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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Precarious Future of Jobs

When someone quotes a dubious statistic in conversation, I often reply by interjecting the somewhat humorous, "Did you know that 47% of all statistics are made up on the spot?" I always use 47% as the made up number - it's a nice prime number and has a good ring to it in my opinion.

So I almost always chuckle when someone puts forth 47 percent as an actual statistic. In this case:
...a now-famous Oxford University analysis forecasted that 47 percent of all jobs are threatened in the United States [by robots and automation].
Yup, that definitely elicited a chuckle. Yet while the exact percentage of jobs that are threatened is of course completely unknown and the statistic is meaningless in any case without a timeframe associated with it (threatened by next week? Next year? A million years?), the concept is serious and perhaps deadly serious.

As a roboticist, I do see automation based on AI and increasingly intelligent and flexible computing accelerating. For example, autonomous vehicles alone could replace several million workers within ten years (maybe more, maybe less, who knows?).

I predict my company of 4 people will eliminate thousands or maybe even tens of thousands of jobs in agriculture over the next 5 years. And the problem is that as workers move to new jobs, we'll end up automating those too, making it difficult for them to ever get back to a stable job situation. That's potentially different than in the past. Sure, buggy whip workers lost their jobs once upon a time but then went on to work in the automobile industry which was stable for the rest of their careers. Maybe new industries and opportunities will develop as old jobs are automated away, but it looks to me like the destruction of jobs in Schumpeter's Creative Destruction process will far outpace the creation, especially the creation of lower to middle skilled occupations.

While automation could promise ever more plentiful availability of goods, it's possible that we'll face widespread poverty as more and more workers find it impossible to land stable and reasonably well-paying jobs. One straightforward way of mitigating that is the Universal Basic Income where all citizens get a fixed monthly stipend, no strings attached. That would at least keep people from starving in the streets. And if so much is automated and there's so much wealth being produced, the UBI would be easily affordable.

But what about work itself? Can humans live without working? Or is work part of what humans need to be fulfilled? Are idle hands the devil's workshop? Will opioid and other drug addiction become even more widespread? Will all these things lead to the collapse of civilization?

Or will we all become barbershop quartet singers (I'm the guy on the right) and live happily ever after?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Wanna bet?

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.

Yet, I will risk making a few here, so we can check back later what I got right.

I predict that:

- D. Trump will keep firing people from twitter.

- Russians will keep turning up dead for mysterious reasons (yep, today another one).

- To the delight of Italians, the Azurri will make it to the 2018 World Cup even after not qualifying. I bet they will be the ones selected after England withdraws their team over its Russian friends turning up dead. Italians are looking for an entrance anyway possible! Maybe they are the ones poisoning Russians in order to incriminate Putin, it is a devious plan: and Trump knows Putin is innocent, and that's why he fired Rex - or that's my own conspiracy theory after reading this Atlantic piece.

- Brazil will lose the worldcup again, though I hope in less shame than before. (OK, this one is easy, but I had to hedge in case I get all the other ones above wrong.)

If you have predictions too, try it at the comments section!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

But why the perjury trap works?

One interesting aspect of Russiagate is how it was propelled by the very large access to information a powerful government like the USA, and its five-eyed friends, nowadays have.

If the Intelligence apparatus doesn't look particularly efficient at thwarting terrorist plots, it at least showed itself very good at snooping on Americans engaging in apparently legal behavior. We now know that, contrary to some overexcited initial reports, Obama's FBI did not rely exclusively on the Steele dossier, nor it had to withhold, from the FISA court, its connection to opposition research funded by opponents. That's because it had material of its own to start what looks like a very wide snooping of Trump's campaign, with far consequences to Mueller's probe today:

Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

Mr. Van Buren finishes the piece above with an exhortatory remark:

Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is a harbinger that should chill Americans to their cores.

As a matter of principle, I tend to agree with Mr. Van Buren. Yet, for all the weaknesses associated to cases manufactured over perjury traps, I keep asking myself why the people involved were so eager to perjury themselves.

What was their mindset? Why would they all lie about things they could refuse to answer anyway?

Can you mount a case where most actors perjured themselves, but were still innocent?

