Friday, March 17, 2017

The “Artificial Intelligence” Name is Doing Just Fine, Thank You

BigDog robots trot around in the shadow of an MV-22 Osprey.

Recently a distinguished professor from my alma mater, Georgia Tech, published an Atlantic article about how the term “artificial intelligence” has become meaningless.

I like Ian Bogost, and I’ve cited his research.

But he’s got this one wrong.

He lists a bunch of AI systems that don’t work very well, which is kind of like saying that the word “painting” is meaningless because there are bad paintings. Other systems are criticised because they don’t use AI techniques. One, for example, uses a “pattern matching filter.” Presumably, if it were using an actual AI technique, it wouldn’t be listed. To say that Google’s DeepDream isn’t AI because it only uses deep learning networks is absurd, because deep learning networks are about as AI as you can get.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? Without some notion of what constitutes AI techniques, you can’t make the distinction. But if we know what AI techniques are, then how can the concept of AI be meaningless?

He derides one system as merely using “off-the-shelf computer vision,” not acknowledging the fact that what counts today as “off the shelf” is the result of 60 years of hard work by AI researchers, who just happened to break off into a subfield called “computer vision.”

He asks artificial intelligence researcher (and friend of mine) Dr. Charles Isbell what AI is, and Dr. Isbell says that AI should do something it takes humans effort to learn--a curious requirement, because that excludes vast areas of traditional AI research, including vision, bodily motion, and language processing--all things humans, it turns out, learn effortlessly.

Then there’s a bit of talk about “true” AI, but this is a completely different topic, and one that constantly haunts discussions of the field. On one hand, people use AI to mean the field that develops techniques for machines to execute thinking, and on the other other it’s used to describe what we now commonly call “general AI,” which is a single AI agent that can pretty much do every kind of thinking a human can. If the term “artificial intelligence” is problematic, it’s here, but the distinction between the two is not even made explicit in the article.

Is it fair to critique AI as being a hodge-podge of methods, which indeed it is? Considering the hodge-podge of ways the human mind processes things, perhaps not. What if a general intelligent being has to use a hodge-podge of processes to do it all? It’s like saying that “medicine” is meaningless because it has disparate things such as  talk therapy and radiation treatment in its set of techniques.

We might apply the same reasoning to a subject of Bogost’s personal interest: games. Just like artificial intelligence programs, I could trot out countless games are don’t work or aren’t fun. I could say the term “game” is meaningless because the set of game systems and rules are a hodge-podge. In fact, the idea of a game is the example Wittgenstein used to argue that almost all words evade necessary and sufficient conditions, and that word meaning is a result of a kind of “family resemblance.”

Artificial intelligence has remained a core part of computer science ever since there were computers. If AI is meaningless, I’m left to wonder in which classes we’d teach about Bayes’ nets, production systems, machine learning algorithms, and natural language processing. Compilers? Databases?  

The term “artificial intelligence,” is a gist with a fuzzy boundary, with nothing sacred or absolutely true about it, held together by a bunch of vague meanings. It gets abused by people who don’t know the field-- or are trying to use the term as a buzzword to sell us something.

But it’s only meaningless to the extent that most words are.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

Where are all of my Star Wars movies?

There have been about 14 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a franchise that only started in 2008. That's an amazing number of movies. Marvel studios is owned by Disney, who also owns Lucasfilm. But how many Star Wars movies have come out since 2008? Only one. What gives? I want my 13 other Star Wars movies.

Star Wars has had a few television programs (Clone Wars and Rebels), but the MCU has had Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Daredevil.

Why are they so slow at making them? I think it might be because Star Wars is a bit too precious to them. Unlike Star Wars, the MCU is not something people had incredibly high expectations for. It's something new, and Star Wars, now, is something relatively old. But I have hope.

And the MCU is what gives me hope. Although it's easy to carelessly classify the MCU films as superhero films, they are actually pretty clever about bringing in other genre films that just happen to have superhero in them. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is kind of like a spy film--in fact, it's a better spy film than many of the James Bond films. Jessica Jones is kind of a psychological horror show. Doctor Strange is a little like inception, and a little like urban fantasy. Thor is an extra-dimensional setting that borders on high fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy is a Star Wars style space opera, and Captain America: The First Avenger is kind of a war film.

