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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Watson and AI -- Responses to the Responses

I've had a few more comments on IBM's Watson, and thought I'd share the essence of the commentary as well as my responses, especially since I clarified a lot of details in those comments.

First, "Priest Valon" commented...
AI theoretics is in my wheelhouse

Decision and analysis in a complex space is not easily modeled, but relatively recent advances have done so.
Essentially, computers are very very fast, very very accurate calculators... but a traditional algorithm, even an adaptive algorithm will never operate at a level of decision making that approaches real world complexity.
The solution is quite simple, at an "atomic" level...  constructs called neural agents.  They operate using a finite algorithm, are smart (in that they are independent instances of a class object) and follow an independent solution path, and then compete with other agents for the correct solution.  The group of highest ranking paths defines the "thought" of the system.  Computational game theory is the foundation of this and is widely used in proprietary systems like stock analysis.
To which I replied...
This is an excellent point, and something...
I wanted to discuss, in a slightly different way, about AI. While I am open to the idea of an eventual, sentient AI (or something very like it) being possible, it's in many ways the fact that we can break down important, complex tasks into a series of steps that we program computers and/or design other machines to accomplish.
In addition to various methods of problem solving -- evolving problem-solving agents, sifting through existing archives of options -- there are all the things we can design a machine to do.
For example, how complex is it to do your taxes, really? If all of the data could be inputted through the receipt of pre-entered data, or scanned from standardized forms, could your computer (or "Muse") do your taxes for you, and within reason pay them, without even involving you? How many tasks have we already broken down sufficiently that a reasonably competent AI could step in and handle the gruntwork itself?
Note, both of the computers I've mentioned which are already doing scientific research are essentially taking tasks that involve a large number of repetitive steps and automating them. In contrast to your example of neural agents, the designers essentially found a method or set of methods that worked -- which in some cases they knew already worked -- and implemented them on a massive scale.
To be blunt, I think Watson's potential ability to "just follow orders" is going to be huge, because so much labor can be broken down into discreet steps already, without requiring terribly complicated decision-making skills, just the capacity to understand what is being asked for.
"Valon" makes s
ome further points about the tricky nature of understanding everything from syntax to motivations in trying, for example, to do someone else's taxes on TurboTax. He also points out that you can train someone with multiple attempts at a task, but only if they have some metrics by which to differentiate success from failure.
To which I replied...
Indeed, which is why Watson's ability to understand the odd phrasing and fuzzy logic of Jeopardy questions is such an important first step. Other issues -- voice recognition, facial recognition, text scanning, handwriting recognition -- are well along already. But if you can consistently understand what humans living in the real world want without having to ask, and especially without their having to laboriously explain it, you can take a huge number of tasks off their shoulders.
Because we've already simplified and standardized those tasks already  -- but someone still has to do them. But soon, that someone may be named Watson.
Oh, and this leads into another issue that of the limited AI executing its program in a highly focused, anti-social way that ends up obliviously killing off the ecosystem around it. While this point is often made about many shortsighted corporations, I'm reminded of the rapidly evolving, voracious micro-corps of Accelerando, who ended up adapting to a fiercely competitive environment by feeding on each other and killing off the more advanced AIs. These fast-thinking, semi-sentient micro-corps kept evolving to fill any available economic niche, with only their ability to seize resources and destroy competitors mattering in their "social system" and sense of "morality."
Eventually, they wiped out every civilization that gave birth to them, and themselves as well.
One thing that gives me hope about new social networking systems like Facebook is that being a bully or a troll is not automatically rewarded over being a good person.
I think people are starting to make more active judgment calls about who they really want to be associated with in real life and online, and on who they want to cut out of their lives.
Which makes us all that much harder to manipulate, or undermine, or thwart, or destroy.
Regarding the potential, further displacement of human jobs by automation...

The fact that so much human labor can be replaced is one reason I keep bringing up human enhancement and human augmentation.
To be blunt, how many human beings do we have who already live up to their full potential? How many are doing truly satisfying, meaningful work? How many are being listened to, and having their creativity and other gifts fully tapped by their present work, and their present lifestyle?
I would say... very few.
Simply changing that one aspect of life would likely be one of the most dramatic augmentations we'll ever see. Not only in terms of ending all the waste of human potential we have now, but in the flowering of civilization made possible by billions of people reaching even their most basic intellectual, artistic and human capacity, right now.
And on the same subject, with the further concern that our society is in no way prepared to handle it...

