Archive for October, 2014

A Brief Blip

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

A while back I listened to a podcast interview with Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. I have commented on his intriguing ideas regarding the possibility that we are actually living in a computer simulation and not a real universe before (in a post “Not Crazy Enough” on 2012-11-06) and while his latest musings aren’t quite as far reaching they are still really interesting.

In this interview he talked about the probable outcome of future advances in artificial intelligence and how that is likely to lead to disaster for humans. The idea that creating a super-intelligence (one significantly beyond human abilities) would be the last invention ever required is an old and well known one in science fiction. Once an intelligence capable of inventing further more advanced intelligences is created the situation rapidly escalates out of control as machine intelligence evolves faster than biology ever could.

But when will artificial intelligence reach this point, if ever? According to Bostrom a survey of experts gave a median answer of 2045 but it should be noted there was a large spread in the answers, so this is far from certain. One major question affecting the answer is: does existing technology scale or do we need something fundamentally different? Many current efforts in AI involve simulating a brain in software on a digital computer. This may not be the right approach and a new type of (analog) thinking machine might be required instead. If that is true then the 2045 timeframe is probably too optimistic – or should that be pessimistic?

But surely the point is not if but when this will happen. At some point, by whatever means (maybe something totally unheard of at this time) a super-human intelligence will be created. So should AI researchers be considering the consequences of their research even now? Should there be safeguards put in place to protect the creators from their creations?

This idea has been examined in science fiction for years, the most well known example being Asimov’s laws of robotics. The first (and most relevant) law states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This seems fine but what does it really mean? Would a super-intelligence interpret this as meaning that all humans need to be (metaphorically, I hope) wrapped in cotton-wool and be prevented from engaging in any possible dangerous activity? Would an even better solution be to not allow new humans to be born and therefore remove any possible chance of harm? Who knows how a super-intelligence would think.

One objection to these doomsday predictions is that super-intelligences might not be given access to the real world: they might be computers instead of robots. But will this only delay the inevitable? How long would it take a super-intelligent computer to figure out a way to influence the real world?

Presumably it would have some interaction with the real world, through its human operators, or through a network like the internet. And the “next big thing” on the internet will be “the internet of things” where everything will be connected, making influencing the real world even easier. And if that doesn’t work there is always spamming, hacking, denial of service attacks, and blackmail as possible methods of influence. So it surely wouldn’t be that difficult for something so smart to find a way to “take over the world”.

And maybe that’s why we don’t see signs of intelligence elsewhere in the universe through studies such as SETI. We might represent a tiny transitional period in the evolution of life and intelligence. Maybe a typical time-line is 3 billion years of primitive pre-life and unicellular life, then half a billion years of increasing complex multicellular life, then a hundred thousand years of intelligence but without any real technology, then a few hundred years of more advanced technology, then synthetic life takes over for the rest of time.

Maybe a technological civilisation like ours is just a brief blip on the Universe’s vast timeline and the chance of seing that tiny period of evolution between non-technological life and synthetic life is very low. Maybe the next stage happens so quickly after the technology stage begins and is so strange and unlike what we know that we wouldn’t even know what to look for.

Or this all could be idle speculation and there might not be anything to worry about. Or maybe the whole universe is just a simulation anyway!

Unreasonable Effectiveness

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

I think most people would have to agree that there is just one reality and that we can at least approximately know what that reality is. I’m not saying that we understand everything about the universe or that we ever will, but it is possible to form a rough idea about what’s going on.

How do we know we are right? Well it’s all about predictability. If obscure theories such as quantum theory and relativity weren’t at least good approximations to reality then technology which relies on them (like GPS) wouldn’t work. And it does, with remarkable precision (in fact with perfect precision as far as we can tell) so saying these theories are true is justified.

They may not be absolutely, irrefutably true but they are at least close enough to being true that it makes no difference. After all, Newtonian physics was “true” until little anomalies started becoming apparent which lead to better theories. But saying Newtonian physics isn’t true is a bit harsh. It’s “quite true” (if that means anything) and is still good enough for most physics calculations.

And it may be that we can never understand the full truth about many things. For example, I have always wondered about wave/particle duality. This is the quantum theory concept that particles act like waves and waves act like particles depending on the type of measurement being made.

