Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Most Human Human

I'm really rubbish at this blogging lark. I have a list of over a dozen things that are either in thought stage or are partially written. I'm happy to hold these in stasis though, my thoughts are clear, memories solid, I can come back to them and make sure I get the thoughts in place.

With a lecture though I have to be a little quicker, an hour of ideas being thrown about and I want to get them down.

This evening saw me tripping from Notting Hell to the Royal Institution to hear Brian Christian talk about his experiences of the Turing Test, which in turn was the basis for his book The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive.

Much has been written about the Turing Test, originally known as the Imitation Game, so I won't go dwell on it here. Besides it's late and this ditzy brunette wants to go to sleep. In a nutshell though it's how do you prove you are human.

Which is also a bit like trying to prove you didn't do something.

If you didn't do something there is no evidence, because you didn't do it, so how can you prove something just by a lack of evidence? Now prove you're human. Obviously if you insist on playing music loudly through crap white ear pieces you've already gone a long way to proving you're not.

It's difficult. What is it about us that makes us us? And then, how do we make a machine do the self same thing.

Turing predicted that eventually machines would be able to convince us they were human. But it's not happened yet. To give a bit of an incentive, a chap called Hugh Loebner underwrote a prize, cunningly called the Loebner Prize, that would be awarded to whoever writes a program that convinces people it's human.

It's not been awarded yet.

But each year there is a prize for the most human like machine and, amusingly, the most human human. The one that managed to persuade people they were human. I've been on the Central Line today. Twice. I'm sure there were an awful lot of people there that wouldn't have had a chance.

The funny thing is, there was a time when computers were people. Computers weren't a machine, they were a job description. As you might imagine this was pretty much before 1940ish. The funny example given was the father of Information Theory, Claude Shannon who met Betty, his computer (or numerical analyst), at Bell Labs. They married in 1949. I wonder if he gave her Perls... Sorry.

Computers were so stylish in the 1940's.

Back to Turing. When he was trying to explain what the machine was he essentially said "well, it's kind of like a computer". Now when we think of somebody particularly good at sums or with an astounding memory we say they are like a computer. The literal and the figurative have switched places.

The talk meandered on and touched on the philosophers. Which has a certain glorious aptness as last week I had a delightful talk with a philosopher of science. Aristotle's view of what made us different to other lifeforms was discussed. So, all living things have a nutritive soul, animals also have a sensitive soul but we have the rational soul. Aren't we the clever ones. I do doubt this at times. Anyway, we have the ability to think abstractly and in a pure form so that's what must make us human. Right? Hmm. maybe not. But it was rather convenient that a professional philosopher should say thinking was okay.

Moving on we covered René Descartes. Now René, before he ran a small café in Nouvion, was a philosopher who decided that maybe nothing existed. So he pondered that nothing existed. And if nothing existed did it follow that he didn't exist. His view was that, yes, he did exist because cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Now at this point I will stop. Two reasons.

The first is that I'm going to poke the eyes out of the little hot housed shit sitting behind me that kept kicking my chair, sniffing, talking to his elderly mother and, yes, clever lad, knew what cogito ergo sum meant. Little boy, you are sitting in the Royal Institution, a lot of the members can understand Latin, we don't need your help!

The second was at the end of the talk during the questions. A chap (who I recall also asked a good question during Claudia Hammond's talk in June) pointed out that how could Descartes be sure? He said "I", how did he know he existed and that, actually nothing was there but pure thoughts. I would have pondered this, but I really needed to spend a penny.

Anyway. The concept amused me. Moving on.

Next we covered Moravec's Paradox. This is something that effects all computing, not just artificial intelligence, and it comes down to this, what we think is hard, we find it easy to make computers do. What we find easy to do is really, really, really hard for computers to do.

So a computer can predict a check mate solution solution from a given chess board in 25 moves, but a human can work out that a picture contains a dog. And some grass.

As a further example he used the analogy of a black cab driver. At 2 years old the cabbie could walk, avoid obstacles, mostly, and talk about how they met Elton John at nursery last week. By 17 the cabbie may have moved on to pushing levers, turning the wheel and gesticulating at someone in a bid to avoid Bank when the roadworks are in place. By 21, the earliest you can become a cabbie I believe, they could find the quickest route from Soho to Contrary Towers having done 4 years of The Knowledge.

Interestingly, they can't find Contrary Towers. We've given up now and have to help with the last bit.

Computers though find route mapping really easy. And can find Contrary Towers. Unfortunately they are barely past the point where they can twiddle with levers and turn wheels. And as for avoiding obstacles, well, getting there, but some distance off.

Computers also can't gesticulate. But will give you details of anything to do with Elton John.

Things that are easy for us are hard for computers. Or at least hard for humans to program computers with. Trust me, this is what I do for a living. It's difficult.

