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)

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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.

 

Glocalism

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This week I have had an article published in an international peer reviewed journal called Glocalism. The article is about food production, and reports on many of the arguments that I touched upon in my recent food series.

The article, rather catchily entitled “Collective food Purchasing Networks in Italy as a Case Study of Responsible Innovation” by J. Hankins and C. Grasseni is free and can be downloaded here. It is slightly more of an academic article than my blog writing, is co-authored with anthropologist Cristina Grasseni, and reports our joint fieldwork looking at alternative food production networks in Italy and the USA.

Glocalism

As I said above the article is in the journal Glocalism, which is all about glocalism. So what is glocalism? Well it is all in the name, it is being local and global at the same time. To take part of the explanation offered by the Globus and Locus Association

“The term “glocalism” identifies the momentous changes generated by globalization, changes which have resulted in a permanent intertwining of the global and the local dimensions. In fact, there is no longer any place on the planet which has not been touched to a growing degree by various types of global flows and, at the same time, there are no global flows which are not increasingly parsed according to the many different characteristics of the places”.

Do you agree with this? That globalism means that the local can only exist in relation to the global? Or that globalization has effected every corner of the world?

Globalization

If we think about changes in the environment that maybe we should accept this line. If we think about how event in one part of the world effect others (or all) then we can see the local as part of a global system. If we look for local solutions to a problem are we in some way involving the global? If we are talking about anything that has to do with poverty, or pollution, or the environment, or anything related to technology, then we would probably have to accept that these are not local issues, but global. A house in Detroit is not sold for $1000 because of the state of Detroit, but because the world that Detroit is in has produced a situation that makes a house in Detroit (some areas) worth $1000.

If we think about technology use through this framework, we can see how much the Internet (to give one example) is taking the local and moving it into the global. The proportion of our world’s population living in cities of a million or more has risen from thirty-seven percent in 1970 to fifty percent today. By 2030 more than two-thirds of world population will be in large cities, and most of them will be in Asia. Why is this? Well one reason is the need to operate via high speed Internet. The infrastructure is in the big cities, and it has become a necessary part of working life.

So the fact that a city in India or Thailand has high speed Internet infrastructure effects mobility across the globe, the local and the global are entwined. This has an effect on food production capability, transport, the environment, and everything else you might like to think about across the globe.

How about that for a thought on an autumn morning in front of the computer in the Netherlands or a wintry start to a New York day shovelling snow?

Powered Exoskeletons

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As some readers will know, I have a great interest in prosthetics and other aids that help people to overcome barriers due to their being in some way different. Recently I wrote articles about prosthetic limbs, interviewed the World record holding runner Martina Caironi and looked at canes for the blind. Many posts ago I looked at elective amputation, and today I would like to cast my gaze over exoskeletons.

Companies have now started to produce powered exoskeletons in various forms, for both military and civilian use. Dual use technology has also always been of interest to me for some time, as it is difficult to see how we could draw a line between civilian use and development and military use. If we think that most robot limb and hand developments are geared towards treating soldiers who have been injured while on active service, then we see why the military is the largest investor in such research.

If we take the powered exoskeleton the link is more obvious. The military want an armoured exoskeleton that supports itself (so the soldier does not have to carry the weight) that can enable said soldier to carry more ammunition and supplies, heavier weaponry and move quicker and for a longer period of time.

Robocop comes to mind. But one thing is for sure, the FDA recently gave approval for the sales of the first exoskeleton in the USA, and you can also get one if you live in Europe or parts of the Middle East (at a cost of about $65,000), and so they will soon be seen on the streets.

And there are also many applications in hospital. The machines are used to get people walking again who have had accidents, to build up muscle and to aid other forms of rehab such as balance loss. Who could say that technology that allows someone to walk again after years in a wheelchair is a bad thing?

Exoskeleton in Medical Use

Exoskeleton in Medical Use

 

Well there are actually some arguments related to this. Many of the following are taken from an article called Exoskeletons in a disabilities context: the need for social and ethical research , written by Jathan Sadowski of Arizona State University and available here (payment required).

One problem is that creating the model of how it is correct to move and “be”, makes the non acceptability of alternatives worse. To give an example, the more technology works towards making us all walk upright, as many humans do, the more those who do not walk upright become marginalized. Society does not change to incorporate the differences, but moves to “rectify” the differences, as if it was just a problem to be solved. This may not be the right approach. This wonderful article by Jenny Davis explains all.

Another possible problem is dependence. If a person has access to such a machine they may grow to be dependent upon it. What happens if they lose the use of the machine? If they can no longer afford it, or it is withdrawn, or breaks down? With dependency comes withdrawal, and we might imagine that it would be serious cold turkey in this case. And all this comes without mention of the problem of availability to all. These systems are not cheap.

There are many industrial applications that relate to the needs for the soldiers above, allowing workers to carry heavy objects for long periods of time, or use heavier machinery, something that could on the surface be seen as little more than an advancement in industrialized production methods. This kind of technology would be fantastic for disaster workers too, as well as fire fighters and people working in remote areas or difficult to access spaces.

Here are a couple of links that you might be interested in. This Forbes video shows the development of a new military exoskeleton, once more explaining its civilian use. This TED talk is a little older, showing the development of the same project. Neither has any critical view of the technology however, and the TED talk almost looks like publicity.

In some of the cases above the use of this technology could undoubtedly be described as human enhancement. In others some would say that it is something more akin to a mechanical wheelchair that improves mobility. But one thing is for sure, as Sadowski point out in the article cited above, “any serious consideration – whether critique, condemnation, or support – of enhancement technologies must also incorporate critical inquiry about ethics, politics, justice, and social relations”.