Monday, February 26, 2018


Consider the following excerpt from a recent article.
Imagine America had as its president a man manifestly unfit by character and temperament to hold such an important public trust and exercise the important constitutional powers of the office. The president’s conduct in office had demonstrated him to be racist, mercurial, intransigent, personally crude, obsessed with his own public image and perceptions of his authority and success, and prone to intemperate public tirades, heaping abuse upon political enemies, the press, and all who opposed him. 
As president, he expressed sympathy for – at times even seemed to side with – the nation’s avowed enemies: persons and forces that until very recently had been the nation’s overt military adversaries and who still sought to undermine America’s political system. He collaborated openly with such persons. He offered excuses for vicious racists – and uttered some distressingly racist remarks himself – as he failed to protect a large swath of the American population from racial violence, intimidation and oppression at the hands of private parties. He blamed the victims, as much as the perpetrators – for supposedly having pressed too far and thereby provoked the retaliation that fell on their heads.
... He arguably abused the power to fire subordinates, removing or seeking to remove from office those who would not pliantly carry out his wishes to defy or disregard the law. He valued personal loyalty to him above all else and seemed indifferent to competent service to the nation. As shocking as it might sound, many judged the president unfit to issue direct commands to the military – impulsive, capricious, erratic and thus potentially dangerous.
He was an intemperate bully. He was politically artless and witless. But he was a snazzy dresser, or so he fashioned himself.
A couple of days ago was the 150th anniversary of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the above excerpt was describing him (just in case you thought it might have been describing a different president).

The most interesting thing about the article to me is that, according to constitutional scholars, the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" need not be linked to a specific crime but can instead include the president's overall character and conduct. That was the first I had heard that.

The article also served to remind me that bad presidents (and other politicians and bureaucrats) have not been vanishingly rare, but simply do come to power from time-to-time. Yet another reason that checks and balances are so important.

God and the Collective

I've often stated the following analogy:
A neuron is to a brain (network of neurons) as a person is to the collective (network of people).
Here I'm defining "collective" as a "network of people," nothing more (yet), nothing less.

A neuron is a pretty complex and amazing cell, but it's nothing compared to the network of tens of billions of them with many hundreds of trillions of connections between them. A single neuron has some very low level intelligence all on its own (depending on how you define "intelligence") but has absolutely no capacity to understand the large network that it's part of or the capabilities of that network. In fact, it's only in modern times that we can even believe that our intelligence and consciousness are based in that network of neurons. Before that, it was assumed that something external, the "soul" or something similar, was the center of all that.

A human is a pretty complex and amazing animal, but it's nothing compared to the network of almost ten billion humans with tens of trillions of connections between them (yes, I've written this before, but it's worth repeating in my opinion). A single human animal does have intelligence on its own.

But can a single human animal understand the intelligence or agency of the collective?

To me, the answer is no, absolutely not.

Just like the neuron, individuals cannot even begin to comprehend the entity that is the collective. Many don't believe that there is an entity that is the collective that is anything more than simply an aggregation of individuals. Indeed, this is a central tenet of quite a few influential economists such as Mises and Rothbard. For example, here is a quote from Rothbard explaining his view:
Only individuals have ends and can act to attain them. There are no such things as ends of or actions by 'groups,' 'collectives,' or 'States,' which do not take place as actions by various specific individuals.
To me, this is analogous to saying "there are no thoughts within a brain that are not the result of various activity by specific neurons." To me, both this and Rothbard's statement are both true and not at the same time. Yes, a thought can't happen without specific neurons doing specific things, yet it is to ignore the elephant in the room to not recognize that a thought is so much more than just a bunch of neurons firing.

Yet if collective agency and action are so far beyond what we can comprehend, what's the use of even identifying the possibility of it? There may not be any, but I personally wonder if the focus on the individual, especially in libertarian and some conservative circles and even some liberal groups, has been taken too far to the detriment of both the collective and therefore everybody in it. After all, we can't survive individually without the collective.

