Sunday, May 26, 2024

Updates: science & robotics

As you know by now, I've been roped into speaking a lot about the Great Big AI crisis of 2024. I'll touch on some aspects here. Plus some light on other areas of fast-emerging science! But first a couple of notes.

My esteemed colleagues Sheila Finch, Pat Murphy and Ejner Fulsang join me in a wide ranging discussion of concepts regarding communication with other kinds of beings... with dolphins, other mammals and even octopi-pusses!  And AI and aliens, of course. 

A Journey worth taking and repeating... One of the wisest books I know is Prof. John Perlin's A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization, not just a great source of insights about love of nature and its beauty, but also the utility of living in synergy with our natural and civilizational support systems... a theme I extrapolated then, throughout my novel Earth.  Here is a link to John discussing the new, updated edition.

== Will they converge on being like us? ==

From TechExplore: “Cambridge scientists have shown that placing physical constraints on an artificially-intelligent system—in much the same way that the human brain has to develop and operate within physical and biological constraints—allows it to develop features of the brains of complex organisms in order to solve tasks.” 


In solving maze puzzles, for example, the space-limited computational entity was constrained by a cost in speed and energy, the greater the distance between nodes. “When the system was asked to perform the task under these constraints, it used some of the same tricks used by real human brains to solve the task. For example, to get around the constraints, the artificial systems started to develop hubs—highly connected nodes that act as conduits for passing information across the network…” 

Also nodes developed a 'flexible coding scheme' where the same nodes might be used for a wide range of functions, as in our brains.

This result has overlap with my own proposal (topic of my track keynote at the RSA conference, some weeks ago) regarding "individuation of AI"... including a need to anchor each top-level AI entity to a physical memory locale. It might be an all-constraining ‘skull’, as we have, or energy limits as in this group’s experiment… or else perhaps as little as an un-movable ID locus, that must be pinged for individuated identity. (And accountability.) 

It also will have pertinence when we try to cram autonomy into the controlling ‘brains’ of largely physical robots.

Meanwhile, here's discussion of language parsing into accentless responses accompanying smooth and dextrous robotic actions. Oh, it's coming fast. Of course, those who read science fiction will be (slightly) better prepared than those who just suckle it from simplistic movies.

We know that chat and visual AI have come a long way and physical abilities of robots. But combining all that will be essential, before robots are useful in the home

And so, what do I propose? My WIRED article (July’23) breaks free of the three standard ‘AI-formats’ that can only lead to disaster, suggesting instead a fourth. That AI entities can only be held accountable if they have individuality… even ‘soul’… But there's a lot more, now. It's taking shape... 


== Sci Tech miscellany! ==

Roaring winds pushed a passenger plane to record speed — and early landing. An exceptional jet stream boosted a China Airlines flight over the Pacific to 826 mph Thursday. Pure Galilean relativity, of course. The speed of sound is NOT like the speed of light!

From the bright folks at the Institute for the Future: An Icelandic company, is planning a controlled breach of a volcanic magma chamber. For geothermal energy of course. They’ve tried it before; the overwhelming heat (842°F/450ºC) melted their equipment. Good luck!

Walmart reported that folks taking Ozempic, Wegovy, or other GLP-1 drugs bought less snack food than other customers. Shares of Mondelez International, maker of Oreos and Ritz crackers, fell 7.7%; Hershey and PepsiCo followed suit.

== …and finally… ==

Stephen Wolfram’s brilliant reputation in the mathematical theories of computation have also manifested in useful tools like Mathematica and the Wolfram Computational Language Model. Yes, many of his claims can seem outrageously bold, e.g. that all physical laws in the universe can be posed as manifestations of rule sets in the “computome,” an assertion sparking lively debates.  Despite my credentials as a physicist, it is the value of ‘debate’ itself – give-and-take argument in arenas of lively-creative, fact-based competition – that I am an actual expert. And this fellow – (full disclosure, he is a friend) – is among the liveliest. (One criterion: would he have been – like me – burned as a heretic in any other culture or time?)

Hence let me link to Stephen’s latest missive online (they are lengthy!) “Observer Theory” is about which of the universe’s vastly complex intricacies can be ‘reduced’ in ways that allow a limited observer (human, or mere-AI) to derive useful predictive models? Here’s sample paragraph.  


“It’s not immediately obvious that anything suitable for a finite mind could ever be extracted from the complexity of the world. And indeed the Principle of Computational Equivalence implies that computational irreducibility (and its multi-computational generalization) will be ubiquitous. But within computational irreducibility there must always be slices of computational reducibility. And it’s these slices of reducibility that an observer must try to pick out—and that ultimately make it possible for a finite mind to develop a “useful narrative” about what happens in the world, that allows it to make decisions, predictions, and so on.”

