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.

 

Don’t Confuse Voter Apathy with Voter Despair

Whether or not you’re pleased with the outcome of the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, you have to be concerned with the low voter turnout. Only 53.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. This has politicians and pundits scratching their heads. Don Mills, chairman and CEO of the market research firm Corporate Research Associates summed it up in a CBC interview: “It’s very difficult to understand,” Mills said. “Honestly, I don’t get it.”

Mills also tweeted, “Is it time to institute mandatory voting based on declining voter turnout in Nova Scotia? I am beginning to think so.”

Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt and eighteen other populous countries now have mandatory voting. Considering the sociopolitical climates and economic status of the countries on this list, it’s more than fair to say that forcing citizens to vote does not produce balanced governance.

In fact, one might argue that obliging citizens to vote is counter to the very notion of democracy.

There will always be a segment of the population who just don’t care about governance. Apathy, however doesn’t account for the abysmal voter turnout in Nova Scotia’s 2017 election. There is a growing sense of despair among many Nova Scotians; a sense that the political flavour of the government makes no real difference at the end of the day. Since 1758, the people of Nova Scotia have chosen one political party after another – mainly Liberal and Conservative.

Historically the Liberals have stayed in power until they anger the voters and lose the house to the Conservatives for a term or two. Then the Liberals get elected again for another try. Then the Conservatives … the Liberals … Conservatives … Liberals … ad nauseam.

The common thread that remains woven, unbroken, throughout every term is disappointment. Time after time, generation after generation, Nova Scotia voters elect new governments, hoping for change, buying into new promises of prosperity, equality, accountability and transparency. Time after time, their patience wears thin. It’s no surprise that after ten or more generations of this cyclical behavior, hope has faded. Would-be voters have finally come to the realization that it makes very little difference which party gets elected. Voters are giving up. This is not disinterest or apathy. This is despair.

When almost half of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote, they are sending a message. And it’s not directed at one party or another. The message is clear: The current partisan style of government does not work. We’ve been using the same system since 1758. We have 259 years of data to show how ineffective this tug-of-war really is. The adversarial nature of our legislature is counterproductive, if not destructive.

The actions of politicians in the house of assembly and the language used by candidates while campaigning clearly indicates that their priorities and allegiances lie with their parties, not with the people they are supposed to represent. Most of their energy is devoted to eroding the credibility of  the party that poses the greatest threat to their hold on power.

Rather than forcing citizens to vote, perhaps the time has come to force our elected officials to abandon the competitive practices that are so entrenched in the partisan culture. If politicians were more collaborative and less combative, voters would feel a sense of purpose and pick up their pencils on election day.

 

Murrant’s Rant: DST (Dog Standard Time)

Originally Published on November 5, 2015 (http://southshorebreaker.ca/2015/11/10/murrants-rant-dst-dogs-standard-time/)

What do Arizona, Hawaii and my dog all have in common? Give up? None of them observe Daylight Saving Time. I think they’re onto something. For them, it’s business as usual year round. In fact, four-fifths of the Earth’s humans, and five-fifths of the non-humans, don’t bother to spring-ahead or fall-back.

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of Daylight Saving Time had nothing to do with farmers. In fact, farmers in the early 20th century protested against DST — and with good reason. Try explaining to a herd of dairy cows that they have to wait an extra hour to be milked.

Even Benjamin Franklin, erroneously credited with inventing Daylight Savings, never intended for us to change our clocks. His suggestion, after a late night in Paris, only to be woken by a too-early dawn, was that we adjust our sleep and activity to coincide with seasonal changes in the daylight.

Modern Daylight Savings Time began as means to conserve resources during the first and second world wars. Electric lights were inefficient. Businesses were encouraged to operate during daylight hours, leaving more coal, oil and electricity available to be used in the factories that produced goods for the war effort. An ideal solution at the time — but times have changed.

Today, in a world that never sleeps, with offices and factories that operate around the clock, when more and more of our energy comes from renewable resources, we need to stop and ask: What are we really saving by changing our clocks twice a year? Sure, we enjoy an extra hour of sleep in October, but we have to give it back in April. It’s more of a Daylight Loan than a Saving — and it’s a high interest loan, considering that it takes a few days for most people to adjust to the time change; a few cranky and relatively unproductive days.

Maybe it’s time to do away with Daylight Savings Time and stick with one time, all year round: Dog Standard Time.

Murrant’s Rant: The Bay of Absurdity

Originally Published on September 10, 2015, The Cape Breton Star 

I’m not an economist.  I guess that’s why the logic behind the Nova Star Ferry eludes me.  As you may have read recently in the news, we (taxpayers) are well on our way to spending $13-million this year to keep the Nova Star running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine.  Oh, and we mustn’t forget the $28-million we spent last year.

This is excellent news … for the residents of Maine.  According to the Portland Press Herald, “Nova Star will use Portland as its home port. That means Portland-area vendors will be supplying fuel and services”.