One of the things I've noticed is that when I try to think about this collective entity is that it has a lot in coming with how people describe God (I'm not personally religious, but neither am I anti-religious). The collective entity may not be all knowing, but relative to an individual, it might as well be. The collective entity may not be all powerful, but again, relative to you or me, it's unfathomably powerful. And just like "God's Will," the collective's will is also unknowable and yet is extremely important because it's critically important to our individual destinies as well as the destiny of the future of human kind and perhaps even all of life. And while on the surface it would seem to make no sense whatsoever to pray to the collective, what if individual prayers led to prayers by larger groups which aligned needs and desires by significant fractions of the collective which did then influence the very powerful collective?

And what if, as social animals and then primates evolved, the ancestors of our species and then our own ancestors had this sense of something beyond merely the aggregation of individuals? Could that be the basis of the evolution of most people over the ages believing in God? Could it be that we both understood there was something more than the individual yet that entity was beyond understanding? Wouldn't many of the common conceptions of God fit pretty well with that?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Anagram of the Month

Did you know than an anagram for "The New York Times" is "The Monkeys Write"?

A remarkable coincidence!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

An American Tradition

Apparently, controversies over immigration are as American as apple pie, for both the pie, and the complaints about immigrants, precede America itself:

"Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and, by herding together, establish their language and manners, to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us?"
-- Benjamin Franklin, circa the 1760's.

When reading about Franklin, what is most interesting is the intersection of his life and the formation of America. I dare say he embodies 1700's America, a one-man version of the entire country: pulling himself up by his bootstraps, toppling old rules and assumptions, showing singular potential and ingenuity, forewarning a new age.

And while much has changed in those nearly three centuries, some things look like just the same. The politics of immigration, with the 'old' migrants worrying about the voting power of the 'new' ones, as this snapshot of Franklin's times in politics show us:

This [the excerpt I quoted above] was reprinted now to injure
him [Franklin] with that people, and succeeded only too well.
Yet, though the Irish and German votes were thus
united against him, - a combination almost unfailingly
successful in America, - and though he was pelted with
pamphlets, broadsides, and caricatures impugning his
every public act and laying bare his private life, his
hold was so great with the masses that he would have
been reelected but for an error of judgment in the party
managers. A graphic account of the struggle was
written by a Pennsylvanian :

"The poll was opened about 9 in the morning, the 1st of
October, and the steps so crowded, till between 11 and 12 at
night, that at no time a person could get up in less than a
quarter of an hour from his entrance at the bottom, for they
could go no faster than the whole column moved. About 3
in the morning, the advocates for the new ticket moved for a
close, but (O ! fatal mistake ! ) the old hands kept it open, as
they had a reserve of the aged and lame, which could not
come in the crowd, and were called up and brought out in
chairs and litters, &c., and some who needed no help, between

 3 and 6 o'clock, about 200 voters. As both sides took
care to have spies all night, the alarm was given to the new
ticket men ; horsemen and footmen were immediately dis-
patched to Germantown, &c., and by 9 or 10 o'clock they
began to pour in, so that after the move for a close, 7
or 800 votes were procured ; about 500 or near it of
which were for the new ticket, and they did not close till

3 in the afternoon, and it took them till 1 next day to count
them off."

The incident is one of peculiar interest, because it is
the only time Franklin ever failed of an election, and,
indeed, his political success was so uniform that a
Quaker demanded of a mutual acquaintance, "Friend
Joseph, didst thee ever know Dr. Franklin to be in a
minority?". Yet, though defeat is hardest to the most
successful, he seems to have taken it well. "Mr.
Franklin," continued the above narrator, "died like a
philosopher" ; and writing of his opposition to the
Paxton rioters, and of the resulting political effect, the
defeated assemblyman said: "I had, by this transaction,

made myself many enemies among the populace ;
and the governor (with whose family our public dis-
putes had long placed me in an unfriendly light, and
the services I had lately rendered him not being of the
kind that make a man acceptable), thinking it a favorable

opportunity, joined the whole weight of the proprietary
interest to get me out of the Assembly ; which
was accordingly effected at the last election, by a majority of
about twenty-five in four thousand voters."

