Thursday, September 03, 2015

AI Progress Report

So I got 'Eliza' working today, the simplified version from 'The Art of Prolog'. Time to take stock and figure out where to go next.

First, Prolog. Its supporters always touted it as a higher-level language than Lisp - though I always found Lisp more congenial, I like to set up data structures and manipulate them explicitly. With Prolog you define relationships between things and the miraculous powers of unification and depth-first search with backtracking pull magical rabbits out of hats. The Eliza program in Prolog can be read in its entirety on one screen, ditto for the blocks world planning system.

This procedural power is the result of enormously complex recursive structures built at execution time by the Prolog system. It frequently defies one's powers of abstraction, short-term memory and inference to visualise what's actually going on. I know you're meant to read and understand the programs declaratively, but in reality you don't get too far without a consideration of what actually happens at run-time.

Still, the power to write ridiculously-powerful programs in just a few lines of code is addictive. It reminds me of the first time I fired the General-Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG). I was good with the Lee-Enfield rifle and prided myself on my accuracy; the GPMG just bounced around and hosed the target. So much power and so little control!


Eliza and the Blocks World Planner were little milestones I had set myself, like climbing Pen y Fan. Items on my bucket list if you like. So what next?

Once you know how to set up knowledge bases and inferential systems you have the tools for developing intelligent agents. But, as I have cited before on these pages, 'in the knowledge lies the power'. If your agent lives in a closed-world with a fixed and limited database and rule set, it's going to run out of new things to do pretty fast. The interest comes from its interactions with the wider world.

Yet as Doug Lenat noted in the context of his 'Cyc' project:
"Any time you look at any kind of real life piece of text or utterance that one human wrote or said to another human, it's filled with analogies, modal logic, belief, expectation, fear, nested modals, lots of variables and quantifiers," Lenat said. "Everyone else is looking for a free-lunch way to finesse that. Shallow chatbots show a veneer of intelligence or statistical learning from large amounts of data. Amazon and Netflix recommend books and movies very well without understanding in any way what they're doing or why someone might like something.

"It's the difference between someone who understands what they're doing and someone going through the motions of performing something."

Cycorp's product, Cyc, isn't "programmed" in the conventional sense. It's much more accurate to say it's being "taught." Lenat told us that most people think of computer programs as "procedural, [like] a flowchart," but building Cyc is "much more like educating a child."

"We're using a consistent language to build a model of the world," he said.

This means Cyc can see "the white space rather than the black space in what everyone reads and writes to each other." An author might explicitly choose certain words and sentences as he's writing, but in between the sentences are all sorts of things you expect the reader to infer; Cyc aims to make these inferences.

Consider the sentence, "John Smith robbed First National Bank and was sentenced to 30 years in prison." It leaves out the details surrounding his being caught, arrested, put on trial, and found guilty. A human would never actually go through all that detail because it's alternately boring, confusing, or insulting. You can safely assume other people know what you're talking about. It's like pronoun use - he, she, it - one assumes people can figure out the referent. This stuff is very hard for computers to understand and get right, but Cyc does both.

"If computers were human," Lenat told us, "they'd present themselves as autistic, schizophrenic, or otherwise brittle. It would be unwise or dangerous for that person to take care of children and cook meals, but it's on the horizon for home robots. That's like saying, 'We have an important job to do, but we're going to hire dogs and cats to do it.'"
Cyc has been in development since 1984 and its knowledge base currently contains over one million human-defined assertions, rules or common sense ideas. Yet it's still barely found practical use. I'm certainly not planning on reproducing that level of effort.

I think we're back to virtualizing the cat ...

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Blowing Up The Moon

Just started reading Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. The novel starts with a bang: specifically, the Moon blows up. No one quite knows how the Moon blew up: some speculate about a primordial black hole (but we know from Greg Bear's The Forge of God that that wouldn't do it) but in the main, people refer to some unknown 'Agency' as the moving force behind the event.