But it’s good for Nova Scotia, too, right?  The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership estimated that a season with one hundred-thousand visitors would pump $16.3-million into our economy.  Well, it would, but last year we only saw about sixty-thousand visitors and we are on target for about the same again this year.  Based on that, with my limited math skills, I figure that each Nova Star visitors contribute less than $10-million to our economy each year.

Now, compare that to Sydney.

Almost one hundred-thousand visitors will arrive in Sydney on cruise ships this year; similar to last year and the year before.  According to the Port of Sydney, cruise ship activity will contribute about $27-million to the local economy.

It stands to reason that if the provincial government were to budget tens of millions for the Port of Sydney, like they have for the Nova Star in Yarmouth, the investment would result in an even greater boost to the provincial economy.  But, alas, I’m just a writer – not an economist.

Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.

I pretended to be asleep.  He made his breakfast and packed his lunch.  It was November – dark mornings, cold house – so I stayed in bed, listening to the sounds of the dawn: boiling kettle, butter knife scraping toast, ringing spoon stirring cup of tea, turning pages of paperback western.

I heard the back door open; the raspy cough of the car starting and the heater blowing warm air to clear the frost from the windows.  The trunk sprung open and I envisioned his rifle in its soft case stowed carefully away; a sandwich and a thermos of tea packed into his red knapsack, tossed on the passenger seat. The trunk slammed shut, and the backdoor opened once again. More footsteps – this time into my room.

I kept one eye opened just enough to see his silhouette against the dim light coming in from the kitchen.  He stood there for a moment, looking at me, waiting beside my bed, listening for some sign of lucidity.  Finally he put his hand on my head, ran his fingers through my curls, and walked out.

At the time I thought it was a funny trick, lying so still, pretending to be asleep – because everything is funny when you are a nine year old boy.  I was going to tell him when he got home that I had fooled him; that I was really awake the whole time. He’d laugh and rough up my hair with his strong hand and call me a “little scamp” – like he always did – but not this time.  This time, he wasn’t coming home.

You see, I could have hugged him and told him I loved him and that I admired him and wanted to be just like him, but instead I pretended to be asleep for a laugh. Things were never quite as funny after that.

Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.

Murrant’s Rant: Patient Patients

Last week I spent over four hours in the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER with my son – and finally left without ever having seen a doctor. But we weren’t alone.

There were eight patients waiting to see a doctor when I arrived at 7:30pm that evening. During my 4.5 hour wait, only two patients were actually called from the waiting room to see a doctor – SIX got up and left.

It’s not an official study, just a 4.5 hour observation, but if this is a typical, quiet Thursday evening at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER, we have a serious problem.  75% of the patients seeking medical care that night, left the ER without seeing a doctor.  That cannot be allowed to continue.

Are 75% of the people in need of medical care really going without in CBRM?

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that this has anything to do with an over-burdened healthcare system.  This is a management problem (or lack thereof).

Case in point – a well-managed healthcare facility would not have a filthy (frankly, disgusting) ER waiting area.  Between 7:30pm and midnight there were no environmental services staff to be seen.  There were soiled tissues and paper towels strewn around the bathroom.  The floor throughout the entire waiting area was spotted with clumps of mud (or maybe it wasn’t mud?) and debris.  A hospital waiting area is ground zero for infection control, but it’s not even on the hospital’s radar.

And although the security office is within earshot, only once in 4.5 hours did a security person bother to get up and do a walk-through of the waiting area.

Lastly – when you rush out the door of your home with a sick child, you don’t have time to stop and check if you have the correct change for the hospital parking lot.  Why not use a machine that provides a code – like at the car wash.

Murrant’s Rant: Are You Kidding Me?

Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer - The Portland Press Herald (used without permission)
Nova Scotia Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Geoff Maclellan (right). Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer – The Portland Press Herald

If you ever wondered why Nova Scotians are among the highest taxed people in the WORLD, look no further.

The Nova Scotia government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.

Over four years our government will have spent $73-million in hard-earned, taxpayer dollars to keep the passenger ferry running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine. It doesn’t take a genius to see how ludicrous this is.  Just look at the numbers (Google it if you have any doubts):

  • 2014: $28-million (Nova Star)
  • 2015: $13-million (Nova Star)
  • 2016: $23-million (The CAT)
  • 2017: $9-million (The CAT)

You say, “So what if we spent all that cash in Yarmouth?  It’s all about economic development, right?”  Sure. In theory.  Supposedly, the Yarmouth-Maine ferry will bring boatloads of American money into Nova Scotia.

But even the most optimistic projected returns fall short.  The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership (the Nova Star folks) estimated that a season with 100,000 passengers would pump $16.3 million into the province’s economy. That’s a projected influx of $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy over four years.  Let me clarify:  somebody in the Nova Scotia provincial government authorized a $73-million expenditure on the expectation that it would generate $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy.  I don’t want to be harsh, but that’s just plain stupid – and it’s about time that somebody stood up and said so.