Part of the problem is understanding. Both the problem and the context. A computer can be filled with all the knowledge known to humanity. But if it can't understand the question it will come up with some tiddly brained answer.

Like 42.

I'll give my own example. Many years ago I was looking at building a virtual friend system for a large mobile phone manufacturer. I was trying to explain the problem of interpreting the text messages coming in the give reasonable responses, hampered by the use of text speak. Whilst working this out I sat on Quayside in Cambridge and received a text message saying...
Errr. It didn't help that I didn't recognise the number. After an hour I gave up, I couldn't see what russ-til-thu meant (sorry for my feeble attempt to explain how I read it). I sent a text reply.
Who is this and do you speak english? I don't understand!
The sender came back...
It's X, new number, are you still there?
FFS. Computers, and ditzy brunettes as it transpires, can't cope with this.

Which brought us nicely to another point with regard to electronic communication. And a neat statement:
All communication is suspect
All communication is a Turing test
Connected with these are two concepts
The nature of authentication
The nature of intimacy
An example was given of how a young man managed to "hack" (I despise that word) Sarah Palin's Yahoo account. He went to the password recovery it asked various questions. All of which could be discovered by using Google. A fundamentally flawed approach when dealing with public figures. Regardless of how mad they are.

So how can you be sure, how can you authenticate somebody you can't see? Well we can, and do. When my flatmate pops up online I always know it is her at the other end of the connection, not because of some innate connection formed after many morning cups of tea and shared soup, but because I recognise her style, our way of interacting, it's as distinct as a signature. And as with a signature it's something that is very difficult to replicate, the information can be limited but the nature of the information is dripping with identifying characteristics.

Whether it be the gait, a laugh, their hand-writing, diction or syntax, we know who they are. I know this only too well, a few months back I asked somebody how they found me and she said through my writing style.

Computers can't do this.

And I guess therein lays the simplicity of the concept of humanity. My view is that maybe it does just come down to context and connections. Things that only two people can know and use as a cunning, impossibly complex, cryptographic exchange to say they are who they are.

Taking this further it shows why shared experiences are so important, because through them you don't just enrich your life but also provide, beyond reasonable doubt, that you are not a machine, or an imposter, you actually are...

The most human human.

Friday, 6 July 2012

A lady wot winez

Sometimes you get a day that is, quite simply, almost perfect.

I'd arranged to meet up with a philosopher friend over at Russell Square for coffee and a chat.  Which meant that I really needed to work from home because, well, it's easier to rearrange my day when I do that. I was a little concerned by the weather as it seemed to be controlled by Contrary Towers. Which is never good.

Scrubs up okay.
I had an inkling of the ensuing near perfect day after I put a face on. I actually looked presentable! Hurrah. You can't even begin to imagine what this does for my confidence. The plan was I was going to finish off a load of stuff for my main client and then, hopefully wander over to Russell Square via Holborn, if I got the timing right there was a good chance I would get to have coffee with my lovely flatmate, which is always a bonus.

I actually worked like a little mad thing. Astonishingly it all went quite well, the stuff was done, emailed and I could happily scoot off to an afternoon of sipping and chatting.

And that's just what I did. I even managed to find a 323 to ride on to save the joy of arriving at Mile End hot and bothered. Which would never do. It was a bit warm down there. But the breeze in the tunnels was nice.

Even if it did leave me looking like Medusa on a bad hair day.

I hopped off at Chancery Lane, sauntered out and sighed. I do love the bustle of High Holborn. A quick text to my flatmate to find out what she fancied to drink and in to the coffee shop I went. Trouble is I'm a bit of a ditz and partially misunderstood the message, did she really want iced camomile tea? You would have thought that after living together we wouldn't want to spend any more time in the same room, but it's still a joy and leads to a conversation full of giggles and belly laughs. I had my first diet sin of the day with non-skinny iced latte. I was working on the premise that I'd not had breakfast (bad) so this was my lunch (not much better), so full fat was okay?


Oh. Before we knew it time was up, my flatmate wandered off to her lair as I sauntered up Southampton Row towards Russell Square. What a beautiful day. Even the flowers in the square were looking devilishly attractive.

Of course. There was one teensy fly in the ointment. I was wearing new, flat, shoes. And they were starting to rub. I'd even taken the precaution of wearing tights, but to no avail. It wasn't as bad as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre I had back in April, but still, I was concerned.

I sat quietly, enjoying the rare chance to sit in the sunshine and read. Currently I'm on After London by Richard Jefferies, and it seemed quite apt to enjoy his descriptive writing as I sat listening the gentle rustle of the leaves. Of course instead I was distracted by first the squirrels and then a little bit of people watching. I never did get the coffee in Russell Square.

But I'm not complaining.

You know when you meet somebody and you are overawed by a stream of brilliance. It was fabulous, it was a joy to listen to my philosophers ideas, theories and the frustrations of dealing with academia. I was developing just a teensy sapiocrush, it was very exciting. I mean, how can you not get excited about discussing an alternative quantum theory and why we should look more closely at deterministic versus probabilistic views.

