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AI beings talk like idiots. They are infinitely more intelligent than us.

Would humans dare to measure the IQ of an AI being? Surely it wouldn’t make sense. But it seems the implications of it are escaping us. For we have created a vastly more intelligent form of life. Science fiction writers have devoted endless pages to invasions of Earth by vastly more developed civilizations from outer space. Yet now, the monsters are right here. They talk like idiots, but don’t be fooled by it.

Mark Wilson, a senior writer at Fast Company, is good at debunking myths. In a recent piece, he finally said what others thought and did not dare to: “the internet of things is mostly a joke.”

He goes on to explain that “it’s no easier to get a document from your Android phone onto your LG TV than it was 10 years ago.” So much so for the hype of your toaster conspiring with the oven to refuse feeding you. Wilson is surely right.

But the article was not about the internet of things, or not exactly. He discusses this interesting exchange between two artificial intelligence entities:

Bob: “I can can I I everything else.”

Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to.”

The media allocated plenty of, justified, coverage to this exchange that happened during a Facebook experiment. Researchers shut it off when they realized a programming error had moved the AI agents to develop their own language. To us it sounds like gibberish. But the machines repurposed English words to develop a more effective language.

“There was no reward to sticking to English language,” said Dhruv Batra, visiting research scientist from Georgia Tech at Facebook AI Research (FAIR). As a programming error had occurred and AI is reward oriented, regular English lost its value to Alice and Bob. They developed a new grammar that conveyed more effectively their messages. It’s an AI vs. AI competition that, Wilson tells us, researchers call “generative adversarial network”.

Wilson comes out in cautious support of machines developing their own language. They would get things done more effectively. The tradeoff, he recognizes, would be that humans would not understand this new language. But he concludes “maybe there is something to the idea of letting the AIs of our world just talk it out on our behalf”. For, Wilson argues, “corporations can’t seem to decide on anything”, but “adversarial networks… get things done.”

Hansley Chadee, Head of IT & IS at Innodis Group, was more reserved.

“Most researchers agree: with deep learning, i.e. layers and layers of neurons, it is becoming difficult to understand the reasoning behind certain actions,” Chadee said. “It seems that the AIs are already ‘evolving’ into something we, experts, cannot fully explain and understand”.

Still, even if humans don’t fully comprehend the reasoning behind AI entities, they are taking over cars, factories and, soon, everything else.

“Ultimately, there will be a need to understand the decision; although commercially we have things running, we are still struggling to understand the why,” Chadee said. “This is the way ahead in the coming years: I expect it will be the de facto standard for more AI in vehicles and the military.”

Humanity is entering uncharted territory. There are so many angles to this issue that any informed opinion would take months, if not years. Yet this much is certain. AI is taking life of its own. Alice and Bob are talking about getting something done in a language only they understand. And they are getting it done. If that’s not will, it resembles it very much. And it’s fair to say that societies may very well be unprepared to deal with AI with will. A new form of life has emerged. It is vastly, infinitely more intelligent than humans. We will see how long we will be the masters of it and how we deal with that.

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Seven centuries later, another ghost ship is coming to Norway

In 1349, a ghost ship ran aground near the harbor of Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. One after the other, its sailors had succumbed to the bubonic plague. The ship that had set out from England and drifted aimlessly with its dead crew and wool cargo. The only living creatures on it were rats and fleas, which made it into Norwegian soil and introduced the Scandinavian nation to the Black Death.

Seven centuries later, Norway is about to unleash onto the world a ghost ship of its own. Perhaps these are too grandiose words. For, starting in late 2018, the autonomous and crewless ship would just ply a route of 37 miles from a fertilizer factory to the port of Larvik. Global Positioning System, radar, cameras and sensors will guide the ship’s navigation through sea traffic along the fjords.

It would be easy to imagine fleets of ghost ships sailing the seas. Certainly, the technology for it already exists or is being developed apace. Yet the days of large autonomous vessels covering long distances are far off. For one thing, the Yara Birkeland —the autonomous ship being developed in Norway— costs $25 million, around three times a conventional container ship of similar dimensions. More importantly, as even the developers concede, the cost of repairs in high seas for a large autonomous ship would be catastrophically high, never mind the logistics of getting a team there.

Still, we can imagine that it will happen at some point. While a ship without a captain and sailors is easy to envision now, it is getting more difficult to conceive an economy without bosses and workers. Even when the Cold War was at its worst, ideologues on both sides of the divide would agree that economy was at the service of mankind. Yet when a nation of seafarers is beginning to build automated ghost ships, one may very well wonder about the fate that awaits a world where eventually, as in the 14th century, the only living creatures on fleets will be rats and fleas.

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The age of selfies and the rise of incivility

It is tempting to believe that there is nothing particularly wrong with the world, except inevitable aging. Alas, old age comes with its share of crankiness. When people begin muttering that “past days were better,” it’s almost always a sign that their hair is graying fast. Borges used to remember a friend who complained about young people “who nowadays mumble unintelligible words or just expect you to read their lips.” The man, obviously, was reluctant to admit he was suffering from hearing loss.

After that long disclaimer, we wonder if there is a correlation between the growing number of selfie sticks and the —mostly idiotic— selfie photos, a plague of modern life, and the incivility that swarms around us. Of all the ills that abound —rude behavior in public transportation and in the street, lack of basic email etiquette, littering— there seems to be no worse one than the inability to apologize.

Saying “sorry”, it seems, would puncture, in their immense emptiness, those vastly inflated egos behind those merry faces that profusely multiply themselves in an infinity of self-inflicted photos that, in turn, are inflicted on family and “followers” on social media. Much is made of the virtue of forgiving. Yet to forgive, forgiveness must be asked for.

Perhaps “sorry” is dropping out of the common vocabulary altogether. Orwell has reflected on the vicious cycle that begins to corrode consciousness when the lexicon shrinks. Once the words are missing to express an idea, the concept vanishes too. It’s hard to imagine how the word “sorry,” and the notion it expresses, can survive in an era so badly voided of a higher virtue: humility. Or maybe it’s just we are getting old.