Well yes... and no...
You have a very good point about a lot of jobs getting automated away and not necessarily replaced.
I would point out two things. One, our present peaking fossil fuel production, climate-change disruptions, harvest shortfalls and general economic issues make a lot of investment to replace workers who can be had increasingly cheaply in so much of the world a bit iffier of a proposition. Not that it can't happen, especially if we can change our energy sources and work through the rest of our problems, but there it is.
The other thing is... I think a lot of people are starting to look more seriously at how they live their lives, and whether they value simply having more and more electronic, motorized and other "stuff" in bigger and bigger piles... Or whether they want a life that is more connected with nature, with their community and with their family and friends. And in which their possessions and the services they receive are more personalized and meaningful.
If the latter... Or if resource constraints force us to change, or both...
Then I suspect we'll be looking at more localized food production -- more local farms, gardens, orchards, aquaponics, urban gardening, community gardening -- more handmade items (especially local ones, or made by oneself or one's friends), and so forth. Simply how people live their lives, and whether they value those around them for moral, aesthetic or basic insurance reasons, has a huge impact on whether we keep people employed, and employed at meaningful jobs, or not.
Another poster argued that I was not offering enough attention to the social-learning "growbot" strategy for developing AI, and that overpopulation and climate change made a major die off in our global population inevitable...

Well, that brings up quite a few issues...
With AI, there  are actually a number of different prevailing theories (how many depends on how seriously you take each one and each permutation of each one).
I mean no offense to the "growbot" perspective or any other. My point with Watson is that we appear to at last have a basic, general AI -- not perfect, not omnipotent, but capable of understanding our requests well enough to soon begin handling a lot of tasks with minimal supervision.
In fact, it's exactly the huge amount of work that has been done by humans with computers and other systems that suggests that a cheaper, more powerful Watson could soon be the controlling interface "just following orders" which thereby revolutionizes a wide array of efforts.
You know how modern computers have operating systems (OS)? Think of this as potentially an operating system's operating system.
If that tremendous amount of work were not already in place -- tax software to do your taxes for you, Droid phones that can make restaurant reservations, Google as well as Watson, and so much more -- then IBM's effort would be far less impressive. As it is, we seem to be looking at a turning point in AI -- not an earthshattering change, but a step that will lead to others.
As for the challenges facing humanity...
Though I wish to stay out of the political discussion of what happened in Cairo, I think the young people of Egypt made a huge statement insofar as their revolution was practically bloodless in spite of those determined to see it crushed.
So far, the young of this world are not playing by the cynical playbook that so many insist is their only option. I don't think they intend to.
To a poster who felt that Watson was not a basic AI, but no more important than speech recognition or an ordinary chess-playing computer...

I have a different perspective...
Just about every Jeopardy question is some kind of a basic joke, or riddle, or otherwise murky way of phrasing the "question" -- which is a non-question in itself.
If you've read through what I've posted on this subject, then you know we already have two computers doing scientific research on their own, and that a host of other functions have already been automated. Some of which I've described, but I've left out some of the most formidable, such as completely automated manufacturing from a set of plans and inputted raw materials.
Watson, as I've said elsewhere, can understand relatively obscure phrasing and determine what it is you're asking for. That's huge, because there's already a host of fully automated functions out there which it could perform, if it -- or its successor -- can handle the most basic function: Understanding what you're asking for and acting on that request.
Effectively, as I've noted, Watson is potentially an operating system of operating systems. Just as your laptop or smartphone provides an OS and a platform within which its various sub-programs work, Watson could be the master program that interprets what you say when you ask a question or give an order and then acts accordingly. Does it matter if Google is better at searching the entire Web if your computer pulls up that information and filters the results for its owner? Does it matter if TurboTax does your taxes if Watson pulls down the data from your digital and hardcopy records and effectively does your taxes for you?
There are steps to be filled in, but like an iMac or iPhone, or even a supercomputer, it's not just the hardware and the operating system, it's the applications. But this is so impressive because so many of those applications already exist, we're just oblivious to them.
Now if you believe that an AI must be a godlike, recursively self-improving, fully sentient intelligence, then I acknowledge that by your definition, Watson is in no way an AI. But that is by your definition, not mine.

A remark that once our backs are to the wall on energy, or food, we should finally see real change in how governments handle these issues...
One thing that gives me hope is that I see a lot of people acting, and not in the frantic, panicked, destructive way so many observers seem to expect from the public. Instead, whatever you may think of recent unrest, it's impossible to note that a major Middle Eastern power just fell in an essentially bloodless revolution organized by smart, non-fanatical, pragmatic young people.
You know, the very people who are supposed to be dis-empowered and radicalized.
Could it be that -- gasp -- our bigoted assumptions could actually be Wrong?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Because the Future Is Coming Fast

I am reactivating this Future Imperative blog for a number of reasons, but most importantly because the future itself seems even more pressing, more imminent and more radical than it did five years ago. There are many powerful forces at work in the world today, and this blog will be looking more and more at the currents that are seemingly invisible, but which can rise up like a surfer's wave or shift into a deadly riptide. And unlike the tides you find at the seashore, these powers are neither charted nor widely understood.

