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.