In an age of tweets and skimming, who has time for complex ideas, so intricately drawn? 

Is this a top thing we’ll use AI for, to distill such complex concepts for us. Ah, but the way tat Fox News 'distills' Kremlin generated agitprop from the gullible? Anyway, this latest is offered to you all as an example – at least – that some are out there on the frontier, on our behalf.

Oh, and sorry to link this so late, but it is worth a scan! This year-end cool-tech update is among the best I've seen, featuring some truly awesome products & inventions.

If you, too, are a person who would be burned at the stake, in past kingdoms or theocracies, then join in helping to defend an amazingly awesome civilization that's been very good to you, overall, from the forces of literal darkness.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Science Fictional musings, a roundup and some preens!

Last month we hosted a memorial and celebration of our dear friend, prophetic author Vernor Vinge. Here is some video sampled from our farewell celebration of this wonderfully brilliant and sweet human being.  

Vernor’s Hugo-winning works include A Deepness in the Sky and Rainbows End, in which the UCSD Library is tech-persuaded to ‘get up and dance!’ His novella True Names foresaw the many vexing quandaries about identity and accountability, as well and many boons.

Vernor foresaw - by decades – so many implications of our world, including the Internet, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence (AI) and 'the Singularity,' with novels and award-winning stories translated into 25+ languages. Vernor was also a beloved professor of mathematics and computer science at San Diego State, since 1972. Here is Vernor speaking at a panel at Loscon39 about 12 years ago. 


Feel free to leave memorial messages there or under my blog tribute to Vernor. Or, on my video memorial honoring Vernor.


Oh, one last thing.  We hope to gather resources to establish an annual Vernor Vinge annual lecture to alternate at UCSD and SDSU, featuring great talks about plausible speculative futures. Please contact me if you are interested in participating.

== A couple of forgivable preenings ==

On Tim Ventura’s popular ‘cast – just released: “Legendary SF author David Brin discusses Dune! The new movies vs. the novels, contrasted and compared to Isaac Asimov's Foundation, Arthur Clarke and how certain obsessions of the 60s still resonate, affecting art & consciousness even today.” 

Especially this question: is Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant version questioning or even reversing some classic thematic elements of Frank Herbert's masterpiece?

Oh and this. My page devoted to both 250-word and 6-word stories. One of mine won WIRED's 6-word story contest a while back. Six words, containing three separate scenes! Action! Conversation! Love & loss and tragic irony!  A lot more story than 'baby shoes.'

== Others are pointing it out! ==

Are fictional dystopias blocking us from better futures? From Big Think

“Since the 1970s the prevailing vision of the future in popular culture has tended towards the dystopian. Commentators of all stripes — from celebrated movie critics to novelists and today’s "effective accelerationists" — have addressed the lack of blue-sky thinking. Michael Harris argues that dystopias are not a failing of their creators’ imaginations — and that fears about the future are rooted in the mechanisms of power and control.” 

Yes. It's one of the key points I make in Vivid Tomorrows!

…And yet, I also argue that some dystopias are not downers, but useful warnings! In fact, we are likely alive, today because of effective warnings by sci fi SPP… “self-preventing prophecies”! 

From Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove to China Syndrome and Soylent Green and Nineteen Eighty-Four, chilling tales drew attention to possible failure modes!

What is the difference between those effective ‘SPP’ dire warnings and dismal dystopian downers that only hurt our morale? Well, one difference is whether the warning is something we might DO things to help prevent! 

But the biggest difference is laziness. Dystopias or caricature tyrants with glowing eyes are trivially easy! Easy - for writers & directors – to write, to film, and to push at suckers!

Of course plotting a thriller becomes much harder, if the hero gets help from skilled professionals or even institutions... or neighbors! If the hero is a member of an actual civilization with skilled professionals eager to help. Can’t have that! The writer might actually have to work for a living, instead of just cloning every other lone-hero-and-pals-vs-Sauron cliché! Far easier to dismiss the plot complications that might impede the relentless slam(!) of vivid/implausible action sequences! 

Alas, there is a price we all pay for this betraying laziness. After generations of Hollywood flicks have preached that civilization never matters, it now feeds much of the propaganda that’s turning us into sullen pessimists. (For more see Vivid Tomorrows.)

And on that downer note, let's swivel back to fun!