Indeed, many people do not even realize some of them exist. This blog will be about more than just enumerating the problems, however, but ways they can best be dealt with. But in order to meet these challenges, we must first know that they exist, be able to take their measure.

So to begin, we have...

Peak Energy

Peak oil is a straightforward concept -- we have a limited amount of oil and other non-renewable fuels, and one day each of these resources will run out. Peak oil tells us that at some point in the process of exhausting those resources, we will hit a moment in which we are extracting the most of that material (per day or per year) that we ever will. This turning point (particularly for oil) usually comes at roughly the midpoint of extraction, when only about half that resource is left. Worse, the first half of that resource -- be it oil, coal or natural gas -- is invariably the easiest half to extract. The latter half always takes more time, energy and raw materials (such as drilling rigs and pipelines) to tap, and in the case of oil and coal becomes increasingly dirty as well.

What most people do not understand is how heavily dependent the world is on its three key fossil fuels: especially oil. Oil not only provides the overwhelming majority of modern transportation fuel, but is raw material behind plastics, pharmaceuticals and most synthetics. Natural gas, on the other hand, is the source of most of the world's inorganic fertilizers.

The world is almost certainly near, at or just past this point of peak oil production, with coal and gas getting ever closer to peaking as well. While I am generally an optimist, very little in the way of renewable-energy alternatives are in place in most of the industrialized world, and after an initial slow drop or plateau of production after peaking -- as seen again and again in the peaking of oil production in every nation that has experienced it -- the drop off in production becomes quite precipitous. Our world, on the other hand, lacks the skills and infrastructure to simply go back to a low-energy lifestyle... among other problems, many regions are far more heavily populated than they were in pre-industrial times. Britain, for example, has around ten times its pre-industrial population.

Which brings us to our next concern...

Climate Change

There are a number of dire threats related to climate change, from rising sea levels to species extinction to a fatal acidification of the oceans to an outgassing of methane that could drive us into a runaway heatup of the entire planet. But for now, I will only discuss one situation -- food production.

For some time, climatologists have warned that shifts in climate and unstable weather could severely hurt crop production worldwide. These predictions, however, were usually set sometime in the nebulous future -- if specified at all, then typically indicated as being years if not a few decades away. And yet if the series of horrendous weather events we have seen in 2010 and early 2011 is any indication -- and not merely a bizarre confluence of highly improbable events -- then this time of faltering and then falling food production may already be upon us.

The droughts in Russia, the flooding in Pakistan, the drought in western Australia and the floods in eastern Australia, the desertification of cropland in China, the collapse of the "fossil" water tables in India... combined with more minor events, such as the Midwestern ice storm affecting winter wheat in the U.S., and major damage to vegetables in Mexico and southern China, these suggest a planet whose agriculture is already in crisis. In many less wealthy nations, people normally spend up to half of their income on food, and food prices have risen dramatically in the last year. Some will point to financial speculation as a culprit, and I will not try to unravel how much of the price of rice or wheat is work of investors and how much is driven by underlying conditions. What is clear is that underlying conditions have become dire, and need to be either dealt with, or grimly endured.

The Economy

Needless to say, the disastrous consequences of radical financial speculation are only aggravated by factors such as rising energy costs, resource depletion, an inflation in food costs combined with a drop in its availability, not to mention dealing with large-scale natural disasters from Haiti to Russia to Pakistan to Australia, and the existence or threat of war, terrorism and/or violent revolution in many unstable regions.

The economy is an odd beast, and very often becomes healthier when "starved" of its excesses. But all too many people seem to feel that the food eaten by others, or the clothes on their backs, are an egregious excess, rather than a necessity, or do not think about such issues at all. Hence, unhealthy forms of competition are all too prevalent. And, of course, the economy needs a certain level of resources to operate lest its existing structures all collapse catastrophically. And many individuals and organizations resist radically reforming or shutting down wildly inefficient industries and practices until it is too late to do either gracefully.

Yet as the dangers posed by energy, environmental and economic threats have become impossible to ignore, a host of tactics and strategies have emerged in response to them. Further, some forces already in motion have been responding to the global crisis (or crises) as it has become more pressing, whether due to foresight, inherent flexibility, or some combination thereof.

Crowdsourcing, Opensource, DIY Technology, Ebooks, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet

These six could each be their own category, but together they symbolize something larger than what they are today. Crowdsourcing -- letting the public complete tasks for you on their own initiative, such as creating smartphone and other software apps -- and opensource -- a conscious cooperative effort to create software, often major software such as Linux... these are forms of cooperation which have transformed software research. Google, Apple, Microsoft -- the titans of the computer industry have all embraced crowdsourcing for creating phone apps, because having potentially thousands of bright, talented programmers lending you hand for little or no money and with no gatekeepers to keep them from initiating a project... Well, that quirk alone is transformative.

