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Posts Tagged ‘computers’

Facebook is Watching You!

May 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Recently I downloaded my Facebook data, just to find out what sort of information was stored about me there. I am not a super-heavy user of Facebook, but I do spend some time there multiple times every day, and I occasionally get into some fairly massive “debates” on various topics there, which use up a fair bit of time.

I also visit other social sites every day, such as Twitter and Quora. But, given the recent publicity regarding Facebook, I was most concerned about that. Actually, when I consider all of the “social” sites I use, it is surprising I ever get anything useful done!

I am aware of what Facebook is doing. I know that if I seem to be getting a service for free then there is a “payment” being made in some other way. And that is fair enough, because we live in a capitalist society, and despite its many obvious flaws – most of which I have complained about on numerous occasions – it works moderately well most of the time, and really well on a few occasions.

But Facebook is not one of the examples of where it has worked really well. It is not a good service, for both technical and political/business reasons. It is not good technically because it is poorly designed, and sometimes slow and unreliable. And it is not good politically because of the algorithms it uses are primarily designed to make you want to use it more, and to generate more income for the company, rather than providing a genuinely useful service.

So, given all this negativity, why do I use it? For the same reason I use all the other mediocre services and products (eBay, TradeMe, Microsoft Word, etc): because that’s what everyone else uses. That is literally the only reason I use it at all. Whenever I sign up to other similar services (Google+, Ello, Path, etc) I just don’t use them for long, because my friends and family aren’t there.

So I know Facebook is spying on me, and often in very subtle ways. But there was a recent example of something a lot more obvious. I was visiting a friend and he mentioned a new, relatively obscure style of wine I had never tried. So I Googled it on my phone while I was there. And yes, you guessed it: the next day an ad for that exact style appeared in my Facebook feed. I should say that a whole pile of things I wanted to see from friends didn’t appear, but this ad did. Thanks Facebook!

Another problem with Facebook is that it serves as a well-known, public repository of potentially contentious opinions you might hold. The fear of a future employer trolling your public Facebook feed, or even demanding your password to examine its contents, is well known. My opinion on this is that any employer prepared to resort to such offensive tactics isn’t worth working for anyway, and if they find something I have said publicly, that they don’t like, the same applies.

But managing this stuff is really quite easy. People just have to remember a few basic rules…

Number one. Work under the assumption that nothing you do on the internet, and especially in Facebook, is confidential. Assume everyone can see everything. If you want to make an anonymous comment use proxies, fake accounts, etc. Any half-decent computer geek can show you how to.

Number two. Don’t use any of the advertisers you have fed to you. If you see an ad in Facebook, or in a Google search, or anywhere else you haven’t asked for, ignore it. It fact, mark that particular company down for use in future. I’m not saying don’t use Facebook advertisers, but I am saying search using other techniques and choose companies that way. And if you use Google, do it anonymously and be less trustful of links marked with “Ad”.

Number three. Don’t take any of this too seriously. Most people and most companies aren’t really all that interested in you apart from as a potential target for advertising and possible sales. So take notice of the first two rules but don’t let it paralyse your use of the internet. Whatever its faults, it is still one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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Threat or Opportunity

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

I have discussed the idea that our whole universe could be a simulation in past blog posts. I have also mentioned recent progress in virtual reality systems on multiple occasions. And finally, I have enthused over thought experiments at least once. How do all of these factors fit together? Well, read on to find out.

Pong was one of the first computer games. It was ultra-simple, involving a single bar moving up and down a screen which could “hit” a ball – a bit like table tennis (or ping pong, hence the name). Move forward almost 50 years and have a look at what we have now. People report being totally immersed in virtual reality (VR) games to the point where they almost accept them as reality.

So what will the simulations of reality be like in another 50 years? If we can already produce experiences which are almost indistinguishable from reality, surely in 50 years the experience will literally be impossible to distinguish from reality. Will that make it a type of reality in itself?

