Archive for March, 2008

When the Teaching Machines Learn to Think

March 31, 2008

A recent article in Science Daily  announces what may be an AI breakthrough. The article explains that AI researchers in Sweden have combined two tired and trued methods of artificial intelligence in order to create a robot that “learns like a child or a puppy”.

Essentially, they have put together the classic rules based system (which tends to mimic human rationality) with an Artificial Neural Network (our attempt at mimicking the physical structure of the brain). The result is a system that reacts to new and different stimuli by learning about it.

 They boot up the system and the only human intervention after that was telling the system whether it had succeeded or not (which brings to mind how me may be able to train for that). The system was used to try ti fit pegs into holes. It seems that on each subsequent attempt, the system did better having “learned” about the best ways to go about it.

 The real breakthrough here is that they have a system that seems to be able to adapt to its situation. This could be a really big step towards some form of useful artificial intelligence. We are still within the 2005-2030 range which Vernor Vinge predicted would be the time span that an artificial super human intelligence would appear and what he called the “end of humanity” would occur. This may be a significant step in that direction.

 Such a superhuman intelligence would indeed require both the neural network and the rules based intelligence. While AI researchers spent more of the early years working on the rules based approach, it may be that the neural network through the general expansion of the internet

 This comes to the question of whether a set of artificial neural networks may be able to evolve the same way biological ones have. And even more poignantly, whether these artificial networks may simply be extensions of existing biological ones?

The interesting part happens when artificial networks begin to interface and grow enough so that the biological originators become the extensions rather than vice-versa. And if there is indeed a need for a rules based system to manage it all, who makes the rules (and what are they)?

When the servers become large, complex, integrated, interconnected enough that the services become the “servees”, does the sleeper awaken?

The End of Human Evolution, or the Beginning?

March 25, 2008

Recently, researchers at Washington University school of Medicine in St Louis announced that they had corrected a genetic mutation in a fish embryo prior to birth. More importantly, they announced that the research could lead to the prevention of up to one fifth of birth defects in humans caused by genetic mutation.

While I will avoid the over discussed topic of when does an embryo become a human, it made me wonder whether we would be actively interfering in human evolution. One of the precepts of evolution is that mutation id often occurring as a form of trial and error in which we bring about new and improved (read more successful) forms of life. Now, I do think a portion of the creationist argument against human evolution is the notion that we might continue to evolve. Afterall, if we are already in God’s image, how can that be improved upon?

 But even with the massive success of homo sapiens on this planet, nothing seems to assure us that a sudden mutation may not offer some improved form of human (the variety of possible mutations is huge). Additionally, as we go on to explore and possibly colonize other planets, the mutative effects of lesser gravity and increased radiation will forcibly engender changes in the humans born under those conditions. If they are to survive, I suppose the ones with improved adaptability will be displaying some features or functions that will help them be more successful in their environment. Remember that Darwin claimed that evolutionary success was not about survival of the strongest or smartest, but of those most able to adapt. In fact, although it may be difficult to imagine, a dumber human that had other attributes that permitted for better survival might be an evolutionary improvement from Darwin’s point of view.

 What the Washington U announcement got me thinking was what if we use this wonderous medical break-through to put a halt to hap hazard mutational changes.

Despite the political will to try to stop people from experimenting with stem cells and human genetic manipulation, it is rather unrealistic to imagine that it will not occur (even though we may legally declare that a genetically modified human is not a human , much the same way certain European politicians are trying to do with GM corn).

 So, if humans begin to prevent mutations and actively change themselves, does that mean evolution (in the traditional format that we have come to know and argue about) is coming to an end or are we just about to begin.

 To add a little extra thought to this, remember that dogs as a species are only about 10,000 years old (obviously human developed from wolves) and that the vast majority of dog breeds are less than 500 years old. We are not strangers to altering the evolution of life forms.