But you could argue quite a few breakthroughs today have been opensourced, from peaceful revolutions in North Africa to SETI@Home's use of private PCs for breaking down and processing masses of data to DARPA's open competitions for key technological achievements. The more minds that can be effectively and intelligently leveraged, especially to a constructive end, the more powerful this technique becomes.

Similiarly, opensource research has produced some formidable projects, most notably computer operating systems other than either Windows or Apple's OS. Indeed, this technique is a subculture in itself, wherein pride in one's contribution and private recognition are typically the only rewards available.
Do-it-yourself technology, featured on sites such as Make and Instructables, has also tapped a pool of volunteer gadgeteers, inventors and experimenters to make physical technology and scientific research available to individual creators, tinkers and visionaries as never before. Whether using Arduino pre-programmed microcontrollers or DIY biotech data archives and prepared "bio-bricks" of standardized biological feedstocks, or simply using websites or YouTube to show how to use these or other tools to build innovative technologies... the DIY technology movement has gotten the painstaking details out of the way so that you can go ahead and be creative, and accomplish whatever you are trying to do.
Speaking of getting things out of the way, Ebooks have become a major new force in the publishing world. As one writer told me, "You sell each book for less money. But the writer gets much more per sale than they ever got for a paperback. It used to be that of all the people making money off of a book, the writer always got the least. With Ebooks, you get almost all of it." This change is interesting for any number of reasons, but in addition for cutting out the "middlemen" who absorb so much money with each conventional sale, while adding very little of value, the other profound change is an elimination of "gatekeepers." Or rather, once you can get your book out in front of the public, every individual who might get a chance to buy it becomes their own gatekeeper. The change is profound, in part because it is symbolic. I will discuss this factor further in other posts. But for now, it worth realizing that as individuals and organizations become more empowered, there are fewer and fewer gatekeepers to tell them "no" when they work towards something constructive. Which means the limits to your accomplishments have more and more to do with the resources available or accessible to you, and the talent and drive with which you use them.

Which brings us, of course, to the Internet. So much has been said about the Web that little more needs to be discussed here. Suffice to say that it is making a host of new interactions possible, not just a narrow spectrum of pop-up ads and global outsourcing. But in the end, it is only a tool. The quality of what is said upon it, and the degree to which the better ideas it transmits get noticed, in the end means everything.

Still, remember that all the crowdsourcing, opensourcing, DIY movements and Ebooks would be far less potent or even impossible without the medium of the Net, a power which also feeds the fierce competition between a host of long-standing and newly emerged tech giants, and the startup operations to follow. So long as it remains with us -- and there are plenty of ways to keep it up even in dire regional or global circumstances -- it will continue to foster this competition of ideas, and its own strange quest for human attention.

I have discussed IBM's Watson project elsewhere, but AI is one more tool that will be empowered by the Web. Watson appears to be a basic artificial intelligence, or something close enough. In essence, Watson or its immediate descendant will be able to follow orders. A machine that can understand the vague, imprecise language of a human and respond to it in a consistently intelligent way will be able to take the host of designs and tools and apps we have already standardized for human use and increasingly be able to use them at the spur of the moment for its human owner. Which is yet another force clearing away the detritus that slows useful human activities, especially many of the most productive ones, which once again changes the game for us all.

And that brings me to those most affected by, and those who will most effect, all of the above resources...

Human Enhancement and Human Augmentation

Essentially two phrases saying much the same thing, human enhancement means techniques and technologies that help human beings become better -- healthier, smarter, stronger, faster, better -- whereas human augmentation does much the same thing, only with an emphasis on methods that physically intrude upon and significantly alter the human body. But these two fields are incredibly fuzzy in terms of what truly makes them up.

For example, almost any medical research can be plausibly described as having human enhancement as a secondary use, because in understanding things well enough to heal them, we also learn how they can be improved. Meanwhile, arguably almost anything profoundly helpful could be described as "enhancing" a human -- what do you call an incredibly enlightening teacher or education, or the elite training of modern Olympic athletes?

But here is where human enhancement and human augmentation, however strictly defined, come to impact on us all. We already have humans of extraordinary conventional abilities, including no few geniuses within their respective fields. What happens if those people can be substantially enhanced in terms of their intelligence, their creativity, their ability to learn new information and new skills?

