Archive for the 'science' Category

Weizenbaum and Artificial Intelligence.

March 15, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal of all places, I read that Joseph Weizenbaum had died. He created the ELIZA computer program that simulates human interaction. While not a sophisticated program, it is always mentioned (and always will be mentioned) in discussions of artificial intelligence and Turing tests. With his simple program, Weizenbaum immortalized himself as an AI pioneer.

Even though artificial intelligence has its critics, it is already ubiquitous. Just today, I called UPS and spoke at length with a computer. It used voice recognition technology quite effectively to identify my package number. Even now, I am writing this with NaturallySpeaking 9.5. This voice recognition program is inherently based on artificial intelligence algorithms.

But artificial intelligence is not voice recognition alone. AI “perceives its environment and takes actions which maximize its chances of success.” Weizenbaum, clearly a gifted man, gave up computer programming and the field of artificial intelligence altogether later in life. In a way, he was better off than two recent leading authorities in the field. However, based on what I’ve read about him and his work, he really felt that humans shouldn’t rely on machines for decision-making. Of course, now, we do that every day. Pilots use AI to fly airplanes. People rely on AI in their cars without even knowing about it. At some point, people will rely on AI to make decisions about their lives. In one’s PDA, one will have a virtual psychiatrist/business planner/personal coach always at one’s fingertips. I suspect that Weizenbaum would not approve of this, but I think it’s better than, say, relying on Astrology for that same advice.

Weizenbaum was particularly put off by the fact that when ELIZA came out, people really took it seriously. Some people really couldn’t distinguish a simple pattern recognizer from a human being. If you have played with ELIZA, you may find this hard to believe. But remember it came out in 1966. No one had much experience with such things back then. No one had much experience with computers at all. This is how far ahead of his time Weizenbaum was.

At the same time, I think his dismay at how stupid people can be was misplaced. Artificial intelligence, in the form of an interactive program designed to pass Turing tests has not progressed much in the last 42 years. That is not to say that artificial intelligence has not progressed much, it has. However people have not built an interactive program designed to mimic humans with much more efficacy than ELIZA does. There have been some recent attempts and perhaps this is now becoming vogue once again.

Instead of worrying about people who can’t distinguish a computer program from a real person, think about how much these people can be helped. Look how many of the videos on YouTube are made by people who cannot see the consequences of their actions. A quick check with one’s personal digital mentor, might prevent the disastrous outcome from the typical “hey y’all watch this” YouTube adventure. Or Weizenbaum, who was clearly smarter than I am, could be right and such AI development could lead to a Terminator-style apocalypse. I suspect, however, no matter the outcome, such AI is inevitable in time.

The Antikythera Mechanism

September 7, 2006

I read about this recently in Discover Magazine.  It was just a little blurb, but I leapt from my chair in amazement.  Never before did I know that the Greeks had mastered such fine gearing.  Who would have guessed that a society from 2000 years ago had inventors that rivaled Charles Babbage.  Moreover, this is not new.  It was discovered over 100 years ago and has been written about fairly often.  I am an unabashed geek and yet somehow I missed learning about this incredible device.  Here’s a link to an article written about it in 1959 from Scientific American.  It’s also on Wikipedia.

The greeks didn’t have electricity.  They didn’t have gun powder.  They didn’t even have iron works.  Apparently, though, they understood astronomy, mathematics and bronze smithing.

This device apparently helped with sea navigation.  It is self-dating too by the calendar-like aspects of the inscriptions on the device to 80 BC.  It’s almost crushingly telling in it’s power to show the thinking used and it’s regarded as the very first scientific instrument produced, if not the very first mechanical computer.

To me this object holds true preciousness because it is an anchor point in human history and of scientific thought.  It’s also a warning that bright people and far ahead thinking in science can’t save a civilization over time.  Or, as stated in the Scientific American article: “It is a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology.”

Cars of the Future.