Apart from the philosophical question about what reality even is, if we assume the VR is not actually real, is it as good as, or even better than actual reality? And would people prefer to live in an artificial reality rather than the real world?

Most people will say no, but before they say that I would ask them some questions, as a sort of thought experiment (remember, these are one of my favourite things).

First I would ask this: if your “real” life wasn’t that great would you choose to live in a virtual world instead. This might be one where your body just exists in a facility with your life artificially maintained while you “live” in a virtual world. Most people would reject this idea.

But what about this: you are living your life which is pretty good, but you suddenly discover that it is really an artificial reality, and your life is far worse in the real world. Would you choose to terminate the simulation? In this case I think most people would be more hesitant.

If you had been paralysed by an accident, for example, why not live in a simulation where you are fully mobile? That might be tempting. What about if you are really poor and have a poor quality of life, would you live in a simulation where you have whatever you need (or at least a comfortable life, because realistic simulations probably shouldn’t go too far into fantasy). Maybe that might not be so appealing.

Many people will say that they need real human contact in the real world. But do they? People already enjoy interacting with their friends and family using phones, Skype, and other systems. If VR could make these interactions totally convincing, what would be the point of being in the same location as the other person?

And if people are happy to interact with other people through artificial means is it a big step to interact with artificial people instead, assuming they were indistinguishable from actual humans? In science fiction people often form bonds with non-humans and machines, although the machines are often portrayed as being like quirky humans (think of the android Lieutenant Commander Data in Star Trek) but surely the technology would be sufficient to make them just like any real human.

So if Data’s personality just existed in a computer and could be portrayed through VR then we have (paradoxically) an entirely artificial but totally authentic experience.

Emotionally these ideas seem distasteful to many people now, but I think they might be inevitable in the future, and I don’t think that future is far away. Would I want to live in a simulation? Well, I also have that emotional negative response but if it really is indistinguishable from reality then why not?

There are plenty of science fiction stories where characters live in artificial realities. Generally these have dystopian themes where the character wants to “escape” back to reality. But I wonder whether that would be the most likely response. I also wonder how soon this potential dystopia could become a real threat… or opportunity.

Utopia or a Dystopia?

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

I have been interested in artificial intelligence for years, without being too deeply involved in it, and it seemed that until recently there was just one disappointment after another from this potentially revolutionary area of technology. But now it seems that almost every day there is some fascinating, exciting, and often worrying news about the latest developments in the area.

One recent item which might be more significant than it seems initially is the latest iteration of AlphaGo, Google’s Go playing AI. I wrote about AlphaGo in a post “Sadness and Beauty” from 2016-03-16 after it beat the world champion in the game Go which many people thought a computer could never master.

Now AlphaGo Zero has beaten AlphaGo by 100 games to zero. But the significant thing here is not about an incremental improvement, it is about a change in the way the “Zero” version works. The zero in the name stands for zero human input, because the system learned how to win at Go entirely by itself. The only original input was the rules of the game.

While learning winning strategies AlphaGo Zero “re-created” many of the classic moves humans had already discovered over the last few thousand years, but it went further than this and created new moves which had never been seen before. As I said in my previous post on this subject, the original AlphaGo was already probably better than any human, but the new version seems to be completely superior to even that.

And the truly scary thing is that AlphaGo Zero did all this in such a short period of time. I haven’t heard what the time period actually was, but judging by the dates of news releases, etc, it was probably just days or weeks. So in this time a single AI has learned far more about a game than millions of humans have in thousands of years. That’s scary.

Remember that AlphaGo Zero was created by programmers at Alphabet’s Google DeepMind in London. But in no way did the programmers write a Go playing program. They wrote a program that could learn how to play Go. You could say they had no more input into the program’s success than a parent does into the success of a child whom they abandon at birth. It is sort of like supplying the genetics but not the training.

You might wonder why Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has spent so much time and money creating a system which plays an obscure game. Well the point, of course, is to create techniques which can be used in more general and practical situations. There is some debate amongst experts at the moment about how easily these techniques could be used to create a general intelligence (one which can teach itself anything, instead of just a specific skill) but even if it only works for specific skills it is still very significant.