The main thing is not so much that the Moon has exploded into fragments orbiting their common centre of mass, it's what will happen next. I could hardly believe it, so naturally searched the Internet for the 'Science behind Seveneves'. And came across this.
"There are many different ways in which a reader can imagine the moon blowing up—imagery of the death star annihilating Alderaan comes to mind as the most culturally ubiquitous. But Stephenson quickly establishes the hard-SciFi slant of the novel. There are no fireworks, no loud booms—the opening chapters read like historical fiction for what would actually happen if the moon was fractured into (mostly) gravitationally bound chunks by some unknown force. Chiefly, people would freak out a little bit.

An ensemble cast of characters and their reactions span the opening chapters. A character obviously modeled after Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jerome Xavier Harris (or Doob for short), is rapidly recruited to run popular science damage control—essentially, doing exactly what I would imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson doing if such an event were to happen: media appearances and public lectures explaining that the still-gravitationally-bound moon posed no danger.

In some sense, this is naively true. A common physics brain teaser is to ask what would happen if our sun were replaced by a black hole of equal mass. Barring the joke answer of “everything would probably freeze to death”, nothing much would happen. The black-sun would still be in the same place, with the same mass, thus the orbit of the earth would remain unchanged. As it’s established in the early pages of Seveneves, whatever unknown force which fractured the moon didn't send it on a direct crash-course with the earth—it just imparted enough energy to fracture it into a handful of pieces—pieces which remain in a wildly chaotic orbit around each other, but still somewhat confined to the general vicinity of the moon.

Orbital mechanics problems are notoriously tricky to solve. The so-called three-body-problem was one of the earliest problems tackled once the tools of calculus were developed by Isaac Newton in the late 1600s (a prominent character in Stephenson’s own Baroque Cycle). The problem is almost entirely explained by its title: how will three (or more) celestial bodies evolve in the night sky if you know their starting positions and velocities? Mathematicians eventually proved that there is no general analytic solution to the three-body-problem, barring a handful of special cases. The difficulty arises in the sensitivity of the problem to its initial conditions. If you don’t know exactly where the objects are and exactly how fast they’re going, your estimate can be wildly off.

Because numerical integration is really the only way to actually solve orbital mechanics problems, it’s clearly important that the chosen integration scheme be error free. Tools like Runge-Kutta and Euler integration are good, but they have technical shortfalls—they don’t manifestly conserve quantities that we know should be conserved. This sort of error is more than enough to yield completely nonsense results when trying to predict where things might be going in the night sky.

So, in one of my favorite scenes, when Doob realizes that the wildly chaotic orbits of the moonchunks might not be so harmless, and could even result in an exponentially increasing number of colliding and breaking fragments of moonstuff, I imagine that he sprinted to the nearest python terminal and coded up a symplectic integrator—an algorithm which is particularly good at orbital mechanics simulations. Whatever simulations canon-Doob did run, they soon indicated that the earth had about 2 years before the remaining moonchunks would rapidly break apart, and bombard the earth in moon-asteroids for approximately 10,000 years. This kills the planet. And everything on it.

I thought this would be nice to visualize, so I coded up a symplectic integrator and tried to see if I could reproduce what Doob calls the “White Sky” (the rapid dissolution of the moon) and the “Hard Rain” (the bombardment of the earth with asteroids). I tried to conserve mass and volume of moonchunks when they break apart and use a nearly elastic scattering model. With extremely generous assumptions, and the setting of arbitrary constants to 1 where convenient, I get something like this:

This simulation was very nearly contrived to produce an explosion of chunks in the beginning, and should be taken with a tremendous grain of salt, but hopefully it will allow you to at least suspend disbelief for the doomsday premise of the novel. The actual number of chunks and the rate at which they appear is, unsurprisingly, fairly sensitive to the initial conditions of the simulation. If nothing else, this simulation illustrates Kessler Syndrome fairly clearly—the rapid creation of dangerous debris from uncontrolled, chaotic orbits in space."
So there you have it: Stephenson was right (and/or was well advised).

A few pages in and before the disaster manifests, two feisty females on the International Space Station are discussing family matters. In a beautifully sardonic moment, we discover that one of them refers to the other's mother as 'the Maternal Organism'. Their conversation continues, punctuated with references to the morg.

