Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The future of mankind as a species

This article - http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2048138-4,00.html - speaks of the future of humanity. Here's the Scientific American article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=telomerase-reverses-aging and the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telomere

It projects that by 2045 we will:

- be able to copy our consciousness into a supercomputer which will process faster than us by dint of having many more "neural" connections than we do in our brains
- that this supercomputer will be much smarter than us and will be able to use its intelligence to create new, even smarter brains, making us redundant
- that we will be able to manipulate the telomeres on our genes to prevent aging, and effectively become immortal (except for violence and disease).

I find the above quite plausible and interesting. I find the stuff about telomeres particularly convincing and plausible. It has been obvious to me for ages that aging is not about wear and tear on the body, but rather a mere side-effect of our genetics. It's the only way to explain why different species have different ages at which they die of old age. Dogs live to 15-ish. Cats live to maximum 21-ish. Elephants and others, 30-ish. Humans, parrots and tortoises, over 70. Why? It has to be genetic; it's too regular across species.

However, I have my reservations about AI. I believe that the key thing, which the article touches on, that causes AI to fail - or rather, to be merely program that simulates intelligence, is that AI does not have the same kind of fuzzy memory that we do.

To put my position as simplistically as possible to make it comprehensible to a lay audience, Dretske distinguishes between analog and digital impressions. We have analog impressions, computers have digital. Let me illustrate the difference.

View a page of text. Read it a few times. Now close your eyes and read off your visual memory of it. You'll find that unless you're an idiot savant, you can't. A computer can. Once a computer has scanned in a page of text, it can read it perfectly, every time, again and again, from memory. Our memories are not like that. We'd be able to re-recognise the page if we saw it again, but we'd not be able to read off memory. On the other hand, if a computer was shown the same page again, and asked if it was the same page, it would take quite a while to answer yes or no, and it would use an enormous amount of CPU to do so. It would have to analyse each letter, turn it into ASCII, then compare the two ASCII files. Due to errors in the OCR (optical character recognition), the second scan would likely disagree slightly with the first - for example, ones being substituted with lowercase Ells, zeroes for oh, and so on. As such, the computer would have to be programmed with a statistical heuristic that said that over precisely 98% match, and no less than 98% (i.e. not 97.999%), the pages match. And vice versa. However, a human could merely glance at the page and say yes or no, and quite definitely. Of course, you could trick a human and replace ones and zeroes for ells and ohs, but if a human re-read the text he'd spot the difference quickly and precisely.

Now let me give you another example. Face recognition. A human will do it in under a second. A computer will take enormous processing power, and in low lighting or different lighting conditions, or from another angle, the computer would not be able to answer. If you see a movie star in the street, with sunglasses on, from the side, you can still recognise that person. A computer can't. Of course, brute force processing power could solve this problem, but I don't think that's the issue. I think that fundamentally, computer and human memory systems are vastly different, in a way that we don't understand. And without that difference, they're not comparable.

Here's another example. As a computer for the square root of pi. It will answer instantly. Ask a human, other than an idiot savant, and it will take them a few days to reply, if they're a maths genius. An ordinary human would never be able to answer.

So this is the key to successfully creating AI. If you want more than a mere brute-force logic machine that pumps out results purely from raw CPU power, if you want true human intelligence, you need to be able to create a machine that uses analog memory systems. Of course, that means that it will likely be just as stupid as a human, but at least it will be an organic-type intelligence, not a mere monster-machine.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Open Letter to Steve Jobs - 3 - the iPad

Further to my previous post on intergrating Mac OS X and iOS.

To make the iPad into a business tool, you need to do the following:

1. Add a kensington lock slot, so that people can leave their desks to go on lunch break.
2. Have a build-to-order option to buy with an external keyboard dock so that it can be held upright by a stand whilst typing.
3. Add a USB port so businesspersons can copy PowerPoints off a colleague's flash disk and open in Keynote.
4. Add a mini-DVI connector so businesspersons can take it to a meeting and use it to project a Keynote presentation on a digital projector.
5. Pre-ship with business software for invoicing, accounting, spreadsheets, wordprocessing and presentations.
6. Advertise it as impossible to get viruses and trojans.

To make the iPad into a compelling computer to replace the Mac line, you need to do the following:

1. Add all the above hardware features.
2. Add a Terminal and a Development tools installation option, especially for web developers and UNIX system administrators. Ship it with screen sharing too.
3. Make it possible to pinch and minimise apps so that data can be dragged from one app to another. E.g. an HTML file I'm busy programming must be draggable into both TextWrangler and Safari
4. Make it possible to run existing Mac software so we don't have to re-purchase our software. Remember that this is what killed Copland. Make the Mac menubar appear as a contextual menu.
5. Include Parallels Desktop or VirtualBox so people can run their Windows(tm) games and MS Office, and test their websites work on Internet Explorer. Sorry, but this latter point is a non-negotiable for web designers.
6. Make it capable of running Flash.
7. Include a file manager. It doesn't have to be as fancy as the Finder, but at least the ability to have a single Documents folder that all programs can access would be imperative. It's not cool that each app has its documents "inside" it, and that you can't get apps to read each others' documents. For example, if I'm building a website, I want to be able to have TextWrangler, iWeb _and_ Safari read a particular HTML file. Likewise, I want to be able to open my JPEGs in iWeb, Safari _and_ PhotoShop.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Classic Book Reviews episode 2