So after complaining of the newer arrivals, Mr Franklin was voted out of office - a bit like the GOP establishment of today fearing the new immigrants may be a Dem's trojan horse, and the resistance among many to giving Dreamers a path to citizenship (and vote).

The analogy is so good, it holds for the backlash to the above incident too:

The triumph to the proprietary party was more apparent than real: though they had succeeded in defeating Franklin, they had not been able to beat his party,
for " the other Counties returned nearly the same
members who had served them before, so that the old
faction " had "still a considerable majority in the
House." The Assembly, therefore, when met, chose
Franklin its agent to go to Great Britain with a petition to the king that he end the proprietary government;
so all his opponents had accomplished was to place him
in a position to do them infinitely more injury than would
have been possible had he been reelected to the Assembly.


Which is a bit like ignoring anti-immigrant voters for a while, only to have them doing infinitely more damage by electing Trump.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Still Heading Towards Civil War

Instapundit linked to "Schumer's shutdown reveals: Democrats will destroy America just to spite Trump." While hyperbolic, it's not enough of an exaggeration for comfort. While probably not willing to "destroy" America, I think many Democrats would be willing to cause damage to all of America if it inflicted severe pain on Red America.

And I'm virtually certain many republicans would happily damage America if it inflicted sufficient pain on Democrats. Indeed, that's at least part of what the election of Trump was. Perhaps Trump hasn't actually damaged all of America as much as might've been expected, but prior to his election, I definitely got the feeling that a lot of Trump voters supported him believing that it was quite likely he was going to be like Samson and pull the entire temple that is America down, but it was worth it because it would damage Democrats and the elite.

So there are a substantial number of people on both sides who are willing to sustain damage and pain if only it hurts the other side more. That's really not a good situation, especially if it festers for decades. Someday, the Left and the Right of the United States will be just like the Palestinians and the Jews, forever at each others' throats and forever killing each other with no possible solution.

Have a nice day!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ho Hum - Another San Diego Sunset

This one was from a couple of weeks ago when the sun was especially far south (visiting Clovis and his neighbors). Fortunately, the sun is coming back now and summer will be here in no time! Not that winters here are so terrible. :-)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Martyr 2018, s**thole version

What would you do if, in your view, your country was taken by a pseudo-communist dictatorship, rewriting the Constitution as it pleased and turning the courts, including the Supreme one, into a tool of the Executive, while expelling or jailing the opposition?

Well, if you happen to live in a s**thole country, you could try to emigrate to one with better bathrooms, as well as better rule of law.

Or, since such emigration is getting harder and harder by the day, you can just as well make a revolution!

Or die trying to make one. That's what Oscar Perez, a former cop in Venezuela (and a former actor too, with a keen sense for marketing) tried to do when, in last June, he robbed a helicopter and used it to launch explosives against the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Since then, he and his group has been hunted down by the Venezuelan security forces. After a few humiliating months, where their merry band made a fool of Maduro's forces like this...

Then in December, a video posted on Perez's YouTube account shows armed, masked men taking control of military barracks under cover of night.
They smash photos of Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, handcuff around a dozen soldiers and berate them for supporting 'dictatorship' in Venezuela. Perez says his team stole around 26 AK-103's and over 3,000 munitions for the rifles, as well as pistols.

... the security forces finally got hold of the rebels (very short video):

If you have patience, and the stomach for it, you can watch a series of short videos Mr. Perez himself sent, in his last minutes, through Instagram (the link opens up the first of 18 of those videos, you can follow the rest in that same Youtube sequence).

To which I must grudgingly concede the point, often presented in favor of the 2nd Amendment, that an armed society is indeed a drag to any autocratic ruler.

Monday, January 08, 2018

One For Erp

Teachers unions may not be the root of all evil, but they may well be counterproductive for society in aggregate. Here's an excerpt from a recent paper from Cornell University:
We find robust evidence that exposure to teacher collective bargaining laws worsens the future labor market outcomes of men: living in a state that has a duty-to-bargain law for all 12 grade-school years reduces male earnings by $1,493 (or 2.75%) per year and decreases hours worked by 0.52 hours per week.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018


According to a pair of reports, one from the Aviation Safety Network and the other from the Dutch consulting firm To70, zero passenger jets crashed anywhere on Earth in 2017. And this despite more airline flights than ever in history.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year

I decided to sing my New Years Song (very originally and cleverly named "Happy New Year!") and record a video of it this morning.