My WhatsApp message to my sister this evening: "How did you find the morg today?"
What a child I can be.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Women writing hard SF: Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata writes:
"... After a ten-year hiatus, I finally returned to writing. I was shocked to learn that, a decade into the 21st century, women were still using pseudonymous names to sell SF. One writer related how an editor had told her bluntly that hard SF would not sell under a woman's name. And social media is full of negative statements and stories--enough to convince any sensible woman to be wary of science fiction, and of hard SF in particular. This is my field, and I was wary of it!

The climate had gotten so bad that by the time I got around to writing a new hard SF novel--more precisely, a near-future, high-tech military novel written in first person from a male point of view, because why not max out the degree of difficulty?--I had no doubt I was making an illogical choice. I knew this was not what I should be writing if the goal was to further my career and grow my audience.

I wrote the novel anyway, because I needed to write it. And then I self-published it, because I didn't want to deal with what I perceived as the negative environment of traditional publishing. Two years ago I was here on Charlie's blog with a guest post about that decision. Since then, The Red: First Light was nominated for both the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and went on to sell to Simon & Schuster's new SFF imprint, Saga Press, with the sequel, The Trials, just out. It would be easy to say my fears were baseless and it all turned out okay--but how many of you have actually heard of these books, or read them?"
I bought The Red and enjoyed it; I have ordered the sequel, The Trials. I was particularly intrigued to see how well a woman could get inside the head of an elite male special forces trooper who fights in an exoskeleton.

Here's what The Red is all about (Tor review):
"The tone of the novel is set right from the very first paragraph:

There needs to be a war going on somewhere, Sergeant Vasquez. It’s a fact of life. Without a conflict of decent size, too many international defense contractors will find themselves out of business. So if no natural war is looming, you can count on the DCs to get together to invent one.

The speaker is Lt. James Shelley, a highly cynical but competent officer who leads a high-tech squad of exoskeleton-enhanced, cyber-linked soldiers in the latest manufactured international incident, deep in the Sahel. (The location illustrates another one of Shelley’s axioms: “Rule One: Don’t kill off your taxpayers. War is what you inflict on other people.”)

The start of The Red: First Light is simply flawless. Shelley introduces a new member to the squad, and in just a few scenes, you know everything you need to know: the tight bond between the soldiers, their faith in the highly cynical but reliable Shelley, the Linked Combat Squad technology, the general situation. The exposition is perfectly delivered, and before you know it you’re in the thick of it.

“The thick of it” in this case means a series of intense, well-written scenes describing life and combat in a remote military outpost somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa: patrols, combat incidents, friendly interactions with the locals who are, in most cases, as war-weary as the soldiers. There’s an inexorable pull to this part of the novel: the soldiers live in a round-the-clock state of combat readiness, interrupted by brief chunks of drug-induced sleep. They’re monitored 24/7. There are no breaks. Once you’re into this book, it’s hard to put it down until you reach the shocking end of the first section.

It’s also full of examples of the plight of the common soldier, created by the faceless, immensely rich defense contractors who manipulate world politics to keep conflicts (and sales) going. High-tech combat equipment is recovered after a soldier’s death because it’s cheaper to train another grunt than build another robot. Lt. Shelley has his dad send medications for the squad’s dogs, and buys their food from the locals on his own dime. It reminded me of the saddening reality of teachers having to spend their own money on basic school supplies.

There are many more powerful illustrations of this “only a pawn in their game” theme (although a more appropriate Dylan tune to refer to here would probably be “Masters of War”). Drones relay the commands of faceless, codenamed Guidance officers down to the field. Most disturbingly, skullcaps worn by soldiers like Shelley allow their emotional and mental state to be monitored and altered as needed. Shelley is frequently aware that his true feelings are suppressed, and have been suppressed for such a long time that he’s become dependent. At one point, he notes drily:

The handbook says the brain stimulation [the skullcap] provides is non-addictive, but I think the handbook needs to be revised.