June 22, 2006

In 50 or 60 years, when computers with cameras and sonar and GPS systems can drive cars with fewer accidents and fatalities than people, the interior of the automobile will look completely different than it does today.  From the future compact to minivan, cars will be places where we no longer lose time to travel.  The steering wheel and controls will be gone.  Seats can oppose each other and there will be at least a table for passengers to use and all the latest entertainment or work equipment will come standard.

For larger vehicles, everything will be modular.  You’ll be able to change from bed to kitchen to desk to treadmill.  Whatever you would do normally, you’ll be able to do while hurtling down the interstate at 80 miles per hour.  It will be far better than public transportation, because you’ll have all your home comforts or office necessities in the vehicle. 

Vehicles with bathrooms will be far more common than today.  Eight-hour night trips will be very popular.  Imagine packing your car then setting the GPS and climbing into a very comfortable bed.  You would get a great night sleep and arrive at your destination.

Parking in big cities would be different as well.  You could tell the car to park itself someplace cheap and be back by a certain time.  Or you might tell it to just drive around until you call it later in the evening.  Cars will become the ultimate party accessory when you don’t have to worry about drunk driving.  You can have a full bar and limo-like module pop out for bar hopping complete with disco ball.

Sure, it will be difficult to give up control of your car to machines, but the payoff in time is huge.  Time in the future will be even more precious than it is now.  And I’m sorry, but no flying cars until we can control the weather.  It will be at least another 150 years.

FNPL Podcast Uses Mechanical Turk for Listener Feedback.

June 15, 2006

We weren’t the first to do this.  I believe the folks at Nerdblurb beat us to the punch.  I have to say though that we arrived at the idea independently of them and we are doing it on a larger scope.  The concept is simple:  we’ll pay you 2 cents for your 2 cents.  Mechanical Turk allows you to “hire” people throughout the world to perform tasks for you.  You create HITS – Human Intelligence Tasks and people sign up for them and complete them and respond to you.  We set this up for people to listen to FNPL and then give us comments.  Then we pay them $.02.  Amazon gets 20%.  We set up 4000 hits. 

So far, we’ve had 15 comments.  Here are some of them verbatim:

“Great show, I like the way you guys explain stuff. The WoW story was funny. I used to do some podcasting and vidcasting myself, but I don't have the right equipment to do it. Great job guys, I think I'll keep listening.”

“I was a part of podcasting way back in the beginnings, and I enjoyed doing it for quite a long time. Your show was pretty darn entertaining. I like the feel of it. Very casual and friendly. The sound quality was better than I expected. The only downside was the speed of the download. On my 1.5mb sdsl connection with no other downloads it did take quite a long time. Of course when I subscribe (which I will now), it won't matter much because the download will happen in the middle of the night. Just a heads up. I know you asked for 2 cents, and I think I've given you about 20, so I'll leave you with just this: Stick with it! Keep doing it and I'll keep reviewing it when I can. Things seem to be working well and I look forward to more. P.S. – Skype is sounding better these days, I'll have to check it out again.”

“It was a pretty good show. I felt that perhaps the equipment could be improved, like the mics, but they were still far better than many shows that I have listened to. Overall, I don't think it's the sort of show I would personally listen to, but there is certainly a large audience for such shows and it could probably be successful with a bit more work and tinkering.”

“The promo/bumper music was obviously from garage band– so be careful about that (using loops, i gather?). Episode 11. Decent questions, I would use something that moves a little quicker. There were times when the show really dragged. If you made things a little faster paced and less "morning show" like, it'll be better I think .”

“IF you really want an honest comment, ~25MB download, another hour spent listening, another 15 minutes typing a decent and intelligent comment for 2 cents does not make sense. If I was your regular listener and followed your casts, I may be willing to pay 2 cents for download but as far as HITS go it totally sucks. Just a couple of minutes ago I stopped submitting HITs from another requester and I could complete 200 HITS/hour @ 2 cents. Why would I want to spend time, almost 90 minutes, for 2 cents? I agree the nature of the HIT is interesting but come on, how about 15 cents so one can justify onself to complete the HIT? This is my 2 cents, or tuppence worth as we Brits say. By the way I will listen to episode 7 as it sounds interesting :-)”

People are leaving legitimate comments, so in my mind this is wildly successful for us.  It will both boost our exposure and give us good feedback to help us improve the show.  (I didn’t understand the Garage Band comment though.  Of course we use Garage Band for the music.  That’s what it’s for.)