They can do this with Star Wars, too. In fact, they've already explored it. One of the great things about the long-running animated Clone Wars TV show was that they had all kinds of genres in there. There were horror episodes, mystery episodes, political dramas, action stories, coming-of-age stories, gangster stories. You can do almost anything in a Star Wars setting. I hope they do.

If you're shocked at the idea of a Star Wars movie every year, think of what we're getting from Disney in their MCU franchise, and, to me at least, I don't think it's enough.

PS: And, by the way, a mixing of genres is also exactly what Star Trek needs... Can we do something other than a Starfleet ship and a crew, finally?

PPS: Hey Marvel Studios, how about a She-Hulk movie?

Pictured: Cosplayers dressed as Clone Wars characters.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why You Should Eat Mussels

Steam them in chopped tomato, olive oil, wine, oregano, and garlic. Eat with a baguette.
I'm pretty excited about eating mussels, because
  1. they are a good source of protein,
  2. the probably don't feel any pain, and
  3. because they are filter feeders, they actually *clean* the water they are in. This is something you can't say about many farmed animals. So they are good for the environment.
I was at the Canadian Science Writer's conference recently and asked a fish farming scientist a question I get asked: because mussels are filter feeders, should I worry about bioaccumulation? Bioaccumulation is when unhealthful pollutants (often heavy metals) accumulate in fish over the course of their lifetime. This is a problem with big fish, like tuna. He said no, because they are farmed in fairly clean water, and because they grow to maturity so quickly the pollutants inside are negligible. 

I plan to eat more!

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Monday, June 13, 2016

Write in: Why do people care more about dogs than people?

The dog in the film "Independence Day." When this dog survived the explosion, the cinema I was in erupted into applause.

I got a good question in my inbox the other day.

Hey Jim,
My name is Henri one of the readers of your book "Riveted". Amazing stuff by the way!
Book made me wonder a one Question.
Why people feel more feelings when human is killing a dog in th1e movies? But when human is killing a human if feels like just a normal day.
Have you never wondered about this & do you have some kind of thought why?
My answer:
Glad you liked the book!
I don't know any data on this, but I think people think about dogs like they do children. So I think that when a dog is hurt on screen, people respond kind of like they would if a child were hurt. So what I would predict is that they would be just as disturbed by a child being hurt on screen as a dog, and the difference you are thinking of would appear only for adult humans being hurt on screen. 

You can see my book at

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Monday, June 06, 2016

Struggling for Good Data on Animal Welfare

Is this a "medium" sized cage? How the hell am I supposed to know? 

A "Whole Foods" supermarket opened recently in my city, and I was very excited because it offers meat that meets what appear to be fairly rigorous ethical standards. For example, when I buy a chicken there, I know that it wasn't raised in a cage. I've read many things that make me think that animals that are raised for meat are pretty miserable, and I didn't want to support that.

I recently got back from the conference of the Canadian Science Writer's Association, which was held in Guelph, Ontario. It was hosted by the University of Guelph, which prides itself as being "Canada's Food University." I met a few farmers there, and what they told me has made me less certain.

We all have a problem with anthropomorphizing animals a bit too much. Without other data, I suppose it's okay, but we really should try to find scientific findings before insisting on this or that treatment. I remember being told by a zoo director years ago that there were people at the zoo protesting the fact that the orangutan was in an enclosure all by itself. But in the wild, orangutans are solitary creatures. So when we insist on good animal treatment, we should take care to know what it is the animals actually want. Of course, we cannot ask them, so we need clever experiments to get the answers we need.

According to the farmers, chickens evolved from a wild bird that liked to live in the roots under trees. They argue that being in a cage is actually less stressful for them than being in the open, because it resembles their ancestral home more. Further, chickens tend to be mean to each other. They have dominance displays that can result in some chickens being malnourished or dying. This is more likely in a cage-free environment. I was also told that chicken welfare has been studied, and the finding was that a "medium sized cage" (I'm don't know how big that is) is better than a cage that's too small and better than being out in the open.

Unfortunately, when you go to the grocery store, we are told that the chickens (or eggs) are either cage free or not, and you have no idea what size the cage was that the chickens were raised in. What's the customer supposed to do?

