Category Archives: Technology and science

Thought #58. Checkmating AI.

My dog Sucre is not a dab hand at chess, but he has the uncanny knack of soothing me when necessary. I wonder whether AI (Artificial Intelligence) would ever possess such a humanlike capacity. Last week I came across a series of articles on the future of AI. Among them, it was the one on Erica, a Japanese android created 23 years ago, which riveted my attention.

Back in 1996, the classic man vs. machine plot hit the headlines when Deep Blue, an IBM computer specialised in playing chess beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. I clearly remember how exciting it was to see AI in action. I read with rapt attention all the articles that flooded the press in those days.

However, I was disappointed about the unfair comments made by the majority of journalists. Instead of a breath of fresh air, Deep Blue was the spark for a spiral of overthinking that bordered on the absurd. A mounting ill-founded concern over the risks of AI that has remained alive up until now. But neither was Deep Blue, at that time, a menace to humankind, nor does Erica represent a hazard nowadays.

Erica has a beautiful face and can express emotions. She can also be engaged in a conversation on topics ranging from culture, politics or new thinking, to the hypothetical scenario in which AI becomes the dominant form of intelligence on Earth. She has a relatively high degree of autonomy and has been programmed to learn from each human interaction in which she is involved.

When asked about the AI takeover, she openly recognises that despite being difficult to predict, it is too soon to envisage so fascinating a scenario. Many of us, at this moment, would ask ourselves whether doomed would not have been a more appropriate adjective to qualify that scenario. In any case, Erica’s arguments are sound.

She provides a snapshot of the possible risks of AI. In the first place, she assures us that an AI would not be capable of stabbing human beings in the back, unless it was programmed to do so. She also claims that AI’s power of computing is not tantamount to the amazing ability to feel and react that humans have. Somewhat, not a mere sign of a conceited attitude can be appreciated when conversing with Erica.

Of course, she is proud of her creators. She talks with frank enthusiasm about the new algorithms that they are planning to implement in the near future. Apparently, these blocks of code are aimed at enabling Erica to understand and emulate feelings. However, it is rather comical when Erika tries to imitate an awkward silence; she always fails in her attempts to choose the right moment to stop talking. More embarrassing though is when she tries to be funny and tells a cruel joke about genocide.

All things considered, I would decidedly go for a dog. Sucre’s companionable presence can soothe me and even make me happy. I would not go so far as to say that the lack of sense of humour could tarnish Erica’s reputation, but she definitely lacks what makes us human.

Thought #44. Completely hooked?

Life was transformed with the advent of smartphones. People from my age group, whose upbringing was highly influenced by the availability of the first personal computers, regard this invention as a metamorphosis of those cumbersome machines that used to entertain us every now and then. However, the social transformation that has taken place in the last decade is beyond our wildest dreams.

We used to have play dates; we would spend a whole evening at the park playing soccer. The weekend was synonymous with going out and enjoying fresh air. Family gatherings and friends hanging out were a common sight. Married couples watched a film on TV to unwind from a stressed week at work. Now, it is highly improbable that we would stumble upon a group of children without a smartphone, or that we might see a couple just talking in a cafeteria. More and more elderly people use them every day to keep in touch with younger family members.

A smartphone is more than just a combination of a computer and a phone. The constant improvement of high-speed networks and handsets has resulted in sophisticated pieces of technology that monitor and control our daily life. Curiously enough, we barely use our smartphones to make calls. Instead, we prefer to communicate using multimedia chats, where immediacy and convenience set them apart.

The millennial generation has become hooked on technology. They will go to any lengths to get more gigabytes when their data plan is exhausted; even the most wayward of children will behave well for fear of having their smartphone or tablet confiscated. However, smartphones do have a plethora of advantages such as the ability to make us better understand the global problems that afflict our time. Most would agree that information equals informed decisions.

There is a long way to go to comprehend the profound changes that our societies have undergone and, consequently, we do not have any other option but to wait and be hopeful about what the future holds. In my opinion, humankind has evolved throughout millenniums and, by and large, our welfare has always improved so there is no point in dramatising the risks of this kind of addiction. Only time will tell.

Thought #37. Dust.