If you want to try out Mechanical Turk, give our HIT a try and get our $.02 for your $.02.

Topics for Friday Night Party Line June 9, 2006.

June 7, 2006

What are your favorite internet memes and where can we find them?  I'm going to play parts of two of my favorites.  These can be new or old, it doesn't matter.

What are your favorite internet videos out right now?

Have you seen's Automated Turk project?  Essentially you can labor intensive work at low cost throughout the world.  I am working on setting up a project under this program.  Have you ever done any work like this or assigned work out through the internet?

Should movies made from books, stories or even comic books stay true to the original source material or should it be free to go way out on it's own?

Did you ever have a difficult boss?  Why was this person difficult?  Share some examples with us.  What did you do to cope with this person?

Who were your role models growing up?  How about now?

How much time do you spend on line every week?  Do you visit the same sites all the time or are you always looking for new ones.

Soon Spore will be released and life as we know it will end.  Have you seen this game?  Are you planning on playing it when  it comes out?

There was a big blow to the Space Elevator recently when it was discovered that carbon nanotubes might not be able to handle the job.  What do you think about the Space Elevator concept?  Will it ever get off the ground?

In the life imitates art category of the day, there are a group of computer geeks in Silicon Valley that have started their own fight club, like the movie “Fight Club.”  There are videos on the web that show these guys beating the crap out of each other.  Would you ever do such a thing?  Do you know anyone who has done this?

Topics for Friday Night Party Line for June 2, 2006.

May 31, 2006

Here are the topics for Friday Night Party Line, June 2, 2006.  Some of these are from last week because we didn’t get to them.

Imagine yourself being 10 years old again.  Would your 10 year old self find you to be cool today?

I wonder if what one really enjoys in life can be distilled to one day. Can you describe your ultimate day? Can you think of how you would take the things you enjoy in life and put them all into one day, assuming you could do anything you want?

People are putting up videos of their children being born on YouTube.  I'm all for childbirth and all that, but do we really need to see the live event??   Would you do that?  Have people send such video links to you?  Have you seen these things?

There is a new friend making service called  It's not a dating site.  It gives you a new friend every 4 days without regard to gender, age, etc.  You communicate with this person back and forth and decide if you want to keep them as a friend.  Would you try such a site?

There is another website that just came out called  From the website:  “You type in the name of a friend and it will run searches on MySpace, Friendster, Facebook and more. Create profiles on your friends and save them to your "buddy list", then you can just click their name and see all their profiles later on! The buddy list also shows you who's online by checking their IM statuses.”

Have you ever written a complaint to a company about something?  Do you do it often?  Have you ever gone further and filed a complaint with the company’s regulator?  How did it work out for you?

At the University of Florida, the police there have become a fan of the fiction of a certain graduate student.  After reading his horror fiction on Live Journal, they've asked him to submit fingerprints and DNA.  What are your thoughts on this?

In the life imitates art category of the day, there are a group of computer geeks in Silicon Valley that have started their own fight club, like the movie “Fight Club.”  There are videos on the web that show these guys beating the crap out of each other.  Would you ever do such a thing?  Do you know anyone who has done this?

There was a big blow to the Space Elevator this week when it was discovered that carbon nanotubes might not be able to handle the job.  What do you think about the Space Elevator concept?  Will it ever get off the ground?

Henrik Ibsen is getting popular again and a number of items have been in the news about him recently.  Have you ever read or seen one of his plays?  Do you think he's worthy of all this new attention?

Computer Upgrade Progress Report.