This emo-monitoring ends up highlighting the real issues: identity and awareness. Shelley occasionally has inexplicable, but always accurate premonitions. Where do they come from? Is it the voice of God, as one of his squadmates insist? Or is there something else going on? And regardless, how much of a person’s original identity remains if they are monitored and controlled 24/7?

Somewhere deep down in my mind I’m aware of a tremor of panic, but the skullnet bricks it up. I watch its glowing icon while imagining my real self down at the bottom of a black pit, trapped in a little, lightless room, and screaming like any other soul confined in Hell.

If my real self is locked away, what does that make me?

I know the answer. I’m a body-snatching emo-junkie so well-managed by my skullnet that the screams of my own damned soul are easy to ignore. But there is someone out there who can get inside my head. Am I haunted by a hacker? Or is it God?

Once the first “episode” of the novel is over, these become central questions. While that opening section is one long, intense, adrenaline-fueled rush, it focuses on what’s ultimately just a small part of the conflict. In section two, the novel takes a sharp turn when it starts exploring the broader issues. That also means things slow down considerably, for a while at least. Not that this is a bad thing—there’s a depiction of wounded soldiers’ rehabilitation that’s incredibly poignant, for one—but the change in pace is noticeably abrupt. Eventually, all of the pieces of the puzzle come together in a spectacular conflict that also sets up future installments."
The hero, Lt Shelley, is a middle-class antiwar activist who joined the US Army (as he appears to believe) to avoid a jail sentence for 'subversive' protests. In fact, he seems made for war: perhaps the covert AI which seems to be directing things behind the scenes made him that way?

Linda Nagata is a talented writer who can make the pages turn, summon up immersive scenes, write engrossing action sequences, all with an enviable turn of phrase. The Tor review I quote above goes on to highlight some weaknesses in plotting and pace: criticisms with which I agree.

I would add that I don't think she quite gets the male psychology right. Almost right, but our hero is just a tiny bit too empathic* - there's a casual psychological callousness which we expect to see in our SF (special forces!) action heroes, which we get in writers as diverse as Heinlein and Morgan, but not here.

My other criticism is her tediously Manichaean view of the world: evil defence contractors vs the ethically-righteous guardians of the common people. Post adolescence, the world is not quite like that and the best novels leverage Nagata-levels of moral indignation at more compelling and credible targets. I include both Heinlein and Morgan, by the way, as on the right side of their respective barricades on this particular issue.

Still, The Red is a more entertaining read than 90% of what's out there so give it a go.


* The dynamic of inter-personal relationships in this novel (especially with the insipid g/f Lissa) makes a lot more sense if we entertain the thought that Lt Shelley might in fact be the thinly-veiled depiction of a gay woman.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The coming China-America War

A good review from The Economist (excerpted below). And also from most of the American military-political-industrial complex.

The Economist notes that writing polemical books warning of inadequacies in your country's military posture is far from new:
Ghost Fleet” is an entertaining new entrant into this tradition. Peter Singer, who has thought about military matters at various Washington think-tanks, and August Cole, a former defence reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spin a story of a war between America and China a decade or so hence that takes place mainly in the Pacific, but also in cyberspace and outer space.

The Pentagon, long used to dominance, currently worries a lot about China’s defensive prowess; Chinese targets may be so well protected by missiles and radars that it would be hard for America to attack them, if such a move seemed necessary in order to assist an Asian ally. To fit the form of the future-war genre, though, “Ghost Fleet” looks not at China’s ability to fend off America but at its means to attack. Moving to forestall any American claim on vast energy resources it has discovered in the western Pacific, a post-communist Chinese government uses new technologies and subterfuge to destroy America’s aircraft-carriers, submarines and surveillance satellites, cripple its computer systems and subvert weapons systems that depend on Chinese-made microchips.

With some Russian assistance, China invades Hawaii and establishes its dominance across the ocean. America is forced to regroup and come up with a counter-attack, one that depends heavily on the USS Zumwalt, its capable, slightly-but-not-very conflicted captain, Jamie Simmons, and its master chief, Jamie’s estranged father Mike.