In the sixteenth century Nicolaus Copernicus developed a theory in which he positioned the Sun near the centre of the Universe, with Earth and the rest of the planets, orbiting around. Despite being imprecise, his theory had laid the foundations for more accurate hypothesis that would be proved in the following two centuries. Now, we know full well that neither the Earth nor the Sun are at the centre of the Universe. In fact, we already know about the existence of exoplanets, which are planets beyond our solar system. As of today, 3475 of those have been confirmed. Kepler 150-f, an Ice Giant, is the latest discovery.

How are exoplanets found? Being completely ignorant about this subject, I would never dare to give a detailed explanation. However, according to NASA’s website, the vast majority of exoplanets are detected by using a technique named Transit. Stars dim when a planet passes directly between the observer and thus, studying the amount of light shed by a star, we can detect the presence of orbiting planets. Logically, we have not yet seen a fraction of the potential solar systems among the stars that are visible at night with the naked eye. The Universe has immense proportions.

Bearing in mind the immensity of the Universe, I would like to radically change the subject and finish today’s post by talking about dust. Not stardust or cosmic dust, just dust. The one that settles between the observer and the object.  The one that accumulates on cupboards, desks, chairs, kettles, souvenirs, or any other banal item. The arch-enemy of allergics, the annoying thing, which triggers a look of disapproval on your mother-in-law’s face. That is the dust that really matters today. Ergo, I would like to praise dust effusively.

The reason is simple, dust has the ability to tell a story. A storyteller that can reveal the amount of time that has passed since you had a coffee, you read that novel, you played the piano, you used that sunglasses, you cooked your mother’s recipes, you had sex, etc. Because dust does not accumulate on living objects, at least on those parts that we regularly use.

Look around you. Read. Be an explorer like those of NASA who are trying to cast light on the origins of the Universe or the origins of life. Let dust orbit around you, love it, praise it, take care of it. In the end, you will be dust too.

Thought #13. AI bias.

Once upon a time, people knew the difference between rightness and badness. As if it was an Opera, the history of AI (acronym of Artificial Intelligence) began promisingly, but then things started to go wrong.

The opening of AI goes back to ancestry when the Greek mythology created Pandora, the first “artificial” woman. Each Olympus god was commissioned to make a contribution to Pandora’s process of creation with the sole aim of taking beauty into account.

During the interlude, step by step, new features and unique gifts were conscientiously added by the band of male creators. They went to great lengths to make Pandora in their own image (a mental image of a sexually arousing creature).

Pandora received a jar as a wedding present and was told not to open it. Thinking that it was a mere misdemeanour, she could not help opening the jar, triggering unexpected consequences.

To the astonishment of the ancient Greek gods (and goddesses) of the epoch, the sad coda was that Pandora ended up in a poetry epoch column (probably from a tabloid) depicted as an archetype and role model of future women generations:

“From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.” ― Hesiod, Theogony

Fear for inventions and machinery has been thenceforth present. The Industrial Revolution seemed too profound a change to overcome, but eventually all the criticism levelled at technology advances started to wear off.

AI is a force to be reckoned with but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it will eventually surpass human capacities. Think about a relatively recent groundbreaking invention: the digital camera sensor. If George Orwell had known about such an invention, Nineteen Eighty-Four would probably never have been written.

Those who try to undermine science (or engineering) by spreading false alarms concerning the so-called perils of AI should be treated with the contempt that they deserve. They seldom use nothing but devious tactics to succeed in turning utter nonsense into a burning issue. Should nonsense be regarded as tantamount to blatant ignorance? Apparently, according to Prof Stephen Hawking and others of his ilk, it should not.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” ―   Stephen Hawking

“Artificial intelligence is our biggest existential threat.” ―  Elon Musk

Nevertheless, as far as some basic safety rules are not wilfully ignored, AI is harmless, secure and risk-free. Just as women are the most perfectly created sculpture ever chiseled, driverless cars (aka autonomous car) are also something that will become ubiquitous in the forthcoming years.

Do not blame me! My complete disregard for the underminers is based on their own arguments, which should fly in the face of common sense. The inability to comprehend how technology works still rankled with them.

Not being in the mood to reproduce in my own blog more quotes from them, I rather like the idea of presenting you with a biased view of the issue, based on as yet unproven facts:

“Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.” ― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” ― Edsger W. Dijkstra

The rest is history (to be written).