The Edge of Knowledge

quote-life-is-a-travelling-to-the-edge-of-knowledge-then-a-leap-taken-david-herbert-lawrence-108885

What do you think about machines that think? Or should I say machines who think? That is the 2015 EDGE question.

Edge of Knowledge

Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club” and as a living document on the Web to display the activities of “The Third Culture”. What is the third culture? Oh to put it in their words.  ‘the third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are’.

And members (Edgies) have been responding to an annual question now for some time.

What should we be worried about? What is your favourite explanation? How is the Internet changing the way you think? What will change everything? You know, just regular questions. OK big questions.

And this group contains a lot of famous names. Well this group is made up of famous people is a better description, from many walks of life, and so the answers are extremely interesting. Go and check a few out on the website.

Artificial Intelligence

As is the preamble on the website:

“In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI)—whether computers can “really” think, refer, be conscious, and so on—have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms that many argue actually are implemented. These “AIs”, if they achieve “Superintelligence” (Nick Bostrom), could pose “existential risks” that lead to “Our Final Hour” (Martin Rees). And Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he noted “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

But wait! Should we also ask what machines that think, or, “AIs”, might be thinking about? Do they want, do they expect civil rights? Do they have feelings? What kind of government (for us) would an AI choose? What kind of society would they want to structure for themselves? Or is “their” society “our” society? Will we, and the AIs, include each other within our respective circles of empathy?”

So how close are we to these predictions, dreams and nightmares? There is plenty of stuff on the web to feed the interested, and surely enough developments will surely move in that direction. Last week we learned that a computer can work out aspects of your personality thanks to your social media use (see the post here). But intelligence? Computing variables is not intelligence.

And can we say that learning is intelligence? Computers can certainly learn, but can they think? Can they reason? What does it mean to think? To make a decision based on what? If the decision is based on experience then to some extent it is a calculation, or a computation, and if that is the case then a computer can think.

So back to the question. What Do You Think About Machines That Think?

Don’t Like Me (you give your personality away)

don_t_like

Likes and Dislikes

I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, but the problem is so does everyone else. Who would have thought that just liking something on Facebook could be so important. Recent research seems to show that studying what you have liked can tell more about your personality than you would imagine.

University researchers have just published a study (read it here) called “Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans”. They claim that what you ‘like’ on Facebook gives away your personality, to the point that a computer program can gauge your responses to questions better than your friends can.

Well how can that be? Judging personality is a honed social skill, but their research based on just over 86000 volunteers and their friends’ responses seems to prove the theory that computers can do it better with just information about what you like via Facebook.

As the researchers say in their report, “Computers outpacing humans in personality judgment presents significant opportunities and challenges in the areas of psychological assessment, marketing, and privacy”.

Predicting Personality

Their findings show that with a sample of 100 likes, the computer can outperform your friends in predicting your answers to the questions of a standard personality test. Obviously the more likes the computer has, the better it performs, so this means that every like has its place, tells a story, guides a narrative, and defines the computers definition of who you are.

So if you like certain types of things, your personality is likely to reflect this. If you like dancing and having a sun tan, you are probably extrovert, if you like Salvador Dali you are probably open to experience and more adventurous with your lifestyle choices, you get the picture? This leads to the machine being able to better predict if you will deviate from social norms or stay within them, experiment or not.

Well if a computer can determine that I am (as we all know after the brain electrocuting experiments) open to experience, then that could possibly be used to market stuff to me, to guess how I might live my life in terms of personal choices (including health risk), and to put me into a little box for insurance or job hunting purposes. They are better at predicting life outcomes than my friends. This is serious!

Obviously computer power will massively increase in the future, and we will no doubt see the development of automated personality assessment tools. How they will be used is anybody and everybody’s guess, and all they need is for us all to continue to give all of this free data away to Facebook.

Anyway, if you are interested, I don’t like Dali, or Iggy Pop, or the KLF Arts Foundation, and only listen to Beethoven, I don’t use Tor and I drive a Skoda. I must have the perfect personality for any highly paid and respectable job. Find me on Linkedin, I don’t use Facebook.

 

Misshapen Food

bendy-marrow

More About Food Waste

I read with interest this week that leading UK supermarket chain Asda is starting to sell oddly shaped vegetables in a bid to waste less food. This announcement leads me to draw a few conclusions that I would like to share with you all, and brings back a few memories.

My mum and dad had 3 boys to bring up, in the dark shadow of the mills of Manchester, and they probably weren’t what we would call rich (today). Every year we went to Skegness for our summer holidays, and every Sunday went to the market.