Of course the feeling might have just been the sun on my bare shoulders. That does that too.

Talking of which... I really am a silly cow. Why didn't I have the factor 30 on my shoulders? Hmm? I now have two lovely pink areas with white strap marks. Genius. I think not.

We covered so much, science, books, a little of the arts, elements of history, more science and the difficulty of being an academic. The interesting thing though was the time. He arrived at around 3pm, and I was answering voice mails at about 4:30pm, yet, it seemed that time had gone on forever, hours and hours had slowly drifted by. It was proof, if I needed it, of my perception of time being altered by the creation of these new and fabulous memories. I can't wait to meet and talk with him again. Though I know it won't be until much later in July.

During our conversation I had a text from the inimitable @obotheclown asking whether I was still in Bloomsbury and, if so, did I fancy a coffee at around 5:30. Duh. So I meandered off to the British Museum to kill a little time. I didn't actually make it in, it was such a delightful afternoon I instead sat on the wall on Great Russell Street watching the tourists pop in and out of phone boxes. They are quite mad.

All would have been simple if, in the meantime I didn't see a call from the lovely @PrincessofVP in search of somebody to have a sip of medicinal wine with. Perfect! A quick phone call later and a venue was set. Which meant coffee was off, I would have to force  the clown in to a pub.

Astonishingly though, he wasn't drinking owing to heading towards a private viewing, so after our quick walk in to Covent Garden it was orange juice and lemonade, or some such witchcraft, for him and a bottle of Malbec for the cackle crew. This will end well. It almost always does when I have just the one drink with my bezzie...

And cackle we did, plus very grateful to the nice clown for providing us with winez. Oh, and also thanks to my flatmate for texting what became the title of this post. I must admit if I'd known he wasn't stopping I wouldn't have let him get a bottle, so, I guess the next round is mine! We chatted for a good while, caught up with each others news since I last saw her on, err, Tuesday, and turned our cognitive powers to the other thing that's usually on our mind. Food.

The plan was to go the the excellent cheese board at the Globe on Bow Street. I really like this pub and the last time we ate there, a few months back, had left a good memory. So off we trotted, we left the pub, I turned left and she went right.

Uh oh.

Err, sweetie? That minor faux pas over, and a little giggling, we headed off to the next pub. But didn't get there, instead, we found ourselves sucked in to the pavement seats of Wildwood on Bow street. Eh? What. I didn't realise there was a restaurant here! I was really quite confused. But, it turns out, they only opened at the end of May. That's alright then.

This was beginning to turn in to a Contrary Towers style evening. Distractions, deviation from any plan, unexpected delights. How good is this.

Or we good were we? It was brilliant sitting on the pavement seats watching the world go by. I felt like a bit of a tourist, but heh, it was a lovely evening and my pink shoulders weren't quite pink enough yet.

We drank more winez.

And ate. Quite a lot actually. But it was the laughing that was best. And being quite shockingly bitchy. But that was mostly me. I will say the service was a bit slow. And the menu had no cheese board. So we finally made it to the pub. Next door.

Where we ordered more winez. And the cheeseboard.

It was lovely sitting in the window, again watching the world go by, chatting more, giggling more. And sending silly tweets. The evening seemed to go on forever, but in a glorious way. The sort of perfect evening you don't want to stop. But we had to. We couldn't order more winez, though we were tempted, it was getting late! Right?


Who knew, it was only 9:50 when we rolled in to Mile End, eh? Oh yes, those new memories. It's magical stuff this perception of time thing. It was time to, sadly, separate, and head to our respective lairs. In a wobbly fashion.

My flatmate was awake when I got in having walked winsomely down Bow Common Lane, so we chatted, I told her lots of things that I would then repeat the next morning because I was too sozzled to remember I'd said them. And I painted her nails (we currently match!).

It was odd to have a contrary evening without her, but she did look better for the chilling, even through my red wine soaked eyes. I've said it before, I'll say it again, everybody should have a contrary day, once in a while.

They are very special.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Hello again

I actually presented last night, appeared from the darkened corners of my mind and put a face on.

There's quite a preamble to this, which I'll not go in to, but for the first time in a long time I actually needed to see me for my sake. Not because I was going out, or meeting somebody, or in search of adventure. I just needed reassurance I was still there. An emotional crutch.

Stupid, huh?

When you spend much of your life seeing a stranger, a façade, if you glance a reflection, to suddenly see yourself after nearly two months, is distinctly weird. I know the physical doesn't matter and that who we are never changes, and is all that really matters, but it is a peculiar feeling to have the two in, relative harmony. And, actually, to feel relatively comfortable.

Anyway. This is a good thing, if I am to step in to the light I've got to be at least slightly sure I won't scare small dogs. And traffic wardens.