Can Computers Think? Posters

August 31, 2010

I was going to write something up about the question of artificial intelligence and whether or not computers can think. But then I came across this set of posters. So instead of writing anything I’m just going to spend a few hours reading all of them. Sorry.

But you can read them too.

Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.

Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)


August 12, 2010

This is a word I’ve come across recently. “Power-disking” refers to the practice of quickly watching every episode of a show over a short period of time, usually by powering through the DVDs, watching, say, an entire disk in one sitting.

I’ve done this somewhat often over the last few years. I’ve compiled a list of all the shows of which I’ve seen every episode; here it is, in roughly chronological order:

There are a few interesting things about this list.

  • The majority of these shows I watched on the collected series DVD set after the series was canceled.
  • Two (The Wire, 24) I watched on a per-series basis, watching all episodes of a season after it ended, but not waiting between seasons.
  • Only one (Jericho) did I ever watch “in real time,” so to speak, by which I mean “as it were originally shown on TV.” And ever there, I saw the first several episodes online before deciding to watch the show as it progressed, and watched the second season entirely online.

This is clearly significantly different from my television habits, say, six years ago. Mostly this is because what I now do was not technologically feasible back then. Yet the change reflects also a change in ways of thinking about television. I never watch TV regularly any more. Instead, the default is to watch no television, and occasionally to watch entire series over the course of a few weeks, just as one would a read a book over the course of a few weeks.

There is a significant difference between television and novels, however. The quantity of quality television is severely limited, compared to the quantity of quality novels. This has to do both with the economics of it — it costs more to make a TV show than to write a book — and with the fact that television is a fairly recent medium. When I discover a new author I like, say, Cormac McCarthy, I can read and have read) every book he’s written over the last twenty-five years. And then do that again for every author I find I like. The same is not true of television. I suspect I will run out of shows to watch fairly soon —  and then what? Watch nothing, or, rather, continue in the current habit of watching nothing except watching a lot at random intervals and have the size of the intervals increase? I have little interest in going back to watching shows as they air. I don’t think the medium works as well with the narrative broken up like that. It’s like reading a novel but only one chapter per week.

The number of good shows available isn’t zero, of course. Given the shows I’ve listed above, it’s clear my interest is in shows with strong narrative arcs running across seasons, and for the most part in shows with strong sci-fi or fantasy elements, such that the mythopoeic elements of the show loom large. This leaves me with a few interesting options to explore. This is what’s on my mind right now:

  • Stargate: Atlantis — I already have the DVDs, and am halfway through the first season. So this I will definitely watch.
  • Babylon 5 – I began watching this a year ago or so, but never really go into it. So I don’t know if I’ll ever end up watching it.
  • The Prisoner – This is considered one of the greatest series of all time, and I’m interested in seeing it. Of course it’s really old and I might never get around to it.

Any suggestions for other shows worth watching?

Andrew Bird and the Scientific Sublime

June 8, 2010

I haven’t said anything here about music for a while. With this post I intend to rectify that. My subject will be Andrew Bird, an indie-baroque-pop artist, whom I only started listening to in the last few months (probably since January), but who has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. I have three of his albums, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha,” and “Noble Beast”; all three have many good songs on them, some of which I’ll mention over the course of this post.

Andrew Bird has several things going for him. To start with, I find his intricate musical style quite appealing; he plays guitar, violin (pizzicato and arco), and whistles, as well as other instruments, and layers them all together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm –  in fact, his music has a quite minimalistic feel to it, until you pay attention and realize how complex it really is. The whistling in particular makes it unlike most other music I’ve listened to. Andrew Bird songs often give me the feeling of being in a white room looking at a complex yet not chaotic contraption, a clock or perhaps a circuit.

A related strength is his use of his voice and the sound of his lyrics. He doesn’t have an amazingly strong voice, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s melodic yet matter-of-fact, occasionally plaintive, which fits with the precise minimalism of the instrumentals. Then there are the lyrics. The words of his songs always sound as if they mean something, merely by their sound, even if they don’t. For example, he has a song called “Fake Palindromes,” the first few lines of which are, “my dewy-eyed disney bride, what has tried / swapping your blood with formaldehyde?” No one else would try to rhyme with a scientific word like “formaldehyde.”

