Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Future's So Bright, I've Gotta Wear a Radioactive Fallout Suit

The debate about the future has moved from the pages of science fiction to a real war of words between those who feel that technology is our savior, and those who believe it could be our doom. In their unbridled enthusiasm for every new technological advance, futurists like Ray Kurzweil fail to acknowledge that scientific progress has inevitably led to sweeping and often harmful social change, along with the ability to kill each other in new and more efficient ways. Though it led to an unprecedented economic expansion in the West, the Industrial Revolution nevertheless exacted a terrible toll on the world, further separating rich and poor, and endangering the global environment through years of toxic pollution. The Atomic Revolution put within humanity's collective grasp the power to annihilate every living person on Earth many times over, a power that still threatens the planet nearly two decades since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Information Revolution has the potential to further destabilize the world, with its potential for thinking machines run amok.

Sun Microsystems co-founder and technological pioneer Bill Joy has sounded the alarm on these issues, warning that technology, though full of promise, is also pregnant with the possibility of peril. Joy and others like him see the future through the lens of the past, knowing that new innovations have always had unintended and negative consequences for society. Joy also makes the point that these new, self-replicating, artificially intelligent robots pose a danger of uncontrollable growth. They could easily become a real threat to the very existence of humanity, rendering us obsolete and potentially leading to our own extinction.

As a believer in the Bible, I know that the years to come will not bring a human devised utopia in which all disease and death have been eliminated through shear will. The truth of the human condition is that we live in a fallen, degenerate world, and we are incapable of saving ourselves. Each new advance will only give us more power to destroy ourselves. Our capacity for intelligence and innovation will never outweigh our capacity for short-sighted greed and bloodlust. We would do well to heed the words of naysayer Ian Malcolm of Steven Spieldberg's film, Jurassic Park, when addressing what he called a "lack of humility before nature." Malcolm warned that "scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Before opening yet another in a long line of Pandora's boxes onto a world teetering on the brink of the apocalypse, scientists should be asking themselves that very question. The answer will determine humanity's course over the next century. Given our history with bad choices from the Garden of Eden to the Manhattan Project, I for one do not hold out much hope for turning back the hands of the Doomsday clock.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Superficial Intelligence

Humanity has long held out hope of achieving the dream of artificial intelligence, or AI, as showcased in films like Star Wars and on television in Star Trek: the Next Generation. Perhaps equally, the nightmare of artificial intelligence gone wrong, seen in movies like Terminator and The Matrix, is a specter of the future all hope to avoid. Yet as humankind moves closer to reaching the goal of AI, popular theories about the test for such an milestone discovery have come under some scrutiny.

One such test, the Turing Test, involves convincing a human being that he or she is speaking with another human being in a text-based chat scenario, when in fact he or she is actually speaking with a machine. Put forward by Alan Turing, a mathematician often credited as the father of modern computational science, the test specifies that a human chat with another human and a machine, and sight-unseen, determine which is which. No machine has, as yet, passed the test.

The test has many benefits, including its simplicity and its reliance on a specific behavioral test, rather than complicated and potentially unanswerable questions about the human mind and soul. On the other hand, the test has serious drawbacks. For one, the test fails to address the question of whether there is a substantive difference between intelligence and mimicry. Also, the test relies on the sophistication of the human questioner. An artificial intelligence researcher familiar with the program would have enough knowledge to potentially trip up the machine, whereas someone unfamiliar with the Turing Test might be more easily fooled by a chatbot.

The Turing Test, though interesting in that it holds out the potential for an easily verifiable test for artificial intelligence, nonetheless fails to take into consideration a variety of key components of the dream of AI. First, as it is entirely text-based, the test does not incorporate several of the more intriguing and potentially useful features of a fully-functional humanoid AI, such as full motor capabilities and the ability to recognize the environment and even individual faces. What is more, the test fails to adequately explain the difference between intelligence and mimicry. Even if a machine were to pass the Turing test, this might reflect more on the sophistication of the programming than its "intelligence."

Truly intelligent machines, if such a thing were possible, should have certain characteristics that set them apart from other machines, and conversational ability is perhaps the least interesting or beneficial. Artificial intelligence should be able to learn from its environment and from its own mistakes, and have the potential for complex reasoning. These two features of human intelligence, if replicated in a machine, would be of infinitely more value than the ability to carry on a conversation, even though this might be a separate goal in its own right.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cartoons Aren't Always Funny

In September of 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Many of these cartoons were inflammatory, and portrayed Muhammad in a bad light. For example, in one of the more widely circulated cartoons, Muhammad is shown wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. These cartoons angered Muslims, not just because they presented the founder of Islam in a negative way, but also because within Islam, it is blasphemous to depict him period.

The cartoons led to protests Denmark, and a tour of the Muslim world by Danish imams to further publicize what they viewed as discrimination. Their tour, coupled with the republication of the cartoons in other papers around the world, led to violent protests in Muslim countries. The journalists involved received death threats, among them a $11 million bounty offered by Haji Yaqoob Qureishi, a minister in Uttar Pradesh state government in India for anyone who beheads the cartoonists.