In this blog post, I continue with my Classic Book Reviews.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.
A series of narratives in the form of a reporter interviewing one of the chief scientists at the robotics factory. The narratives are only vaguely connected, so there's no overall storyline. There are also some anachronisms and wrong guesses, like everyone having a flying car in 1998. A bit tedious, with some good parts. Nothing at all like the recent movie, however, except for the scene where the robot hides amongst a crowd of robots. I kept wondering if I had perhaps obtained the wrong book, and that someone, as a joke, had changed the cover. No antagonist, barely a storyline, completely linear, with the chapters almost unrelated to each other. It seems as if Asimov was writing purely to speculate on how he thought the future would be, rather than trying to write a story.
Recommendation: Don't bother. No matter how lousy the recent movie was in the eyes of the purists, at least it had a plot, a storyline, suspense, and a point.

At the Mountains of Madness, by H. P. Lovecraft.
Still written in the letter/first-person form, but a good story, and more detailed on the horror and architecture stuff than Call of Cthulhu. Again, I think it would make a good movie. My main complaint is that the plot is rather linear and told from one person's point of view, and it takes rather a long time to build up to any action scenes. But it is well-written. I must say, he loves describing alien architecture as "blasphemous".
Recommendation: Read it.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, by H. P. Lovecraft.
Excellent. Similar to A Picture of Dorian Grey, but MUCH darker, much scarier, and much more interesting. Apparently there's a 1963 movie version. I've seen the 1992 movie called "The Resurrected", which is OK - some parts horrifically gruesome, some parts a bit lame, and bad 1990s acting, and some bad 1990s special effects.
Recommendation: Read it.

HP Lovecraft short stories:

The Thing on the Doorstep
Still written in the letter/first-person form, but a good story. Very short, could easily have been expanded into a full novel. Basically, part of the Cthulhu Mythos/Old Ones set, where a person discovers how to transfer his soul from body to body. The end is pretty grotesque.
Recommendation: Read it.

The Haunter of the Dark
A Thing lives in an old cult church and possesses someone.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

Dreams in the Witch House
A mathematician discovers how to travel to other dimensions inhabited by evil.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth
Alien creatures from beneath the oceans, Cthulhu worshippers, Dagon worshippers. The protagonist goes to Innsmouth out of curiosity and finds more than he bargained for. The movie "Cthulhu" (2007) is closest to this story. The movie is very disturbing.
Recommendation: Not that great. You decide. I found the movie much scarier.

The Whisperer in Darkness
Alien creatures lurking in the mountains in Vermont, an academic tricked to visiting the area flees when he realises what has happened. Not bad at all, albeit a bit slow.
Recommendation: Read it.

The Other Gods
A sage climbs the mountains of the gods and finds something else.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

The Dunwich Horror
A mutant child summons an even worse sibling, a monster from another dimension.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

The Nameless City
An explorer finds a city in Arabia with alien and tiny proportions.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

The Colour out of Space
Colourful gas disease bubbles arrive in a meteor and make all living things disintegrate into grey ash.
Recommendation: Not that great. You decide.

The Shadow out of Time
An academic loses time and experiences amnesia, and reawakens to nightmares of an alien life he experienced. He goes on an archaeological exploration to find out if they were real. It takes about half the book to get somewhere, and then it's not clear what happens when something does happen right near the end. A bit predictable, and the nightmares section does go on a bit. Usual stuff: "cyclopean" "blasphemous" black "granite and sandstone" architecture enscribed with "hieroglyphics", etc.
Recommendation: Not that great. You decide.

Dracula's Guest, by Bram Stoker.
A short story: Dracula's guest gets lost in a forest, attacked by a wolf, and hears rumours and maybe sees a vampire. But nothing much to write home about. I suspect it was originally intended as part of the journey of Jonathan Harker and was removed as it would have made Dracula (the novel) excessively long. Personally, as part of the Dracula novel, it may have worked to build the suspense of there being something fishy about the Count when Harker goes to clerk for him, but I think any modern editor would have removed it.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.
Argh! It was like wading through a 19th-century textbook on whales that had mated with the complete works of Shakespeare. The second-most tedious book I've read. Or maybe the third. The author wastes huge amounts of paper on educational matter explaining lots of detail about whaling and whales. Presumably the audience at the time was ignorant and needed it. But he persists in erroneously calling them 'fish' and rejecting the view that they're mammals, despite describing them feeding their young with milk. Ridiculous. He also makes lots of use of religion and seems very devout, and often defers to rubbish ancient views like the 6000-year-old earth theory. Even worse, he reckons that whaling is not a threat to whales and that they'll easily survive it. As for readability, his characters often go into long Shakespearean soliloquys. By the time I got to page 1700 on my iPhone, I started skimming them. Quick summary: Ahab got his leg bitten off by the white whale, Moby Dick. That annoyed him. He took his crew out nominally to hunt whales but reveals that it's a revenge bout. To save you the bother of reading this dreary, drawn out waffle, I'll tell you that they all get annihilated by the whale in the end, except Ishmael, the narrator. There. Now you can pretend you've read it.
Recommendation: Don't bother.

