Monday, June 30, 2008

The soul of the machine

In an interview, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter had this to say about Ray Kurzweil's 'singularity', that point in which machines achieve the holy grail of computing, artificial intelligence, and takes over evolution from us humans:
Well, to me, this “glorious” new world would be the end of humanity as we know it. If such a vision comes to pass, it certainly would spell the end of human life. Once again, I don't want to be there if such a vision should ever come to pass. But I doubt that it will come to pass for a very long time. How long? I just don't know. Centuries, at least. But I don't know. I'm not a futurologist in the least. But Kurzweil is far more “optimistic” (i.e., depressingly pessimistic, from my perspective) about the pace at which all these world-shaking changes will take place.

In any case, the vision that Kurzweil offers (and other very smart people offer it too, such as Hans Moravec, Vernor Vinge, perhaps Marvin Minsky, and many others — usually people who strike me as being overgrown teen-age sci-fi addicts, I have to say) is repugnant to me. On the surface it may sound very idealistic and utopian, but deep down I find it extremely selfish and greedy. “Me, me, me!” is how it sounds to me — “I want to live forever!” But who knows? I don't even like thinking about this nutty technology-glorifying scenario, now usually called “The Singularity” (also called by some “The Rapture of the Nerds” — a great phrase!) — it just gives me the creeps. Sorry!
Douglas Hofstadter still believes in AI, mind you. I think he more-or-less holds a materialist mind is brain view. His objection to Kurzweil's technological approach is one of method. "A key element in this whole vision is that no one will need to understand the mind or brain in order to copy a particular human's mind with perfect accuracy, because trillions of tiny “nanobots” will swarm through the bloodstream in the human brain and will report back all the “wiring details” of that particular brain, which at that point constitute a very complex table of data that can be fed into a universal computer program that executes neuron-firings, and presto — that individual's mind has been reinstantiated in an electronic medium." Hofstadter thinks this can't be done without first understanding the mind/brain. And in this he says we have a long way to go.

If indeed trillions of nanobots swarm through the bloodstream and create an electronic replica of the human brain, and we succeed in somehow copying all the wirings, I would think all we'll come up with is a computer, not a human mind at all. The problem I see is this: in a classical computer, a bit must be either 0 or 1. Kurzweil's nanobots will be limited to 0's and 1's because I can't imagine these nanobots operating in a quantum level. Even if the nanobots can, for example, copy a certain subatomic wiring in the brain, it'll have to contend with virtual particles, that is, particles that arent really there, but could possibly be there (or not there). Therefore, being limited to 0's and 1's it won't be able to capture everything about what a mind is. For example, humans arent limited to 0's and 1's. We can have states of both 0 and 1, or neither 0 nor 1, or it can simply refuse to decide between 0 and 1, or simply not care. Hofstadter believes that we will one day understand the mind. [And perhaps, with the development of a quantum computer (already in its infancy), we might begin to approximate the human mind. In the meantime, allow me to be skeptical of this new venture in computing.]

The interview also has Hofstadter saying something interesting. When asked to explain his claim that the "I" is 'nothing but a myth, a hallucination perceived by a hallucination', and its conflict to such things as his compassion, he says, "I can't explain this completely rationally." It is interesting because here he is admitting that reason itself can't account for his beliefs, and yet we are asked to believe (not by Hofstadter particularly, but by science ideologues in general), that the rationality of science is our way to 'salvation.'

In his critique of the Turing Test, software pioneer Mark Halpern had this to say:
The AI champions, in their desperate struggle to salvage the idea that computers can or will think, are indeed in the grip of an ideology: they are, as they see it, defending rationality itself. If it is denied that computers can, even in principle, think, then a claim is being tacitly made that humans have some special property that science will never understand—a “soul” or some similarly mystical entity. This is of course unacceptable to scientists (and even more to aspirants to the title “scientist”).
And here is one of cognitive science's champions, claiming to have no rational way of explaining something. Rationality, Im sure Hofstadter will agree, can only get you so far. The problem of rationality I suppose is its dependence on language. Language in fact is an analogue of reason itself. But humans have experience beyond language, a subjectivity that they cannot convey to others. How many times have we described an experience as 'beyond words'? Or try this: describe how a sampaguita smells like to another person who hasnt smelled one before. This 'beyond words' experience is something that has to be captured by the machine that has to follow a program that uses language.

