Archive for computer virus

Significance and artificial intelligence

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by xi'an

As my sorry excuse of an Internet provider has been unable to fix my broken connection for several days, I had more time to read and enjoy the latest Significance I received last week. Plenty of interesting entries, once again! Even though, faithful to my idiosyncrasies, I must definitely criticise the cover (but you may also skip till the end of the paragraph!): It shows a pile of exams higher than the page frame on a student table in a classroom and a vague silhouette sitting behind the exams. I do not know whether or not this is intentional but the silhouette has definitely been added to the original picture (and presumably the exams as well!), because the seat and blackboard behind this silhouette show through it. If this is intentional, does that mean that the poor soul grading this endless pile of exams has long turned into a wraith?! If not intentional, that’s poor workmanship for a magazine usually apt at making the most from the graphical side. (And then I could go on and on about the clearly independent choice of illustrations by the managing editor rather than the author(s) of the article…) End of the digression! Or maybe not because there also was an ugly graph from Knowledge is Beautiful about the causes of plane crashes that made pie-charts look great… Not that all the graphs in the book are bad, far from it!

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.’ S. Hawkins

The central theme of the magazine is artificial intelligence (and machine learning). A point I wanted to mention in a post following the recent doom-like messages of Gates and Hawking about AIs taking over humanity à la Blade Runner… or in Turing’s test. As if they had not already impacted our life so much and in so many ways. And no all positive or for the common good. Witness the ultra-fast codes on the stock market. Witness the self-replicating and modifying computer viruses. Witness the increasingly autonomous military drones. Or witness my silly Internet issue, where I cannot get hold of a person who can tell me what the problem is and what the company is doing to solve it (if anything!), but instead have to listen to endless phone automata that tell me to press “1 if…” and “3 else”, and that my incident ticket has last been updated three days ago… But at the same time the tone of The Independent tribune by Hawking, Russell, Tegmark, and Wilczek is somewhat misguided, if I may object to such luminaries!, and playing on science fiction themes that have been repeated so many times that they are now ingrained, rather than strong scientific arguments. Military robots that could improve themselves to the point of evading their conceptors are surely frightening but much less realistic than a nuclear reaction that could not be stopped in a Fukushima plant. Or than the long-term impacts of genetically modified crops and animals. Or than the current proposals of climate engineering. Or than the emerging nano-particles.

“If we build systems that are game-theoretic or utility maximisers, we won’t get what we’re hoping for.” P. Norvig

The discussion of this scare in Significance does not contribute much in my opinion. It starts with the concept of a perfect Bayesian agent, supposedly the state of an AI creating paperclips, which (who?) ends up using the entire Earth’s resources to make more paperclips. The other articles in this cover story are more relevant, as for instance how AI moved from pure logic to statistical or probabilist intelligence. With Yee Whye Teh discussing Bayesian networks and the example of Google translation (including a perfect translation into French of an English sentence).


Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by xi'an

Being a great fan of Neal Stephenson (as shown by the previous review of Anathem), I was waiting for an opportunity to buy his latest REAMDE [no typo in the title there!], opportunity that I found in Providence during my short foray to the University bookstore. Having read the whole 1000+ pages of the book during my trip to India, I came back rather disapointed, even though I acknowledge it considerably helped alleviating the boredom of long train rides and short flights, and keeping the stress under control during the numerous delays that punctuated my visit. Because of its thriller nature.

In short, REAMDE is like a domino cascade: pulling out a first event/domino induces a cataclysmic event, due to an accumulating sequence of less and less likely coincidences. While it requires a strong dose of suspension of disbelief, as most thrillers do, it also creates the condition for addictive reading, once you are familiar and comfortable with the gallery of characters. However, once the book is over, you cannot but wonder why you got caught in this most unbelievable and rather predictable story.

Without providing too many spoilers (and no more than the reviews quoted on the book covers), REAMDE involves [among many other things] Iowan non-nonsense farmers, a reformed marijuana importer turned into a video game mogul, US computer geeks (with the appropriate amount of Unix code and Linux lore), Erythrean refugees, gun-crazy survivalist Idohans, Vancouver and Seattle locals, Russian gangsters, Chinese computer hackers, Cambridge history professors, a War of Warcraft replica, Taiwanese fishermen, MI6 spies, random generators, more CIA spies, Hungarian computer super-hackers, more Chinese tea peddlers, former Russian commandos, Philippines sex-tourists, Welsh and Canadian djihadists, and lots and lots of weapons… Not mentioning a fairly comprehensive description of the contents of Walmarts. This makes for a wee indigestible ratatouille and for a rather incomprehensible conclusion about the point of the book. Having picked djihadist as villeins turns about everyone else into a good guy, even though they all are trigger-happy and very little concerned about legality and justice. There may of course be a second level of reading to the book, namely that the debauch of weaponry and the insistence on how easy it is to get them from Walmart could be taken as a (too?) subtle criticism of the insane gun policy in America, as well as a criticism of the failed war in Afghanistan, compensating for the said failure by a fantasy revenge of the Americans (and Russians) on (Afghan and non-Afghan) talibans intent on entering the US to duplicate 09/11. Given the cleverness of Stephenson, this is not completely out of the picture, but I doubt most readers will follow this route! (This review by Cory Doctorow shows why.)

Once again, this is not such a terrible book and I enjoyed it at some level. (At least, I finished it unlike American Gods!) The part about the computer game is both enjoyable and central to the plot (no further spoilers!), even though the author tries too hard to convince us this is not World of Warcraft. I actually found many common features, based on the limited knowledge gained from watching my son play the game, and thought the idea of centering the plot on the game fairly clever, if somehow unrealistic. The second part of the book lost a bit of its appeal with the endless RV drive in BC and the even more endless pursuit/mini-war in the woods. And I could have done (once again!) without the very final “happy [well, not that happy!] ending”. Thus, read REAMDE at your own risk!