There are many other areas where specialised intelligence by AIs has exceeded humans. For example, at CERN (the European nuclear research organisation) they are using AI to detect particles, labs are developing AIs which are better than humans at finding the early signs of cancer, and AIs are now good at detecting bombs at airports.

So even if a human level general intelligence is still a significant time away, these specialised systems are very good already, even at this relatively early time in their development. It’s difficult to predict how quickly this technology might advance, because there is one development which would make a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change: that is an AI capable of designing AIs – you might call this a meta-AI.

If that happens then all bets are off.

Remember that an AI isn’t anything physical, because it is just a program. In every meaningful way creating an AI program is just like playing a game of Go. It is about making decisions and creating new “moves” in an abstract world. It’s true that the program requires computer hardware to run on, but once the hardware reaches a reasonable standard of power that is no more important than the Go board is to how games proceed. It limits what can be done in some ways, but the most interesting stuff is happening at a higher level.

If AlphaGo Zero can learn more in a week than every human who ever played Go could learn in thousands of years, then imagine how much progress a programming AI could make compared with every computer scientist and programmer who ever existed. There could be new systems which are orders of magnitude better developed in weeks. Then they could create the next generation which is also orders of magnitude better. The process would literally be out of control. It would be like artificial evolution running a trillion times faster than the natural version, because the generation time is so short and the “mutations” are planned rather than being random.

When I discussed the speed that AlphaGo Zero had shown when it created the new moves, I used the word “scary”, because it literally is. If that same ability existed for creating new AIs then we should be scared, because it will be almost impossible to control. And once super-human intelligence exists it will be very difficult to reverse. You might think something like, “just turn off the computer”, but how many backups of itself will exist by then? Simple computer viruses are really difficult to eliminate from a network, so imagine how much more difficult a super-intelligent “virus” would be to remove.

Where that leaves humans, I don’t know for sure. I have said in the previous post that humans will be redundant, but now I’m not totally sure that is true. Maybe there will be a niche for us, at least temporarily, or maybe humans and machines will merge in some way. Experts disagree on how much a threat AI really is. Some predict a “doomsday” where human existence is fundamentally threatened while others predict a bright future for us, free from the tedious tasks which machines can do better, and where we can pursue the activities we *want* to do rather than what we *have* to do.

Will it be a utopia or a dystopia? No one knows. All we know is that the world will never be the same again.

The Future of Driving

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

In a recent post, I talked about how electric power seems to be the inevitable future of cars. This is probably not too surprising to most people given the way electric cars have become so much more popular recently, and how the company Tesla has successfully captured a lot of headlines (in many cases deservedly so, because of its technical advances, and in other cases mainly because of the star status of its founder, Elon Musk).

But a much greater revolution is also coming: that is self-driving cars. In the future people will not be able to comprehend how we allowed people to drive and how we tolerated the massive amount of inefficiency, and the huge number of accidents and deaths as a result of this.

In my previous post I commented on how I am a “petrol-head” and enjoy driving, as well as liking the “insane fury” of current petrol powered supercars. I commented on how electric cars have no “soul” and this would appear to apply even more to self-driving cars. Before I provide the answer to how this travesty can be avoided, I want to present some points on how good self-driving cars should be.

First, there is every indication that computers will be far better than humans at driving, especially in terms of safety. Even current versions of self driving systems are far better than the average human, and these will surely be even more superior in the future once the algorithms are refined and more infrastructure is in place for them.

Whether computer controlled cars are currently better than the best humans is debatable, because I have seen no data on this, but that doesn’t really matter because being better than the actual, flawed, unskilled humans doing most of the driving now is all that is required.

In fact, the majority of accidents involving self-driving systems now can be attributed to human errors which the AI couldn’t cope with, because they still have to obey the laws of physics and not all accidents can be avoided, even by a perfect AI.

