Monday, February 17, 2014


At a talk at the Oxford Martin School titled Artificial intelligence: examining the interface between brain and machine, I asked Anders Sandberg what role, if any, cultural products, including fiction, could usefully play in thinking about the future.*   He replied:
I quite like Asimov's robot stories because they are beautiful demonstrations that if you try to get your robots to behave according to a fixed set of rules there are going to be conditions that lead to bizarre or stupid behaviours. There are actually good demonstration of why you shouldn't use that sort of programming. But Asimov came up with the rules mostly to have a good framework for this stories. The real problem is when people think they are proposed seriously.

Any individual story, and individual piece of fiction is not going to work. But I think reading a lot of science fiction is actually quite useful to stretch your mind. None of the individual stories in necessarily useful or helpful but they can help you get into mindsets that are very different. If there is one thing science fiction is about it is about dealing with the other – dealing with very different situations and especially beings that function in a very different way. And I think that flexibility is important when we start to reason about it. Ray Kurzweil suggested that we give future AI the golden rule. That way they would learn how to behave themselves. But anyone who has tried to explain the golden rule to an inquisitive 8 year old will realise there are plenty of loopholes in that. And that's a human 8 year old. If this had been an AI 8 year old the loopholes that are obvious to an intelligent machine would be very weird to us. 
I think the money quote in this talk was "We have very little idea how to encode a good values system [into intelligent machines]."

Here is an article titled The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence.  

At Charlie Stross's blog, Ramez Naam argues that The Singularity is Further Than It Appears.

* The video is here. My question is at 1.05.30 and Sandberg's reply at 1.09.15. I mentioned Marvin the Paranoid Android in the preface to my question in reference to his anecdote, at 1.01.00, about a robot he built that got stuck in a pattern of learned helplessness. The transcript above is not exact.

P.S. Maria Popova suggests some reasons why science fiction writers are good at predicting the future.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike

I have a review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Guardian. Here are a few notes and comments on points which I didn't manage to fit in the review or, if I did, got cut:

The hypothesis that the Chicxulub asteroid struck in June or July was mentioned by Jay Melosh on Radiolab's Apocalyptical, December 2013

Total content of the world’s nuclear arsenals  According to in 2009 there were 23,335 weapons with total yield 6,400MT (pdf).

Permian... a few decades   see analysis by Paul Wignall (video) -- initial pulses of CO2 over tens and hundreds to thousands of years, perhaps triggering a rapid release of methane over a few decades

30 to 50% of species functionally extinct by 2050  Sourced here

Additional input of heat...equivalent to...four atomic bomb detonations per second  See here. As I noted in Minotaur, the additional accumulation of heat in the oceans since the 1870s due to human activity is estimated as equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs.

exact and beautiful adaptations   Jacob Bronowski's lovely phrase occurs in the first few pages of The Ascent of Man (1973), about which Simon Critchley recently wrote a rather good piece.

artists    an interview with Maya Lin at Yale360. Tove Jannson had other disasters on her mind in 1946 but this still resonates.

extinctions... see these posts on extinction in The Blog of Barely Imagined Beings

... and new discoveries   not just of species, many of which are verging on extinction even as they are discovered (or rediscovered) but also processes in the Earth system itself of which we previously had little or no idea. So, for example, scientists did not anticipate the ozone hole (as is nicely summarised in this piece by Alice Bell). In the event, the international community was able to largely solve this problem.  The discovery of ocean acidification -- or at least the likely rapidity of its occurrence and the potential dangers it poses -- came as a surprise to many if not all.  Unlike ozone depletion, ocean acidification does not appear to have easy answer. A significant future surprise -- an unknown unknown -- may be relatively easy to solve, as ozone depletion appears to have been, or be wickedly hard, as ocean acidification appears to be.

Amphibians   a spark for Kolbert's book was her article about disappearing frogs in The New Yorker in 2009.

It's all pretty grim...  The Guardian cut the rest of the sentence:
...but reading The Sixth Extinction is like riding in a well-engineered German car. With apologies to Edward Behr, it could be titled Anything Here Nearly Extinct and Have a Scientist with First Class Communication Skills as a Spokesperson?
spend... hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the majority in the dark See, e.g.,
Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change and In the Carbon Wars, Big Oil Is Winning

it almost repels thought   in a review, Kathryn Schulz writes:
It could be that dwelling in geologic time, as you must do to write about extinction, is good for perspective but bad for action; the arc of the actual universe is so long it bends toward fatalism. Human time, by contrast, is good for acting but bad for seeing. It is into the chasm between these two timescales that species are dropping like flies.
hyperobject - an accessible introduction

imaginative thinking   Lee Billings (whose recent book I reviewed here) writes:
The great difficulty in all of this is that no one yet knows how the Anthropocene will unfold. Our dominion over the planet may prove brief in the scope of deep time. Or, the Anthropocene could transform the entire planet into some new state that persists for the remainder of the Earth’s existence. Most wildly, the Anthropocene might surpass the boundaries of Earth itself, becoming interplanetary if our descendants extend our geological footprints to other worlds. Knowing that we have our own age to shape may alter what we do with it, with possible outcomes lying somewhere between our immortal reign and imminent demise. 
But a distinct possibility is a “gone-away world [rather] than birth of anything new...Radioactive fallout as fingerprint”

We need new big stories  I had a sentence before this:
We have long since left behind the “places of many generations” known to our palaeolithic ancestors. We need new big stories.
J L Schellenberg asks Why are our imagined futures so shallow?  

what comes next Chris Thomas is optimistic:
We worry about extinction of species in the era of humans. But at the same time we are seeing an evolutionary surge. The seeds of recovery are already visible.
See also Henry Nichols on rats as big as sheep and Robert Krulwich on pregnant brains

a world utterly transformed by synthetic biology   one place to start thinking about that is here

Is it too much to ask...  I made an assertion here not a question: “It is not absurd to ask...” ...whether we can express our humanity...with compassion... These  words are from the palaeoanthropologist Rick Potts as quoted by Lee Billings (see link above).