What happens if not just the elite scientist, or the rare genius can be enhanced, but if powerful enhancements become widespread? What happens to all those "common folk" -- whether common or brilliant -- who are out there developing smartphone apps or DIY technologies? What happens to the speed with which they do so, the quality of the technology they produce... and the significance of the problems they choose to address in the first place?

What happens then?

Tim O'Reill once wrote of author Frank Herbert:
One of his central ideas is that human consciousness exists on--and by virtue of--a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert's books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt. He sets his characters in the most stressful situations imaginable: a cramped submarine in Under Pressure, his first novel; the desert wastes of Dune; and in Destination: Void the artificial tension of a spaceship designed to fail so that the crew will be forced to develop new abilities. There is no test so powerfully able to bring out latent adaptability as one in which the stakes are survival.

The truth is that our age is now a test, one in which the stakes are survival.

Now we must decide whether to consciously adapt, or to fall into rage or despair or oblivion... until oblivion claims us.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Facebook and Cell Phones Can Stop Street Crime and Corruption in Egypt, and Everywhere Else...

Street level crime, especially the corruption of law-enforcement, is a common concern reported from the streets of Cairo, as mentioned here. But in the wake of a revolution organized by cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, Egyptians may find their phones and Facebook accounts could prove potent tools against such criminal activity.

The solution is a simple one. Most cell phones now have the ability to take pictures, and quite a few are able to take video as well. Criminals in a high-density city -- such as Cairo or Alexandria -- are unable to watch in every direction at once, much less to notice every open cell phone on the sidewalk, or in doorways or windows. When you see someone demanding a bribe or committing a major crime (such as violent assault, or robbing a home or store), take a video if you can, or a photo if you can not. Most crimes are best recorded using video, preferably with understandable sound if words are exchanged (especially threats and demands for bribes). But even a photo begins to build evidence against someone. Still, this act is only the beginning.

Most users of Facebook have noticed that when they show up in photos on other people's pages, the system can automatically recognize their features and connect them to those images. The same facial-recognition technology could be used to connect people in one photograph or video after another. This tracking would connect criminals with not just one crime, but every crime for which you had video or photographic evidence. (Images taken from the best moments (or "frames") of a video would give the software the picture from which it would scan the criminal's face.) In effect, you would have created a "dossier" on this individual, linking them to misdeeds throughout the city, the country, or potentially even the world.

What you need once you have these photos is a host to maintain the images gathered on a particular individual, and a source of facial-recognition software that could link them and file them in the first place. Obviously, if Facebook cooperated in this endeavor, that would be the easiest and most obvious solution. Without Facebook's permission, however, the company would probably look dimly upon people signing up an account for a named or unnamed criminal in order to post incriminating photos about them. Google, of course, can offer facial recognition of your pictures through its free Picasa software, though it obviously does not maintain the equivalent of Facebook pages as an easily browsed summary of them. Though more laborious, iPhones iPhoto software can tag images that can then be searched using Spotlight. Finally, Sony's free Picture Motion Browser can also search through video images and link recognized individuals. OpenCV, free software that include facial recognition, is another option, though also lacking Facebook's autotagging of images. Other organizations, however, could maintain such a dedicated site and database, if they had the identified and tagged images. Another option, of course, would be to have people employed as law enforcement sign up willingly for their own Facebook account, and to post a photo of themselves on their profile.

Obviously, local "citizens watch" groups in Egypt could have their own servers capable of processing and storing this data, and of putting it up on a website. There are advantages, however, to placing the core of such an operation (or at least a copy) beyond the reach of any local criminal, no matter how well connected. Hence, cooperation with one or more international organizations, such as a few human rights groups in a number of different countries, under the oversight of different governments, would help you to archive your information through site mirrors, even if you decided to have one or more databases maintained in-country.

Such cooperation might prove surprisingly easy to arrange. You see, if you can make this work, then it could become popularized around the world and then could be duplicated by people and organizations tracking major human rights violations all over the planet, as well as those opposed to crime and corruption on the local scale. Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous, and Internet access is becoming more common all the time. Once you have proved the concept, it can spread.

What do you do with this information once you have it?

Well, once you have this kind of information about an individual, especially a serial offender, you can bring this to the attention of any number of authorities, human-rights groups, and international observers. Ordinary criminals will likely be brought down by any honest law enforcement you may have, or by anyone trying to at least appear to be honest and diligent. Where official corruption is concerned, your most egregious officers and officials are apt to fall first, as few people responsible to the public will risk much for individuals caught again and again in videos, blatantly demanding bribes or otherwise abusing their positions. Bringing these people to international attention, especially on websites where everyone from diplomats to officials approving foreign-aid money can see them, will exert a steady, powerful influence over the long-term. Even if every dishonorable person is not brought down, everyone involved in extorting money and other questionable acts will understand they are being watched, and that their deeds could be recorded and go out internationally at any time.