Which brings me to what I find really interesting about Bird; the subjects of his songs. Given his complex, layered, precise, even scientific, aural aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he often takes as his subject science and mathematics. What he is most interested in are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the scientific way of looking at things. He wants to believe in beauty, to have free will, but the fact that we can quantify the universe threatens to make these things impossible. In the song “Masterfade,” he says to his lover that “when you look up at the sky / all you see are zeros / all you see are zeros and ones.” That way of looking at the world, he fears, make a true appreciation of the wonders of the world impossible. In “Imitosis,” he reports (a lot of Andrew Bird songs have the feeling of being reports, perhaps even scientific abstracts) that “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case of mitosis.” If we’re just organisms like any other, than whatever meaningful relationships we may have, whatever rights and duties to others we may think we have, are actually just our genetic code controlling us.

But Bird doesn’t go from here to a rejection of science; he loves science and math and logic. You can tell from listening to his songs, to his use of complex latinate words and bizarre conceits and language games. He rejects any attempt, religious or otherwise, to feel better by ignoring what science seems to be saying. In “The Privateers,” he asks of us, “Don’t sell me anything / Your one time offer, so uncalled for / You call it piece of mind.” In “Measuring Cups,” perhaps my favorite Andrew Bird song, he asks, “when you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gory / is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed.”

So Bird doesn’t want us to look for meaning by rejecting science. What, then, does he turn to? In the end, I think, he never answers that question in full. If he could, he wouldn’t have to make songs about it. But I think he finds a partial answer in the very scientific aesthetic that resulted from his worrisome interest in science. His songs, after all, though often sounding plaintive and questioning, rarely sound despairing. Instead they revel in their own precision. Rather than seeking beauty outside of science, he finds it in the patterning, of numbers and of sound. This is what the best Andrew Bird songs show us; the precise use of language and sound can conjure images of what they describe that make us feel almost like we’re watching a nature documentary, like with with sea aenenome of “Anonanimal.”

But beauty, I think, might be the wrong word here. He finds aesthetic pleasure in patterns, and beauty is defined as proportion; but more precisely, beauty is found in things being proportionate relative to the viewer. Beauty requires something to be on a human scale. Bird doesn’t find the science beautiful for it’s relationship to humans (in fact, that’s what scares him about it); he finds pleasure in it for its own sake. That sounds to me more like the sublime. And indeed, I think there’s an aspect of reveling in the infinite going on here. Bird is probably one of the few songwriters who would completely understand what it means to say that the world itself is not infinite – it is very large, but bounded. When we draw general laws from it – which is what science does – we are inductively drawing the infinite out of the finite. Bird already intuits this, I think; in “Tenuousness,” he talks about the world, which is “tenuous at best,” coming “just shy of infinity.” The world itself is beyond our grasps and finite; strangely, what is infinite, what is in our minds, is less tenuous.

These United States

April 24, 2010

I’ve had several conversations recently about the nature of the Union binding together the several States. Many of my friends argue for the South’s position during the Civil War (states’ rights), while others of them, though fewer, argue for the North’s (secession is unconstitutional). And I was reminded of it again today by this post over at Saint Superman, which brings up new attempts to assert states’ rights following the passage of Obamacare, and argues that they’re inherently damaging to the Union.

So, I thought I’d try to write something about my take on the issue. Keep in mind this is all “speculation”; I am tentatively convinced by the arguments below, but don’t hold to these views particularly strongly. They’re just my efforts to unravel some complex issues.

To begin: If I take a legalistic approach, just looking at the text of the Constitution, I can’t see any definitive reading. It’s ambiguous – and, I suspect, intentionally so – as to whether states have a right to secede or not. It doesn’t mention anything explicitly either way.