I have always thought that the most likely explanation for this is that what we are trying to explain are neither waves nor particles (two phenomena which are clear in the macro world) but that both are good models to explain something which we have neither the language nor the conceptual framework (apart from maths) to explain otherwise.

So many phenomena can be explained with maths but trying to explain them using “plain language” seems to be impossible. I have heard the claim that if something cannot be explained without maths then the maths is just a model of something which is probably not real, but what if it’s the other way around?

I think it is more likely that maths is the true standard for reality and if a phenomenon can also be explained using language and “common sense” then that is just a bonus. As the subject under discussion becomes more fundamental (in the sense of explaining the true underlying nature of reality) then it may be that common sense and language, which have simply evolved over long periods of human interaction with the everyday macro world, are just not relevant any more.

There was a famous article called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” published in 1960 by physicist Eugene Wigner where he noted that the maths behind a physics theory often leads to advances and predictions in the real world.

Of course, you cannot just make up any old random maths theory and expect it to be a model of the real world. The Intelligent Design crowd tried that in the 1990s but the maths presented by William Dembski was clearly flawed and has been discredited.

So maths is often the only “language” which can explain the real world but it doesn’t follow that maths always explains it correctly. Another doubtful example is string theory where (I am assured) the maths is beautiful but no one knows yet if it’s true.

I want to finish this post with some excellent quotes on the subject of the explanatory power of maths (some of which are completely contrary to my thoughts above)…

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. – Albert Einstein [Not so sure about this except that maybe everything is ultimately statistical.]

Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover. – Bertrand Russell [This is basically what I am saying above. Russell is one of my favourite philosophers ever]

There is only one thing which is more unreasonable than the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in physics, and this is the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics in biology. – Israel Gelfand [I disagree]

We should stop acting as if our goal is to author extremely elegant theories, and instead embrace complexity and make use of the best ally we have: the unreasonable effectiveness of data. – Peter Norvig [I think we need both, but data is the final arbiter]

Yeah after reading those you’ve got to wonder if we will ever know anything!

Neither Right Nor Wrong

October 11, 2014 2 comments

I recently commented on a Facebook post which someone had made which featured Reza Aslan, the (moderately) well-known writer and scholar of religion. If you follow this blog you will know that I am no great supporter of religion and find Islam particularly obnoxious. But I am also most enthusiastic about knowing what is true, especially when that truth contradicts commonly held beliefs, even my own.

So after watching a short video of Aslan making a very reasoned case in support of Islam I commented that I would be more careful about my criticism of that religion in future. And I still think that was a fair response, but maybe not as fair as I had first supposed.

Why? Because not everything he said was strictly true, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it was true, but true in a misleading way. The video was from an American TV program where Aslan defended Islam against the attacks of TV personality Bill Maher. If he was there for that sole purpose then he was brilliant. But if he was there to expose the truth then maybe not so much.

For example, on the subject of female genital mutilation, he pointed out that this practice (which any reasonable person should find horrendous no matter what the motivation for it is) is not primarily a Muslim problem because it occurs in many areas of Central Africa where the main religion is Christianity. He said “Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”

He’s right. But a map he himself tweeted shows a slightly different story. The countries with the highest rate of FGM are shown in red and almost every one (if my research is correct) in this category is primarily Muslim. So clearly being a Muslim is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a supporter of FGM but it sure helps! Of course, many of the American critics of Islam would scramble to find an excuse for it in Christian countries but I would simply say: you’re right, it’s not a Muslim problem (although that is a mitigating factor) but it is a religion problem.

It’s a problem when people resort to superstition instead of thinking for themselves. It’s a problem when people simply follow what is written in an old book or what some religious leader tells them instead of actually questioning whether it makes any sense. It’s a problem when people believe out-dated, misogynistic ideas instead of taking modern social trends and scientific findings into account.

So Islam is the problem. And so is Christianity. And so is every other religion, whether it supports FGM or not, because it’s the mindset that is the problem. If it wasn’t mutilating young girls it would be failing to stop infectious diseases like AIDS, or it would be stopping young people from learning the great truths that science has uncovered in the century or two but that some religions have failed to accept.