And rest assured, they will notice.

Meanwhile, links to the pages that sum up their activities can be sent to judges, their superiors, Parliamentary investigations, community groups and other interested parties. Again, the worst will fall first, but everyone will take notice. 

Regarding Interruptions in Internet Access

Needless to say, the above plan relies on being able to access the Internet at least sporadically, and ideally whenever you need it. Given that blackouts and other disruptions can easily cut off Internet access at inconvenient times, I am including links to three different resources that could enable cooperating people to maintain their own Internet locally and even, if necessary, internationally. These three articles -- from PC World, Wired, and Anonymous -- all discuss options that could be used to either circumvent normal interference and/or to build an alternate local Internet using, say, meshed wireless networks. This list covers open source ad-hoc network and routing protocols and platforms, though these are all still works in progress.

One Final Note

Acquiring facial-recognition technology adequate for this purpose is trickier without Facebook's cooperation, Google searches, or Apple or Sony software, but it is by no means impossible, or even necessarily that difficult. The open-source software movement puts together basic technologies such as this all the time, especially when they have been around for years, and the Egyptian revolution is exactly the kind of crowd-sourced, Internet-organized kind of drama that would be apt to galvanize these volunteer programmers. Still, I would try the other options first, especially the free ones, as they are already built and ready to go, and you can find plenty of people who will already know the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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Responses to "So, IBM Has an AI (Artificial General Intelligence)" -- Part II

Below are some summarized comments on my blog post on IBM's new AI, and my responses...

In answer to one comment dismissing Watson as trivial as compared to software allowing data sharing between robots over the Internet (with the idea of creating a "cloud-based" AI as a result):
There are a number of impressive technologies out there -- the ones I cited above are only a few. But I wouldn't underestimate this step. It's not so much being able "to play a game" -- we had that with Deep Blue. It's being able to interpret and understand human language in such an open-ended way, both in comprehending questions and searching for answers, that make this such a game changer.
Rest assured, there are still major hurdles to overcome to achieving an AI with anything like the full range of basic human capabilities. But this is huge. So much of the progress we've seen so far has related to artificially circumscribed questions -- crunching numbers, inputting pre-formatted data, comparing fingerprints or facial structures, or narrowly interpreting language. Some breakthroughs have already gone beyond this, as I've noted above. This one is so potent because it implies an entity -- if only a huge and incredibly expensive entity -- capable of making complex, open-ended judgments.
I'm sure it has limits, but this is an incredibly impressive baseline to start with, rather than to merely be shooting for.

In response to someone who felt Watson was not really intelligent:
The trick is if you can answer Jeopardy questions with a high level of accuracy in the space of a second or so, you're probably at a level where you can "start following orders" -- even if those orders aren't inputted in highly precise, programming friendly language by a trained expert.
You may still hesitate to entrust an unsupervised machine with a nuclear reactor or loaded weapons, but the ability of this system to act on orders -- including the ability to automatically sift through over 200 million pages of accurate data looking for the answer that is both relevant and correct -- is a game changer.
Oh, it probably won't knock you out of a job in the next six months, but even what they have now is incredibly valuable for organizations struggling with information overload. And just about everybody with more than a 56K modem and an IBM 386 already is...

And further:
This machine may not laugh and dance and weep from the depth of its soul, but its level of problem solving -- at least in understanding and answering questions -- appears to be at least "human comparable." It won't be answering phones at a help desk near you -- or near Bangalore -- anytime soon, not given its size and cost. But there's a host of organizations that would already pay for what IBM has, if they can afford it.
Which means that future iterations will pay for themselves. Which means it will only get better. And smaller. And cheaper.
And continue... to change the game.

Responses to "So, IBM Has an AI (Artificial General Intelligence)" -- Part I

The previous report on IBM's de facto AI, Watson, generated a few direct and indirect responses worth mentioning. First, The New York Times followed up the article linked in my last post with an analysis which actually acknowledged Watson is a more or less a basic AI. Whether or not this admission was a response to this blog's comments, it's interesting to see a major news organization noting this fact. The Times writer also discussed the race between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation (AI versus IA).

While seeing these issues discussed in the public square was undoubtedly interesting, I'm afraid the quick overview provided may have an in fact understated what is going right now, in terms of these two complementary technological paths, and also the other resource and competitive pressures being brought to bear not just on the computer industry, but on the entire human race.

I will go into these subjects more thoroughly in this blog in the near future, but for now, let me clarify.

