Friday, May 25, 2012

Brain box

This is a sober consideration of how to cope with AI that is smarter than us (pdf). The good news in the paper is that "in the space of possible motivations, likely a very small fraction is compatible with coexistence with humans". That's a relief.But as it does point out anyone creating a super-smart AI had better ensure that valuing humans is built in or we'll be seen as obstacles or tools for its own growth.

So, how do we solve this problem? Put it in a box - an actual, physically discrete box. Put an on/off switch on it. Don't connect it to the net. Limit its input. I think there might be flaws with this approach. If it is super-smart then it might well be able to conceive of ways to escape that our puny brains are not capable of preparing against.

The paper does trot through some of these and worries that if our precautions are ill thought out then we may be preparing for catastrophe. And, it wryly notes, AI designers will most likely neglect security. The race to make an absurdly powerful AI may also make researchers cut corners and let the mad artificial brain loose without putting on a bridle.

Putting the brain in a box limits the potential for catastrophe, argue the authors. Experiments, with a human playing the role of the smart AI, have shown that people can outwit people (it happens to prison warders all the time) so a smart AI would have no problem. The paper does go through all kinds of defences that we can mount but it does have the air of desperation about it. I have the suspicion that we'll be always outnumbered, always outgunned.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tiny horror

Just to underscore my continuing obsession with all things cthulhic I have found a wasp called Nanocthulhu lovecrafti on WaspWeb

 I love the way the description of this tiny wasp references Lovecraft and explains the connection - the clypeal fuscina (the three-pronged plate on the front of its head) apparently resembles the "pulpy, tentacled head" of Cthulhu. Up close it does look pretty freaking nightmarish. 

WaspWeb also notes, rather drily, that the pronunciation of Cthulu is controversial. Mr Buffington must be something of a Lovecraft scholar given the sources he quotes or he just has really bad dreams.

I know of some links between the Cthulhu mythos and insects and this claims that Al Azif is the derived from the sound made by nocturnal insects. All of them? Hmm.

Thanks to the wonderful Curiosities of Biological Taxonomy there is another one. A spider called Pimoa cthulhu Hormiga. I've now seen pictures of it and, yes, it is likely to induce gibbering insanity.

According to that list Lovecraft is not well represented when it comes to naming critters or their constituent parts. Tolkien, Pratchett and Nabokov have him beat.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Here is the news

A fantastic collection of Broadside Ballads, 2,300 of them, which were the equivalent of TV and radio news programmes in the 19th century. Sung or raed on street corners, in markets and yards they were the way that the poor and working folks heard about the news of the day. I could, and probably will, spend endless hours rifling through these. Some worth checking out...
The Earthquake Did Not Arrive
The Happy Couple
The Extraordinary Life and Death of Mary Anne Pierce
Oh, and there are lots more of them. Welsh ballads can be found here and the Bodleian's collection can be found here. There's fricking thousands of them. A good list of links to get at them all can be found here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

God above

What will happen when extraterrestrial intelligence makes itself known to us?. That debate has been had in films, TV, books and even some of the most learned gentlemen in our midst have opined on the subject - Stephen Hawking wonders if they will plunder the Earth for its raw materials.  Hmm, not sure. There might be more for them to plunder elsewhere.

The debate has also been aired in learned journals which tried to reach a consensus on whether it will be a good or bad thing. The good news? They probably won't destroy us. Probably. And all this might be moot because we might not be able to communicate. The bad? We don't know what impact it will have. We can prepare, but its not clear how much help that will be when the flying saucers land.

I'm currently wondering what would happen if a Cthulhic deity or two came to Earth. What if they were unleashed by accident on Earth and we had to live under their shifting, tentacled shadows. I like the idea of Yog Sothoth or one of the other Great Old Ones hovering over a city, bathing the metropolis in sunlight sifted through its hideous form.

Their arrival is similar to that of the ETIs in that they are alien exccept they are explicitly interested in destruction and sacrifice for their own cyclopean, and unknowable, ends. I also like the idea of a world slowly being ground down by the blubbery gods, no immediate worldwide cataclysm just the slow and sure warping of life as it starts to revolve around their maleficent.

It would mean the end to most of Earth's religions and the rise of many new ones - though its worth wondering about the value of faith if your god is hanging in the air only a few thousand feet overhead. 