The plot rattles through its three acts in a manner well suited to beaches and long-haul flights. It is perhaps a little anticlimactic; the novelties and narrative twists deployed in the initial attacks make them more thrilling than the big battle at the end. The heart of the matter is not the plot, however, but the nifty details used to shape and adorn it.

Fighters on both sides take officially sanctioned stimulants and other drugs as a matter of course, with some combatants surgically enhanced so as to surpass human norms; familiarity with, and reliance upon, augmented-reality eyewear becomes a dividing line between seamen old and young; Walmart puts its supply chain onto a wartime footing; robot lobsters support SEAL teams. Throughout there are echoes of earlier future-war stories, from Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” to Hector Bywater’s “The Great Pacific War”—a novel from 1925 whose inclusion of a surprise Japanese attack on the American fleet came to look eerily prescient in 1941.

The technology is not all high, and the fighters not all straightforwardly heroic or villainous. The American resistance on Oahu—the “North Shore Mujahideen”—moves by mountain bike, uses GoPro cameras to record the carnage caused by its improvised explosive devices and provokes atrocities to keep the occupiers from winning the submission of the islanders.

The book makes fairly clear which side the authors take in various current military debates. They think more should be spent on dogfighting drones. They want a defence industrial base that is nimbler and more secure. They are keen on weapons that can smite things far faster than current missiles can, such as rail guns and laser beams. Their version of the Zumwalt, which in the real world is an experimental destroyer close to being commissioned, and which in the novel’s world has already been mothballed to the “ghost fleet” of the title, is kitted out with both.

They are intriguingly hard to read, though, on the key issue of the future of the aircraft-carrier. As missiles get better, the craft seem all but certain to become more vulnerable, as the American carriers in “Ghost Fleet” prove. But the book is silent on what to do about that in a world where America depends on them above all other tools for the projection of power.

Unlike Chesney, whose story ended with Britain a province of the German Reich, the authors do not underline their messages by having America’s defeat made permanent. Instead, after heroism, high-jinks and sacrifice, the Pacific is returned to something like the status quo. But if aircraft-carriers really are on the losing side of the sort of technological progress the book portrays, the real-world status quo looks unlikely to persist over the decades to come."
The authors of a 'novel of ideas' have the perennial problem of characterisation. If we're intended to focus on fatal flaws in our defence posture, why inflict a gratuitous soap opera of conflicted personalities acting out some oedipal conflict (as they do)?

But if you don't do this, you've written a polemical essay of interest only to defence analysts.

I think the authors just carry it off, breaking away from their concern with technologies and strategy to consider the human (... resources, I was going to say!) side of war. They've been as assiduous in capturing the experience of combat - and the impact of war on families - as everything else. But, as they say, they did a lot of interviews.

State-of-the-art military architecture is founded upon the integration of sensing, communications, automated analysis and force deployment. Fine if the opponent can't degrade your military nervous system. In biological terms, the Chinese in this novel deliver a neurotoxin to the US military, turning its neurons (chips) traitor and wiping out its higher brain functions. The fog of war descends upon the Americans - in absolute fashion.

If there's one lesson the reader should take home from the beach, it's how to address that problem* (along with the utter vulnerability of the carriers of course!).


* Here's a clue. What do you in today's professional armies when you can't rely on a command and control network? You make sure your units are well briefed and then you give them maximum tactical autonomy. It's the well known 'thin vs. fat client' spectrum: you can trade off lack of communications bandwidth with increased local intelligence, smarter sensors and drones.

Monday, August 24, 2015


The rain comes down and I retreat into books.


You can't hurt a hammer but we have a society which prevents cruelty to animals. Could you hurt a computer running a suitable program? I read "Consciousness and the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene hoping for some illumination (if that isn't too subjective a stance).

The Global Workspace of Consciousness

Dehaene is an experimental neurologist, adept with fMRI scanners and EEGs. His book promotes the Global Workspace Theory of consciousness, a two layer model where primary sensory and motor processing is done by local subconscious neuron modules, while consciousness resides in higher-layer cortical modules characterised by long-range neural structure and 'global activation'.

