Artificial Intelligence vs Synthetic Consciousness

The leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a leap across the Rubicon into a new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Artificial Intelligence is an old idea, visited often by philosophers over the centuries. To researchers, programmers, and self professed nerds, the ultimate achievement in the field of AI has always been to create a machine interface, intuitive and adaptable enough to provide human users with a natural experience. Technologically, we are witnessing breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace, but philosophically we are still grappling with the meaning of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Blame the science fiction genre if you think an artificial intelligence interface should mimic a human personality. Most of us have been primed on the finer points of AI by Hollywood; the HAL9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey“,  C3P0 and various droids in the “Star Wars” franchise, or the synthetic human replicants in “Blade Runner“.

Real artificial intelligence is considerably less human. IBM’s Watson became a household name by dominating its human opponents on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Watson’s ability to quickly retrieve relevant information is an invaluable skill, but whether or not it qualifies as intelligent is up for debate. Intelligence, after all, is more than just matching well formed questions to existing factual answers.

In 2016, the AI team at Google’s DeepMind created an AI named AlphaGo to play the Chinese (and later, Japanese) board game, Go. Go is an abstract strategy game, unlike Jeopardy which is a question-and-answer game. Go requires players to invent their next move – while adhering to the rules of play. While Watson was programmed to quickly sift through data, AlphaGo was programmed to learn by doing. AlphaGo didn’t win its first, second, or millionth game – but it was able to remember every move it ever made in every game it ever played, building up a database of game-play scenarios that it continually refers back to; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If you had instantaneous and flawless recall of everything you ever did, you’d be at the top of your game too.

AlphaGo has become virtually unbeatable at Go, but don’t ask it for directions to the nearest Starbucks. For that you need Siri. Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant adds a humanesque layer of functionality to Apple products with its voice recognition and verbose feedback. It can quickly retrieve information when asked in the form of question; “Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks?”, or “Hey Siri, what is the largest prime number less than one million?”. In many ways, interacting with Siri is what it might have been like using an early development version of HAl9000, but something is missing. There is no ghost in this machine – it doesn’t feel alive.

We are measuring the quality of AI on a human scale. In fact we measure all intelligence on a human scale; we have no other point of reference. But human intelligence, curiosity, and consciousness are inextricably entwined.

Can an AI be programmed to be curious? Artificial intelligence has proven that it can retrieve answers and perform calculations – but can we program our AI to be creative enough to invent new questions? And if we do, will the AI ask questions that lead to its self-awareness? A sense of being? A will to live? Will the AI suffer the classic existential crisis and start searching for purpose in its existence?

To programmers, making the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a matter of syntax – more code. But to philosophers, the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity represents the great leap across the Rubicon into the new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Facebook’s Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

 

The loss of the letter

Thanks for the cat videos. Thank you for all the pictures of your protein smoothies and for letting me know that you worked out this morning. Thank you especially for inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga. And thank you, really, for your latest selfie — I almost forgot what you looked like.

Facebook, like the Internet itself, has a lot of promise. It has the potential to allow people to reconnect and share aspects of their lives with loved ones across great distances. It allows for a cultural exchange of ideas, art and information.

It provides a network through which millions of strangers can unite as one to accomplish what they cannot do alone.

Just like the Internet, however, Facebook is a cultural mirror. It shows us exactly who we are — what we like, what we desire and what we believe. For those willing to look beyond the trees to see the whole forest, Facebook is an unflatteringly accurate reflection of modern society — narcissistic, self-centric, superficial. There can be no other explanation for the volume and nature of the content we share. To look at Facebook is to see the world as the backdrop to somebody else’s selfie. Intelligent expression has been reduced to little more than an endless barrage of witty and sarcastic captions typed across photos of famous faces.

I recently came across a news story about a collection of letters that had been written by Albert Einstein to his friends and colleagues over the course of his career. I read some of them. Combined, they are the portrait of a man — fiercely intelligent, romantic, humorous, compassionate. In the age of Facebook, we have stopped writing letters, and in doing so, we have lost a gift of immeasurable value.

In this Facebook-ized society, we are having fewer and fewer meaningful conversations. As a result, we are not only depriving ourselves of the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with others, but we are also depriving future generations of something that our generation takes for granted — letters. Thanks to ink and paper, we presently enjoy a rich, historical record of insightful dialogue and the exchange of original ideas. It is highly doubtful that scholars in the next century will have the patience or inclination to sift through trillions of Facebook posts. And if they do, what will they find?

I have long believed that the greatest strength of the human species is our ability to communicate, to share complex and meaningful ideas so our accomplishments can be reproduced by others for the betterment of all.

By design, Facebook is the ideal tool for us to do just that — to express our creativity and share our intelligence. So, to that end, I’ll refrain from sharing a pictures of my breakfast and quotes from my cat.