The controversy surrounding the cartoons raises several important issues about free speech and religious tolerance. What is the responsibility of a Danish newspaper to respect the religious dictates of a religion not their own? Was the Muslim response valid and justified? Should there be limits on free speech and satire? Is Islam a violent religion by its very nature?

When broaching important and heated topics like religion, any reasonable person should maintain a level of caution. People feel very strongly about faith, and as a person of faith, I can understand the impulse to protest the unfair treatment of the religiously observant. The secular West has become all too accustomed to a free reign when it comes to vilifying religion, and frequently overgeneralizes and misunderstands the faithful to its own detriment.

By the same token, religious people are not exempt from criticism simply because they are religious. It would be improper for someone to hide behind their faith as an excuse if he or she is doing something wrong, particularly if that wrongdoing is motivated by religion. It is ironic that the Danish cartoons depicted Muhammad as the leader of a violent religion, and in response, Muslims violently protested the cartoons. The attitude seems to be, "Don't call me violent, or I'll kill you."

The newspaper would have done well not to use the blunt instrument of the editorial cartoon, and instead published a reasoned editorial column regarding Islamic fanaticism. While I am sure this would have generated a negative response in the Muslim community, it would have at least been a more enlightened approach. Intelligent people should be able to discuss religion without resorting to satire, which can be disrespectful, or violence, which is almost never the proper response.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Internet Equality: Saving the Net from a Hostile Takeover

Net neutrality has become a buzzword among tech savvy Internet commentators to describe the effort to ensure that network and content providers treat all traffic on the Net equally. In other words, the companies that provide consumers with Internet access cannot give preferential treatment to traffic going to their clients' websites, or cut off certain types of traffic, like file sharing, in an effort to free up bandwidth.

Groups in favor of net neutrality include such diverse interests as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition. Their argument in favor of net neutrality hinges on the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, whether it goes to an individual's blog, or a wealthy company's website. Groups on the Religious Right have joined with their traditional enemies on the Left because each group fears that its own viewpoint will be discriminated against if net neutrality is lost. These groups have the benefit of arguing for the status quo, which has produced the Internet as we know it today.

Groups opposed to net neutrality
include business interests like AT&T, and political groups like the American Conservative Union. Business groups and their political allies have argued that in order to scale the Internet for high quality video applications like Internet television and video conferencing, bandwidth must be guaranteed to their customers. Other media, like cable television, can do this because cable companies own the entire infrastructure and can regulate traffic on their data pipes. With so much Internet bandwidth going to specific types of Net traffic, like file sharing, companies looking to enter the Internet video market argue that their customers will not be able to access the types of services they demand unless bandwidth can be guaranteed through tiered access. They further argue that in order to make the necessary infrastructure improvements, investors must see a financial incentive on the back end.

One major problem with the argument against net neutrality is that it opens up so many possibilities for abuse. Companies could allow traffic to their business parters preferential access to bandwidth, and stymie the efforts of users to access competing websites. Demolishing net neutrality paves the way for wealthy companies to maintain a lock on Internet traffic, and prevents upstarts from gaining the traction necessary to displace the built-in advantage of name recognition. Furthermore, the infrastructure improvements necessary to improve network load capacity are in the public interest, and should be mandated by the government as a societal endeavor. Giving telecom companies the ability to regulate Internet traffic is a recipe for disaster. The Internet has served us well in the past, and will continue to do so as long as the government remains true to the ideal of equality that has been one of the cornerstones of the Net since its inception.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Web Two Point Oh!

The website is an amazing resource for mashups, web applications that allow users to link up various Web 2.0 sites like Google Maps, YouTube, and Flickr. Three that I have found that are of a particular significance and interest to me are Virtual Video Map, Geomentary and The Bible Mapped.

The first site, Virtual Video Map, overlays YouTube videos on a Google Map, providing interesting geographic context for the videos. This also provides useful information about various locations on the globe.

The second site, Geomentary, is similar to Virtual Video Map, but all the video overlays are of documentary films from around the world. Not only does this provide a fascinating glimpse into various locations in the world, but also gives travel information should one choose to visit these locations.

The final site is perhaps the most intriguing. This site, The Bible Mapped, overlays theological history from the Bible onto a Google Map of the Mediterranean. The tagged locations reveal information about various locations from Scripture. As a believer, the idea of using a Google Map to share information about the faith is powerful.

The Programmable Web site is one of the best sites I have been to in a long time. The websites there are on the cutting edge of internet technology, and I look forward to finding more of them.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

If We're the Pirates, Then Why is the RIAA Acting Like Captain Hook?

In the heated debate between the Recording Industry Association of America and advocates of the current file sharing free-for-all, the starkness of the two choices often blinds participants to the possibility of a third way. In their zeal to protect the right to freely download as much music as possible on peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and Limewire, the digital generation conveniently forgets that free music downloads mean that their favorite artists get no compensation for the work that they have done. Likewise, in championing the cause of the copyright, the RIAA has alienated music fans and driven the digital music revolution underground.