He describes lots of experiments.

Dehaene is an interesting, influential and compelling writer. I can't say I was surprised by anything he said but he provided detail and texture. Degeneration in the cortex and/or lack of cortical activation leads to a kind of fade-out of consciousness, seen particularly in dementia. Perhaps this is reassuring.

The 'hard problem' alluded to in my opening remarks (subjective experience, eg the sensation of pain) is completely unaddressed by all this brain surveillance and modelling. Even the fact that it remains totally mysterious is mysterious.


Novels can bring the past to life. If you ask me about mid-19th century Russia I might give you a picture of a stagnant and antiquated society with brutish peasants and a proto-working class, a decadent aristocracy and an anaemic and stillborn middle-class of deeply-frustrated professionals. That's the picture I got from reading Lenin and Trotsky.

But I have since read Dostoyevsky and I really know better.

Adrian recommended "Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev. Here's an extract from the Wikipedia plot summary.
"Arkady Kirsanov has just graduated from the University of Petersburg and returns with a friend, Bazarov, to his father's modest estate in an outlying province of Russia. His father, Nikolai, gladly receives the two young men at his estate, called Marino, but Nikolai's brother, Pavel, soon becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called "nihilism" which the young men advocate.


The two young men remain at Marino for a short time, then decide to visit a relative of Arkady's in a neighboring province. There they observe the local gentry and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means who invites them to spend a few days at her estate, Nikolskoe.

At Nikolskoe, they also meet Katya, Madame Odintsova's sister. Although they remain for only a short period, both characters undergo significant change: their relationship with each other is especially affected, as they both find themselves drawn to Madame Odintsova. Bazarov in particular finds this distressing because falling in love goes against his nihilist beliefs. Eventually, he announces that he loves her. She does not respond to his declaration, and soon after, Arkady and Bazarov leave for Bazarov's home.

... They leave almost immediately and return to Arkady's home.

Arkady remains for only a few days, and makes an excuse to leave in order to go to Nikolskoe. Once there, he realizes he is not in love with Odintsova, but instead with her sister Katya. Bazarov stays at Marino to do some scientific research, and tension between him and Pavel increases.

Bazarov enjoys talking with Fenichka and playing with her child, and one day he gives her a quick kiss. Pavel observes this kiss and ... challenges Bazarov to a duel. Pavel is wounded in the leg, and Bazarov must leave Marino. He stops for an hour or so at Madame Odintsova's, then continues on to his parents' home. Meanwhile, Arkady and Katya have fallen in love and have become engaged.

At home, Bazarov cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions. He cuts himself and contracts blood poisoning (septicemia). On his deathbed, he sends for Madame Odintsova, who arrives just in time to hear Bazarov tell her how beautiful she is. She kisses him on the forehead and leaves; Bazarov dies from his illness the following day.

Bazarov is the centre of the novel, a charismatic and highly intelligent young man bristling with arrogance, conceit and more than a touch of sociopathy. The programme of the nihilists, an offshoot of the western european rationalist enlightenment, was to take nothing on authority. Everything was to be rethought from rational first principles.

This intellectual 'zero-based budgeting' doesn't work too well with entrenched and reactionary power structures (cf Dostoyevsky's Demons which is winging its way to me via Amazon as we speak) and is profoundly mistaken about human relationships, traditions and culture. It's really pure 'blank slateism' showing that the most contemporary of ideologies were already in circulation in 1860s provincial Russia. The remaking of society along rational lines rarely works out well.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Genetically Engineered People: ethics and prospects

The Economist coincidentally has this feature in its latest edition
Many SF writers have speculated about genetically-engineering people for diverse environments. Whether it's microgravity habitats, long-duration space missions, water-worlds or high-gravity planets, it seems plausible that we could help natural selection along the way and engineer human DNA to create the adaptations we would need to cope. I alluded to this in the recent post about about buying insurance in case of asteroid impact (apropos living on Mars).

