The Edge of Knowledge

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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?

Vintage Computers For Sale

Buoyed by the sale of one of the first and few remaining Apple 1 computers for $650,000 I started thinking about the old machines that were lying in my mum’s garage and wondering if I was sitting on a fortune.

Although I myself was never interested in computers my younger brother was a guru, going on to study computing at University, so we have a real vintage lot just awaiting discovery.

The first Hankins computer was a 1981 Sinclair ZX81. What a machine that was. It was manufactured by the famous watch maker Timex in Scotland, and really represents the movement from mechanical to digital technology. I remember recording programs onto a cassette recorder that were broadcast over the radio as a series of sounds similar to the noise a fax makes. Then you play them into the machine and bang you are off, you could use your 1kB of memory to do almost anything (or nothing).

A Sinclair ZX81

A Sinclair ZX81

The keys were part of the machine, like an old cash register, and it is through these that my brother learned the skills of programming in Basic, although I never got to grips with it. Then he moved on to Extended Basic and machine code (whatever that is).

Anyway it will not make me rich, they go from about $2 to $20 on eBay.

But even 1 kB of memory was not enough for us so a couple of years later we (my parents) invested in what was in its day the height of technology, a TI99. This was altogether greatly improved, it had a cartridge system in the front so you could slide in games and use the cursors to maneuver through the asteroid fields.

The TI99 was manufactured by calculator maker Texas Instruments and was the first computer with a 16 bit processor. Texas Instruments were big on voice synthesis and the big use of it for us was during the game Parsec. With 16kB of memory we had moved on considerably, and my brother made the most of learning Extended Basic using their wonderful program.

A TI99 Home Computer

A TI99 Home Computer

Just look at the lines on this beast, a design classic it sold almost 3 million units and with 68 by 48 pixels in colour the picture was a joy to behold when plugged into our TV.

It was high finance though for our family, it cost more than $500 US when newly released but as with all of these things the price fell over the following years to $150, and so the question arises again, am I rich today?

The answer unfortunately is no, you can buy one on eBay for about $20. Could be a great investment though, they have one in a museum in Paris.

Well a couple of years passed and my brother needed a serious computer to take to University. At great expense my parents went for the BBC Microcomputer built by Acorn. This was much more of an educational tool, and its release was followed by a BBC educational series that taught its user (my brother and unfortunately not me) to program, and it was the machine of choice for UK universities and schools.

Our model B had 128 kB of memory, a giant leap that allowed graphics programing and increased complexity of use. It also had a floppy disc for ease of data transferral. It was a beast of a thing though as it sat in my brother’s bedroom, and it is the most expensive machine in the house to date.

A BBC Acorn Computer

A BBC Acorn Computer

Oh how I could pay my mum back if it were now worth the same as the first Apple I thought, but once more eBay broke the spell. From $10 to $150 with all the extra hard and software, so sorry mum the Austin Martin will have to wait.

After University (and post BBC) my brother went to work and we moved into company machinery, laptops, blueberry, blackberry, apples and other fruits of commerce, and I lost touch a bit, but I alone have owned 3 desktops and 3 laptops to date and it is all awaiting disposal, so there certainly isn’t much room in my mum’s garage today (certainly not enough for an Aston Martin anyway).

Exploring arguably essential home gadgets

We all love our gadgets, some people more than others of course – we’ve all got parents or grandparents who haven’t got a clue how to turn a computer on, let alone check their emails or catch up with their family on Facebook. But for the gadget lovers among us there’s nothing better than getting home with a new bit of kit, setting it up and turning it on for the first time. It’s like a birthday and Christmas all rolled into one!

Christmas and birthday in one

Christmas and birthday rolled into one!

But while we all have such affection towards the latest offerings, what would we actually call “essential’? After all, the very latest devices and gadgets don’t come cheap and disposable income isn’t exactly at its peak at the moment. We’re finding that we have to budget more, and even wait until the price drops after a few months before we can get our hands on some devices, an agonizing wait for many I’m sure. So if we had to prioritize our gadgets, what would they be?

Laptop

Of course, you have to have a laptop. Tablets and smartphones are great but sometimes you just need a computer to get certain jobs done as well as they possibly can be with a bigger screen and better all round packages. You’ve got numerous top quality manufacturers to choose between, all offering different packages, with Apple, Dell, HP and co all vying for the title of top laptop manufacturer.

Printer

Obviously, if you’re working on your laptop at home for an important project for work, school, college or University, it’s vital that you have a way to get it off the computer and into a tangible document. For that reason you need a printer capable of producing your work in high quality, something Dell printers for one are synonymous for, while other features can include scanners, photocopiers and fax machine capabilities.

Smartphone

Then when you leave the house it’s vital that you can stay connected to the rest of the world. Smartphones such as the iPhone, BlackBerry and Samsung Galaxy give you the ability to check your emails on the move, update you location to Facebook, look into what Lady Gaga has had to say on Twitter and even buy things, you can do it all while you’re out of the house. Oh, and you can text and make calls too of course!

Tablet

One of the must-have items of the moment, tablet computers such as the iPad are taking the world by storm. On the train, in the boardroom, at the park, they’re all using them as perfect hybrids between smartphones and computers.

Music Player

Finally, of course, you have to have an iPod or similar device to listen to your favourite music on. Whether you’re in the gym, on the train or just relaxing, it’s always good to have some music to keep you in the mood for whatever you’re doing.

These are what I believe are essential home gadgets, but what is your views? Do you consider all these gadgets essential, and if not, which are yours?