Happy New Year! Enjoy!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Intuition, Irrationality and the End of Civilization

I have an overwhelmingly strong intuition that if Trump is removed from office for any reason, good or bad, western civilization will have a substantial risk of collapsing in my lifetime.

Why, you might ask? Actually, you probably wouldn't ask since it's extremely likely you simply flat out reject that assertion. And you might as well reject it, because I can't defend it.

I can't defend it because it's intuition. An intuition that emerges from millions upon millions of factoids and associations swirling about my brain from 59 years of observing and contemplating, a large fraction of them conflicting, inconsistent and/or incomplete, but that nonetheless result in a very strong vector pointing at danger. How could I convey to you those associations and thoughts? I simply can't as there are orders of magnitude too many of them. Humans are wonderfully good at absorbing information quickly; we are very slow at communicating such information to others.

I could throw out various facts and conjectures supporting my assertion, but you can easily find opposing facts and argue opposite hypotheses. I know this, because those same opposing facts and opposite hypotheses are swirling around in my brain as well. It's not any one thing, or any handful of things that forms the basis of my fear, but rather the sum total of way too many things.

And fear it is, a strong enough fear that it pushes me well into an "ends justifies the means" sort of mentality where I wouldn't hesitate to do irrational, unethical and immoral things if it would save Trump and I could get away with it.

I would certainly make bogus arguments if it would help. I haven't done so posting or commenting on this blog, at least not intentionally and hopefully not extensively, because y'all are smart enough and informed enough that it won't help - you'll see right through the bogus arguments.

It's often very difficult to tell the difference between a statement based on intuition and a bogus statement. An intuitive statement simply can't have sufficient data to back it up while a bogus statement simply doesn't have sufficient data to back it up. Indeed, perhaps all statements based on intuition are bogus.

As an example, I'll rush in where angels fear to tread, and consider a statement from a different post: "Flynn is guilty of nothing except a process crime..." I intuit that to be probably fundamentally correct. However, it could also be completely bogus and false. But I can turn it into an absolutely true statement fairly easily: "I believe that Flynn is fundamentally guilty of nothing except a process crime." Yet, in a discussion group like this, I believe that the two statements should be interpreted the same - in other words, unless explicitly stated, everything is a belief or opinion.

What's interesting to me in a group with smart people like this is to see what other people think and why they think it. I'm fully aware there's not a chance I'm gonna change anyone's mind on much of anything, or to the extent that can happen at all, it'll be subtle and over thousands of interactions (to slowly add to other folks' brain state vectors). But I enjoy learning from y'all so I hope you stick around and keep the debates passionate, but (hopefully) respectful.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Age of Outrage

This article by Jonathan Haidt, to me, is the most insightful of the year and perhaps the millennium. It's tough to excerpt so I'll just provide the link.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

My 1.5 Seconds of Fame

Due to a backstory that doesn't need, repeating, I end up on Youtube.

You definitely will want to have a sick sack handy.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Because he isn't, or because no one is?

The Times' Editorial makes a brief summary and rebuttal of the present mindset, among most Trump supporters, about Robert Mueller and his probe. It ends with that classical question:

But if your man is really innocent, what’s the worry?

The question, though legitimate, often is a diversion when it ignores the process itself can be a punishment, even more when reputations are on the line. It also ignores that most people assume Trump may well be guilty of something - as if any human being on Earth were capable to follow straight the hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations in the books of any modern society - but that it hardly would justify what some see as a political witch-hunt against the President.

Seeing how the Law, down here in my Third World setting, is so often used as a tool against enemies, instead of an instrument to make Justice, I am surely aware of the cynical use that question may have.