Genetically-modified human: not a pretty sight
It's easy to float the idea, but could it work in practice? There are some ethical issues, to put it mildly. Although most mutations (I'm thinking SNPs - single nucleotide polymorphisms) are additive, the complex relationship between DNA structure and gene expression makes it difficult to mathematically or computationally predict the phenotypical result of this or that allele modification. To get an effect akin to creating a new, tailored species of humanity would require thousands of novel alleles.

How does Nature do it? Evolution creates new alleles by mutation, at random: if the mutation confers an advantage it may survive and spread as the people carrying its less-adaptive competitors are preferentially killed by the environment. Each of us is here because thousands of our long-ago relatives who were somewhat unlike us died horribly, without reproducing.

If our predictive models were good enough, we could short-cut Nature's brutal 'generate and test' algorithm. But no simulation is likely to give us sufficiently accurate data - there are just too many subtleties in a world of real bodies, real environments and real life histories. We would have to do our best, bring new kinds of people into life and just see how they coped. Reduced to such real-life debugging, expect inevitable tragedies.

Greg Egan was thinking along similar lines when he discussed his novel, 'Permutation City'.
Q6: What do you regret most about Permutation City?

A6: Something quite separate from the issues with the Dust Theory mentioned above, although these are all valid points. What I regret most is my uncritical treatment of the idea of allowing intelligent life to evolve in the Autoverse. Sure, this is a common science-fictional idea, but when I thought about it properly (some years after the book was published), I realised that anyone who actually did this would have to be utterly morally bankrupt. To get from micro-organisms to intelligent life this way would involve an immense amount of suffering, with billions of sentient creatures living, struggling and dying along the way. Yes, this happened to our own ancestors, but that doesn’t give us the right to inflict the same kind of suffering on anyone else.

This is potentially an important issue in the real world. It might not be long before people are seriously trying to “evolve” artificial intelligence in their computers. Now, it’s one thing to use genetic algorithms to come up with various specialised programs that perform simple tasks, but to “breed”, assess, and kill millions of sentient programs would be an abomination. If the first AI was created that way, it would have every right to despise its creators.
So what do you think? If the prize was to colonise a new planet, one which could not be terraformed but which could be occupied by suitably-modified people, would the ethics committee approve? Wouldn't it be insane not to go ahead, accepting the inevitable (but hopefully short-term) suffering?

By coincidence, The Economist wrote about similar issues in this week's edition.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Well, it's arrived

I've passed the rigorous scrutiny (as has Clare) and my ballot is now ready to cast. The following just arrived by email.

Dear Nigel,

You can now vote for the next Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

You can vote online and your vote must be received by 12 noon on Thursday 10 September to count.

To vote, go to and enter the following two-part security code to confirm your identity:

Security Code Part One: ********
Security Code Part Two: ****

Once you have entered your security code, the website will give clear instructions on how to cast your vote. It takes just a few moments to cast your vote online, and you can do so at any time until the ballot closes at 12 noon on Thursday 10 September.

Vote Online Now

These elections are being run by Electoral Reform Services, who have been appointed by the Labour Party as the independent scrutineer for this ballot.

If you live in London, as well as voting for Labour's Leader and Deputy Leader, you can also vote to select Labour's candidate for London Mayor for the elections being held in May 2016.

On the online voting site, please rank the candidates in your order of preference. You do not need to use all of your preferences, but doing so cannot harm your first-preference candidate. Click here if you want to understand more about the voting system.

Thank you for taking part in these important elections,

The Labour Party
Sent by Electoral Reform Services

This could ruin your whole day ...

Perhaps we should start to listen to the Tesla guy and put some of our eggs in another basket (make sure the video captions are on - box on bottom right, left of settings; and you can lose the audio ).

If you followed the link you may never think about Excel spreadsheets the same way again.

Putting the 'one million people on Mars' to one side, here are some other options:
  • long-duration refuge sites buried deep inside the mountains; 
  • a (largely) self-sustaining lunar colony;
  • asteroid or orbital habitats. 
They're all hard - but then, so is Mars. Any place where we need advanced technology to survive at all is going to be vulnerable to system crashes. All the proposed refuges need advanced, not basic technology, sustained by hi-tech societies and lots of skilled people.