But I still think the South had a good legal argument, insofar as there can ever be an argument for secession. Everything the American Founders could argue, the Southerners could as well. Yes, they had representation, but the population growth in the North and the movement westward meant that Southern states were beginning to have less and less control over national politics. It had always been a matter of compromise between North and South, but the election of Lincoln meant that it was no longer even that. The North could have its way in national politics without even really taking into account the South’s interests; that’s basically the same thing as not having representation.

Also, the South and the North were greatly separated by distance; I think people today have a hard time understanding that in 1860, you couldn’t fly from Texas to Maine in four hours or however long it takes. With such limited communication technology, a truly centralized government, of the kind we have today, wasn’t even conceivable.

And the South did have radically different interests than and a radically different culture from that of the North. They were linked economically, but so were the South and England. But the South had an aristocratic, rural, traditional society, while that of the North was egalitarian, urban, and modern. In a lot of ways, I think, the Civil War was about the modernization of America – the forced modernization of the South. Modernization is not inherently bad, and is in some ways necessary, but modernization at the point of a bayonet (and with everything burned to the ground) does not seem like the way to go about it.

Then there’s the slavery question. It’s true that a large part of the South’s complaints had to do with efforts to curtail and abolish slavery. And I’m as much against slavery as anyone else. But I don’t think the North had the right to step in and end slavery in the South without any regard for what would happen to Southern society after slavery was ended. The aftermath of the War – i.e. the abysmal failure of Reconstruction – was not an aberration. It was a direct result of the North’s idealistic belief that it could destroy the culture of the South and replace it with something better.

And then we look at today, and the various states that are threatening nullification. What are we to make of those threats? Brian at Saint Superman wants to see them as attacks on the Union itself. I’d rather see them as checks on the central government’s power. Yes, they’re an intentional provocation; it’s like the states and the federal government are playing a game of chicken. The states are betting they can pressure the government into changing its mind.

Brian says that this  means “federal sovereignty is subject to that of the states, and thus has and can have no real power over them but that power which they agree to cede on a case by case basis; the moment this becomes even a prevailing theory, the next logical step is to contemplate secession.” He has a sort of point. If the states can do anything to contravene the national government, it means the union is not strong enough to be indissoluble.

But, I think, that argument is based in Hobbes and his Leviathan, not in the idea of a social contract that our nation was founded on. The government is right, no matter what; if you don’t like it, deal with it. But do we really want an indissoluble union? I don’t think so. An indissoluble union seems to me like a perfect recipe for tyranny. I think that, rather, the state-union relation needs the same kind of play as the person-state relation; there’s a sort of testing of the boundaries on both sides, and the union is always fragile, because if either side oversteps certain boundaries, the union can dissolve. But the fact that either side can dissolve the union, means that both sides have an incentive not to do anything that will push the other side too far, and so the union is actually less likely to dissolve.

Of course, there’s still the question of whether dissolving the Union is practical at all in the modern world. Advances in technology have knit us closer together than ever, and the world has become increasingly contractual and legalistic, meaning there’s less room for change. Everyone considers the USA an entity, and there’s no real mechanism in place for dealing with the death of that entity. So such a dissolution is probably completely impossible – or, at least, it would be completely disastrous, meaning that in playing the “secession” card, the states are going “all in.”

Is this something that they ought to be doing in response to health care reform, of all things? I’m doubtful about that. But I don’t think we can cry foul at their doing it, saying they’re trying to destroy the Union, or that what they do will necessarily lead to its destruction.

Kasparov on Chess

January 25, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily‘s links today include this article by Garry Kasparov about computers and chess. It’s quite fascinating, and touches on the issue of finitude that I’ve been talking about recently and find so fascinating; it also ends with the suggestion that poker, rather than chess, is a better fit for the modern age – a suggestion I tend to agree with, for basically the reasons he gives.

Incidentally, the most recent XKCD is among the best; they hadn’t been all that great in recent weeks, but this one completely reversed that trend.

Anyway, for now, have fun with those links; I’ll hopefully have a substantial post up sometime later this week.

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