Bad Sci-Fi Movies and Real-World AI

LifeContinuing my theme of doing things other than fret about Donald Trump, I have spent some time fretting about other existential threats to humanity. So, that’s healthy.

Specifically, I’ve spent the last half day thinking about the threat of alien invasions and runaway artificial intelligence. One of them you can consign to the bottom of your worry list; the other probably deserves a higher spot on the list, somewhere below Donald Trump but above death panels and “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The topic of alien invasions is the overt theme of the movie I saw last night: Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring, among others, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. Without giving away the plot, it explores the question of what happens when humanity encounters a lifeform that turns out to be smarter and more dangerous than it appears. Suffice it to say not all ends well for our gender- and ethnic-balanced crew aboard the International Space Station.

Despite the title of this post, the movie is not actually bad; it’s suspenseful and engaging. As I watched it, though, I was struck by how shitty the science was. As the investigators probed the alien lifeform, they repeatedly demonstrated all sorts of stupid, unrealistic practices. They let a single investigator engage in isolation with the lifeform to the extent he loses perspective. They do not do carefully measured experiments to determine both what sustains the organism and what kills it. When it demonstrates exponential growth and unexpected abilities, the researchers don’t react to this with caution but instead step on the accelerator. And, when things go wrong, they discover that their failsafe mechanisms are either non-existent or simply failures. Any epidemiologist or biologist working with potentially hazardous organisms would have been appalled.

The good news is that we’re not out scooping up biomass from other planets and bringing it back to Earth. There’s also every reason to think that the product of other evolutionary forces would not be particularly compatible with Earth’s. And, finally, there’s the fact that – despite the fact that we’ve been actively looking for decades, there’s very little sign of life – particularly intelligent life – outside of our little blue ball despite the fact that it’s a very, very big universe. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. My best guess is that you can put this issue way, way down on your list of things to worry about.

Which brings me to the other one, the existential threat of runaway artificial intelligence.

AIAs I was driving home from the theater, it occurred to me that the movie was actually a commentary on the how we – not you or me, but some VERY smart people – are approaching the field of AI. As near as I can tell, we are using the same shitty scientific methods – the ones that would make any life science researcher cringe – to develop this technology. We have researchers all across the world laboring in secret, scientists who are less objective researchers and more would-be parents who are enraptured with the idea of strong AI or even the Singularity. Instead of running carefully controlled experiments and building in rigorous “kill steps,” AI is being deployed today in the real world – in Teslas, in fraud detection systems, in your washing machine, writing both press releases and news stories, in your favorite search engine, in the warehouses of your favorite retailer, as robo-calls and a thousand other ways. And, even though these creations are demonstrating unexpectedly rapid growth and ability (an AI-driven computer recent beat the world’s best Go players – widely considered an incredibly hard game – 60 games to none; a computer program performed a similar fear against some of the world’s best poker players), researchers are plowing onward at even faster rates.

This is perhaps not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. And, it’s not just me, your friendly blogger, who thinks so. Smart guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worried about this. So are really smart guys like Stephen Hawking.

By way of fair disclosure, there are plenty of very smart people – Ray Kurzweil perhaps foremost among them – who believe the coming era of big AI will usher in an unprecedented era for humanity, giving us access to pretty much everything and an infinite lifespan to experience it. That seems like a better outcome, but this point of view is a little cultish and perhaps optimistic without hard, objective reasons. Life – whether artificial or otherwise – constantly finds ways to break out of whatever boxes it gets put into. Including the boxes we build.

If you’re inclined to read more on this, Vanity Fair coincidentally published a long interview with Musk on this topic. It is worth the 20 minutes or so it will take you and give you something to worry about instead of Trump.

There. Doesn’t that make you feel better instead of worrying about the latest cluster fuck from the White House? Next week, I’ll write about the threats of pandemics and global warming. Just call me Mr. Good News.

  • Austin




The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?

GoogleGlass_15Let’s start with the obvious.  I am a hopeless technophile and I need help.  I’m not a role model, I’m a cautionary tale.  I’m the people your parents would have warned you about if they had any idea how the future turned out.

The most recent proof of these truths is my – successful – application to be a “Glass Explorer” in Google’s project – Glass – to develop a wearable device that resembles a pair of glasses without lenses that projects a tiny image into the user’s right eyeball.  Think of it as computer that can be controlled with voice, gestures and taps with a display that sits in your field of vision. This project has been talked about for years and Google has offered various glimpses of the technology as it has developed.

Continue reading “The $1,500 Question: Why Am I Paying Google to Beta Glass?”

