Thursday, February 26, 2009

Here's what I got with for this random little game that's going around the internets. If you want to create your own album cover, here are the rules:

1. Go to - The first article title on the page is the name of your band.

2. Click - Click "New Random Quotations", The last four words of the very last quote is the title of your album.

3. Visit - The third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4. Use your graphics program of choice to throw them together, and post the result.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Navy-funded report warns of war robots "going Terminator"

ONR Report [pdf]

The report urges programmers of war-robots to include ethics subroutines, resembling a warrior code of ethics.

Patrick Lin, the chief compiler of the report, says: "There is a common misconception that robots will do only what we have programmed them to do. Unfortunately, such a belief is sorely outdated, harking back to a time when programs could be written and understood by a single person."

He says the key to avoiding robotic rebellion is to include "learning" logic which teaches the robot the rights and wrongs of ethical warfare. This logic would be mixed with traditional rules based programming. "We are going to need a code. These things are military, and they can’t be pacifists, so we have to think in terms of battlefield ethics. We are going to need a warrior code."

So... The military will pay programmers to write ethics subroutines? As a programmer with a philosophy major... I might one day have a job! Terminator scenarios: Employing those with unmarketable skills since 2009.

I'm reminded of something a friend (Dan, who probably got it from a scifi fanfic) once wrote:
"What is the Universal Truth?"
"The geeks shall inherit the Earth!!"
"Because they’ll save our asses someday!!"

Hmm. The more I think about this, the more I wonder if it's something I'd actually like to do with my life. My views on artificial ethics and intelligence are certainly unconventional, but I do think about it a lot. I have built robots. I have programmed for the military. I have read a great deal on ethics and logic. And I thoroughly enjoyed it all. This might be one of the few jobs that could successfully compete with the Internet for my attention span...

I'll be back. To make sure that you're doing alright.
Would you like a cup of tea?
DailyTech Article
Fox News Article (polemically hilarious)
ONR Report [pdf]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How to Evade Your Civil Duties:

1. Move to Arkansas. Their newly-amended constitution should serve you right:



So, if you want to commit murder, do it in a room full of your friends! (Who are probably all godless heathens like you.) If you get called for jury duty, don't fret, silly atheist -- you're not the peer of a believer!

2. Alternatively, you could move to Texas. Their Bill of Rights has a section for you:

Article 1, Section 4: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

Whew. Almost thought we were going to be granted the public trust of Texas. That would have been embarrassing. When you're not given full rights in these states, you're doing something right.

We atheists, therefore, should enjoy being persecuted! As USN says, there's a special place in heaven for atheists who endure this nonsense.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Four suns connected by a ring in the sky!

Beautiful! Incredible! One of nature's wonderful illusions!

...I won't say it, but you know I'm thinking it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day Cake!

Happy 200th Birthday, Darwin!

Happy Darwin Day to all!

Fun Darwin Facts:

1. Darwin saw no significance at first in the finches of the Galapagos. He dutifully collected and tagged his samples, and it was only when some of the labels were lost and he became frustrated about how similar they appeared that he thought they might all be related.

2. Darwin performed a substantial amount of his research by becoming a Victorian era pigeon fancier. These men doted over their birds and bred them for specific characteristics, and although some breeders claimed that they could develop any trait given enough time, none of his fellow fanciers thought this might possibly be an indication that all the known breeds were actually the result of breeding from one ancestor pigeon.

3. Some scholars feel that Darwin believed in recapitulation. What is that? Basically, it's the idea that a blastula is the equivalent of primordial soup, and as the fetus develops, it mirrors evolutionary development. We know Darwin thought this because he wrote about how similar all puppies look (round, chubby, tiny appendages), and yet they all develop into very different breeds. This is because the “essential puppy” morphology is actually the original dog morphology.

4. In Darwin's first edition of the Origin of Species, he asks his reader to contemplate the possibility of a bear becoming a whale-like animal if it spends all of its time in a river hunting. We know today from skeletal structures such as the pelvis and vestigial legs that whales are indeed actually land animals that returned to the aquatic environment.

5. Darwin married his cousin, but only after long debate. He drafted a pro and con list to decide whether or not he was the marrying type. Although he would have less freedom, he decided in favor of marriage because it would offer him good company. At least company better than a dog, he wrote.

6. Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, had many ideas that are very similar to what we know as (Charles) Darwinian Evolution and contributed a lot to Charles's own ideas. Erasmus is best known for 'Zoonomia' which is filled with precursors. However, Erasmus also writes that whatever the male is fancying during the time of copulation will be what the fetus develops into. In other words, a mating frog may see a chicken walk by and think that the chicken is rather sexy, thus producing a baby frog that very closely resembles a chicken.

7. While in the Galapagos, Darwin gave special attention to the lizard population. He referred to a species of black lizard as “imps of darkness” that were extremely ugly, and performed experiments in which he would hurl a lizard as far as possible into the ocean to puzzle over how it well it could swim, yet how it hated being in the ocean.

8. Darwin remarks repeatedly on the naiveté of the birds of the Galapagos, and how easy it is to kill them. He observed a local boy catching the birds for food by simply sitting next to a source of water, grabbing a visiting bird, and SNAP.

9. Another scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace, also came up with evolution. He wrote to Darwin asking for his opinion, Darwin panicked, and at the advice of colleagues, finished the Origin of Species as soon as possible, leaving out much of what was intended to be included. Wallace and Darwin published together, but as the idea stuck, Wallace began referring to evolution as “Darwin's idea” and considered himself lucky to even be friends with Darwin.

10. Darwin was a tad neurotic, and wrote down almost every idea. From all his letter, notebooks, diaries, etc., it is easy to see the evolution of the idea of evolution. The biggest obstacle to Darwin scholars today is not finding material, but reading Darwin's handwriting.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Media.

I rarely watch TV. The news is much easier to get online; it's much easier to access a wide variety of sources, to learn background information about current events, and to speak to people directly involved in the news at hand. However, I'm wondering if my neglect of television has been a mistake.

I spend a lot of time in a particular coffee shop; I take my laptop here during the day, and sit under a huge flatscreen TV that is forever tuned to CNN. Now, CNN is one of the more reputable news sources out there, especially when compared to Fox News or MSNBC. However, the last few days of exposure to this mainstream news channel have startled me -- CNN is an incredibly polemic channel.

The rhetoric they use is absolutely sensational, although this was easily guessed. But the news they provide is utterly unhelpful -- all about soundbites, entirely one-sided -- I guess, it's everything I've read about mainstream media. The media is constantly denigrated by reasonable people, for a variety of reasons. But the shocking part is: these reasons, they're all true.

I'm watching coverage of the Salmonella outbreak now. They're interviewing a little kid that got Salmonella from peanut butter -- he's spouting words and concepts he clearly doesn't understand: "I think... (pause, looks questioningly off camera) I think we should re... recall all peanut butter products, and... (looks off camera again) ..test them all, and create another federal institution in charge of testing all the food. The FDA isn't keeping me safe. The FDA made me want to die." [Reporter smirks satisfactorily at camera.] The camera pans to some seriously disgusting-looking peanut butter, as the off-screen voice tells us, "The FDA is incapable of keeping us safe. This has been the largest food recall in history."

How is this helpful at all? How does this do anything except incite panic? If CNN were reasonable, they'd put together a nice report on the pros and cons of the FDA, how it's helped, where it's failed, and compare/contrast the possibility of a new food regulatory agency. The situation would have been handled calmly, intelligently, and informed the American people, who will instead undoubtedly be calling their representatives in a panic, screaming blindly for reform. No wonder Americans are ignorant about politics -- this is the news we stand.

Journalism is dying, not because people aren't consuming, but because we all want to be in a reality TV show. The problem is, real life doesn't have an editor to step in and save the day at the end. The more polemic entertainment we demand, the more Americans walk around feeling as though the world will end. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There will, mark my words, be talk of a new regulatory agency in the wake of these outbreaks. And maybe that's a good thing. God knows the FDA is terrible. But will the process be nuanced? Will our choices be educated? I doubt it. This television is sickening. That's what we call the news...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Robot Love

I read an interesting passage today in Ger Gigerenzer's Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. The focus of his book is the idea that effective intuitive processes are the product of discarding information -- not retaining it. He illustrates his point with a short story, The Fable of Robot Love. The point is interesting, so bear with it:
In the year 2525, engineers finally managed to build robots that looked like humans, acted like humans, and were ready to reproduce. Ten thousand robots of various types had been built, all of them female. A research team set out to design a male robot who would be able to find a good mate, found a family, and take care of the little robots until they were able to take care of themselves. They called their first model Maximizer-1, M-1 for short.