So can machines think? Will they be able to? Sure, why not? I just dont expect them to think like humans. Artificial intelligence is just that: artificial. Mark Halpern (ibid) offers agnosticism as the most rational approach: "What I would urge on them is agnosticism—an acceptance of the fact that we have not yet achieved AI, and have no idea when if ever we will. That fact in no way condemns us to revert to pre-rational modes of thinking—all it means is that there is a lot we don’t know, and that we will have to learn to suspend judgement. It may be uncomfortable to live with uncertainty, but it’s far better than insisting, against all evidence, that the emperor is well dressed."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Change you can believe in... Not!

I do not share the enthusiasm of a lot of my countrymen on the upcoming elections in the United States of America. My reason is, no matter who wins, it won't change anything for us. Republican or Democrat, America will work for American interests -- which they should. I dont buy into the conventional wisdom that a Democratic victory this year would substantially change America's foreign policy towards its former colony. I say horsefeathers to that one.

Reports such as this only reinforce my views.
The award for the most bald-faced lie on the House floor Friday, however, goes to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who insisted that the bill "does not allow warrantless surveillance of Americans." She is wrong. It does.
The broader spying powers given to the executive branch by the compromise bill require intelligence agencies to "target" foreigners. But if those foreign "targets" happen to call or e-mail Americans, those communications are fair game. And since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is only permitted to review the broad targeting procedures government eavesdroppers use to determine that a target is abroad, and not the substantive basis for authorizing surveillance of any target, anyone is a potential target.
The bill, in other words, allows the government to conduct "vacuum cleaner" surveillance -- sweeping up international traffic willy-nilly -- then filter it for anything that looks interesting. Indeed, many believe that licensing such surveillance is precisely the point of this legislation. If so, "warrantless surveillance of Americans" could well become routine, whether or not they are the formal "targets" of eavesdropping.
Now why would they do this? They control the House and the Senate, and if polls are correct, theyll control the White House as well. It comes as no surprise therefore that they would want this sort of power. How does Obama feel about this 'compromise'? He thinks it aint bad at all.
In the past 24 hours, specifically beginning with the moment Barack Obama announced that he now supports the Cheney/Rockefeller/Hoyer House bill, there have magically arisen -- in places where one would never have expected to find them -- all sorts of claims about why this FISA "compromise" isn't really so bad after all. People who spent the week railing against Steny Hoyer as an evil, craven enabler of the Bush administration -- or who spent the last several months identically railing against Jay Rockefeller -- suddenly changed their minds completely when Barack Obama announced that he would do the same thing as they did.
Add to this Congressman Ron Paul's accusation that Nancy Pelosi removed a section from a bill passed by Congress "which would have barred the U.S. from going to war with Iran without a congressional vote".
“She [Pelosi] removed it deliberately,” Paul says. “And then, the astounding thing is, when asked why, she said the leadership in Israel asked her to. That was in the newspaper, that was in ‘The Washington Post,’ that she was asked by [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and others not to do that."
So you see, boys and girls, nothing will change except theyll have a better looking and articulate president.


...

I didnt want to blog about the Princess of the Stars because 1) other blogs do this sort of thing better than I do, and 2) my brother-in-law might have been on that boat and I guess I didnt want to jinx his survival. Then my wife sent an SMS from Masbate yesterday and she confirmed that her brother was indeed on that boat and is still missing. I hope she's wrong. I hope he never went on board. You can never really tell with my brother-in-law. He's, shall we say, erratic. He'll tell you he'll do one thing, assure you in fact, then turns around and does something else.

I havent seen him for years. The last time was over 10 years ago when he dropped by the house and asked if he could stay for a few days until he could get back on his feet, and I said sure, and had him do stuff around the house, which he was glad to do. Not heavy stuff; just the usual: go to the palengke, cook, stiff like that. It was fun having a regular drinking buddy on the weekends too. He offered to paint the bedroom. I said he didnt have to do that, but he insisted, so I said ok. He did a decent job, and left the next day. I found out later that he took a gun I kept on top of the aparador with him. (It wasnt loaded, so relax, Gunless Society freaks.) We didnt hear from him for years at a time: he's back in Masbate, he's in Cebu, he's in Davao. There were even rumors that he was dead, but a letter would appear and it would be from him. He couldnt come back to the house probably because he was too embarrassed, but I wouldve welcomed him I think, but he kept in touch with my wife. I didnt mind not hearing from him. In fact the less I heard from him the better.