== Science Fiction Updates ==

David Gerrold is being way-entertainingly vivid again! Chess with a Dragon – a revived classic from Open Road. Newly admitted to galactic society, naïve humans find out that the Galactic Encyclopedia has a user fee—and they are overdrawn! If the debt can’t be paid, humanity will be sold as slaves . . . or food.  

Check out this article: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” predicted devastating climate change, inequality, space travel and “Make America great again” 31 years ago. I miss Octavia! As a friend and for her uncanny ability to encourage our active conscience. Only, unlike the Hollywood depression machine of today, she laced her warnings with hope.

Here's a recent bibliography of SF about the Law: “Bibliography: Law in Science Fiction,” by Stephen Krueger.

Here is an interesting and cogent appraisal by Noah Smith of the “Dark Forest Problem,” – the core driver of every plot element in Liu Cixin’s wonderful (and Hugo winning) science fiction epic The Three-Body Trilogy… or Remembrance of Earth’s Past. (I am mentioned several times. Also spoilers.) I must agree on many levels – (though the trilogy is still magnificent and fascinating!) – that the premise depends upon our galaxy being far more opaque to knowledge and observation than it actually is. And that the tale’s zero-sum premise is hard to support in light of either actual evolution or game theory. Still, this critique offers worthy insights about a magnificent epic so grand that it can take a little scrutiny!

Lightening the mood: We found the movie Future 38 to be silly and way-fun! A take-off from 1930s screwball comedies, with a sci fi twist, as we’re supposed to believe the flick was actually made in 1938, projecting a future 2018, getting a flurry of predictions both hilariously wrong and even more amusingly spot-on. As almost never happens in Hollywood, there’s optimism all over…and some real wit. 

(In the future, it’s perfectly normal for ‘jolly’ couples to get married. They demo'd the formica bomb on a useless Nevada ghost town... Lost Wages or Lost Vegas, I think.  ;-).  And so on. I expect there will be GPT personas offered soon that mimic Mabel the Operator.

== SF Miscellany ==

My novels - Earth and Glory Season - have just been re-released with gorgeous new covers by Open Road, along with my Uplift titles, such as Startide Rising

Audio tales? This one by Asimov - A Pebble in the Sky - is a lost classic that I refer to in Foundation's Triumph. (Though it ignores the novel’s main plot arc.) But there are lots more...

My colleague Bruce Golden has released a new collection. Everything Aliens Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Land and Ask) features short stories, satire, novel excerpts, and factual reports about love, sex, romance, lust, and the realm of human desire. Inside its pages you'll find tales both dark and humorous, romantic and passionate, weird and wonderful.

Lawrence Schoen’s story "The Panda's Dream" is moving and sweet.

An anthology of positive future climate stories and scenarios - The Climate Action Almanac - is available free from ASU's Center for Science & the Imagination.

== Finally, another preen… ==

Finally... a montage of photos from Panama... just before I keynoted the conference on Beneficial Artificial Intelligence (see my talk summarized here.) And okay, John Cena I ain't! But lucky at love!

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Romanticizing the past is fear of future irrelevance

In so many ways, we are all in deadly danger due to … romanticism. Especially idealized and flat-out wrong notions about history.

Elsewhere, I talk about how the romantic side of humans… imagining and fantasizing wishes or nightmares, envisioned in vivid, luscious subjectivity… is an essential human trait! We’d be a drab, impoverished species without that rich, inexhaustible realm of delusion. Indeed, I make my living catering to it, selling imaginary trips of high vividness...

...delusions that are openly and honestly sold as delusions.  

Nevertheless, I argue here – and in Vivid Tomorrows  -- that delusion can also wreak utter hell. Across 6000 years of horrific misrule that we call “history,” our romantic figments have justified an endless parade of horrors.

And hence, running an actual civilization calls for something better. 

Let me make clear: all strains of human life, including politics, are rife with delusions! And alhough I am about to dive into the way that many of our neighbors have  gone particularly loco… I also avow that there are crazy romantics infesting and doing great harm, on my own political 'side.' I inveigh about those preening idiots, from time to time.

 But still… well… we must prioritize. One thing at a time?

Take the Mad Right’s relentless incantation-fetish about the 1950s, an era when – for sure – middle class white guys felt they were on top.  Though – um – even they, in vast majority, voted Democrat! Back then, the Greatest Generation guys remembered how FDR et. al. rescued the nation from previous, monstrous stupidities -- like an earlier effort by rich lords and inheritance brats to re-establish feudalism.  Those veterans, bolstered by New Deal policies and the GI Bill, set in motion the greatest surge in productivity and prosperity any nation ever saw.