May 25, 2006

I got all of my parts last night, so I decided to have a go at starting the upgrade even though I only had a couple of hours.  While I work on my computers all the time, I had not worked with a completely new mobo, chip, memory, etc. for a few years.  My, my, things have changed!  The SATA drives don’t require switch settings.  That’s nice.  The G-Force 7800 is a monster.  It reminds me of the old cards I used to put into my original IBM XT.  The thing is enormous!  The fact that you can fit two of them on my motherboard blows me away.  Who would spend $800 on that?  One of these cards alone is more than I need.  There’s a great deal of bloat too.  This thing has all these HD TV outputs that I’m not going to use. 

Installing the water cooler was just a pain in the ass.  It’s supposed to be easy, but the setup for the 805 D chip is just a kluge.  You use these long plastic pins and a piece of metal to secure the cooling plate in place.  You can still move it a little after it’s secure.  Not cool.

The mini-tower case I’m using is not a small case.  Yet, this thing is so jam packed, it’s like working on a modern day foreign car.  In fact, I felt a lot like a mechanic last night who is used to working on cars from the old days and who is surprised with all the newfangled doohickies.  I managed though.  I had thought that I’d be putting 3 IDE 250 GB IDE drives in the box, but there’s only going to be room for one.  I need to start investing in network storage.

Normally, when I build a computer, it starts up the first time I flip the switch.  Last night, I had no such glory.  My power supply isn’t the right one.  I’m off to Best Buy at lunch to get a new 500 watt unit.  I don’t have time to work on the system tonight, but I want to have it for the weekend.  It’s amazing to me because even though I’ve got the hardware site pretty much finished, I still have a lot to do yet with overclocking, setting up the RAID 0 and installing the OS. 

I’m really looking forward to the weekend and finishing this beast.

Digitizing Your Life.

May 20, 2006

On the plane back from Las Vegas last week, I was reading the June 2006 Popular Science and I came across Michael Myser's article entitled "You'll Enjoy Total Recall."  Myser discussed Gordon Bell and how he's been recording his whole life digitally for his MyLifeBits project.  The article left me open-mouthed and gave me one of those "hey, I've thought of doing that before" moments.  So I dug deeper.  Much of this concept comes from a guy named Vannevar Bush who wrote in 1945 about his Memex concept of supplementing one's memory.  Bell has worn a prototype camera called a SenseCam that takes thousands of pictures a day of whatever he's involved in.  Presumably, there is a microphone as well.  He's also manually digitized books and photos and other things concerning his life. 

I recommend reading some of the files associated with these links and watching the video"MyLifeBits a personal database for everything" is particularly interesting.  Not only is this a system for capturing all the events of one's life, it's also an organizational system.  It takes the data coming in from cameras, microphones, keyloggers, screen captures and what have you and automatically meta tags it so you don't have to.  The goal is to avoid having an individual become his or her own file clerk, curator or biographer.  The key is being able to review the information you capture quickly and easily.  If you can't do that, what's the point?

While this technology is thrilling, it is also plain scary.  How many things do you do every day that you don't want to be recorded?  I can safely say, in my case, every single trip to the bathroom.  Plus, if you do work that is confidential, this is practically impossible to use.  Loved ones aren't going to be too crazy about it either; especially the ones you go to bed with at night.  Law enforcement would love for everyone to wear a SenseCam.  While it would be the end of privacy, it would also solve a lot of crime. 

Something like this is coming, however.  It's inevitable.  Microsoft is funding MyLifeBits and the SenseCam.  I have strong yet mixed feelings about it.  It would be very useful to someone who is as forgetful as I am, but it would also be invasive.  I'm willing to bet that just as we see soccer moms with Borg like blue-tooth headsets flashing in their ears, so we will see them soon, smiling at Starbucks with SenseCams around their necks.  Smile for the camera, honey!

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Topics for Friday Night Party Line, May 12, 2006.

May 9, 2006

It could be a banner week for FNPL.  We stand to have as many as 6 guests, 50/50 guys and gals.  I want to say thanks and give a link back to K at A Yoga Coffee Outlook.  She's going to be one of our guests this Friday and it's her first time on a podcast.

