Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Less than meets the AI

A mere two weeks ago, the big, breaking news -- apart from the ongoing cascade of geopolitical woes -- was that (in this particular iteration, citing the Washington Post) "A computer just passed the Turing Test in landmark trial."

An under-appreciated genius
Alan Turing is perhaps best known for his role in cracking the German military's Enigma crypto system. Turing thereby -- at the very least -- shortened the war against the Nazis and saved many lives. He also established some of the foundational theorems of computer science. As for the subject/headlines at hand, he speculated, way back in 1950, about artificial intelligence.

Given that the experts struggled -- and still do -- to define intelligence, Turing's insight was (characteristically) brilliant. To wit: don't try to define artificial intelligence; describe its behavior. From which arose the famous Turing Test: if an artificial entity interacting with judges by text messages successfully masquerades as a human at the keyboard, then the entity, too, is intelligent.

Pay no attention to the computer behind the curtain

Such imitation served as the basis of many recent headlines. From that Washington Post article:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The neural interface you always wanted is (at least, could be) coming

I spent most of last week on Hilton Head Island -- I know: real hardship duty :-) -- but I was working. And having a great time.

I'm a member of SIGMA (which, despite all those caps, is not an acronym). SIGMAns are authors of hard SF -- but first (and in many cases, still) we were scientists, physicians, or engineers. We consult on matters of futurism, often -- where the public interest is involved -- pro bono. As the logo would have it, SIGMA is The Science Fiction Think Tank.

Bringing me to the just concluded Hilton Head Workshop 2014: A Solid-State Sensors, Actuators and Microsystems Workshop. The event's scope extends to -- though, curiously, the term is omitted from the name -- nanotechnology. Nor was this just any such workshop, but the 30th anniversary edition.
In addition to many a lookback, such as befits a major milestone anniversary, the conference organizers decided to bring in a few SIGMAns to look thirty years ahead. More than a few of our merrie band tossed their hats into the metaphorical ring. The four of us who went: 
  • SIGMA founder and onetime White House science fellow Dr. Arlan Andrews. 
  • Interstellar Woman of Mystery and twenty-year veteran at NASA, Stephanie Osborn.
  • Polymath and onetime manager at Aerospace Corporation, Boeing, and other interesting places (and longtime Byte columnist), Jerry Pournelle.
  • Your Humble Blogger.
Beyond my own high-tech career, I have to my credit nanotech-intensive novels and a novelette featuring both gnat bots and nanotech.

Eventually the big night came for the SIGMAns (and remember my subject line? This is where we get to neural interfaces) ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fate of Worlds redux

What we have here is bookends. (Also: a commercial announcement.)

Worlds without a star, hurtling through space ...

In a beginning ...
Fleet of Worlds, my first collaboration with Larry Niven, got rave reviews, was a Prometheus Award finalist, was a Science Fiction Book Club featured title, and -- though we wrote the novel to stand alone -- morphed quickly into a series. Most major-publisher titles these days come out in hardback, mass-market paperback, and ebook formats; I was delighted when, four years after Fleet first appeared, Tor Books reissued the novel in trade paperback format.

More aliens than you can shake a laser blaster at, nursing as many grudges ...

Amazon link, TPB edition
So: I'm yet more delighted that today -- not even two years after the original publication -- Tor Books is re-releasing Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld, the final book of the series, as a trade paperback.

Bookends, I say again :-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Brain food

It is in the nature of news outlets, whether online or traditional, to emphasize what has gone wrong, is in the process of failing, or could yet run off the rails. "You're okay, and chances are you'll stay okay," neither captures eyeballs nor sells newspapers to their shrinking audience.

I'm not in the news biz, but on this blog I, too, have sometimes paid more attention to black clouds than to silver linings. But there is good news. I sincerely believe that.

Home, sweet home
For one Big Picture look at why things aren't so bad, see (from The Wall Street Journal), "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out: Ecologists worry that the world's resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again.") A key quote:

... here's a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this "niche construction"—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature's bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.

Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter's tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can't seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.

All in all, it's a compelling look at two very different mindsets: economists vs. ecologists. Does either discipline have a monopoly on understanding the carrying capacity of the planet? I think not. But (IMO), the economist's view -- and millennia of progress in the human condition -- too often gets short shrift in old and new media.