The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells.
A scientist discovers how to turn himself invisible and embarks on a rampage. Quite cute. One of the few books where the book is better than the movie
Recommendation: Read it.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.
OK, I'm impressed. As far as the "classic" novels go that I've read thus far, this is undoubtedly the best-written. It is superb. He likes drawing a metaphor, and then referring exclusively to the metaphor thereafter. So he talks about someone popping in food like a letter into a postbox slot, and thereafter whenever that character eats, reference is made exclusively to post being delivered. As for the story, it starts out slightly dull as a boy obsessed with an inaccessible girl, but progresses into a bit of an intrigue. The novel is more interesting than the movie versions of it, and more complex. I won't spoil it by explaining why, except to say that it is much more complex. The whole thing about the old lady using the girl to break men's hearts is not the whole story - in fact, it's only the first half of the story. My complaints are as follows: 1. It's a bit long. 2. The ending goes on a bit. 3. Not everyone comes to suitable justice in the end - I won't say who but at least one person ought to have been charged with murder and attempted murder, and just got jail. 4. It's told diary-style from one person's perspective, and is linear. 5. I'd really have preferred a happy American ending. But that's years of Hollywood brainwashing that makes me feel that. It is rather sad and wistful.
Recommendation: Definitely read it.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.
A nice story. It gives a clear insight into the horrid conditions of the poor, and children in particular, in 1800s England. The orphan Oliver is thrown into a life of crime. Through a series of coincidences, Oliver rediscovers the remnants of his family. The story drags him through a sequence of disasters until right near the end - the last 10% of the book, where suddenly everything falls into place, and it becomes more interesting. I found it less readable than Great Expectations, and somewhat more plodding due to its diction. The style of writing is more old-fashioned, but the structure is more modern: it is told from the perspectives of different people, instead of the usual first-person style. I found it harder to keep interested in, but worthwhile. It could have been shorter, and a few characters could have been eliminated for this purpose (e.g. Crackit). Interestingly, even though it purports to be a story of Oliver Twist, he features less than you'd expect, with a lot of the scenes going to the ancillary stories of the other characters and how they come to grief. I was disappointed by the cursory treatment of Fagin at the end; long passages are given to how wonderful Rose is to Oliver, but Fagin gets short shrift.
Recommendation: Read it.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
A sweet story, short, simple and linear, told in the third-person. The miser Scrooge encounters ghosts that show him how wretched he has been. My primary criticism of it is that he goes on and on a bit about how happy people are and how much they eat of this and that at Christmas. Apart from that, if Dickens had developed the characters more and made Scrooge more loathsome, and his transformation more gradual, that would have made it more compelling as a piece of literature. As it stands, it's more of a children's story. But I think everyone should read this, simply because it shows the importance of kindness; it's a cultural giant of the Western world.
Recommendation: Read it.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Preparing for Mac OS X 10.8

It's become clear to me that Apple plans to merge the UIs of iOS (iPad, iPhone) and Mac OS X. I predicted this when I first saw the iPhone OS (iOS). Now that the App Store has come to Mac OS X 10.6.6, and they're talking about 'Launchpad' for 10.7 - which is basically the app launcher we see in iOS, it is clear to me that Apple plan to merge the two OSes.

Moreover, several years ago I wrote an article, unpublished, about DoofOS. This was my nickname for what I called the operating system for doofuses. The key feature was the rejection of the multiple types of menus. Instead of pop-up menus, a menu bar, a tool bar, a tool palette, and contextual menus, I rejected them all in favour of just contextual menus: you click on something, and the computer automatically shows only the relevant commands.

Now, iOS already does this. If you hold down your finger on a word or icon, it offers appropriate commands. There is no menu bar in iOS.

So, in preparation for the death of Mac OS as we know it, I have decided to try a psychological experiment on myself.

1. Install Menu Eclipse (http://www.xybernic.com/) - this hides the menubar.
2. Install DejaMenu (http://homepage.mac.com/khsu/DejaMenu/DejaMenu.html) - this turns the regular menubar into a contextual menu which pops up with a keystroke.

I want to see if I can cope like this. I must say, it is very odd having a black band across the top. I keep thinking that I need the menubar, but now that I think about it, I mostly use keystrokes, and very seldom use the menubar - in fact, I only use it when there isn't a keystroke for a certain menu command. So I want to see how usable the computer is without a fixed menubar.

I'll report back soon on whether it's OK.

So here's the result. I am finding it quite usable - just a bit weird to get used to.

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