Physicists would also have to ask themselves a few questions. Not least about non-Euclidean geometry and how these entities can even exist. Does physics leave room for them anyewhere? Under a quark or behind a black hole, perhaps?

The most interesting part is the form of the resistance. The arrival would throw human values into sharp relief. Which values, though? Would those who like the gods be like the fascists in the 1930s, except more convincing because, with a little human sacrifice or two, they can fulfil the promises they make?

Resistance would be about sympathy, empathy and compassion. It would see people fight for a greater good even if they knew it was hopeless. Resistance would be about fighting and dying almost certainly for a lost cause.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Past plastics

I've always wanted a list of plastics used in Victorian times and here it is. Thank you, internet. I knew about shellac and gutta percha but not the other seven. Following the root of the link yields other useful stuff such as the Shadwell forgers and info about Jettons.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Looking back

I've learned not to let my kids decide which of their old toys they want to throw away. All that pawing through a crate of old toys does is re-acquaint them with favourites they forgot they had. End result? No toys thrown away and lots more kipple distributed about their room. Gah.
I got a similar feeling today when pruning old bookmarks. I found lots of stuff that seemed so precious at the time but have forgotten I found and had lived without for a long time. There are quite a few links that I now want to remember...
Ideas illustrated on word origins - great visualisation of where the words come from.
Joined up thinking about genre literature and culture
A plot generator for pulp fiction
Full text versions of many old commentaries, translations and dramatic works
Book title analyser
An automatic text analyser

Rome and roads

I've just spent far too long playing around with the raw fabulousness that is Stanford's interactive map of the transport network in Roman times. Going from Rome to Londinium starting in January would take about 42 days. I would have thought that journey would be almost all by road but it's shortened, at least initially, by taking a boat along the coast. Then it's a long trek across France. Too, too fab.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Title tale

Just about every single one of the paper titles at the Society for Cultural Anthropology meeting about Life and Death makes we want to be there. So many of them make me think wtf and get my brain whirring about what they could be about. It's like a future features list for a Sunday newspaper.

Some highlights
Shrimp Boats, Swing Sets and Voodoo Dolls: Cemeteries of Coastal Louisiana
The Giant of a King’s Second Body at Kim Jong-Il’s Funeral
From Monuments to Megapixles: Remembering the Dead in Modern America
Italy’s zombie-workers and the Contested Soul
Logics of Military Suicide
Animals as Instruments: Biomimetic Noses and the War on Terror 
Necropolitics, Exception, and the Production of Docile Patriots
How do Beets and Pantyhose Make Water (Un)Affordable?
Family Retrieved: Single Motherhood and Posthumous Sperm Donation in Israel

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Top 10

As a fan of Bertrand Russell I couldn't help but record the existence of his own version of the 10 commandments. My personal favourite is "Do not feel absolutely certain of anything".

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Park life and death

Last week I was in St James Park and saw a murder and was almost witness to a killing. I was walking along a path that skirted the lake before heading towards Horseguards and The Mall. It was a day puncutated by showers and the park was enjoying a rare moment of sun and shine.

Ahead on the path, in the lee of a large tree, a crow stood on the asphalt cawing for all it was worth. Again and again, without pausing for breath, it called out the same ratcheting cry. In the tree other crows looked on. They fidgeted on the branches sending showers of rain drops thudding to the grass. On the lawns to either side other crows hopped about. Crows are usually very confident creatures, but these looked uneasy, fluffing feathers and hopping quickly from place to place.

At first I thought the crow was a fledgling and was calling so much because it was hungry. Perhaps it was just one of those crows that calls a lot and the others were keen for it to shut up. I got much closer and the calling crow did not stop sounding its caw nor did it move, its gaze did not flinch from the tree's base. I looked where it stared and saw the body of a crow cradled on the roots of the tree.

Eventually I got too close to the crow for comfort and it hopped once, twice and flew away. Its silence rang in the rain. The dead crow was whole, there was no obvious damage, no blood about the beak that would suggest it had collided with one of the park vehicles trundling about. Its body was intact, nothing crushed or maimed to give a hint to what killed it. Clothed in velvet feathers and dusted with rain drops it was quite beautiful. More so, given how strenuously the other crow tolled its passing and called the others to pay their respects. I have no idea how it died, if it was killed or how its life ended but my respect for crows has grown. I know that they are among the smartest of the birds and now I know they can mourn.