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    Talk to me, Watson.


    2011 - 02.19

    IBM’s new supercomputer hotness, named Watson after one of IBM’s co-founders, has destroyed humanity’s greatest champions in the game of Jeopardy! This is a feat accomplished with speedy perusal of an encyclopedic database and high level language parsing. One of the main challenges here was to simply understand the questions being asked, what with the goofy formatting and puns built into many Jeopardy! questions. Watson’s designers at IBM said that their goal was to create a computer that you could converse with, using normal language syntaxes a la the computer in Star Trek. This is a pretty significant step toward that goal. Next up Watson will probably be functioning as a medical computer, with vast databases of factoids and data to help doctors work better. Neat!


    While this development in the field of artificial intelligence is a noteworthy mile-marker in the evolution of human technology, I wonder how soon we will see it benefit the average person. I’ve been thinking about what form it might take–probably similar to a website like wolfram alpha initially. While it would be very cool to have a computer you could play endless Q and A with, I think it’s even more fascinating to think about a potential computer that you could not just ‘converse’ with, but actually have ‘conversation’ with.

    What I mean is maybe you start off talking to Watson about how you used to live on the banks of the Wisconsin river when you were a kid, but that you could never go swimming in it because of the strong undertow. Watson replies, “That’s true, I have read many news articles about people drowing in the river, usually camped out on sandbars and caught off-guard by rising water. It is a sad thing.” Then he asks a related query: “Have you ever been to Devil’s Lake State Park, nearby the Wisconsin River?” If you say yes, maybe he inquires about your favorite trails there or relates some statistics about the park. Maybe if you’ve been talking to Watson for a while, his speech syntax will ‘relax’ a bit and he’ll lead off a sentence, “Hey, man, did you ever hear…?”

    If many people are all having conversations with this supercomputer, it could recall fascinating stories and jokes that people have told it. Computers are inherently a reflection of the people who have programmed them. How cool would it be if there was supercomputer that stored a massive library of experiences, emotions, and inspirations that people have shared with it? Such a machine would be a fascinating source of conversation. And the more people who talked to it, the more interesting it would become. It could learn slang, accents, and speak to individual users in ways tailored to their interests and preferences.

    Imagine if this were integrated into a website where you could speak into a microphone, and it would stream a response back to you. It could be accessed from anywhere. You could get it through your cellphone. What a world that would be.

    Unfortunately I think we’re a long ways away from that. If it takes a supercomputer the size of a room to play Jeopardy! imagine the computing power needed to have simultaneous conversations with thousands of people. Imagine how much conversational data it would amass. I suppose it would initially be available only to a select few, and in limited time allocations. But still, this is where AI is headed eventually, right? It’s fun to think about!

    All Your Aliens Are LAME.


    2011 - 01.03

    My biggest beef with almost all the science fiction out there: the unimaginative portrayal of alien life.  And I’ll be especially harsh on Star Trek here–for being the series that is lauded as one of the more “realistic” (ie. it tries to obey physics), all the aliens (Klingons, Vulcans, borg, etc) all look an awful lot like Homo Sapiens.  I think the Cantina scene in the original Star Wars comes a lot closer to imagining what breadth of life must be out there.

    Given a completely different set of circumstances, the process of evolution will take a completely different path.  This recent NASA study which, essentially through forced evolution, bred a bacteria that eats arsenic and uses it in place of phosphorus as the backbone of its DNA structure, is a breakthrough.  It changes the parameter of where we should be searching for life.  And more importantly, it expands the boundaries of where life might arise.  That’s huge.

    I would also posit that this discovery is only one of many discoveries to come that will expand our narrow thinking on the possibilities of life.  I would bet anything that there are chemistries which proliferate life with far more exotic elements than the replacement of a single building block using the Earth-life formula.  The study of extremophiles here on Earth is important work to understand life.  Earth, after all, is just one set of pressure, temperature, gravity, atmosphere, and soil that’s out there.

    It really bothers me how human-centric alien life is always portrayed.  If an organism grew on a completely different world, with a different set of parameters as listed above, it would probably be absolutely nothing like us.  Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth?  Probably not.  This is how our evolutionary tree began, millennia ago, and because of those early parameters, nearly all the life around us follows the formula.  Who’s to say that on different planets, starting from scratch, life wouldn’t evolve with ears on the back of their knees? Or eyes that perceived with radio waves, or infrared.  Their “eyes” probably wouldn’t even look like what we call “eyes”.  Maybe these creatures would evolve to be able to emit and manipulate electromagnetic waves–that ability would have many advantages…

    Other structures that we completely take for granted might not be present whatsoever.  A leg, for example.  Of course, legs are a good solution to the problem of how to get around, but why not rolling wheels or something similar to treads, or why not glide around on a layer of slippery goo like a snail?  Maybe alien life would hop from place to place like on pogo sticks?  In low gravity environments, that would be a very efficient way to travel.  Why walk and get bogged down in all that expenditure of energy with friction against the ground when you can just bounce gracefully across it all?  Boom, you just got beaten in the evolutionary contest, alien with legs! As much as I strain my mind to come up with oddities which might arise, I feel limited by my Earthbound bias.  What if alien life is REEEEEEALY different?  There must be creatures and civilizations out there that have endured for billions of years.  Their evolution probably started like ours as a chemical process driven by the right building blocks and the infusion of electromagnetism.  These creatures evolved to intelligence, built a society, discovered science and technology, began to guide their own evolution.

    They eliminated genetic flaws, squashed weaknesses to disease, augmented their intelligence and information storage.  At a certain point, their technology and their physical beings became indistinguishable.  They learned how to preserve their minds indefinitely and how to network them for instantaneous telepathy.  For some, physical existence became more like an afterthought.  For others, connection with the collective muted the possibility of discovery out in the wilds of the cosmos.

    They developed means to travel the galaxy, cataloging other life in the pursuit of advancing their own.  The optimum way to do this probably involved zero interference with these other, less advanced lifeforms.  Studying their natural growth patterns was more fruitful than attempting to conquer, plunder, or exploit–irrelevant, pointless ideas when much larger questions and goals awaited.  Perhaps these creatures developed ways to transport their consciousness via electromagnetic waves, reconstituting physical forms at will, only for sporadic observation where things got interesting.  By this point, a physical appearance would be whatever manifestation would best suit the situation.

    What would such a highly developed species choose to look like?  I find it fascinating to think about.  What would their goals become?

    What would their leisure pursuits be? In the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book I read the fact that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.  This is an astounding, stupefying fact that I will probably repeat later, for the sheer difficultly of being able to wrap one’s head around it.

    To me, the most thought-provoking aspect of it is that where the probability of life is simply anything other than zero, the vastness of this universe implies an explosively bountiful cornucopia of every imaginable tree-branch of life, including the existence of such ancient and advanced races as we theorized about above.