The War for Information

March 17, 2008

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth” – Vladimir Lenin

Can you remember a time when you weren’t being told that your nation wasn’t living under some type of imminent threat and that we had to marshal our resources and make certain that we were facing this critical issue?

I remember my father (who had survived many years in Nazi labor camps) telling me that sooner or later, even in the US, they will tell you that they must take your liberties in order to protect you. It seems to me that I cannot recall a time when we were not facing one peril or another.

As a child, I remember lacing my fingers and placing my hands over my head in the ritual preparation we had as early as first grade that was supposed to protect us in case of a nuclear attack. And as I grew, learning of the Red Menace we had to face in Vietnam was the justification I heard for seeing the older boys in my neighborhood go off to the military, with occasional stories of the ones that didn’t come back and even stranger stories of the ones that did.

And then, the Soviet empire fell. And I thought, perhaps we can see a new day when the airwaves are not filled with fearful warnings that had us all reacting in lock step.

But AIDS suddenly lifted a terrible dragon-like head on the horizon. We were doomed to a disease that was spreading so rapidly, why, half the planet would soon be infected and hundreds of millions would be dying in the streets if we don’t do something!

Then came global warming. A terrible nemesis because we created it ourselves, Oh evil mankind! We must react now! Marshall all of our attention and reduce our carbon footprint before it is too late.

And this was followed by September 11th and the shouts of weapons of mass destruction held by new evil triumvirates that had to be put down like a rabid dogs.

So after 5 years of Iraqi occupation, I am wondering what is next.

The Department of Homeland Security recently conducted an online exercise dubbed Cyber-Storm II.

Now, I don’t doubt that cyber wars will be waged in some future and it would be irresponsible not to prepare for it. But what worries me is the press attention it got. It seems as if the media is, once again, being coached about what the next up and coming peril will be.

Questions from the media (a Homeland Security briefing on Cyber Storm II) already show that they are bought into the notion of cyber war:

  • Who’s in charge period, for responding to an attack?
  • In Congressional testimony you’ve talked about threats from nation-states like China and also organized crime, terrorism, I guess, freelancers, so to speak. Can you be a little bit more specific, of all those or name one I didn’t mention, what is the scariest threat that is growing and what types of threats, can you tell me?
  • Secretary, could you tell us if since you are exercising the draft provisions to the National Response Framework during Cyber Storm II, is there going to be a separate evaluation of those recommendations?
  • What have you learned is the greatest vulnerability aside from information sharing, and how has that changed?

My point here is not to question whether or not there will be online conflict. Given the speed at which things evolve online, I am surprised we have not heard more about it. I am just concerned that the media is being primed and educated to be able to write about another threat to our peaceful way of life.

Which may mean that we are headed into some other type of fiasco. And another time when we are going to give up our freedoms in the name of security.

Oh well, maybe it means we won’t be invading Iran too soon.

When Words Fail, But you Can’t Stop Thinking

March 13, 2008

It seems that there are many occasions when we find that we lack the proper word to describe a thing or event or we encounter a thing or event that has no word.

It strikes me that it is the duty of each and every one of use who deigns to use language to remedy this situation as best as we can.

To that extent, I am publishing below ( in no particular order) several words of my invention that I feel may be useful at one time or another.

Please feel free to add your own words as comments, I will make certain that the better ones appear.

Hezipassitation (noun) The time that passes between when you have slowed down in the Easy-Pass lane and the time that the bar raises and you accelerate once again.

Trailefuscator (noun) the 18 wheeler that is right in front of you preventing you from seeing the road sign indicating the next exit which is invariably yours.

Chowfage (noun) a small bit of food caught in your teeth that refuses all attempts of your tongue to dislodge it.

Exacerbitch (noun) the very prim and proper person in front of whom you dare not scratch where you really itch and who won’t stop speaking to you while staring straight at you.