It’s Time for a ‘Human Day’

Rainbow_humanYou won’t find rainbows on my Facebook page.  Before you get angry and call me nasty names, let me explain … I fully support gay marriage and have tremendous respect for the members of our LGBTQ community. The recent decision to legalize gay marriage in the US is a win for human rights and I am genuinely happy for all those who will benefit.  So why won’t I adorn my FB profile pic with a rainbow?

If we are sincere in our desire for universal human rights we need to celebrate our humanity. We need to stop celebrating our differences, and start celebrating our sameness.  We are one species; homo sapiens sapiens (yes, two ‘sapiens’ – it means the “wisest of the wise”).  We must resist the urge to draw distinctions.  We must avoid the exclusivity that arises when we identify ourselves as being a member of an ideologically unique group.  This means a complete rejection of the cultural practices which prevent marriage between people of different races, religions, and castes; a complete halt to barbaric cultural practices like female genital mutilation and other ‘rites of passage’.  We need to openly and fearlessly address the hypocrisy of our religious institutions.  We must demand the re-writing of public policy to abolish poverty and homelessness and to improve the quality of life for all.

Racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and the myriad variations of discrimination are alive and well around the globe.  It only takes a moment to peruse the daily headlines and realize that world wide, we devote most of our resources to protecting ourselves from one another.  In the United States, gun Control is a more contentious issue than child-poverty.  Military spending among the G20 nations eclipses the combined spending on education, social services, and healthcare.  Let me rephrase that: G20 nations spend far more on killing humans than on helping them.

Social media is a chronicle of our ideological differences.  It is a snapshot of our species’ state of mind. On my Facebook feed this morning I can see that Christians are afraid of Atheists, Jews are afraid of Muslims, Creationists are afraid of Science, and Americans are afraid of almost everyone and everything.  One thing they all have in common is that they claim to belong to a group.  They are holding their virtual hand in the air and declaring, “I am Christian”, “I am Atheist”, “I am Canadian”, “I am Republican”, and so on.  It is these implied-declarations that are tearing us apart by driving ideological wedges between us.  If religion hadn’t bred homophobia into the collective human psyche, would we need to pass a law legalizing gay marriage?  If twentieth century American foreign policy hadn’t contributed to the marginalization of half the world’s population, would ISIS ever have formed?

I propose a Human Day.  Pick a day, just one day this year, where we collectively step back and examine the ideologies we identify with and say, “Today we, as a species, will not murder, enslave, mutilate, subjugate, exclude, ignore, malign, impoverish, or otherwise cause suffering to any other member of our species. Today we are Human.  Today we are all the same.”  Make a flag for that, and I won’t just put it on my FB page; I’ll climb a mountain to wave it in the wind.

Murrant’s Rant: Mother Canada

mothercanadaI was fortunate as a boy to have lived for a few years in Ingonish.  Like all kids, I was a sponge, and I soaked up every ounce of the experience.  My father was the General Works Manager for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park; he was my personal Park guide.  Over countless hikes along the Highland’s  wooded trails and rugged shorelines, I came to understand (insofar as a child can) the importance of National Parks.  As he explained it to me those many years ago, the “National Park” system was, and is, intended to protect the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape from human development; to ensure that certain small regions of this country’s wilderness would survive the onslaught of a resource hungry species; to provide Canadians with a means of temporarily escaping the shackles of urban and suburban modernity.

War was never part of that dialogue; perhaps I was too young, or perhaps it was still too soon after Vietnam to be comfortably discussed at the dinner table.  After all, the Highlands were a refuge for many Americans seeking to avoid conscription.  Likewise, the Highlands were home to Canadian veterans who had risked their lives in active duty; memories were still too fresh and scars had yet to heal.  Now, almost forty years later, conversations about war are still unpleasant and uncomfortable, but are also unavoidable.  A century of horror and loss demands reflection and contemplation; sacrifice demands recognition

When Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani proposed the erection of a ten storey high, war memorial in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the reception was understandably mixed.  “Mother Canada” would be an elegant, granite statue of a woman peering out across the Atlantic in the direction of Vimy Ridge; an inspiring symbol commemorating the sacrifices that have been made to ensure our freedom from tyranny.  In all likelihood, the site would become a destination for tourists from around the world; a place where they could find closure, lay their memories to rest, and seek solace in the quiet permanence of the cliffs at the edge of the continent.  To accommodate large crowds at peak times of year, the venue would  include the necessary parking for up to three-hundred vehicles.

As would be expected, there is much debate over the design of the Monument.  Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.  For many, myself included, it is not the appearance of the monument, but rather the proposed location that raises eyebrows.  Green Cove sits on the northwest shore of the The Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The location is picturesque, with its pink granite boulders rising defiantly up from the sea.  This type of shoreline is not uncommon in Cape Breton.  Safe within the boundaries of the National Park, it should be assumed that Green Cove would have some immunity from the impact of human development.  Though some man-made structures are necessary to facilitate and support Park visitors, these structures are purposefully constructed to be as unobtrusive as possible with a purpose that reflects the original intention and philosophy of a natural park.