Markets were a different thing then I think, everyone went. My mum used to buy her biscuits there. She bought them in a bag, a huge bag a bit like the ones we use today to put the rubbish in. The biscuits were broken. They had not made it into the boxes in the factory, were collected up and sold in huge sacks for next to nothing (I presume).

There was a chip shop too that put batter bits on your chips if you asked, the crumbs that had fallen into the fat off the fish, lovely.

As I became some form of adult I continued the tradition. A local chocolate maker sold bags of ‘misshapes’, again chocolates that had come out of the mold wrong, had treacle dribbling out of them or had got squashed. The same chocolates that cost a fortune in their branded high street shops.

Surely this must be a good way to use the wasted ones, although there is the issue of supply and demand that I raised in my previous post about food waste.

Vegetism

So back to Asda. They are going to sell strangely shaped vegetables for less than their regularly shaped cousins. Are they going to sell them for less though because maybe they are worth less (or worthless)? This is a strange idea for sure. They are all fresh vegetables, they all contain exactly the same nutritional value, you can cook them all and they all taste the same, so why sell them for less?

Well we live in a society here in Europe that has engineered a situation in which only certain shapes are good. You might recall I mentioned ableism in a recent post and it certainly isn’t difficult to see how the human figure has been moulded into an ideal type, with all variations somewhat frowned upon or in need of correction (particularly I feel in the case of women).

And this is also the case for vegetables. In this case aesthetics is enshrined in law, as the European Union has regulations about the size and shape of fruit and vegetables. These regulations were ridiculed in the popular press ten years ago as it was said that straight bananas could not be sold. Read all about it here.

And vegetables come in at least 3 categories; nice looking that go into supermarkets, not so nice looking that go into processed food production, and unfit for human consumption, that go into animal feed. But it can all be used, you get less for the ugly ones however.

So producers have always been able to sell these vegetables, but for different uses and at different prices, so I must come to the conclusion that this is a marketing ploy in order to sell them for more. Just my opinion of course, but cynicism runs deep in my line of work.

It would be great to see them though in with their cousins for sale all together at the same price, but reports are that they are often left on the shelf to rot. Apparently people prefer a correctly curved banana to a straight one, and a straight marrow to the one in the photo above.

Selling Surplus Food

community shop

This week I want to add a post to my food series and related posts from earlier this year.

One of the posts in the series was about wasted food.

The Scale of Waste

Just to give you an idea of the content I opened with the following: It is estimated that in the USA between 40 and 50% of all food produced is wasted. There are about 320 million people in the US, so we could safely say that this wasted food could feed at least 100 million people.

And the shocking thing is that nearly all of this wasted food is edible. It is close to its sell by date, the packaging is damaged or incorrectly labeled, Christmas pudding in January. Much of it never even gets to the shops, it fails a quality test because the label is not correctly attached or the packet printing is wrong, and it is discarded.

This week the first UK based Community Shop opened, and in this shop they only sell discarded food. Sounds like a great idea, they take food that is lost during the preparation stages, on its way to the supermarket, and food that is discarded once it has arrived or sat on the shelves for a while, and they re-sell it. Very cheap (70% less), you can make a profit and waste problem resolved I thought. Great!

But of course it is not that simple.

Supply and Demand

One problem is that if you sell this food at a fraction of the previous price, people will buy it and not the full price food. This means that for every tin of beans bought at the community shop, a supermarket sells one tin less. So they might not like that, and that is why in many cases they prefer to destroy the food than to pass it on.

This problem can be seen in this case on a local scale, but it also happens on a global scale. How do you think the farmer in South Africa feels when she sees thousands of tons of free US grown grain distributed for free in a neighboring country? She cannot compete and sell her food any more. Feeding a population without charging them directly destroys surrounding markets.

This is not just a food problem. When we donate our old clothes and they turn up worn by kids in Kenya (Manchester United shirts come to mind), that means that those kids did not buy their clothes, and the local clothes suppliers, and makers, and distributors, don’t work.

So the community shop have found an answer. You have to be a member to buy food there, and to be a member you have to be receiving benefit from the government and live within a local postcode area. Only 500 members at a time, and membership is not for life. The shop also offers free courses in food preparation, CV writing, and many other things that help to manage the household and improve quality of life. Sounds great, but we should remember that many people are working poor that do not receive benefits, or have fallen through the benefit net, what about them? What we need is more of these shops, so that the entry rules can be broader.

This is a great idea. Let’s use the stuff instead of throwing it out. And to be honest I have little sympathy for an industry that is so wasteful and non-sustainable.

If there were a community shop of this type on every corner we could all benefit, and I for one wish them well with their endeavour.