And now...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Education

Meme, schmeme

Dont you just love it when scientists and philosophers get snarky? The most famous snarky scientist is Richard Dawkins, who, his insipid The God Delusion nothwithstanding, can otherwise be sharp, witty, and entertaining when speaking live. Must be the accent. Someone who can out-snark Dawkins is the philosopher and professor of mathematics David Berlinski. I would pay to see these two go at it in a debate on evolutionary theory or religion.

Add anthropologist Greg Downey to that list. In this post in the Neuroanthropology blogsite, he eviscerates memetics. He does so by first establishing his Darwinist credentials, then he lets them have it (them in this case being Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett).
Finally, I resent the argument that Dennett makes, that all those who resist memetics are ‘anti-Darwinist’ or afraid of the implications of Darwin’s ideas. I’m more than comfortable with Darwin’s contribution to evolutionary theory, especially natural selection, and I think his works (not just Origin of Species) were remarkable, but I don’t adhere to ‘Darwinism’ as if it were a scholastic faith.

It’s not ‘Darwinism’ that I support, like it’s a cult or a form of thought that I must follow religiously; I believe that ‘Darwinism’ is only useful in that it is a theory that provides hypotheses to be tested, a powerful explanatory framework that explains some (though not all) phenomena. That is, when Dennett argues that some people are insufficiently Darwinist because they don’t want to apply ‘Darwinism’ to the world-wide web or Hoover Dam, I feel like he’s treating ‘Darwinism’ as a one-size-fits-all ├╝ber-explanation. That’s not science — that’s a cult. In fact, most people who study evolution argue that there a LOT of things that must be added to ‘Darwinism’ to get modern evolutionary theory (like, say, ooooh, genes…).

Emphasis in the original. Im not the biggest fan of evolutionary psychology, having called it a font of science fiction once, but I admit the reason I think it's a crock is probably because how it is popularized in the media as some sort of theory of anything. (Why do men like blondes? Evolution. Why do men like brunettes? Evolution. That sort of thing.) But thank God for scientists who can save the science from the cranks.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

If you could fight anyone, who would you fight?


Jose Rizal was Jack the Ripper. He was Adolf Hitler's and Mao Zedong's father. He was gay. And he was the best these islands ever produced. Had he been alive, would he have been president of the Republic? Like his friend Sun Yat Sen in China? I dont know. Aguinaldo's men assassinated Antonio Luna and murdered Andres Bonifacio. I'd like to think he wouldnt have dared do that with Rizal. The turmoil will come after he leaves, as it did in China, since no one came close to him in intelligence, erudition, and charisma.

If I could fight anyone, I'd fight Jose Rizal.

Happy birthday, JP.

[Photo from http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/USA/twenty/filipino.html]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Independence means...

... no longer having the luxury of having anyone to blame but ourselves.

Happy 12th of June, all.

Friday, June 06, 2008

One day in the Multiverse

"Mercutio, look at this!," Troilus says as he hands him a sheaf of papers.

"What is it?"

"Just look at them."

Mercutio takes the papers from Troilus's hands, crumpled pages with words messily typed using an old Smith-Corona, smudged, soiled and greasy in places. He reads.
To be, or not to be: that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
"What the hell is this?," Mercutio asks.

Troilus smiles. "Ive got lots of those. Pages and pages of them," he says. "Some of them full of more of that, others with but a single line. They look like poems, sonnets, parts of plays, and all in some sort of old form of English. Beautiful, eh?"

Mercutio takes another page. This one's rather smelly, but he could read the writing, a single line of text. It said,
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse! : King Richard III.
"Where did you get these?"

Troilus's grin grew wider. "You'll never guess."

"Troilus, I have no time for games. Where'd you get these?"

"A monkey wrote them."

"A... monkey?"

"A monkey. You remember I told you about my new job at the zoo, right? Taking care of some animals? Well there's this one monkey there whose mate just died and she seemed lonely so I gave her stuff to do. Toys and stuff, you know, to occupy her time, and we had this old typewriter in the office no one was using so I thought, why not, right? I gave her the typewriter and a whole lot of scratch paper from the waste paper bin, and taught her how to insert paper and next thing I knew she was banging away at the keyboard. I didnt pay her no mind at first, but she kept at it for hours just banging away. She was using a lot of paper but I didnt mind. It seemed to cheer her up. So one day I gave her a fresh batch of paper from the bin and I looked and there they were. Pages of stuff."

"A monkey did this?"

"Yes."

"On a typewriter."

"On a typewriter, yes."

Mercutio puts a hand on his friend's shoulders. "Troilus, pal, buddy?... Are you fuckin' NUTS? A monkey couldnt have done this!"