Bumfipple (noun) the sound of the seat of your pants ripping as you raise your leg in order to tie your shoe. Also known as a Bumfrip if you bend over to tie your shoes and did not lift your leg.

Orphew (noun) a silent passing of wind in an elevator odiferously noticed by everyone but with no one taking ownership.

Origlare (noun) the look one gives to other people in an elevator upon detecting and orphew. Also the same look one gives upon perpetuating an orphew.

Knownodding (verb) the slight angled shake of the head made by someone who knew the answer to a question but witnessed someone else give the wrong answer. Often occurring when playing trivia games or watching television game shows.

Gnashitting (verb) the simultaneous clenching of teeth and bowels, Frequently occurring when watching televised political debates.

Capitulatteing (verb) not complaining about the lid that was put atop your cappuccino by your helpful barrista in a café despite the fact that it has flattened all that wonderful foam

Diskeylapsey (verb) dropping the door key when your arms are overloaded with fragile groceries such as eggs, strawberries, yogurt and a heavy bottle of bleach.

Greaseting (noun) a handshake with some one who has just slathered their appendage with moisturizing cream.

Booblush (noun) cosmetic designed to enhance the look of cleavage

Toewindow (noun) a hole at the end of a sock

Barriclod (noun) the person in front of you on the escalator that does not understand that you wish to get past them.

Guffawltiness (noun) inappropriate laughter

Keisterstitial (noun) the part of cloth in a dress or skirt that is jammed between the buttocks of the lady standing with her back to you as you sit on the bus or subway.

Misacrimony (noun) being angry with the wrong person

Richagrin (noun) the feeling of shame when one realizes that one has been speaking of items or services that one ahs recently purchased in front of someone who could not afford the same things or services

Dentichinating (verb) laughing out loud with ill-fitting dentures

Mopflop (noun) a comb over that the wind has blown over in the wrong direction

Cherubotheration (noun) an infant destined to become a problem child

Offbeatnik (noun) a hippie with no rhythm

Shamongrel (noun) an itinerant preacher

 

Make my brain more plastic fantastic please

March 11, 2008

In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire offers one word of advice to
Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics”

Now-a-days, one can hardly tune into a PBS television channel without running into what is primaily an infomercial about exercising your brain in a brain gym.

The show, interestingly, explains the concept of brain plasticity, essentially the changes that occur in the organization of the brain as a result of experience.

We used to believe that once you achieved adulthood, large portions of your brain were set forever and that when portions were lost due to an accident, aging or abundant cheap vodka, these portions and their functions were irretrievably lost. Brain plasticity says, “uh-uh we have seen different functions move to different parts of the brain depending on environmental effects.”

The idea behind brain exercise is that you can keep your brain more plastic (able to change and adapt) by lifting mental dumbbells.

And now, a new article published in BMC Neuroscience seems to claim that injecting human umbilical cord  blood intravenously can actually increase neurogenesis in the brain.

This means an adult brain could begin acting like a growing brain once again. The first tests have been conducted on aging rats.  Rejuvenating an aging rats brain and making note of a change in behavior must have been a thrilling assignment (Wow! My rat has stopped playing dominoes and is hitting on the females again!).

A Google search of “umbilical cord blood” comes up with no less than 7 sponsored links touting the benefits of banking your newborns umbilical cord blood for later use. You can even get a kit for the collection of menstrual blood stem cells (did you ever imagine there was value there?). And special combo-packages can save you hundreds of dollars.

Who could have imagined that the fountain of youth and the birth canal could have been one and the same?

LSDNA – will we pee in the genetic pool?

March 10, 2008

So far, the term “recreational genetics” has been used primarily to denote the “pastime” of tracking someone’s genetic heritage in order to discover who they may have been related to, or how far they can trace their family tree back to some nomadic tribesman of inner Youfreakistan.

I think we will be able to go well beyond that. The entertainment value of discovering that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney is temporal at best. I mean, who doubts that all politicians have some evil, twisted gene that leads them to the desire to dominate the masses under the barely disguised moniker of being concerned for the welfare of their fellow human?