But I still think we should all be more cautious about criticising Islam anyway because facts like: FGM being common in some Christian countries, Islamic states having female leaders where the US has never had one, Buddhist monks being guilty of slaughtering innocent people, the barbaric practice of the death penalty being used (very badly) in the US, and the majority of Muslims being peaceful, are all true.

So Aslan is both right and wrong, and he’s neither right nor wrong. But that shouldn’t be a surprise if we consider two quotes from his Wikipedia page…

His religion is described as “Islam, formerly Evangelical Christianity”. Wow, really? He was so convinced that Christianity was true that he was a fundy yet then figured he was wrong and converted to Islam? Maybe he’s wrong about that too!

And his professional position is “Reza Aslan … is an Iranian-American writer, scholar of religious studies and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is a member of American Academy of Religion.” A professor of creative writing? Yes, I can believe that!

What Kind of Country?

October 7, 2014 Leave a comment

What kind of country do we want to live in? This is a question some people are asking after the latest, apparently politically motivated, police raid on an innocent person, in this case journalist Nicky Hager. As I have said in the past I think most New Zealand police are basically good people but do I trust them? Hell, no!

I don’t trust them for two reasons. First, there are clearly certain police who are not good people. There are some who are bullies, violent, self-serving, and corrupt. And the others have little choice but to do what their “superiors” tell them. And those superiors may not be getting direct instructions from their political masters (although if they were it wouldn’t surprise me) but they know what they want anyway.

Every week there seems to be another story of police corruption, stupid errors, apologies, and situations where they should apologise but refuse to. And yes, you can ask what would I do if I was a crime victim and I would answer by saying that I would call the police. Why? Well first, I have no choice, but more significantly I think that most of the time the good cops get on with their job and do the right thing. But I am still suspicious of everything they do.

So getting back to the original question: what kind of country do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where the police are used as a weapon against enemies of big American corporate interests? Where they spend huge amounts of money launching violent and totally disproportionate raids against people who have committed minor crimes at worst? Do we want to live in a country where armed police menace innocent women and children? Do we want a situation where journalists (or their even more innocent family) who expose the dirty tricks our leaders are involved with are menaced by police searches and who have their possessions stolen by police?

I hope no one would want this, but that’s what we’ve now got. And to make matters worse we now have a police force who only comment when they want to and have a propaganda section who feed the media false information to try to justify their actions.

The police leadership are unlikely to get much better. They are like senior management in almost every large organisation: lacking in basic decent morals. So what should a normal cop do? Obviously it is his duty to sabotage the efforts of his own organisation, just like that is like everyone’s duty when the management of their workplace become arrogant or corrupt.

He can’t realistically refuse to participate in these immoral and cowardly attacks but he could leak information about his superior’s actions to the press through people like Hager. Obviously this would be a rather dangerous action but we’re talking about our country’s freedom and fairness here so what alternative is there?

Finally, I would like to list just a few of the headlines describing the New Zealand police’s immoral or incompetent actions I have noticed over the last few years…

Dirty Politics: Police raid Nicky Hager’s home
Police illegally shut down parties
Crewe murders: Frustrated Thomases ‘feel cheated’ and bereft of answers
Apology over Urewera raids
Police apologise for delay in catching rapist
Communication failures blamed for Roast Busters errors
Police too ‘busy’ to attend 111 call about gunshots
Roast Busters: Victim made complaint to police two years ago
Dunedin police lose tear-gas canister
Police apologise for revealing secret deal over death
Police refuse to apologise for roughly treating pensioner
Police officer’s actions contributed to man’s paralysing injuries
Police killing: ‘It’s just wrong’ says grieving grandma
Fresh charges laid against accused cop
Bain evidence: Police respond
IPCA to investigate police actions in rape case
Police officer fails to stop following crash
Eulogy scripted to praise cop who planted Crewe evidence
Officers joked about framing Thomas recalls bar worker
Hidden speed cameras ‘a nice little earner’
Cops on the wrong side of the law
Lawyer rubbishes police claims over autistic ‘looter’
Police in abuse of power row
Police anti-terror squad spies on protest groups
Officer’s email suggests ticket quota blitz
Police rewards offered: $800,000 Amount paid out: $0
Police shoot and miss dog 12 times during domestic
Peaceful protests and violent police

Sure, it’s easy to concentrate on the bad and ignore all the good work they do, but I’m sorry but I expect better… a lot better than this!