"But she did! I saw her do it."

"Pfsh. Troilus...". Mercutio picks up another soiled piece of paper and reads, "Friends, Romans, Countryman, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones... You expect me to believe this was written by a monkey?"

"Im telling you they were. I saw it."

"So youre asking me to believe that you're taking care of a fucking smart monkey, an intelligent monkey, a muthfuckin' super genius monkey?"

"No. She's pretty normal, I gather. Just a normal, everyday zoo monkey. She didnt seem like she knew what she was doing. Wasnt even looking at the keyboard or paper. She was just banging away, and somehow that stuff came out."

"Do you know what youre saying? Do you goddamn know what the odds for those are?"

"Im telling you what happened. I didnt bother to get my calculator and calculate the odds that a monkey, banging away at a typewriter, would come up with something like this. All Im telling you is the monkey did it. Besides, odds? What are those? All odds are 50-50. Either something happens or it doesnt. And this happened."

Mercutio sighed. "Are there any more of these?"

"Yes there's more, but, well, the other stuff is just junk."

"Junk."

"Yes. What you'd expect a monkey at a typewriter would come up with. Here, take a look. She did this this morning." Troilus hands him a piece of paper from his pocket.

Mercutio looks at it and reads. Or tries to. There's nothing. Written on the piece of paper was
jiqe rijo2iir0=2i0t
=if0oir3pti=-o4t[-00[-4t004m go0[2ri0=24iot 0-3jpbefj dpswo ]r, ofp[erw[p ogc3wo]r3o[terhg\\ukj\u6[]k[]\87\[p870\

"Nothing like these?" Mercutio motions to the stack of poetry.

"I checked. All the others are just gibberish."

"Mercutio, my friend, it's clear that someone at the zoo has been playing with you. There is just no way that a monkey at a typewriter can write this. That's the only explanation. Uh-uh, let me finish. Im sure you think the monkey did this, but think about it for a moment. This is a monkey. A monkey. Say it."

"A monkey."

"This is..."

"This is a monkey."

"And monkeys are...?"

"Monkeys are stupid."

"So this thing...?"

"Probably didnt happen."

"Right. Hell of trick though. If it could fool you. You're a pretty smart lad."

"Thanks, Mercutio."

"Come on, I'll buy you a drink. So, this new job of yours, what else do you take care of?"

"Unicorns. Pink ones. But they drive me bonkers. You know how sometimes they turn invisible?"

Monday, June 02, 2008

A proposal

About a year ago, If I remember correctly, I got into a conversation with someone regarding the Multiple Universe theory. I asked him why he considered it scientific. Evidence, he said. Like what?, I asked. The math, he said.

The math. I disengaged at that point. I was dealing with a zealot and didnt want to get into his spiraling down into fractal wrongness. But now that I think about it, I may have been harsh in my assessment. He was just regurgitating the views of prominent theoretical physicists. In this new phase of science that began with Einstein, evidence is not as important as mathematical beauty. Paul Dirac once famously said that ''it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment.'' Therefore, if you postulate a multiple universe in an equation youre creating, and have that equation turn out to be beautiful, then you are assured that multiple universe is possible -- never mind that you postulated its existence in the first place -- and therefore multiple universes is a legitimate scientific theory and not science fiction. Beauty is truth; truth beauty. That's all you need to know.

The same is true of Darwin's theory. It is such a simple, elegant theory, and as such has proven seductive that natural and social scientists have been mesmerized into applying it in all aspects of life. Darwin's theory isnt survival of the fittest. That's a tautology. Of course the fittest survive. (Sure, sometimes the luckiest survive, but one couldnt build a scientific theory out of 'survival of the luckiest'.) Darwin's theory says that random mutations occur all the time in living organisms and then nature selects, through a blind, unintelligent process, without goals or purpose, who gets to pass on their genes. See how this process is not applicable to politics, culture, ideas, society in general? But the theory is so friggin beautiful one can't resist it. In biology teacher blackshama's words in a comment in a post over at Philippine Commentary, it has great explanatory power.

And the evidence? This is what Richard Dawkins has to say about the evidence:
MOYERS: Is evolution a theory, not a fact?

DAWKINS: Evolution has been observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening.

MOYERS: What do you mean it's been observed.

DAWKINS: The consequences of... It is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene. And you… the detective hasn't actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue. Now, any detective…

MOYERS: Circumstantial evidence.