The Next, Next Big Things

OfficeWhite_House_Situation_Room_Friday_May_18_2007One of my preoccupations  is trying to guess what’s coming down the road.  This is an activity of both personal and professional interest and is pretty much what you might expect from a guy whose office sucks more electricity than the White House Situation Room.

I mean, really, we’re a global superpower and we expect the President to run it with what looks like maybe 10 monitors?  I bet the Chinese have a cool Sit Room.

But I digress.

What’s next for technology and those of us who depend on it for our livelihood and – increasingly – swim in its ubiquitous fog 24/7.  This morning I read a really thought-provoking post on that topic: “20 Tech trends That Will Define 2013” as selected by the folks at Frog, the design shop that helped Apple and others come up with the form and function of some of their iconic products.  It is highly recommended if you want to know what the folks who live 30 minutes in the future have planned for the rest of us.  Personally, I’m looking forward to it.

Happy holidays to all.  If this post gives you the urge to give your loved ones the gift of technology this season, I highly recommend checking on one of the many gadget sites on this list.  If it inspired you to give the gift of technology to me, I’m lusting after but haven’t been able to yet justify the purchase of a Windows Surface tablet.

– Austin

If this doesn’t get Bruce to use Twitter…

I’ve always Bruce Bendit would be a great twitterer. He’s witty, sarcastic, funny, smart, passionate, outspoken and more — either in rotation or in conjunction. Perhaps more importantly, he’s the only Rowdy blogger who’s not using Twitter yet. Luddite!

Me, Austin, Ellen, the sporadic Mr. Carideo. Hell, even Loveland has a profile; he just refuses to do anything with it. (I believe our other departed comrade, Hornseth, is still a holdout, but I’d be thrilled to be mistaken about that.) Among our readers, I know of Kelly Groehler, Bob Moffitt, Eileen Smith, Michael Benidt (yes, Bruce’s brother is a twit, too!) — and I’m probably forgetting a few and there’s maybe a few I don’t even know of.

For god’s sake, people. Even my unborn child has a Twitter account.

If friends, siblings and fetuses aren’t enough, now I know we twits have Bruce right where we want him. Today, I learned that the one, the only David Carr has joined the ranks of the Twitter Army. We know Bruce and David go way back, so if this doesn’t do the trick, I don’t know what will.

What does Carr have to say that’s so interesting? Well, he opened with this:

sitting in a seminar about sex lives of the microfamous at sxsw. it’s a lot cooler than it sounds

And takes a shot at cable newsies with this:

how many cnn panelists does it take to analyze a routine prez press conference? Ten by my count, but lost count after 3rd panel introduced.

And perhaps gives all new Twitterers and idea of what to expect:

old man stumbles onto social media platform. hits interthing trip wire. mayhem and tears ensue.

What does it all mean? It’s Friday and I wanted to write something. Have a great weekend.

Photo courtesy of t1mmyb on Flickr

Does the president need to be a computer user?

Desk full o\' techAn interesting conversation has been taking place over at the Web Strategy blog, written by Jeremiah Owyang, a social computing analyst at Forrester Research. He asks if the president needs to know how to use a computer and the Web to do his or her job effectively.

The question was prompted by John McCain’s admission that he’s computer illiterate and relies on the good missus for all of his technology needs. Jeremiah says, “I don’t believe it’s a critical job requirement, despite it being a very powerful intelligence gathering and communication tool.”

The commenters on his site seem to be split roughly evenly, perhaps leaning a little more toward “it’s not necessary.”

One commenter suggests that he expects “the President to have ability to do independent verification of facts. Such facts are increasingly located on the Internet.” As if the president — any president — would be fishing around the Huffington Post, MN Indy, Minnesota Democrats Exposed and the like to find The Truth. (By mentioning those three sites in series, I do not mean to suggest that those three sites are in any way similar to each other.) And as if the Internet doesn’t have the potential to be just as flawed as, say, international intelligence reports.

Several commenters suggest that a computer illiterate president would be ill-equipped to make important policy decisions regarding Net neutrality, warrantless wiretaps, technology budgets for schools, advances and changes in communication, and so on. But when was the last time a president informed his scientific research priorities and policies by conducting experiments in a lab or flying to the moon? Need he be a criminal or a defense attorney to make educated judgments about crime and corrections?

It would be nice, as many of those commenters suggested, if the president understood the impact of computers, the Web and communication technology. It would be wonderful if he were to be open-minded enough to see the big picture. But suggesting that he would actually need to be a Facebook or Twitter addict to “get it,” or that he would need to dig through the conspiracy-theory-riddled forums of the Web’s nether regions to find The Truth? That’s about as necessary as Roseanne Barr singing the national anthem.

What say you?

Photo courtesy of kchbrown on Flickr