File sharing is here to stay. A technology, once invented, cannot be wished away by any amount of legal action or by massive fines imposed on users of that technology. The RIAA would do well to realize finally that their old mode of distribution is crumbling, and if it wants to get any piece of the digital pie, it should sign on to a subscription scheme like the one outlined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This middle path, that would allow users to continue downloading any music they desire using a program of their choosing, would nevertheless come with a nominal monthly charge that would be distributed directly to artists based on the popularity of their songs. The aggregated money would be on the order of $3 billion annually in pure profit, and would bring file sharing into the light.

Of course, the real benefit of such a plan could be the end of the RIAA itself, or at least the end of the current system within which it operates. Musicians could bypass record labels, producing and promoting their music to a mass audience on the web. Musicians who still want to use the services of producers and promoters supplied by record labels would still have greater control over their music, because the power would be shifted from recording industry middle men to the artists and fans, where it belongs.

Personally, I see nothing morally wrong with downloading any music that I choose. If I want to support a band or an artist, I can do so by buying a CD if I so choose, by attending a concert, or by promoting the band or artist among my friends. The only problem arises when an artist is not fairly compensated for their work. I would gladly pay a monthly fee for unlimited downloads if I thought that money would land in the pockets of my favorite musicians. I certainly do not want to force artists out of the music business because they cannot make a living. Still, it does not seem fair that I should be denied the legal right to listen to music simply because the RIAA wants to maintain its commercial stranglehold on the industry. Music should be about the artists and the fans, not about corporate suits whose only interest lies in maximizing their own profits.

In the mean time, I will continue to download music. I am doing so purely for my own personal enjoyment, not to "pirate" copies for resale. Looking back at the history of radio, television, VCRs, DVD recorders, Digital Video Recorders and other technologies, it is easy to see the pattern of industry disapproval. People with a lot of money always want to protect their right to make even more, even if that is not what is good for society. Stifling innovation in the name of capitalistic greed is not my idea of taking the moral high ground. The RIAA should stop trying to maintain control over a broken system, and start working to correct that system for the sake of fans and artists alike.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

RFID Chips ... 5¢
Remembering Where You Put Your Freedom .... Priceless

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, a new technology for tracking consumer goods and consumers themselves, are an intriguing though potentially harmful scientific advance. The tags small enough to be embedded in virtually any product, and can even be inserted under the skin. The tags emit a specific radio frequency that, when detected by a reader, transmits data ranging from personal identification of the bearer of the tag, to product information relating to the specific item tagged, to financial information in the case of automated credit cards and traffic toll transponders.

RFID has many potentially positive uses. It has the ability to eliminate the need for long checkout lines, because consumers could simply pick up items in a store and walk out the door, paying for the items through an automatic debit system using RFID readers installed at the exit. RFID already reduces lines at toll bridges and subway stations, and could one day help prevent the loss of luggage at airports.

In spite of the lure of convenience, RFID technology has set off a firestorm of concern among privacy advocates for its potential misuse by corporations and governments to track citizens with Orwellian efficiency. Visions of a world in which powerful private interests and totalitarian governments bent on monitoring our every move have led some to call for strict laws and consumer boycotts in an effort to stem the tide of tyranny.

Still others have noted that many of these potential harms could be visited on society by existing technologies, and admonish critics for paranoid grandstanding. In a speech to the Annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in 2006, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Rob Atkinson presents the case that all the hubbub about RFID is for naught. Atkinson's speech was delivered in response to an opposing address by Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). Atkinson's dismisses privacy concerns as unfounded because citizens are smart enough and have enough political clout to prevent abuses.

It is possible, as Katherine warns, that the government could forcibly implant RFID chips in our bodies. But will this happen? In assuming that it might, Katherine assumes that: a) consumers are easily manipulated dupes; b) corporations and governments are all powerful Leviathans; and c) there are no laws governing either.

Atkinson seems to be living in a dream world where the reality of terrorism has not already eroded our privacy rights beyond even the most outlandish nightmares the Founders could have imagined. Atkinson entitles his speech, "There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself," an apt description of the truth for the exact opposite meaning he intends to convey. Fear has been the driving force behind the Bush administration's successes in plunging our country into fascism, and it is not out of the question to believe that even greater threats loom that could push the global balance of power to the extreme right.

Private citizens are only protected from corporations and governments so long as they are willing to fight to protect their rights. When even those in power refuse to stand up to the shredding of our constitution, I hold out little hope that the "wisdom of the masses" can save us from destruction. People, for all their intelligence and ingenuity, can be led like lambs to the slaughter given the right circumstances. The specter of terrorism has enabled the government to get away with that which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kompf,

[T]he principle— which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.

In other words, the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it. On the slippery slope toward New Babylon, it is this truth that should keep us awake at night.