DAWKINS: Circumstantial evidence, but masses of circumstantial evidence. Huge quantities of circumstantial evidence. It might as well be spelled out in words of English. Evolution is true. I mean it's as circumstantial as that, but it's as true as that.
Dr. Dawkins has this penchant for picking the most inappropriate analogy for his theory. He did this in the third chapter of The Blind Watchmaker when he tried to demonstrate natural selection by writing a program wherein the phrase METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL emerges from a random string. He was able to do it in 40 or so generations, which is pretty impressive, except that the target phrase is already programmed into the system. The system knew what it was looking for. In trying to illustrate Darwin's theory, he inadvertently illustrated some form of intelligent design theory.

He did it again with this interview with Bill Moyers. The crime scene analogy is a favorite among advocates of intelligent design, and here he is, using the same thing, and in a wrong way too. Darwin's theory does not allow a murderer. It assumes that no intelligent agency is responsible for the crime. Darwin's theory only allows accident as a cause of death in the crime scene. In fact, Darwin's theory will say no crime was committed at all.

A year ago, I said that it was impossible to model Darwin's theory using computers. That's because you always come back to the programmer, that is, you always come back to an intelligent agent who programmed the whole thing, who determine who gets to survive and all that. METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL all over again. Here is a critique of the attempts so far from the Panspermia site. Dawkins's little foray into computers is included.

However, with the powerful supercomputers we have nowadays, we can at least try to mimic Darwinian evolution using computers. Here's how it can be done:

1) Take large set of characters and arrange them in random fashion. For example: 2882482u9hedi1whei1uei1uer1urei1urncuio3`ur`2ru03r93949124012488*(&*^(*&)&(^&)(*YUOHHFTR%&&RFft78&*t88t87T78tT7t78tGyIkbh H+_Ouiuu009)8u0098u()890898292-3-83-234-14-2`3-48(***_(*)_+U(I)*_*_(++_*_**_*I_(NBOUHGTUKUJUGPUU@##$DRTFYT(*?>><L<L>O}{{
...

You need a very, very, very long string. This represents nature before life emerged.

2) Next, you will need an algorithm to simulate natural selection. This algorithm will have to be randomly generated and must not have any human intervention in it. The selection process will have to be 'meaningless' to the humans and can vary in complexity. For example, you can run find-and-replace sequences wherein the strings to be searched for are random strings and will be replaced by random strings. For example, in one instance, the program looks for the string 4995HUJijpp^55$ IF they are followed by the string 29820*(&)&BY*O, if in turn this occurs after the 679th character of a 1 MB worth of string is a G, etc... and replace it by the string iooo-012489*(*(_)=+, or it could be a simple algorithm like replace all A with G.

3) Next, you will need to reboot the system at random intervals and the machine will try to run the program created by steps 1) and 2) above. This represents the input of energy that we postulate happened to the primordial soup. If nothing happens, it will repeat processes 1), 2), and 3). The system does this until a self-replicating string emerges, or more accurately, until steps 1) and 2) comes up with a recognizable program to step 3) and results in a string that replicates. This represents the common ancestor.

4) The system then introduces random errors based on some random algorithm in the replicating string such that at random intervals the copies of the replicant will not be exactly the same as the "common ancestor." The 'errors' will just be one bit at a time.

5) An algorithm similar to step 2) is then applied to the whole thing again. We will not need step 3) anymore as it is assumed that the replicators can take energy from the existing environment.

With any luck, using ultra-powerful supercomputers, we'll end up with the same biodiversity from a common ancestor that Darwin's theory predicts using blind processes.

Coming soon to your neighborhood

This is how this Golden Shield will work: Chinese citizens will be watched around the clock through networked CCTV cameras and remote monitoring of computers. They will be listened to on their phone calls, monitored by digital voice-recognition technologies. Their Internet access will be aggressively limited through the country's notorious system of online controls known as the "Great Firewall." Their movements will be tracked through national ID cards with scannable computer chips and photos that are instantly uploaded to police databases and linked to their holder's personal data. This is the most important element of all: linking all these tools together in a massive, searchable database of names, photos, residency information, work history and biometric data. When Golden Shield is finished, there will be a photo in those databases for every person in China: 1.3 billion faces.

And China's partners in this experiment? IBM, Honeywell and General Electric. Screw the free market. As this article says, 'the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American "homeland security" technologies, pumped up with "war on terror" rhetoric.'

(The article makes a category mistake though. It equates capitalism with the free market. Communists are capitalists. It's just that capitalism there is through the State, whereas in free markets, capitalism is through individuals.)