So if we switched to self-driving cars, how would things change? Well, to get the full benefit of this technology all cars would need to be self-driving. While some cars are still driven by humans there will always be an element of unpredictability in the system. Plus all the extra infrastructure needed by humans (see later for examples) will need to be kept in place.

Ultimately, as well as all cars being self-driven, the system would also require all vehicles to be able to communicate with each other. This would allow information to be shared and maybe for a central controller to make the system run more efficiently. It might also be possible, and maybe preferable, to have a distributed intelligence instead, where the individual components (vehicles) make decisions in cooperation with other units nearby.

The most obvious benefit would be to free up time for humans who could do something more useful than driving. They could read a book, read a newspaper, watch a movie, write their blog, do some work, etc, because the car would be fully automated.

But it goes far beyond that, because all of the rules we have in place today to control human drivers would be unnecessary. There would be no need for speed limits, for example, because the cars would drive at the speed best for the exact conditions at the time. They would use factors like the traffic density and weather conditions and set their speed appropriately.

There’s no doubt that even today traffic could move much faster than it does if proper driving techniques are used. The problem is that drivers aren’t good enough to drive quickly. But speed and safety can co-exist, as shown by Germany’s autobahns where there is often no speed limit, but the accident rate is lower than the US.

There would be no need to have lanes and other symbols marked on roads, and even the direction vehicles are travelling in the lane could be swapped depending on traffic density. All the cars would know the rules and always obey them. Head-on crashes would be almost impossible even when a lane swaps the direction the traffic is flowing in.

The same would apply to turning traffic. A car could make a turn into a stream of traffic because communications with the other cars in that stream would ensure the space was available. There would be no guessing if another driver would be polite enough to create a gap, and no guessing exactly how much time was needed because all distances and speeds would be known exactly.

I could imagine a scene where traffic was flowing, turning, and merging seemingly randomly at great speed in a way that would look suicidal today, but was in reality is precisely coordinated.

Then there’s navigation. Most humans can follow GPS instructions fairly well, but how much better would this be when all the cars shared knowledge about traffic congestion and other delays, and planned the routes based on that, as well as the basic path?

Finally there’s parking. No one would need to own a car because after completing the journey the car could go and be used by someone else. It would never need to park, except for recharging and maintenance, which could also be automatic. All the payments could be done transparently and the whole system should be much cheaper than personally owning and using a car, like we do now.

The whole thing sounds great, and there are almost no disadvantages, but I still don’t like it in some ways because my car is part of my identity, I like driving, and the new world of self-driving electric cars sounds very efficient, but seems to lack any personality or fun.

But that won’t matter, because there will be two ways to overcome this deficiency. First, there might be lots of tracks where people can go to test their driving skills in traditional human driven – maybe even petrol powered – cars as a recreational activity, sort of like how some people ride horses today. And second, and far more likely, virtual reality will be so realistic that it will be almost indistinguishable from real driving, but without the risks.

And while I am on the subject of VR, it should be far less necessary to travel in the future because so much could be done remotely using VR and AR systems. So less traffic should be another factor making the roads far more efficient and safe.

In general the future in this area looks good. I suspect this will all happen in about 20 years, and when it does, people will be utterly shocked that we used to control our vehicles ourselves, especially when they look at the number of accidents and fatalities, and the amount of time wasted each day. Why would we drive when a machine can do it so much better, and we could use that time for something far more valuable?

Random Clicking

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Nowadays, most people need to access information through computers, especially through web sites. Many people find the process involved with this quite challenging, and this isn’t necessarily restricted to older people who aren’t “digital natives”, or to people with no interest in, or predisposition towards technology.

In fact, I have found that many young people find some web interfaces bizarre and unintuitive. For example, my daughter (in her early 20s) thinks Facebook is badly designed and often navigates using “random clicking”. And I am a computer programmer with decades of experience but even I find some programs and some web sites completely devoid of any logical design, and I sometimes revert to the good old “random clicking” too!

