find my record, I gave them the name of the doctor. They said something like, “Oh yes, we know him. He’s a frequent flyer.” (Meaning he orders a lot of MRIs.)
That comment stayed with me. Was this doctor ordering an excessive amount of MRIs? Why would a doctor order MRIs that weren’t necessary? Again, the LA Times…
The way we pay providers is another major contributor to the high cost of American healthcare, both now and in the future. The more procedures doctors and hospitals provide, the more they get paid. It’s a recipe for runaway costs, Thompson said.
When you think about it, that’s just insane. In the same way that car salesmen are paid more if they sell you not just the car but the installed security system, antilock brakes, GPS system and solar powered self warming coffee holder (I’m not sure those actually exist, but it’s a great idea) Doctors are incentivized to pile on more services and procedures to the initial bill. Of course, car salesmen don’t enjoy the level of trust that doctors do in our society (I respect most piles of dog feces more than I respect car salesmen.) Additionally most people pay for cars out of their own pocket — we’re not sharing the costs for our car purchases through an insurance pool. So what we have is a system in which trusted authority figures are given a financial incentive to prescribe excess procedures and services. Is that going to result in unnecessary prescriptions (and thus higher shared costs)? Duh!
I’m reminded of a few other anecdotal* cases that might be relevant here. An acquaintance of mine recently had some kind of shoulder surgery. Once the doctors got in there, they determined that it would not be possible to complete the goal of the surgery (which, I think, was shaving down some bone or something.) Someone else I know recently had cataracts removed, but, post-operation, it was determined that his vision had not improved.
Were these surgeries failures? Maybe… if the goal was to actually increase health. But if the goal was to increase wealth (of the doctors), then these surgeries were pretty successful.
By the way, here’s another fact from the LA Times article worth considering while ruminating on the high cost of health care: 35.9% of Americans are obese. Suddenly my “death camps for fat people” idea doesn’t seem quite so controversial, does it?
* Yes, I agree that anecdotes are not evidence. But I do think, especially if they are easily summoned, they contain a certain wisdom.
August 31st, 2012 by Wil
I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic of how our internal state of mind affects our art. But first, take a look at these two pictures.
At the left is a photo of Milan’s Duomo (originated in the 14th century). The second a modern skyscraper (I’m presuming it’s an artist’s rendering.)
Yesterday I was commenting on the constant interruptions of daily life. The phone calls, the nagging emails, our screaming, annoying children, television blowhards freaking out about this or that etc. Those are, of course, external distractions. But we’ve got internal distractions as well. I was just reading an old interview with the stress doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who sums these up nicely.
A thought comes up and you’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got to do this,” and you run to do that. Then the next thought comes, and you say, “Oh, I’ve got to do that,” and you run to do it.
From “Healing and the Mind” by Bill Moyers
I read this and thought, “Boy, that is exactly how I think.” Then I thought, “Shit, I’ve gotta check for that email!”
So we’ve got two different kinds of distractions: external (which we have limited control over) and internal (which we have – one hopes – some control over.) I would also surmise that our internal state is “trained” by our external environment. If we are constantly being interrupted in the “real world,” soon our own mind will only be able to focus for short periods (because it’s anticipating the interruptions it’s so used to.)
Now, as I was saying yesterday, in the past we had less external interruptions. In 1450, there wasn’t much to do. If you wanted to write a piece of music (and were lucky enough to have your sustenance needs taken care of) you could sit and write for hours/days without phone calls, emails, facebook updates, television blather, etc. And I presume this lack of external interruption led to “quieter” minds that were less prone to self interruption (of the type described by Kabat-Zinn above.) As a result of all this, people could really focus produce artistic media with tremendous detail: 12 foot tall paintings with all sort of hidden objects and figures (and obtuse religious connotations), ornate, sky high cathedrals covered with miniature statues of golems and maidens, 20 minute sonatas in which themes are developed via endless variation of tempo, melody, harmony etc.
And a calmer mind isn’t required just to create this art; it’s required to even appreciate it! I get about three minutes into most 20 minute sonatas and my mind is already wandering. I usually don’t have the focus to stay with it.
To recap: in earlier eras people had calmer minds. But, as time went on – as society industrialized, as we became better able to keep precise measurement of time (and thus create the great evil that is the daily organizer), as communication methods expanded from a single town crier to pony express to telegraph to telephone and then instantaneous email – our minds became more and more deluged with interruption.
So how did that affect art? Well, take a look at the above pictures again. The second building is much less ornamental, much simpler, much easier to digest. You can look at that building from a distance and basically “get it,” as opposed to the Duomo which you really have to view up close to appreciate the detail.
Now, if you landed on an alien planet and saw that second building you might think, “Wow, this such serene architecture; I bet these aliens are calm, peaceful creatures with minds devoid of incessant inner chatter.” But I’m thinking that the exact opposite is true. As the mind gets more cluttered, art gets simpler. Why? Because we don’t have the time to focus on creating detailed art, and frankly, we don’t have the time to appreciate it.
Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not knocking minimalism. I like minimalism and I’m not a great fan of ornamentalism (though I’m not virulently opposed to it.) But my larger point here is that what goes on “in here” (pointing to head) has an effect on what shows up “out there.” And it’s an inverse effect. Busy minds = simple art and vice versa*. To examine the history of art is to examine the changing state of the human mind. (To put it another way, “Art history is a subset of psychology.”)
*Obviously this is a broad statement with many exceptions. I also realize that simple, minimalist art is not that simple. But you get my point.
August 30th, 2012 by Wil
One thing that always impresses me about classical music is the great depth of its construction. Such tremendous care was taken to place interlocking melodies together in precise ways. And then, on top of it, some of these pieces go on for 20 minutes. And this approach is prevalent in much of the art of that era (I guess were talking about the 14th to 18th centuries.) That’s when you had the epic novels that went on for 2000 pages detailing the rise and fall of a family. Or gigantic paintings that were detailed down to the quarter square inch. Or ornate cathedrals covered with miniature sculptures that are themselves works of art. (The epitome of this in my mind is always the Duomo in Milan.)
It’s really the extended focus required to create such works that impresses me. It’s hard to conceive of spending 8 to 10 hours a day for weeks, months, perhaps years, working on the same thing.
Of course, when you think about life back then, it becomes easier to understand. After all, what was there to do? You had to take care of your meals, and maybe chat with neighbors, but if you were a professional composer or painter, you had a large chunk of basically uninterrupted time to fill. And there was no television, radio, Internet midget porn or telephone to fill it.
My suspicion here is that people of this era — an era devoid of many of our modern distractions — were capable of much greater focus and constant attention than we are. In our era — whether we want to focus on something or not — it’s inevitable that we will be distracted by some piece of meaningless bullshit. (It’s no coincidence that I got started thinking about this topic while working on a piece of music and being interrupted by two telephone sales calls in the space of five minutes.) And I think the art of our era has been affected by this. Our songs are shorter and require less attention to detail; our “stories”, which are mainly our movies, are totally immersive, but also take much less time to consume then a 16th century novel. Our architecture largely lacks the ornamentalism of previous eras.
And I’m not necessarily knocking the art of our era. I tend to find ornamentalism unnecessary and ostentatious. And I love pop music and movies partly because they get right to the point. But, I can’t deny that I’m kind of jealous of artists of earlier eras. I’d like to be able to sit down and really focus attention on a single project all day, for days or weeks. I imagine that there would be a real catharsis in letting the outside world drift away as you focus on your work. On rare occasions I have managed something like this for short periods and there indeed was a kind of bliss to it. You become so focused on the act that you’re not even thinking about it. You’re just doing it.
I’m reminded of something I blogged about before. There’s a particular historian who’s argued that as recently as 3000 years ago, the average man did not have consciousness. This seems hard to fathom. After all, these people had created some technology and culture and how can one create anything without consciousness? But maybe I’m misinterpreting what consciousness is. We’re certainly aware that we have a kind of inner dialogue which we use to keep track of what we’re doing, where were going, what’s coming up etc. It’s a constant mental chatter, and probably only getting more spastic as we are interrupted by ever-increasing communications and channels of information. So let’s envision a world 3000 years ago. Again, no phones, no TV, no Facebook, no e-mails etc. Maybe there was simply much less of a need for this mental chatter. In fact, maybe there was no need at all. People were able to place such focus on whatever they were doing, that they simply did it without thinking about it. Maybe that’s what a lack of consciousness is.
August 19th, 2012 by Wil
Over at Reason, they highlight the work of a bioethicist who is arguing that modern potential parents should “screen out” potentially negative genes found in the DNA of their embryo. (It’s unclear as to whether “screen out” is a polite way of saying abortion, or whether what’s being suggested is some kind of embryonic gene replacement.)
The argument, as I understand it, goes something like this: as time passes, we will be more and more capable of identifying genes (e.g. chunks of DNA found in our chromosomes) associated with certain behaviors. If a pregnant couple look at the DNA of their embryo and see something like a gene for psychopathy, shouldn’t they address the situation in some way?
Here’s the bioethicist himself (from an article linked at the Reason page):
“Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.
“They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others.”
“If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring — rather than consigning them to the natural lottery — then we should.”
The whole thing, of course, smacks of eugenics. Having said that, I don’t find myself particularly opposed to the notion. And I suspect that modification of genes and how these genes get expressed is going to become more and more feasible as time goes on, through processes that can be applied both pre-and post birth. For example, the whole idea behind gene therapy is that we can swap out genes in actual people (e.g. not embryos.) Right now the focus is on fixing genes that cause diseases, but why not use therapy to fix genes which might make someone more prone to alcoholism or anxiety? (Having said that, gene therapy is still in the early stages and to my knowledge hasn’t really proved itself.)
There are several caveats. For one, pretty much everyone agrees that a person’s personality and biological state are affected by more than just genes; environment is a big factor. Secondly, as the author of the Reason piece makes clear, genes can be a bit two-faced, and have both good and bad sides.