No, I am thinking of a far more amusing form of using genetic manipulation: temporary retroviral reshaping of ones genetic structure as a source of entertainment.

Wayne Porter, in his blog entitled “Second Life is Real Life,”

touches on the notions of using tiny computers inside the body in order to fully simulate the experiences on can have in the here-to-fore named “virtual worlds.”

But I think we will go several steps further.

Genetic manipulation is being worked on and tested all over the world (except perhaps in Us government funded labs) through stem cell research and retroviral experimentation. The notion that we can “fix” a faulty gene set and in that way change a person’s health condition is very appealing to science, the pharma industry and the general population.

Of course, as we get closer to being able to do this on an economically efficient scale, we will see other uses deployed. If steroids can give an athlete such an edge in building muscles that he may be willing to perjure himself before congress about it ( a congress who feels the country has so little or importance on it’s plate that it spends time reviewing the drug habits of baseball players – a subject that they must be certain will impact the war, the economy, social security and health care) then what would they be willing to do if they can alter their body to see like a hawk , or improve the response time of their nervous system or speed the time it takes to recuperate or heal the body?

Will these be the methods that will allow us to affectively adjust our genetic makeup enough that colonizing the moon, other planets and asteroids will become feasible (if we modify ourselves to use less of or more efficiently the resources that are scarce in other areas, we would be continuing the human tradition of adapting to our environment in or to better subjugate it).

We have shown that humans are willing to spend big money on personal body enhancement be-it boob jobs, tattoos or Botox. I think there will be a tremendous market in not just genetic fixes and alterations, but an even more interesting one in temporary genetic transformation. You could decide to be a freckled red head for a week or month or have your lung capacity increased for that vacation hiking in the mountains. Or even just have the size of your g-spot doubled and twice as sensitive in time for that honeymoon or big weekend date.

The possibilities are mind bending far beyond anything we have seen done with drugs or surgery. The questions of what constitutes a human will be more than interesting.

 

Update: the Vatican has just announced that “Genetic Manipulation” has been added to the list of “sins.” Ii guess the discussion is getting here sooner than I thought it would.

I Would Gladly Pay You Sunday For a Meatball Today

March 7, 2008

He (marketing executive, rolling onto his back and laying a book down on his belly): Well Seth Godin has done it again. 

She (marketing agency account manager): What? Published another anecdotal book with a catchy title?  

He (shaking his head, then nodding): No, no, well, Yes, but he is getting me to rethink what my company and business is about. Maybe we should be doing something different. 

She (not really conversing, just going through the motions): So what are you doing that he thinks you should be doing differently? 

He(sounding unsure , but wondering if he is onto something): well, I seem to understand that marketing should now drive the company, but the marketing I am doing is not the right marketing? 

She (puzzled and mildly annoyed): Mmmm. So what does that mean? 

He (scratching his figurative head): well, I guess my company should become a business where we find customers and then figure out what to sell to them. But I am not sure how to go about that. We have always first produced product and then found the customers. From what I am reading here, it seems that “attention being revenue” is more important than the product. Do customers care more about being listened to than they care about what they are buying? 

She (a little alarmed, sits up and lays down her kindle and lifts her reading glasses to her forehead):   Ok, Ok, you have my attention now. Listen. Finding customers for you has always been my job. (she turns to him and runs her fingers through his chest hair)You like the way I do it. It lets you focus on all the other things you have going on. After all, I am the expert on messaging, databases, demographics and even the Web 2.0 crap. You need to rely on me to manage this for you (she purrs nuzzling his neck and shows him a few reports indicating possible branding results and their relation to user personas eventually taking some sort of action). 

He (beginning to whiteboard in his mind and sweat in his palms): You mean you could help me figure out how I could be the one to run the company? A bold vision where we can dedicate all our resources to figuring out what works and not worry about making it work? 