As the Times notes, AI in Watson's league is a step towards eliminating a lot of expert consultation, at least when it comes to asking questions with relatively straightforward answers. But the greatest insights usually involve far more than just a rote answer. Knowledge certainly plays a role, and a great deal of that information can and has been assimilated into books or databases. A gifted professional may well be bringing together sensory information, "gut instinct" and a wealth of information that comes from having lived in the real world and having a deep understanding of it. Some symptoms picked up by an attentive doctor, for example, may be easily checked by a machine -- blood pressure, pupil dilation, heart rate. Others, such as subtle psychological cues, or insights made possible by a long familiarity with someone's personality and general lifestyle, may prove much harder.

Truly major discoveries, on the other hand, could be much more difficult for an unassisted, simple AI to accomplish. Something like Einstein's theories of relativity were not merely a shift in the paradigm of physics -- in order to find the answers you had to understand that the questions even existed in the first place.

You might read the above qualifiers and think that I am now minimizing the impact of a Watson. Actually, no. The ability to give meaningful, even expert-level answers in a second or two when asked a question, especially when sifting vast databases, is potentially an immense change in itself.

Consider. If Watson is that capable of understanding murky questions and responding to them accurately, then a scientist or inventor could ask for information on a whole host of questions and then receive accurate and almost immediate replies. In effect, a huge part of the trivial, mentally draining, unrewarding and unprofitable work that an elite research team has to do... goes away. Or is rather handled speedily and invisibly by the machine in question.

But this is only the beginning. As I noted previously, we already have two computers out there doing research -- sifting articles for secondary drug uses and analogues in one case, and determining the effect of each gene in a simple animal's genome in the other. Meanwhile, there are other powerful means of coming up with scientific discoveries or technological innovations, such as evolutionary algorithms.

Because Watson can understand and act upon generalized questions, it's likely that soon an AI will be able to understand and act upon other orders, such as a command to begin a new line of basic research, to focus its drug searches on specific diseases or enhancements, or to find the ideal design (evolved from its algorithms) for a specific piece of technology. It's not just whether you can dispense with hiring a new expert for your team; it's that you may have gotten a specific, seemingly major task done in a matter of hours, minutes, or seconds because your automated systems were able to understand exactly what you were asking for.

The expertise you can tap in simply searching for existing answers can be equally formidable for decision makers. A country facing shortages in its food supplies could, in a matter of moments, draw up information on foragable plants, various ways to produce more food (especially fast, high-yield and/or cheap methods), and what organizations might be willing to supply significant food (for free, for an acceptable cost, or for barter (wheat for oil, or what-have-you)). These searches might miss some options (the roots of those daylily plantings lining your highways, even in the dead of winter, for example), but at least leaders would no longer be at the mercy of the information and prejudices of the experts they have on hand. And who, really, has a host of top-notch professionals on hand in every field, for every question?

This kind of breadth and speed could critically improve decision making. But, once again, it's not only the answers you get, but what questions you ask in the first place. For instance, many researchers in the fields of human enhancement and human augmentation -- the study of how to help people be smarter, healthier and otherwise "better than normal" -- seem oblivious to related, complementary developments in sub-fields other than their own and perhaps one or two others. Even though, ironically, some of that work is going on in extremely well-established disciplines. So an AI researcher might keep up with cybernetics, especially work on human-computer interfaces, and yet be unaware of much more mature fields such as nootropic drugs and nutrients, biofeedback, cranial electro-stimulation, self-hypnosis, accelerated learning and sensory-deprivation tanks... or even the full benefits of better nutrition and cardiovascular exercise or the damage caused by sleep deprivation and stress. Or quite a few other interesting discoveries.

Lacking this knowledge can lead to some odd missteps. When last polled, for example, 20% of American scientists admitted to using a drug to improve their thinking... and remarkably, the two main pharmaceuticals employed were Ritalin and Adderall -- two substances with limited uses and well-established and often dangerous side effects. With relatively safe nootropics like Piracetam and general alertness-enhancers such as Modafinil available, seeing that many of America's scientists making such a questionable choice is surprising.

Then again, the Times' followup article on Watson in describing intelligence augmentation speaks exclusively of useful software that can assist elite scientists and engineers, rather than the more formidable option of directly improving the intelligence, learning ability and creativity of the researchers themselves. In fairness, the full extent of intelligence-augmentation experimentation may have been beyond the parameters of the piece, but more frequently this oversight results from sources who are themselves unaware of dramatic progress. Sources who may also harbor prejudices against specific lines of research, such as a dry nanotech or AI triumphalist who feels an unspoken contempt for biological or psychological augmentations.

Once again, it's a matter of the questions you ask, and how frequently you ask them, not just the quality of the information available to you. Our greatest discoveries are often made at the borders of our ignorance, not just at the pinnacles of our understanding.