I would much prefer self-maintaining and self-reproducing technologies (aka 'life') which could be engineered to thrive in these hard environments and could create an ecology in which even underskilled and numerically-depleted humans could survive and progress.

Maybe needs a similar reworking of human, though (see this post).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Logic Puzzle

From page 262 of 'The Art of Prolog' by Leon Sterling and Ehud Shapiro.

"The challenge is to write a Prolog program to solve the following logic puzzle.
(a) The Englishman lives in the red house.
(b) The Spaniard owns the dog.
(c) Coffee is drunk in the green house.
(d) The Ukrainian drinks tea.
(e) The green house is immediately to the right (your right) of the ivory house.
(f) The Winston smoker owns snails.
(g) Kools are smoked in the yellow house.
(h) Milk is drunk in the middle house.
(i) The Norwegian lives in the first house on the left.
(j) The man who smokes Chesterfields lives in the house next to the man with the fox.
(k) Kools are smoked in the house next to the house where the horse is kept.
(1) The Lucky Strike smoker drinks orange juice.
(m) The Japanese smokes Parliaments.
(n) The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.

Who owns the Zebra? Who drinks water?"
They provide the solution to a simpler problem.

Clare had a go and figured out that the water-drinker might be Norwegian, then things bogged down a little. My own programming efforts, meanwhile, were mired in bugs.

It is often the little things in life which absurdly please. Imagine my delight (spoilers follow) when my Prolog program produced the following output:
Logic Puzzle v. 0082
Persons = [person(yellow,norwegian,fox,water,kools,1),

S = [['The zebra is owned by the ', japanese], ['the ', norwegian, ' drinks water']].
For my next trick it's implementing one of those block-stacking planning programs, to be followed by Eliza. And after that, let's put them all together and have a go at a more interesting conversationalist.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Importance of Media Studies

Kevin Maher writes in The Times today:
" ... the Joint Council for Qualifications has revealed that the number of pupils taking allegedly tougher, more challenging subjects such as maths has risen this year. Simultaneously, and much to the delight of education snobs everywhere, the numbers taking so-called “flaky” subjects, such as media studies, has fallen.
Well, as someone who boasts a master’s in what must surely be one of the dumbest, flakiest subjects imaginable — film studies (I know, hilarious, isn’t it?) — I take enormous exception to the short-sighted assumptions behind this argument.
Under the guise of “studying film”, I was submerged, reluctantly it must be said (I was a student after all), in Italian social history (to back up the module on Italian neorealist cinema), German political history (for Weimar cinema), Marxist economics (for the term on the Paris riots of May 1968), Lacanian psychoanalysis (the Hitchcock class) and post-structuralist feminist theory (the Doris Day module).

It was ten months of non-stop brain-ache, speed-reading, essay writing, opinion-forming and tub-thumping debate, with a few movies thrown in. As a concentrated mind-expanding educational experience, it was more informative, inspiring and galvanising than anything I had done before or, to be brutally honest, since. "
So I was nodding along with this argument: Italian social history - OK; German political history - OK; Marxist economics - interesting but wrong; Lacanian psychoanalysis - obscure and wrong; post-structuralist feminist theory - opaque and wrong.

So in general you learned a great deal about stuff on a par with astrology, alchemy and theology - rigorous systems of thinking all and the cultural underpinnings of their times.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

" I like to think
       (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace"

Our machines are terrible: great, hulking ,wasteful things. We treat materials as continua, unable to exploit the wondrous functionality at molecular scale.

Unlike life. Those few pounds of nanoscale sludge between your ears can't be replicated by hangars of supercomputers burning through the output of power stations.

But we will get there. Some people bemoan 'the holocene extinction', the eradication of species as we engineer the planet for human purposes. Yet this is just an interregnum. Soon will come the new anthropocene explosion: endless new species, bioengineered to created a benevolent ecology, where we are watched over by animals and plants of loving grace.*

* No doubt they will be engineered to want to serve us: what could possibly go wrong ... ?