She (smiling as her hand strokes his wallet): Honey, you know I know how to do it for you. Haven’t I always? 

He (his budget now engorged with funds and feeling a massive project coming on): Oh baby, who’s your Daddy? 

Huge but hardly noticeable Monster in the closet (whispering): I wish the two of you would hurry up, screw each other and go to sleep so that I can get out of this closet , raid the fridge and log onto Second Life.

Thank you for joining the Hive Mind. You are not a number, you are a free man.

March 7, 2008

Yes, Virginia, you are an individual, just like everybody else.

As our more and more connected community of human thought continues to evolve and change, I am wondering whether or not we are finally moving towards a true hive mind.

Late night bad science fiction television and heart pounding video games teach us that the hive mind engulfs individuals and makes them subject to the “uber –needs” of our glorious collective culture. Rarely does it really explore the true experience of the drone.

Does the drone actually see themselves as such, or does it see itself as a somewhat empowered individual deftly navigating the slings and arrows of outrageous marketing attempts at influencing its desires, thoughts, needs and snacking peccadillo’s?

Do you, dear reader, feel that the hive mind has begun to take over yet?

Have you been taken in by the conscious collective? Are you a happy-go-lucky member of the Culture?

Have you become a drone despite yourself?

I can almost see you recoil from the screen in horror. “What, me? Heaven forfend!”

But not so fast. Not so fast.

Perhaps it is human destiny to build this wonderful cyber brain?  Perhaps we should be embracing this for the “common good?” After all, life seems to make successful organisms from a sum of many parts.

Maybe this is the path that will give us the way to dominate the universe (if not us, then who?)? or at least the next step in our “explorevolution” of who we are, why we are and when will the pizza get here?

Drones may be a lot happier than rogue elements or exploring individuals. Sheep are happier in a herd since it tends to make it easier for them to survive, find a breeding mate and reduces stress. You just have to watch out for that Good Shepherd.

You know, the one who eats mutton and wears lambskin.

Surviving Darwin – The Biology of God

March 7, 2008

 The case has been argued previously that humans have bred themselves through natural selection for belief in God  because it had survival value to the individual. Has the time come for us to begin looking at the religious experience as a biological function?  

Over the last 50 years many have written and documented on the similarities of religious experience and chemical experiences on the mind. Most recently Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in the Time and Mind journal of philosophy that Moses may have seen a “burning bush” based on consumption of a concoction based on bark of the acacia tree which is used for curing premature ejaculation or rabies in some parts of the world (you suspected all along that there was a connection between the two conditions, didn’t you?). 

If we do begin to address religious experience in this way, does that then pave the way for a more studied approach and a less shamanistic one? Much has changed in the treatment of other biological aspects over the last few centuries. And despite the fact that some may claim that modern medicine has moved us away from a “more, better natural” approach to treating biological infirmities, one can hardly deny that the discoveries and practices have overall led to healthier lives with longer life spans and far better interventions.Remember that as little as 200 years ago, we new nothing about germs and ascribed the human condition to a balance among the humors.  You did not want to be a surgery patient at a time when puss from others was applied to your wound in an effort to see a “natural result.” 

Like other biological management methods, of course, this too would fall victim to people taking advantage of others.

But is this not the case with religious experience today? History does not come to us short of all types of strange religious experiences designed to de-robe people of their money, land and even their lives in the name of this possibly biological experience. 

Still the approach might be worth it. There has been much study as the impact on the brain of prayer or meditation. How practical would it be if we could get all that from a pill?  

“Forget the Lithium, Ms Borden. I want you to try this new pill: Graceetra. It’s like manna from heaven.” 

Oh, and for the Atheists who get all excited about the notion that we may be biologically bred for the religious experience, maybe you just have a failed gene and there may be a therapy developed for that. 

Of course you could always fake it and plan on converting to Atheism on your death bed.