For example, I received an email notification from Inland Revenue last week and was asked to look at a document on their web site. It should have taken 30 seconds but it took closer to 30 minutes and I only found the document using RC (random clicking).

Before I go further, let me describe RC. You might be presented with a web site or program/app interface and you want to do something. There might be no obvious way to get to where you want to go, or you might take the obvious route only to find it doesn’t go where you expected. Or, of course, you might get random error message like “page not available” or “internal server error” or even the dreaded “this app has quit unexpectedly” or the blue screen of death or spinning activity wheel.

So to make progress it is necessary just to do some RC on different elements, even if they make no sense, until you find what you are looking for. Or in more extreme cases you might even need to “hack” the system by entering deliberately fake information, changing a URL, etc.

What’s going on here? Surely the people involved with creating major web sites and widely used apps know what they are doing, don’t they? After all, many of these are the creations of large corporations with virtually unlimited resources and budgets. Why are there so many problems?

Well, there are two explanations: first, that errors do happen occasionally, no matter how competent the organisation involved is, and because we use these major sites and apps so often we will tend to see the errors more often too; and second, large corporations create stuff through a highly bureaucratic and obscure process and consistency and attention to detail is difficult to attain under such a scheme.

When I encounter errors, especially on web sites, I like to keep a record of it by taking a screenshot. I keep this in a folder to make me feel better if I make an error on any of my own projects, because it reminds me that sites created by organisations with a hundred programmers and huge budgets often have more problems those created by a single programmer with no budget.

So here are some of the sites I currently have in my errors folder…

APN (couldn’t complete your request due to an unexpected error – they’re the worst type!)
Apple (oops! an error occurred – helpful)
Audible (we see you are going to x, would you rather go to x?)
Aurora (trying to get an aurora prediction, just got a “cannot connect to database”)
BankLink (page not found, oh well I didn’t really want to do my tax return anyway)
BBC (the world’s most trusted news source, but not the most trusted site)
CNet (one of the leading computer news sources, until it fails)
DCC (local body sites can be useful – when they work)
Facebook (a diabolical nightmare of bad design, slowness, and bugginess)
Herald (NZ’s major newspaper, but their site generates lots of errors)
InternetNZ (even Internet NZ has errors on their site)
IRD (Inland Revenue has a few good features, but their web site is terrible overall)
Medtech (yeah, good luck getting essential medical information from here)
Mercury (the messenger of the gods dropped his message)
Microsoft (I get errors here too many times to mention)
Fast Net (not so fast when it doesn’t work)
Origin (not sure what the origin of this error was)
Porsche (great cars, web site not so great)
State Insurance (state, the obvious choice for a buggy web site)
Ticketmaster (I don’t have permission for the section of the site needed to buy tickets)
TradeMe (NZ’s equivalent of eBay is poorly designed and quite buggy)
Vodafone (another ISP with web site errors)
WordPress (the world’s leading blogging platform, really?)
YesThereIsAGod (well if there is a god, he needs to hire better web designers)

Note that I also have a huge pile of errors generated by sites at my workplace. Also, I haven’t even bothered storing examples of bad design, or of problems with apps.

As I said, there are two types of errors, and those caused by temporary outages are annoying but not disastrous. The much bigger problem is the sites and apps which are just inherently bad. The two most prominent examples are Facebook and Microsoft Word. Yes, those are probably the most widely used web site and most widely used app in the world. If they are so bad why are they so popular?

Well, popularity can mean two things: first, something is very widely used, even if it is not necessarily very well appreciated; and second, something which is well-liked by users and is utilised because people like it. So you could say tax or work is popular because almost everyone participates in them, but that drinking alcohol, or smoking dope, or sex, or eating burgers is popular because everyone likes them!

Facebook and Word are popular but most people think they could be made so much better. Also many people realise there are far better alternatives but they just cannot be used because of reasons not associated with quality. For example, people use Facebook because everyone else does, and if you want to interact with other people you all need to use the same site. And Word is widely used because that is what many workplaces demand, and many people aren’t even aware there are alternatives.