With utmost respect to our men and women of uniform, past and present, the proposed monument is simply out-of-place within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The north coast of Cape Breton is dotted with coves very similar to Green Cove.  The monument could just as easily be built with the same resolute solitude in one of a dozen other unprotected coves, open to development, on either Crown or private land immediately north or south of the National Park boundary.

 

Anti-Bullying PR: Lots of Smoke, but No Fire

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, of the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that recurring suspensions were ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now. I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

 

“At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. – GM”

I was bullied from my first day of school to my last; physically, verbally, psychologically.  I was the quiet kid, not very good at sports, shy around girls.  I was the awkward kid with the fuzzy hair, who  listened to the wrong music, and wore the wrong clothes; a prime target for bullies.  I managed to survive and I moved on, but not without scars: twenty-five years on and I still suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of social phobias.  You could say that bullying, in part, made me who I am.

Bullies, too, have their reasons for being who they are.  There may be psychological causes, abuse, or other factors behind the behaviour.  In many cases the bully is also a victim in their own right, equally in need of support. The underlying reason for the bully’s aggression has to be taken very seriously.

So when my child told me he was being bullied, I reported it to the school and the bully was suspended for three days.  The offending child is now on his fourth three-day suspension and will, in all likelihood, continue the cycle of bullying and suspensions in the weeks to come.  According to the school, this troubled youth has been reprimanded numerous times for verbally harassing other students with sexually explicit taunts, in addition to the anti-Semitic insults directed at my child.

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, coordinator of school services at the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that his solution of infinitely recurring three-day suspensions was ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken in this matter, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now.  I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

What I expect is the same thing all reasonable and responsible parents expect: a safe and welcoming learning environment for my children.  I expect my children to be afforded the opportunity to learn and grow, free of fear and anxiety.  To that end, I expect the administration of the school board to provide adequate support and counselling to children who exhibit aggressive antisocial tendencies, but more importantly I expect the school board to enforce policies that are meant to protect the general student population from the harmful actions of bullies.

The school board does not appear to recognize the long term effects of bullying.  A child who suffers ongoing harassment throughout their school years will most likely become a fearful adult, always watching their back, always anticipating the next assault, robbed of the freedom to enjoy adult life to its fullest.  It’s an exhausting way to live and it exacts a heavy toll not only on the victim, but also on the victim’s families and friends.

We cannot assume that simply reporting the problem will result in any resolution.  As I have seen first hand, the current system of laws and policies are written in such a way that they protect the rights of the offender more-so than the rights of the victim.  The recent public relations campaigns around bullying and cyber-bullying do little more than instil a false sense of security.  At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.

Murrant’s Rant: Greed and the Senate

dna
the “Greed Gene”

To justify $16,800 in travel and living expenses, which you and I payed for with our taxes, Senator Nancy Ruth complained that on her frequent Toronto-Ottawa commutes she had to endure “cold Camembert with broken crackers”.  The senator’s comments are disturbingly reminiscent of the infamous and inflammatory words, “Let them eat cake”, spoken by Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, when she was informed that the French peasants were starving and could no longer afford bread.

And who can forget Pamela Wallen?  Or Mike Duffy?  Or Mack Harb?  Or the ever-growing list of elected government officials who feel entitled to a lavish lifestyle on the taxpayers’ dime.  Oh wait … sorry.  My mistake.  Did I say elected?  I meant Appointed, since citizens do not have a say in who becomes a senator.   But let’s be fair.  If the prime minister called to inform you that he was appointing you to the senate, would you refuse?  Of course not.  That would be like telling Atlantic Lottery that you weren’t interested in cashing in that winning 6-49 ticket in your pocket.

The fact is – and let’s not confuse facts with opinions, here – the fact is that senators are humans. Humans have an unwavering propensity for greed.  Greed is everywhere.  There is greed in monasteries and mosques, boardrooms and bus-stops, corporations and yes, even in governments.  There is greed in each and every one of us, but not in equal measure. I admit, I’ve reached for the biggest slice of pizza from time to time, but I’ve also given my slice away.  I like to think that most people are like me; we look out for one another.

Greed, like wealth, is not equally distributed.  I’m not a geneticist, but I strongly suspect that there is a greedy-gene.  Like so many other human characteristics, greed would have been advantageous when we lived in caves and were driven by an underlying primordial need to ensure the survival of our familial DNA.  By their very nature, certain professions and institutions undeniably attract individuals still driven by these ancient, self-serving tendencies.  Greed tends to coagulate in pockets at the top of the economic food chain, while generosity and altruism settle into the crowded strata below.

It is almost impossible to find one year in Canadian history when there has not been a scandal involving unscrupulous behavior or abuse of privilege in Ottawa, so, as taxpayers, it is easy for us to paint our politicians with only one brush, but we must resist the urge.  I applaud the men and women who choose to enter politics for all the right reasons.  I have the highest regard for those individuals with integrity and conviction who are willing to submit to the scrutiny and pressures of public life because they believe they can improve the lives of their fellow citizens.  It must be made doubly difficult when those good people have to work side by side with others, in whom the greedy-gene is so fully and completely expressed.