But I still would argue that, for now, Trump supporters should wait and see, instead of panicking in a frenzy of accusations against all the FBI leadership of the last 15 years. For two reasons: (i) if they truly believe the FBI is as dirty as they imply, they have a far greater problem than Russiagate. I mean, they would need to check back every single case those people ever worked on, wouldn't they? And (ii), If this is a political witch-hunt, they have little to worry, because this is going to be subjected to a political jury. For when push comes to shove, it is the two chambers -  in complete control of Republicans - who will need to decide if they want to keep Trump, or have Pence for a change. I even would change that NYT's Editorial line to:

But if your man is even guilty, what’s the worry?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

US Culture Becomes More Absurd By The Day

This one is from the "you couldn't make this stuff up" category and is so absurd that I've been diligently waiting for Snopes to say it's a hoax but as of right now, it seem to be legitimate.

The first part of the story is straightforward - nothing unusual here:
Apple’s first-ever vice president of diversity and inclusion, Denise Young Smith, is leaving Apple at the end of this year, TechCrunch has learned. Young Smith, who has only been in the position since May of this year, previously served as Apple’s head of worldwide human resources for three years.
So why did she leave? Perhaps because Ms. Young Smith, a black woman, made an interesting comment at the One Young World Summit earlier this year:
... there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.
I'm neither blue-eyed, nor blonde, but I can't say that I disagree with that, at least not strongly.

Nonetheless, Apple and Ms. Young Smith have parted ways, perhaps because a diversity and inclusion expert really ought not say such things in this day and age. Here's the funny take on it (by a black columnist, in case that matters):
I am not saying that God, the universe, RihannayoncĂ© or whoever you worship as a higher power is petty, but in one of the most hilarious twists of fate ever, Apple’s vice president of inclusion and diversity, Denise Young Smith, who once whitesplained how hiring 12 white, blond, blue-eyed men could actually be seen as promoting diversity, has been replaced.
By a blond, blue-eyed white woman.

Friday, November 17, 2017


I'm not sure how I feel about all the recent groping and sexual assault allegations, from G.H.W. Bush to Al Franken to Roy Moore to most of Hollywood and beyond.

First, I wonder if I had been a very public figure for my 58 years and constantly photographed and imaged, if due to sheer bad luck, one of my hands was caught in a possibly awkward position on camera. I don't think so, but I really don't remember where my hands have been for every second of my life. It wouldn't've been intentional, but I don't know absolutely for sure.

And during my career, I've been alone with a woman (and also a man for that matter) one-on-one more than once. They could accuse me of doing anything during those times, and while not true, it might've been thought plausible, especially by enemies (if I had enemies).

Once, I texted my wife "I love you!" (plus some heart emoticons). A not uncommon thing to do. Unfortunately, I had selected a female employee's text address instead of my wife's and the text went to the female employee. This particular female employee thought it was hilarious (especially my obvious and extreme discomfort with the whole thing). But a different female employee could potentially have made life very difficult for me, even if she eventually lost any lawsuit (which she probably would have because it was pretty obvious I was trying to text my wife).

In court in a criminal case, something has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt for the defendant to be convicted. In the court of public opinion, especially the opinion's of one's ideological opposites, the merest hint of impropriety seems to be enough to convict and destroy the life, or at least the career, of the accused.

And are women really so fragile? A hand brushing against a buttocks or breast is a life-long traumatic event? Or even a single forced kiss (like Franken is accused of)? Isn't that reason enough by itself never to hire a woman - because she's too fragile and easily traumatized?

And then there's Hollywood. As a parent, a common complement to the parent goes something like, "Your child is so beautiful - she could be an actress!" And I used to think, "Oh my god, I hope not!" And why did I hope not? Because it's always been common knowledge that an awful lot of actresses and models have had sex with an awful lot of casting directors and agents for the purpose of getting work. This is nothing even vaguely new. What seems to be new is that a woman can use sex to get herself a role and then accuse the casting director of sexual harassment after her work finishes.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think the any of the above is right or moral or ethical. But the zealous fervor that's bringing down all these people also doesn't seem quite right or moral or ethical to me. But I'll admit, I'm not quite sure why.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Leaps in Artificial Intelligence

One of the holy grails of Artificial Intelligence research has been to understand how the human brain works. The idea is that if we knew how the brain works we could simulate its processing using computers and those computers would then be intelligent. Alas, remarkably little is known about the brain.