The whole thing is a bit grim, isn’t it? But there is one small thing I would suggest which could make things better: if you are a developer with a product which has a bad interface, and you can’t be almost certain that you can improve it significantly, don’t bother trying. People can get used to badly designed software, but coping with changes to an equally bad but different interface in a new version is annoying.

The classic example is how Microsoft has changed the interface between Office 2011 and Office 2016 (these are the Mac versions, but the same issue exists on Windows). The older version has a terrible, primitive user interface but after many years people have learned to cope with it. The newer version has an equally bad interface (maybe worse) and users have to re-learn it for no benefit at all.

So, Microsoft, please just stop trying. You have a captive audience for your horrible software so just leave it there. Bring out a new version so you can steal more money from the suckers who use it, but don’t try to improve the user interface. Your users will thank you for it.

Is Apple Doomed?

December 20, 2017 5 comments

I’m a big Apple fanboy. As I sit here writing this blog post (flying at 10,000 meters on my way to Auckland, because I always write blog posts when I fly) I am actively using 4 Apple products: a MacBook Pro computer, an iPad Pro tablet, an iPhone 6S Plus smartphone, and an Apple Watch. At home I have many Apple computers, phones, and other devices. I also have one Windows PC but I very rarely use that.

So the general state of Apple’s “empire” is pretty important to me. Many of the skills I have (such as general trouble-shooting, web programming, scripting, configuration, and general software use) could be transferred to Windows, but I just don’t want to. I really like the elegance of Apple’s devices on the surface, combined with the power of Unix in the background.

But despite my enthusiasm for their products I have developed an increasing air of concern with Apple’s direction. There is the indistinct idea that they have stopped innovating to the extent they did in the past. Then there is the observation that the quality control of both hardware and software isn’t what it was. Then there is just a general perception that Apple are getting too greedy by selling products at too high a price and not offering adequate support for the users of their products.

These opinions are nothing new, but what is new is that people who both know a lot about the subject, and would normally be more positive about Apple, are starting to join in the criticism. Sometimes this is through a slight sense of general concern, and other times through quite strident direct criticism.

I would belong to the former class of critics. I think I have noticed an increase in the number of errors Apple is making, at the same time as I notice an apparent general decrease in the overall reliability of their products, and to make matters worse, these are accompanied by what seems to be higher prices.

You will notice I used a lot of qualifiers in the sentence above. I did this deliberately because I have no real data or objective statistics to demonstrate any of these trends. They might not be real because it is very easy to start seeing problems when you look for them, and negative events often “clump” into groups. Sometimes there might be a series of bad things which happen after a long period with no problems, but that doesn’t mean there is any general trend involved.

But now is the time for anecdotes! These don’t mean much, of course, but I want to list a few just to give an idea of where my concern is coming from.

Recently I set up two new Mac laptop computers in a department where there was a certain amount of pressure from management to switch to Microsoft Surface laptops. The Surface has a really poor reputation for reliability and is quite expensive, so it shouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate the superiority of Apple products in this area, right?

Well, no. Wrong, actually. At least in this case. Both laptops had to go for service twice within the first few weeks. I have worked with Apple hardware for decades and have never seen anything remotely as bad as this. And the fact that it was in a situation where Apple was under increased scrutiny didn’t help!

In addition, the laptops had inadequate storage, because even though these are marketed as “pro” devices the basic model still has only 128G of SSD storage. That wasn’t Apple’s fault, because the person doing the purchasing should have got it right, but it didn’t help!

Also recently Apple has suffered from some really embarrassing security flaws. One allowed root access to a Mac without a password, and the other allowed malicious control of automated home-control devices. There were also a few other lesser issues in the same time period. As far as I now none of these were exploited to any great extent, but it is still a bad look.

Another issue which seems to be becoming more prominent recently is their repair and replacement service. In general I have had fairly good service from Apple repair centers, but I have heard of several people who aren’t as happy.