But wait! It gets stupider … The ACTUAL number of passengers is only 30% of the projected 100,000 per year. The 2014 season saw only 29,438 passengers, while 2015 had 31,150. And there is no reason to expect those numbers to change in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.  So, with only 30% of the projected passengers, only 30% of the projected $65-million will materialize.  I’ll save you the trouble … $19.5-million.  So, in actuality, our government authorized a $73-million expenditure to generate $19.5-million in economic benefit.

And if that’s not bad enough, it gets even stupider-er …  Not only are we seeing fewer American tourists than expected, but more Nova Scotians are now sailing to Maine to spend their money.  According to Nova Star’s numbers from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, 17,649 Nova Scotians sailed to Maine – taking with them almost $3-million OUT of the Nova Scotia economy.  Considering this, it looks like our government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.

I don’t know about you, but to me this ferry deal smells like a load of … carp.  Rotting carp.

Because Facebook isn’t News

newspaper-changes2016 will go down in history as a turning point in Canada’s newspaper industry.  In January alone, three completely separate Canadian media companies began cutting – the numbers tell the story.

Torstar, the Toronto Star’s parent company, outsourced it’s printing to TC Media and laid off 300 workers in Ontario.

Post Media, parent company of numerous Canadian newspapers, including the National Post, merged newsrooms in three provinces and laid off 90 editorial staff.

The Guelph Mercury printed its last newspaper and laid off 26 employees.

Staff at the Chronicle Herald, Canada’s largest independent newspaper, are on strike – opposing proposed changes that management has deemed necessary.

We only hear about these examples because they are the major players.  Closures and lay-offs are par for the course among smaller daily and weekly newspapers across Canada – and around the world.

The reason for this decline couldn’t be any simpler – low demand.

Why would anybody pay for news, especially printed news, when they can get it for free on the internet?  News is ubiquitous on the world wide web.  There are millions of websites, blogs, newsfeeds, and Facebook and Twitter pages that deliver news.  Users don’t have to wait until the newspaper is printed.  News is available on demand, around the clock.

But is it really “free”?  And even more importantly, is it really “news”?

Facebook is a perfect example.  People flock to Facebook for instant updates on current events.  They read, they leave comments, they share, and they re-write and re-post their version of events – complete with opinions and bias.  This is not news.

Only a very small fraction of a percentage of the information available on Facebook can be considered as news.  The vast majority is rumour, hearsay, conjecture, opinion, and misinformation.  The only content on Facebook that can be considered as “news” is the content provided by news organizations.

News organizations employ journalists – professionally bound to be truthful, factual, thorough, and unbiased.  We can trust journalists.  Humanity has journalists to thank for keeping the world in check.  The world relies on vetted journalism.  Governments, corporations, and individuals take extraordinary measures to hide their transgressions from the masses.  When they act unscrupulously, it is most often a journalist that exposes the story.  The world would be a very different place if journalism were to disappear.

The problem with journalism is that it’s very expensive.  Journalists themselves don’t earn an excessive income, but the resources needed to do their job can be costly.  To produce and deliver a verifiable news story takes considerable time and involves the efforts of a team of individuals.

Who pays for this?  Not Facebook.  Not Twitter.  Not the consumer of “free” news.

News organizations, like newspapers, employ the journalists that entertain us, inform us, enlighten us, and yes – I will even go out on limb here and say – keep our world safer.

Aside from the cost of solid journalism, news organizations have tremendous production costs.  Publications have to look good, read well, and be delivered on time.  Producing a newspaper, whether in print or on-line, is incredibly expensive – but also incredibly important.

In light of the recent turmoil among Canadian newspapers, countless comments and replies have been made in social media; many of which imply that newspapers are an antiquated, outmoded throwback to the previous century.

It is an undeniable truth that fewer people are reading printed newspapers.  The days of paper are numbered, but the days of news are not.  Vetted journalism and timely delivery of news are more important today than ever before.

The news industry is going through a tumultuous period as it transitions from the daily paper to real-time on-line delivery.  Every so often in the course of human history we encounter a technological shift which ushers in a new social paradigm.  Early on, these shifts were few and far between – the mastery of fire, the first farms, the development of written language, metal tools, Gutenberg’s press, and now, the internet.  News organizations are breaking new ground every day as they come up with new ways to produce and deliver relevant content to a fragmented audience.

The average consumer, who relies on Twitter and Facebook for their news, likely doesn’t care who is paying for the content they consume.

The newspaper, who incurs the expense of producing and delivering vetted content, struggles to find new sources of revenue.

The journalist, who holds themselves to a noble and uncompromising standard, is caught in the middle.

Today, there is no clear path.  This is uncharted territory. We will encounter many changes, trials, and failures, before the transition away from printed paper is complete.

The issue at hand is far bigger than the economics of the news industry.  If news organizations fail to adapt and journalism suffers, the real cost won’t be measured in dollars. The real price will be truth and accountability.