In the last few years, AI researchers have tried a different, but related approach. They've simulated neural network topologies in a computer that are sorta based on neural connectivity in a brain. The idea is that even though nobody knows how those neurons in the brain work when connected like that, perhaps those topologies will do something useful anyway.

And much to my utter amazement, that approach has made some really jaw dropping (well, my jaw, anyway) breakthroughs in a wide range of areas from vision to self-driving cars to emerging intelligence to self-directed learning and more. There's not time and space for me to get into all of these areas, but I'll touch on a couple.

The first is image recognition. A huge goal of AI has been to be able to have a computer look at an image and tell you what's in the image (for example, a car or sword or shark or poppy or fighter-jet or ...). And since a human can distinguish between hundreds of thousands of different types of objects, wouldn't it be nice if the computer could also distinguish between that many different things as well.

As of 2010, that level of ability for image recognition by computers was a pipe dream, and nothing more. As of today, a mere 7 years later, computers are now really good at that. Not quite as good as humans, but rapidly closing in as shown by the following graph:

Some background is required for the graph above. In 2006, some researchers got the idea to create a database of 14,000,000+ images (they hope to have 100 million images eventually) of tens of thousands of different objects, each image labeled with the object(s) it contains and bounding boxes of each object. With this database, neural nets can be trained to recognize the objects. Then, when shown an arbitrary image, the neural net will identify the objects in it.

The database is called ImageNet and was first ready for use in 2010. A contest was created to see who, if anybody, could create and train neural nets to distinguish between the tens of thousands of objects in the database. In 2010, the results were dismal with most contestants guessing right less than half the time. But, by trial-and-error and building on the best successes (evolution?), each year the results got better - a lot better. To the point where if you show one of the better nets a picture (and the picture is reasonably clear and a few other minor caveats), it will correctly identify the main object(s) (again, out of tens of thousands of possible different objects) in the image the vast majority of the time. And anyone can download these trained nets and utilize them with open source software such as Google's TensorFlow. While it takes weeks and weeks of cloud computing to train these networks using 14,000,000 images, once trained, a typical desktop can recognize the objects in an image in a few tens of seconds and in less than a second if it has a sufficiently powerful GPU (it turns out that graphics cards happen to be nearly exactly optimal for processing neural nets).

These image recognition nets are called "deep learning convolutional nets" and nobody really knows how they work, only that they do. Sorta like how we don't know how the human brain works - only that it does. Some modifications of these nets has enabled a lot of different applications to be addressed. For example, a while back, an AI beat the worlds Go champion. Ho hum, chess had already fallen to computers, so not a big deal, right? But it got a little more interesting a few weeks ago:
A new paper published in Nature today describes how the artificially intelligent system that defeated Go grandmaster Lee Sedol in 2016 got its digital ass kicked by a new-and-improved version of itself. And it didn’t just lose by a little—it couldn’t even muster a single win after playing a hundred games. Incredibly, it took AlphaGo Zero (AGZ) just three days to train itself from scratch and acquire literally thousands of years of human Go knowledge simply by playing itself.
Self-learning artificial intelligence. Pretty nifty.

Many of these techniques (and many more) are used in self-driving cars. They will soon teach themselves to drive really well - "literally thousands of years of human" driving experience. Bigger nets will be able to incorporate millions of years of human driving experience. It may take years to train them, but once trained, they can be downloaded to all cars. Humans may bested by AI in wide range of applications in my children's lifetimes, not just relatively trivial things like chess and Go (which only 10 years ago were not considered at all trivial).

I'll leave you with what I think is a very interesting video. I'm sure you've all seen faces morph from one person to another, but I think you'll find that the morphing is qualitatively different starting at the 1:50 mark on the video. All of those faces are simulated by the neural net which has been trained to "know" what a face is. The morphing from one face to another, even radically different faces in different poses, tends to stay pretty realistic throughout the transition. And the scene morphing, also completely simulated, maintains a surprisingly realistic rendition even when changing between radically different scenes, for example the bedrooms just after 4:00. Enjoy!
More information on the video is here.