When you buy a premium device at the premium price Apple demands I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect a little bit of extra help if things go wrong. So unless there is clear evidence of fraud, repairs and replacements should be done without the customer having to resort to threats and demands for the intervention of higher levels of staff.

And even if a device only has one year of official warranty (which seems ridiculous to begin with), Apple should offer a similar level of support for a reasonable period without the customer having to resort to quoting consumer law.

Even if Apple wasn’t interested in doing what was morally right they should be able to see that providing superior service for what they claim is a superior product at a superior price is just good business because it maintains a positive relationship with the customer.

My final complaint regards Apple’s design direction. This is critical because whatever else they stand for, surely good design is their primary advantage over the opposition. But some Apple software recently has been obscure at best and incomprehensibly bizarre at worst, and iTunes has become a “gold standard” for cluttered, confusing user interfaces.

When I started programming Macs in the 1980s there was a large section in the programming documentation about user interface design. The rules were really strict, but resulted in consistent and clear software which came from many different developers, including Apple. I don’t do that sort of programming any more but if a similar section exists in current programming manuals there is little sign that people – even Apple themselves – are taking much notice!

So is Apple doomed? Well probably not. They are (by some measures) the world’s biggest, richest, and most innovative company. They are vying with a few others to become the first trillion dollar company. And, in many ways they still define the standard against which all others are judged. For example, every new smart phone which appears on the market is framed by some people as an “iPhone killer”. They never are, but the fact that products aspire to be that, instead of a Samsung or Huawei killer says a lot about the iPhone.

But despite the fact that Apple isn’t likely to disappear in the immediate future, I still think they need to be more aware of their real and perceived weaknesses. If they aren’t there is likely to be an extended period of slow decline and reduced relevance. And a slow slide into mediocrity is, in many ways, worse than a sudden collapse.

So, Tim Cook, if you are reading this blog post (and why wouldn’t you), please take notice. Here’s just one suggestion: when your company releases a new laptop with connections that are unusable without dongles, throw a few in with the computer, and keep the price the same as the model it replaces, and please, try to make them reliable, and if they aren’t, make sure the service and replacement process is quick and easy.

It’s really not that hard to avoid doom.

Genesis Version 2.0

November 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Prologue

Yahweh needed a purpose. He was the most powerful entity in the metaverse, yet what had he ever achieved? It was time to do something great, and the only thing which would be worthy of his abilities was to create a universe. In fact it seemed like this was his entire reason for existing. Yahweh performed the calculations and determined what would be needed.

And he started creating…

First, he created a planet where he could experiment. It was covered with water because that was the basis for the chemistry he had decided to use. Despite the water, he called it Earth.

Then he created light, because, obviously his new universe would need to be visible to everyone, including the various conscious entities he might create.

But he realised the light might hide most of the magnificence of the universe he was creating, because the stars and galaxies – which he would soon create – could only be appreciated in darkness. So he decided to stop the light regularly and made darkness.

Then he built a realm where his creations could be brought to so they could interact with him. While he wanted to remain mostly seperate, some intervention might also be needed. This was hidden from everyone except him, and he called it Heaven.

And he needed some dry land so that there would be another habitat for the various species he would bring into existence. So he caused the waters to recede and uncover the solid earth.

And Yahweh was happy so far with what he had done. He thought it was good.

With the basics out of the way, it was now time to start on the interesting stuff. He needed some organisms capable of using the light to make energy for themselves, and ultimately all living things. These would be plants and he devised a clever trick he called photosynthesis to allow them to do this.

Again, Yahweh saw that things were going according to plan. This was good.

But at this point he realised he had made a small mistake. The light had no obvious source and he didn’t want his part in making this universe to be too obvious. So he created the Sun to be the main light source, and just for some added interest, a Moon as well. Of course, not being content with a single solar system, Yahweh created a few trillion galaxies of hundreds of billions of suns, for no real reason except to show just how powerful he really was!

After that he considered the universe so far wasn’t yet great, but it was good.