Which brings us to an interesting twist to all of the above. There are many forces driving dramatic change in the world today. Some of these are new technologies, new opportunities and new competitive forces, but others are grave challenges that are coming fast.

There are really too many of these factors to sum up here, so I will only touch on a few. The intense competition of the computer industry is in many ways the quest not so much to dominate a long-standing market but to create new ones. If you look at some of the major products and/or companies to have emerged in the last two decades, you see Amazon and eBay, Google, the iMac, iPad and iPhone, the Droid smartphone, the crowdsourced software "apps" for smartphones, a host of open-source software (Mozilla, Ubuntu, Python), Playstation and XBox, blogging, e-readers such as Kindle, Facebook and Twitter, and, of course, IBM's Watson. And more.

Quite a few of these innovations were sneered at, yet computer games' revenues now exceed those of the U.S. film industry, and Facebook and Twitter have been used by enterprising, educated young people as the organizational means to overthrow two Middle Eastern governments. Further, the ability to cooperate and compete over the Internet and throughout global markets, and to exchange software based "goods" in seconds, has sharpened these competitive pressures. To return to the above list: How many of those innovations were the work of companies that were either viewed to be fading or on life support, or which had only just come into existence?

But that furious commercial battle is only one tiny part of the larger picture. The debate about whether to pursue intelligence augmentation versus artificial intelligence has for a long time missed the point... Right now, we already have intelligence augmentation, and brilliant human minds that can use it. Our computational breakthroughs, whether AI-related or not, have thus far been most spectacular at advancing research into enhancing humans -- whether by decoding the human genome, assaying new nootropic drugs, scanning the mind with improved MRIs and algorithms, putting the world's scientific journals online in searchable formats, and so on. Granted, it helps that just about any medical research is "dual-use"; as virtually any medical advance can be applied to enhancing some aspect of the human condition. Alzheimer's research equals memory enhancement, intelligence enhancement, and nootropic and longevity research. Parkinson's research equals intelligence and nootropic and longevity research. Artificial limbs mean cybernetic advancements. Repairing brain damage means advances relating to cybernetics, intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence. And so on and so forth. And, of course, much of this work is not only a theoretical augmentation. Merely keeping existing, brilliant minds functioning at their best for a few more years effectively augments global scientific and technical research. Now imagine how much more could be done to assist those minds directly.

In other words, the scientific and technical competition existing in any number of "hot" fields, and quite a few complacent ones, could be intensified simply by augmenting the intelligence and creativity of their leading researchers. Clearly if, as of several years ago, one fifth of American scientists were taking some kind of drug to amplify their intellect, then this transformation is already underway.

The other half of this changing competitive picture are all of the new people competing -- both a broader slice of the public in countries with established tech industries, and throughout the world. Whether open-source programmers on Linux, hobbyists providing apps for iPhones, or startups emerging out of nowhere, the host of new minds involved in solving problems and/or creating new products is staggering. Now, imagine if all, or even a majority, of those minds could be radically augmented in terms of their gifts, and empowered in terms of the knowledge and resources they could tap and the ease with which they could bring products and companies into existence.

But perilous changes are also taking place in our world, which provide their own kind of "competitive challenge." The world consumes over a cubic mile of oil a year, and vast quantities of natural gas and coal. Those supplies are not only limited, but the energy required to find, extract, refine and ship them to market, particularly in the case of oil, have been steadily increasing over the last century. And our production of oil is almost certainly near, at or just past our ultimate global peak in overall production by volume (and probably well past in terms of net energy).

Rising energy prices feed through into everything, particularly in oil's case, as it happens to be a feedstock in a huge number of products, in particular almost anything made out of plastic. Rising prices and/or falling profits for virtually all goods and services puts financial pressures on everything, which is bad news in a global economic downturn as severe as this one.

Meanwhile, climate change is well underway. Some of those dire impacts supposed pessimists felt could happen in just a decade or two, such as disruptions to our food production, may already be here. Severe drought in Russia, parts of China and India and in western Australia, severe flooding in Pakistan and eastern Australia, and very hard frosts and ice storms in Mexico, southern China and some localities in the U.S. will almost certainly damage global food supplies in 2011. In countries where the average household spends 40% to 50% of their income on food, doubling food prices means economic ruin if not starvation for many, many people.

We should not be surprised that dramatically higher food prices have helped drive revolutions in the Middle East. Nothing makes people believe in change like seeing the end coming.

But ironically, being driven to the wall may prove to be our greatest evolutionary hope. When you no longer have any excuses, delusions or options, you have no choice but to change. That change may be for good or for ill, but at some point it becomes inevitable. Our mission, then, is to make the best choices we can with the information and opportunities before us, and to help provide better alternatives to others, so that when they are forced to leap headfirst into change, they choose to leap in the wisest direction.

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