I also asked about small enclosures. In the book I'm reading right now, Sapiens, there is a picture of a cow in a small enclosure. I am told that this cow only gets out of this and able to interact with other cows on its way to slaughter, about four months into its life. That certainly sounds miserable. I told this to a farmer and she said that maybe this was done with veal, but not with cows. And the reason? Doing that is actually more expensive than putting them in a common pen.

And those pictures of pigs, locked into cages on their side? I was told that this wasn't done for their whole lives, but only for feeding piglets. And why? Because mother pigs have a tendency to flop over and crush their piglets. So even that cage, which looks like a medieval torture device, is used to protect the animals from hurting each other.

I was told that when farmers see videos of animal abuse, they think that the people doing it are idiots and are giving farmers a bad name.

Okay, so who should we believe? The problem is that we see these pictures and videos that are pretty scary, and we don't always know the reasons farmers do what they do (sometimes it's actually in the animals' best interest), and further, we have no idea of whether the abuse we see is systematic. How often does it happen? Are we really supporting that when we buy meat?

I can honestly say that at this point I have no idea. I feel I have no source of information that is from an unbiased group. Animal welfare activists have an interest in making us think the abuse is more widespread than it is (I'm not saying they're guilty of it, only that they have an incentive).

Likewise, the farmers have an incentive to make it look like everything's hunky dory. At the conference I was given a magazine called The Real Dirt on Farming, which was published by the Farm and Food Care Foundation, which is an association of farmers and associated businesses. This document is dismissive of the animal rights movement (p45):
"Activists of any kind are not usually interested in finding solutions, but prefer to focus on problems and dramatic examples to generate funds and support for their organizations." 
Wow. If they wanted to look unbiased, they sure screwed up there. Activists of any kind? Really? Is that what they think of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, or Martin Luther King, Jr.? It makes me wonder if the whole document is bullshit.

So now I'm not sure what to think. Are there any scientific results out there that is from arms-length groups that can shed light on this issue? What is a concerned consumer supposed to do?

(And yes, I tried being vegetarian and I was miserable.)

Related links:
I have implemented "meat offsets," inspired by carbon offsets, where I donate money every time I eat unethical meat. See my blog post at:

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Top 10 Most Popular Contributors to 4Chan

  1. Anonymous
  2. Anonymous
  3. Anonymous
  4. Anonymous
  5. Anonymous
  6. Anonymous
  7. Anonymous
  8. Anonymous
  9. Anonymous
  10. Anonymous

Plus an honorable mention: Anonymous

Image from Wikimedia Commons:

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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Books I read in 2015

My book consumption has gone up drastically since I started listening to Audiobooks! Audible has a subscription service that for $10 per month you get 1 credit, which can be spent on any audio book. It's a great deal.

Paradox Lake by J.D. Spero
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Great book. Rubin reads everything about happiness and reports on her experience trying to improve herself.
The Martian by Andy Weir (audible)
Behavioral Economics (The Great Courses) by Scott Huettel (audible)
Beastie Boys Book Deluxe: A Unique Box Set Celebration of the Beastie Boys by Frank Owen
The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (audible)
Meaning of Life: Perspectives From the World's Great Intellectual Traditions. The Great Courses by Jay L. Garfield (audible)
Lost Worlds of South America (Great Courses/The Teaching Company) by Edwin Barnhart (audible)
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
The Medeival World (The Great Courses) by Dorsey Armstrong (audible)
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
The Great Courses - Philosophy of Science by Jeffrey L. Kasser (audible)
The Neurobiology of the Gods: How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams by Goodwyn, Erik D.
Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History (Great Courses / The Teaching Company) by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius (audible)
***The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically by Peter Singer
The Deaths of Tao: Tao Series Book Two by Wesley Chu
The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance by Kayt Sukel
Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature (The Great Courses) by Thomas A. Shippey(audible)
Firefight (The Reckoners Book Two) by Brandon Sanderson (audible)
Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them by Marjorie Taylor
Fooled by Randomness by Nasim Nicholas Taleb (audible)
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (audible)
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are (The Great Courses) by David Livermore (audible)
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu ****
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel (Audible)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman (audible)
*** Steelheart (Reckoners Book 1) by Brandon Sanderson (audible)
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky (audible)

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