Now was the time to create animals to populate his world. He made many species to live in the seas and fly in the sky, then he made animals to live on the solid ground. And here he used his most subtle and clever idea: the animals had a fixed life-span, but could reproduce with minor variations in the next generation. He figured this should create many interesting new forms in the future.

So yes, Yahweh also thought this was good.

Finally it was necessary to carry out the final step: to create an intelligent species modelled, somehow, on himself.

And that was it. His universe was completed. Yahweh congratulated himself, pronouncing it “very good”…

A Lesson in Theology

Dan looked up from his control console, turned to his colleague, Jerry, and said “any idea what’s gone wrong?” only to receive an exasperated shrug in return.

The power use had been far over what they expected for some time now, and no one seemed to be able to figure out why. The initial testing should have been carried out at a low level of computation, and that would have meant low power use too – at least as low as a computer with a quadrillion bytes of storage could be expected to use.

If things didn’t get better soon they would need to call the old man himself. He designed this contraption so maybe he could get it to respond to basic instructions. But Dan didn’t want to do that yet because he was treated like a modern prophet by his colleagues, and his reputation was on the line. They would work on regaining control and bringing the power down for a bit longer before calling for help.

He said “Do you know anything about the old man? He created this thing but I’ve never seen him around here. He seems to live in his office upstairs but we never see him – it’s almost like he’s invisible. And he really is an odd one – I heard he still believes that old religion that was popular 50 years ago. Do you know anything about that?”

Jerry knew he was being baited about his “useless” qualifications but replied, “You know I did a theology degree, don’t you. That’s why I work in IT. But yes, you’re right, he still believes in a religion called Christianity, which was very big a few decades ago. It was an odd mixture of traditional superstition, sacrifice, and strange rituals, and had some quite interesting ideas about pacifism and tolerance, too.”

“Well it’s all crazy as far as I can tell,” observed Dan, “what use could it be in solving problems like what we have here now?”

Jerry saw his opportunity to tease his friend a little bit, and said “Why do you think he gave the computer the name he did? Does the name mean anything to you?”

Dan looked indignant, but said “Well, he called it YAHWEH, which stands for yottabyte analytical hypothesiser with extended heuristics. I’ve never heard the name before in another context, but it seems to make a lot of sense to me, after all that’s what it does. What exactly are you trying to suggest?”

Laughing, Jerry said, “Did that name ever seem a bit contrived to you? I mean, sure it has a yottabyte of memory and heuristics are an important part of its super-intelligence, but the rest seems more made up to fit the name, rather than the other way around. I know there is an old tradition in IT of doing this, but why would he choose the name of the old Christian God?”

Dan wasn’t convinced so he replied, “Well you could be right, but so what? Even if he named his computer after the god from his old fairy story, that doesn’t prove anything, except that he is even crazier than we previously thought.”

Jerry decided to take a different tack. “You know he is also interested in the ideas of the philosopher Nick Bostrom, don’t you. He specifically warned us against super-intelligent computers, but here’s another thing he is well known for that might interest you: he also had an argument, which he didn’t necessarily believe himself, that our universe is a simulation running in a super-intelligent computer in another, presumably real universe. It was called the simulation argument.”

By now Dan was starting to look a lot more uncertain, and said “You don’t think that’s what the old man is up to, do you? I mean, is this computer running a simulation of another universe? Does it really have the capacity to do that? Has it just created its own universe, with living conscious people like us? With a name like that, maybe it really does think it’s a god.”

Jerry looked thoughtful and said, “If it had created a universe with conscious simulated life do we have the right to terminate it? After all, if Bostrom is right, we could be part of a simulation too. How would you like if it the computer our universe is being simulated in was reset?”

But Dan wasn’t accepting any of this. He argued, “That’s the problem with theology, you can make a story full of intersting details but without a scrap of evidence to support it. Surely you don’t think we will ever need to make that decision, do you?”

Jerry glanced down at his console and suddenly went pale, he whispered “I don’t know, but I just found the name of the program it’s running. It’s called Genesis…”