Savulescu’s vision strongly depends on the notion that genetic traits come in nice little packages that can be added or excised at will. However, behavioral “traits” are likely to have two (or more) sides to them, e.g., bravery could well be associated with aggressive tendencies, or prudence with selfishness, righteousness with implacability, etc. Can’t bioengineer away the bad without also affecting the good.
June 29th, 2012 by Wil
I’ve spent infinite hours talking about the coming demise of modern entertainment brought about by piracy and its devaluating effect on media products. I’ve noted that, while everyone else is concerned with music and mp3s, I think the coming Armageddon will be much worse, affecting movies, books and anything that can be digitized. The only thing that prevents massive piracy of movies right now is that it takes an hour to download a movie. Once bandwidth speeds get to the point that grabbing a movie takes a minute or so, I think movie piracy will become much more popular.
So let’s presume that eventually movies, music and books no longer return a profit. Maybe the only people making such products will be people who do it simply for the artform. Their budgets will be limited, of course, but they will have no concerns about satiating a marketplace. They’ll make the products they like. To my view, in the realm of movies, this sounds like a revival of the 70s grindhouse movement. Cheap fun movies with lots of sex and violence (both easily created onscreen) will become the norm. Scenes of exploding heads, ample bosoms and men devoured by alien acid will propagate themselves. “Meaningful” movies featuring good acting and sensitive dialogue will be cast into the abyss. HAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAWHAW. Suck on that losers!!!!!
June 28th, 2012 by Wil
I just thought of a very good use for human realistic robots. You could create a series of robots disguised as incredibly attractive women and have them walk around areas known to be populated by rapists. The rapist would attack the woman/robot and insert himself into her at which point some kind of internal clamp could grab the rapist by the penis. The robot would then send out a beacon and authorities would arrive to find a rapist with no possible defense for his actions; he would be caught “red penised” so to speak.
In later years, it’s possible this strategy would lead to the evolution of a new phrase connoting absolute guilt. People would say, “Bob was caught like a rapist with his penis clamped inside a Deceptobot-4000.”
Just kind of thinking out loud on a Wednesday afternoon.
June 24th, 2012 by Wil
Lately I’ve been reading a bit on quantum physics. I’m not really understanding much of it but I’m intrigued by one theory, born of the quantum physics era, that you often hear discussed in the modern era: the idea that observing an event fundamentally changes the event. For example, much of quantum physics is interested in observing the movement of tiny particles. But to observe these movements you need to have light and using light means you are bombarding the experiment with photons which can change the outcomes of the event. (This is one simple example of the larger concept.)
I was reminded of this when I stumbled across this article about a Czech brothel where johns can have sex with prostitutes for free as long as they consent to let the act be broadcast over the web. A female photographer just published a book of photos documenting this brothel and has thoughts on the publicness of these acts.
“To me it seems like an extreme example of what is happening to all of us in this internet age,” says Jakrlova, who splits her time between Prague and New York. “There is an absurdity where some people have to have it online to have it become real or exciting.”
Jakrlova says not all the interactions she witnessed at the club felt staged. There were moments of real affection between the clients and prostitutes, but the fact that those moments were broadcast online always qualified and relativized them, she says.
“There were real moments of humanity,” she says. “But overall I found it quite depressing.”
Once we know the sex act is observed it becomes different… a performance.
I should note that I’ve been logged onto the web site that broadcasts these sex acts for the last hour and I’ve already recognized three friends of mine.
June 20th, 2012 by Wil
There’s an interesting article making the rounds of the internet arguing that the advent of the “free music revolution” has been a complete disaster for musicians and songwriters. Since this article largely agrees with my position, I find it quite wise.
The article does make a few pertinent points I’d not much considered. One being that a big beneficiary of pirated music (and film and other media) is hardware makers (e.g. computer, cell phone and tablet manufacturers) and connectivity providers. After all, to get access to all this free stuff you need a device to play it on and access to the web (connectivity.) So, in affect, all these idiots saying “information must be free” are really willing pawns of the technology industry.
The article makes another more profound point. 25 years ago, outright theft of music – say, walking into a record store and shoplifting – was frowned upon, even by most anti-authoritarian subcultures. Now this same act in its digital form (e.g. downloading pirated music, burning cds etc) is considered the norm. 25 years ago, we wanted to believe that we were acting morally for “pure” reasons but it seems clear that stealing was simply too hard and dangerous back then. Now that it’s easy, we steal freely. In essence, as the situation changed, our morality (supposedly eternal and inflexible) changed. This is the basic truth in every zombie apocalypse movie. You want to think that your friends, your family, your children etc. won’t sell you out to ensure their own survival (say, by tricking you into walking into a hallway of flesh eating zombies while they can escape) but in fact morality is flexible. When the situation changes so does our aversion to evil.
The truth is, when you’re dealing with a person – be they a friend, a neighbor, a business partner or close lover – you should always be aware that this person will sell you out in a zombie apocalypse. You should be certain that, if the need presents itself, you can instantly eradicate whatever warm feelings you have for that person and screw them before they screw you.
Anyway, the full article is worth reading.