George Szirtes recently tweeted
It is salutary to remember that we are walking on egg shells from first day to last and that we're not weightless. We walk between storms.

Images: Priceless or Worthless? (pdf);  Manāfi˓-i al-ḥayavā, or The Benefits of Animals (1297-1300) by Ibn Bakhtīshū (via Persian Painting); and Goya's El Gigante o El Coloso (1814-1818)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dream flight

Prompted by a recommendation here, I am reading The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky.   He relates that the Eveny of Siberian used to say that reindeer were created by the sky god vky not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun.  There was a ritual each Midsummer day symbolizing the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer. At the highest point the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a "bird of extreme sacredness"

Recently, a magazine asked me to write a very short piece about the Red-crowned Crane in its Japanese habitat.*  Here it is:
Kushiro marsh, on Japan's northernmost island Hokkaido, is a pocket wilderness four times the size the island of Manhattan. Much is bog and reedbed, but beside the river that winds generously through it there are also thickets of black alder and patches of grassland as well as shallow lakes. Damp and mostly cool, with temperatures hovering below zero in mid winter and seldom exceeding 20º C even at the hottest time of year, the air, which is often foggy, is thick with the sounds and smells of more than a thousand species of plants and animals, including the Hokkaido deer and the white-tailed sea eagle. And this is a last stronghold for the Red-crowned Crane. Some 1,000 individuals, out of the global population of fewer than 3,000 wild birds, live here year round.
Every year, tens of thousands of humans flock to watch the birds dance. As in the adumu, the jumping display of the Maasai people, the cranes spring straight up from a standing start and, aided by their light frame and delicate wing movements, rise above the heads of their fellows as effortlessly as if they were bouncing on the Moon. Returning to Earth, they lift an impossibly long black leg in greeting, then curl the neck over so that the head is lower than the body and walk past their partner. Then the male and female promenade slowly, side by side, occasionally throwing back their heads to emit a loud, rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o. It is a mesmerising spectacle. Scientists will tell you that the dances, which take place throughout the year, are both acts of courtship and reaffirmation of a pair bond, which lasts a lifetime. To all outward appearances, however, they are expressions of pure joy.
The Red-crowned – or tancho, which means red top in Japanese – is one of the largest of the world's fifteen species of Crane. Its wingspan can reach two and half metres (eight feet). On the ground, it is as tall as a grown woman. It can live for forty years in the wild – longer than almost any other bird. Individuals in captivity have been known to reach seventy. Its feathers are brilliant snow white for the most part, but solid black on the neck and the wing secondaries. These extraordinary qualities have earned it a special place in Japanese culture as a token of grace, dignity and longevity. A Thousand Cranes, a fifteen metre long painting completed by Tawaraya Sōtatsu in 1611, is a classic of Japanese art. Later in the 17th century, the haiku poet Matsu Basho depicted the bird as a being at one with its watery environment: “The shallows/A crane’s thighs splashed/ In cool waves.” An Origami instruction manual published in 1798 enshrined the folding of a thousand paper cranes as a spiritual and meditative discipline. The tradition sustained eleven year old Sadako Sussaki as she died of leukaemia ten years after having been a mile from ground zero at Hiroshima, and is said to be posed as test of concentration and endurance for trainee Japanese astronauts.
Fondness for the Red-Crowned Crane as a symbol did not always translate into protection in practice. A craze for their feathers in hats brought them to the brink of extinction by the early 20th century. In the 1920s the resident population of Hokkaido island was thought to have fallen as low as twenty individuals. Amazingly, this remnant held on and, following an exceptionally severe winter in 1952, local farmers and residents, including one Yoshitaka Ito, began to feed the birds regularly. Gradually, the population recovered. In the 1960s the species received official protection as a Special Natural Treasure. A large area of Kushiro Marsh was declared a national park in 1987 with the chief aim of protecting them.
Conservation of their habitat and feeding by hand account for the recovery of the Red-crowned Crane in Hokkaido, at least for now. And these factors, together with the fact that there is almost nowhere else for them to go in Japan explain why they do not migrate. The situation is quite different on the neighbouring margin of the Asian continent, where the species once flourished. From wintering sites on the Chinese and Korean coast, the birds migrated to summer grasslands in the interior as far north as what is now Russian territory in flocks that may have once been in the tens of thousands. Today's flocks seldom number more than a few hundred and are dwindling fast.
New efforts at protection in Russia and in China, where the Crane's cultural resonance probably dates back to at least an association with the immortals of Taoist stories more than two thousand years old, may yet turn a corner in the fate of the Red-crowned Crane on the continent. For the moment, however, continuing urban and agriculture development in their favoured habitats, together with a warmer climate, which the birds do not like, as well as other factors such as disease (which could also strike the inbred Japanese population) could yet do them in. For the moment we can still witness in these amazing birds some of the astonishing beauty produced as if by accident in the Earth's evolutionary past that may yet survive into its future.

* The magazine decided not to publish the piece on the grounds that it does not give a sense of what it feels like to be there. If someone wants to send me so that I can actually find out please don't hesitate to get in touch. ha ha