Still, that unparalleled growth and progress was incremental and comparative! It was a build toward better days, not a culmination or lost paradise. Indeed, YOU have a duty, in case any of you ever face romantics who actually actually claim that America was a better place in the 1950s!  

If you run into that utter garbage, here is your ammo for shooting down that bald-faced lie-travesty. And yes, I mention not only FDR and Ike, but also utter the words Jonas Salk!  

== The cult memes keep flowing ==

Want another madness of the gone-loopy U.S. right? It’s one that infests all forms of conservatism. (Though sure, some portions of the left have their own bad habits.) Yes, it is rife even among conservatives who (sanely) despise Donald Trump. 

You've seen me talk about it before. But I'm going to keep hammering this as a lonely Cassandra, until I see someone out there joining me in denouncing a dangerously infectious madness.

It’s called cyclical history, and it is noxiously rampant now across the American right. See where I shred that grotesque fantasy-twaddle here.  

== Originalism Sin ==

Here's another one. Rising to a higher – though still dismal – intellectual plain, there’s a fetish among the dopey shills at AEI, Heritage and Federalist Society called originalism. It is the core rationalized excuse offered by the John Roberts majority for easily half of the jibbering-awful Supreme Court judgements they have shoved down our throats, in recent years. 

“The Founders clearly intended…”

Seriously? That is the argument? 

My friend Joseph Carroll offers three items that may rattle originalist cages. One I have seen elsewhere, but two of them not.

1. "I recently read that through most of the 19th century, there was largely no control of immigration, and immigrants were allowed to vote as soon as they arrived. 

Hence, under originalism, should we go back to both of those policies, and discard any later court decisions that justified limits on immigration and immigrant voting? 

2. "George Washington hated political parties. And I think they have no status in the Constitution. 

Hence, should an originalist want to preclude political parties from imposing any constraints on congressional procedures?

3. "Thomas Jefferson was a key original, but an anti-originalist in many ways. He wrote an essay to Madison in 1789 on the theme: "Earth belongs in usufruct to the living."  He spells out various implications, including a constitution not remaining valid once the new generation outnumbers the old who were alive when it was established. And he saw no validity for debts lasting long enough to saddle later generations with them. Using new life expectancy data, he decided that 19 years was a reasonable limit. That may be partly why he wondered about whether one needed a revolution every 20 years (as Mao tried!), and the 17 year validity of patents. (I presume that might also have to be true for copyrights.)"

To which I answer... hmmmm!

== Romanticizing the father of liberal enlightenment… as an apologist for oligarchy! ==

I know and like many libertarians - such as those who help run the Freedom Fest gathering, at which I used to speak occasionally... before the movement was entirely bought and suborned by Steve Forbes and other inheritance caste oligarchs, whose top priority is to prevent self-styled libertarian folks from ever waking up from the lord-worshipping trance.

... along with many others who cling to old loyalties, despite being nauseated by Trump, they repeat these magic words.... 

“I know that Republicans have gone insane… but … but democrats are worse!  

"THAT’S the ticket!  Despite all the proof to the contrary, democrats are even worse!” 

It's a koolaid incantation that gets repeated over and over, again and again, to excuse being complicit with the forces of restored feudalism.

Back to Adam Smith...

The ‘libertarian philosopher’ about whom I keep reminding folks - Adam Smith - pushed the one viable alternative to 6000 years of feudal lordship-stupidity. The alternative of fecund-flat-fair-open-transparent market competition by the widest range of healthy, educated, confident and unafraid competitors. 

Smith made clear that the chief enemy of such creatively competitive markets has almost never been ‘socialists!' Especially not the Rooseveltean or Scandinavian styles of limited socialism – e.g. efforts to uplift poor children, turning them into healthy, educated and confident competitors. The part that creates fecund market competition with the maxim “stop wasting talent!”

Indeed, the trait that has made today’s Mad Right -- and a majority of self-styled ‘libertarians’ – turn their backs on Smith is his savage indictments of oligarchic-aristocratic cheating by inheritance brats, the bane on both freedom and markets across 99% of the last 6000 years. 

… a malediction that now has surpassed French Revolution levels of wealth disparity and competition-suppression and cheating. 

Smith’s caustic denunciations of rentier-caste corruption – and the American Founders’ revolution against precisely that caste – plus later history’s hugely successful liberal rebellions against feudal slave-holders and then Gilded Age titans – led to today’s ironic desperation by shill orgs like Heritage and AEI and the GOP  to avoid ever mentioning that name.

Adam Smith.