Here are this week's topics:

1.  The summer blockbuster movie schedule is fast upon us.  There's lots of mutant and superhero action coming and plenty of comedy and adventure too.  What movies are you looking forward to this summer? 

2.  Do you do any sort of exercise or physical activity that requires training or special skills?  How did you come to take it up?  What makes you keep doing it?

3.  I had the occasion to see Itzhak Perlman play this week.  In my mind, he defines the term virtuoso.  He takes his natural gifts and fulfills their potential.  What examples of virtuosity have you seen in your experiences?  Is it ultimately better to be a master of something or to be merely good at many things?

4.  Do you ever think humans will be able to stop the aging process?  Would you take advantage of it if we had the technology?  Would you have surgery to make yourself look younger?  How far would you go?

5.  Few people would run their lives based on astrology, yet just as we have fun opening fortune cookies, most of us know our our astrological signs.  Some of us may even know a bit more.  Do you ever say "that explains a lot" when you find out someone's sign?  Do you read your horoscope at least every once in a while?  Why does astrology still have enough pull today to appear in the newspaper?

6.  On, there's an article about a new robot suit "that could help older people or those with disabilities to walk or lift heavy objects."  This suit is sleeker and less cumbersome than some of the bulky things that have been available in the past.  Is the age of the iron man here?  Have you seen the YouTube video of the guy with these spring stilts on his feet jumping around Las Vegas?  It's just another example. 

7.  There have been many TV shows based on animals (Mr. Ed, Flipper) and many commercials based on animals (Geccos, Tuna).  What is your favorite TV animal and why?

8.  There's an article from the AP this week that says women can look at a guy's face and tell which guy is interested in becoming a father.  Then they can also which ones they are interested in for "short term romantic partners."  Is this real?

9.  Generally speaking, women live longer than men.  I have an article that claims to know why.  Why do you think that is?

10.  I put up a link in my to  It's television shows that you can watch online.  They have 24, Boston Legal, The Daily Show even Thundercats!  I'm not sure that that site is particularly legal, but there are lots of sites that are.  I have a computer hooked up to a television upstairs.  Is the average person going to start watching TV from his or her computers with content delivered from the internet? 

Planned topics for Friday Night Party Line, May 5, 2006.

May 3, 2006

They say that 16,000 species face extinction. What does this actually mean? How many species go extinct naturally and how many are directly attributable to man? How can we actually test for extinction? Is there workable middle ground on this topic?

Eccentricity, idiosyncrasy and genius. How are these character traits related? Have you ever met a highly intelligent or creative person who is mostly normal? Is it true that in order to be creative one must walk the line of insanity?

The DARPA 3 Grand Challenge has been announced! Will this be as fruitful as the prior two Grand Challenges?

A 104 woman is marrying a 33 year old man. While this is not a western couple, are we going to see more things like this as humans live longer? Will there come a time where this type of thing is not viewed as gross or funny?

There was also an article about a 46 year old female bigamist. That’s sort of an interesting turn. Normally, you hear about men doing that. Is this just a one-off sort of thing or is it a societal trend?

Can you believe that people are still trying to use made-up documents to get out of paying their bills? Will people ever accept the concept that there is no such thing as a free lunch?

Have you heard about the new “Skypecast” 100 person chat service? I’ve figured out ways to get multiple Skype sessions going, but this is another thing entirely. What do you think it’s effect will be on the podcasting world?

This week I noticed one of my computers was trying to hack into one of my other computers. “Uh Oh.” I thought to myself. Something must be wrong. So I downloaded a virus checker and found no fewer than three viruses on my computer. That hasn’t happened to me in years. What’s been your recent virus experience. Do you do anything to protect yourself?

What do you do to keep yourself organized every day? Have you heard of time mapping? Are gimmicks worth it? Is there a point in doing anything beyond a Outlook or even a paper calendar?

David Blaine, everyone’s favorite masochist has created a human aquarium for himself. Will you be following this guy’s exploits this time?