Programmed to find the best mate, M-1 proceeded to identify a thousand female robots that fit his goal of not marrying a model older than himself. He detected five hundred features on which individual female robots varied, such as energy consumption, computing speed, and frame elasticity. Regrettably, the females did not have their individual feature values printed on their foreheads; some even hid them, trying to fool M-1. He had to infer these values from samples of behavior.

After three months had passed, he had succeeded in getting reliable measures on the first feature he tested, memory size, from each female robot. The research team made a quick calculation of when M-1 would be ready to pick the best and discovered that no one in the team would still be alive at that point -- nor would the best female robot.

The thousand females were upset that M-1 could not make up his mind, and as he began recording the second feature, the serial number, they pulled out his batteries and dumped him in a scrap yard. The team went back to the drawing board.

M-2 was designed to focus on the most important features and to stop looking for more when the costs of collecting further information exceeded its benefits. After three months, M-2 was exactly where M-1 was, and in addition was busy measuring the benefits and costs of each feature so that he could know what to ignore. The impatient females ripped out his wires and got rid of him, too.

The team now adopted the proverb that the best is the enemy of the good, and designed G-1, a robot who looked for a mate that was good enough. G-1 had an aspiration level build in. When he encountered the first female who met his aspiration level, he would propose to her -- and ignore the rest. To make sure that he found a mate if his aspirations were too high, he was equipped with a feedback loop that lowered the aspiration level if none of the females were good enough for him over too long a period. G-1 showed no interest in the first six females he met, but then proposed to number seven. Short of alternatives, she accepted.

Three months later, to everyone's pleasure, G-1 was married and had two small kids. While writing the final report, however the team learned that G-1 had left his wife for another robot. Nothing in his brain had prevented him from running off to what looked to him like a better deal. One team member pointed out that M-1 would never have left his wife, because he would only have accepted the best in the first place. That's true, responded the others, but at least G-1 found one.

The team discussed this for a while and then came up with GE-1. He was happy with a good enough female, just like G-1, but was additionally equipped with an emotional glue that was released when he met a good enough robot and adhered more strongly with physical contact. Just to be sure, they inserted a second form of emotional glue into his brain that discharged when a baby was born and tightened after each physical contact with the baby.

GE-1 proposed to a female as quickly as G-1 did, married, and fathered three babies. He was still with them when the team finished their report. He was somewhat clingy, but dependable. Ever since, GE-1 robots have conquered the earth.
In the fable, M-1 failed because he tried to find the best, as did M-2. Both ran out of time. G-1 was fast by going for a good enough choice, but was also fast in dropping it. However, the capacity for love, the glue, provided a powerful stopping rule that ended GE-1's search for a partner and strengthened his commitment to his loved ones.

Similarly, feelings of parental love, triggered by an infant's presence or smile, free parents from having to decide every morning whether they should invest their resources in their children or in some other business. The questionof whether it is worthwhile to endure all the sleepless nights and other frustrations of having a child simply does not arise, and our memory ensures that we forget these tribulations soon.

The evolved brain keeps us from looking too long and thinking too much. That is what love is. ;-) The culture it is embedded in influence what the objects of love or trust can be, or what makes us upset or feel hurt.

Gigerenzer goes on to discuss this problem in humans -- the deliberate search for the best can conflict with emotions (pride, honor) in humans. Johannes Kepler, for instance, was short, sickly, and born into a poor family. However, his fame and intellect ranked him a good catch. In 1611, he left his unhappy and arranged marriage, and embarked on a systematic search for a second wife. Unlike Barbara Bush, who "married the first man she kissed," Kepler investigated eleven (!) possible replacement wives in under two years. His friends urged him to pick bachelorette number four, a refined lady of high status and dowry, but he insisted on being thorough. This insulted the fine lady, and she rejected him in the end.