Category Archives: Life

So-Called Artificial Intelligence: Google Translate Awakens


This weekend’s New York Times has a fine article on AI, The Great A.I. Awakening. I commented briefly on the article on the Times’s site but I want to say a lot more.

The article vividly documents Google Translate’s recent revolution in how it works. Until now, auto-translation engines have modeled languages explicitly via rules, dictionaries, and the like. The new Translate, and its Chinese competitor on Baidu, instead enable a multi-layer neural net – a simulated brain, basically – to learn language translation by being fed thousands or millions of existing examples of translations. Researchers fed Google Translate the complete English and French versions of the Canadian Parliament’s proceedings, for instance, presumably along with many translated classic books, newspapers, and so forth. The new engines learn like human toddlers do, by unconsciously copying behaviors they observe, over and over again, until they evolve to proficiency. And like humans, the new engines will continue learning their entire “lives” by observing and copying new examples with new words and new phrases in all languages. But note: the new engines will not be able to go out in the world themselves to find worthy new examples, not for a very long time yet. They’ll need human care and feeding for the foreseeable future.

From near the end of the article:

A neural network built to translate could work through millions of pages of documents of legal discovery in the tiniest fraction of the time it would take the most expensively credentialed lawyer. The kinds of jobs taken by automatons will no longer be just repetitive tasks that were once — unfairly, it ought to be emphasized — associated with the supposed lower intelligence of the uneducated classes. We’re not only talking about three and a half million truck drivers who may soon lack careers. We’re talking about inventory managers, economists, financial advisers, real estate agents.

All true. But all decades out in the future, maybe several or many decades. Why? I see it like this. A toddler computer learns from a team of humans whose only job today is to feed and raise this child quickly to do one thing well. The toddler computer has no eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, legs or feet. The toddler computer processes fed-in data 24×7 and learns its one thing quickly in its tiny simulated brain, much faster than a human child would. But a human child processes many orders of magnitude of far, far richer data per time period than the computer child can: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, the physics of standing and walking and making sounds, the complexities of language, and so forth, all integrated and organized within its real brain. See for example this discussion.

The human child’s brain is the culmination of millions of generations of evolving, increasingly more powerful prototypes equipped with extraordinarily capable sensors of several kinds. The human brain perceives and processes the world around it continuously at a huge data rate. The human body moves freely in space. With respect to attaining human-like intelligence and self awareness, then, the computer toddler has a truly enormous gap yet to cross. The crossing cannot possibly be quick, meaning in just a few years or a decade. It’s been only a few years since the total computing power on the planet exceeded just one human brain’s computing power.

Not to diminish or underplay the Google Translate achievements in any way. They are stunning. But I view them as like Watt’s invention of rotary steam motion in the late 1700s: an enormous enabler of a revolution, but still just the very beginning. And I’m not one bit worried by the article’s conclusion that “once machines can learn from human speech, even the comfortable job of the programmer is threatened.” No, not for a very long time yet to come.

As the article says, “The goal posts for ‘artificial intelligence’ are thus constantly receding.” Each step seems major, and Google Translate’s awakening is indeed major, but it’s still tiny in the big picture of true intelligence and self awareness.



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Filed under artificial intelligence, Evolution, Life, Software

So-Called Artificial Intelligence: Hate Sites and Fake News



An online Guardian article on December 4 described how search-engine auto-completion of typed-in queries leads preferentially to certain hate-filled sites and fake news. Some very smart and industrious people figured out how to game search engines – Google in particular – into automatically bringing up suggestions that took searchers to propaganda-laden or fake sites. For example, if you typed “are jews” into Google, among the first auto-completed choices that Google would bring up were things like “are jews evil” or “are jews white”, questions that some people pose and discuss in order to sway your thoughts in their preferred direction.

In the week or more since the article, Google has begun working with various companies to weed out auto-completions that directly promote lies and hate. But Google has very long way to go yet. See for example this Guardian article from December 11. I urge you to read it.

In essence, the smart and industrious people only had to register lots of links with search engines, tens or hundreds of thousands of links to their own sites, maybe millions. The engines’ “artificial intelligence” algorithms then automatically promoted “popular” linked-to content high up into auto-completed search suggestions (I’m probably overly simplistic here, but close enough for the discussion).

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Filed under Life, Politics, Software

The force


(I wrote this on a short-lived blog in 2010. It still represents my best shot at understanding what being alive on this planet means.)

What makes each of us emerge and grow and move and think?

The force of sunlight on spinning matter.

We are momentary patterns in the flow and ebb, warming and cooling, of water and soil under intense sunlight. You and I are massive colonies of bacteria heaved about daily by the sun. Bacteria are massive agglomerations of viruses and protein fragments. Viruses and proteins are not alive, but our bacteria are, and therefore we are.

There cannot be life without death. The world outside us is always changing. But none of us can change his/her internal pattern: once grown, each of us is essentially static as a genome. If we were each potentially immortal and had little or no drive to procreate, our species could not change, and we would die out under changing conditions. You and I are alive today because 400,000 generations of hominids and humans were driven to procreate. Each of our ancestors, randomly different from his/her parents and peers, happened to pass through the filters of natural selection that existed at that moment.

The sun drives us. Circumstances filter us. We need no conscious desire to adapt or change, and we have none within our physical beings. Change is forced on our species and every other species. Only a few lineages survive the filters.

How much do you know about your father’s mother’s mother? Probably almost nothing. How much of her is within you? Probably not much. Human patterns shimmer and evaporate in tiny fragments of time. Let us celebrate this.


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Filed under Biology, Evolution, Life

What is life?


I think that the following, from this recent eSkeptic discussion, is not completely correct: “…reproduction is an absolutely essential component of any definition of life.” By this measure almost every instance of a living, breathing female mule and her male mule consort are not alive, since they cannot reproduce. From Wikipedia: “Mules and hinnies have 63 chromosomes, a mixture of the horse’s 64 and the donkey’s 62. The different structure and number usually prevents the chromosomes from pairing up properly and creating successful embryos, rendering most mules infertile. … As of October 2002, there had been only 60 documented cases of mules birthing foals since 1527.” Continue reading

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Filed under Biology, Life, Natural Science

Oliver Sacks


Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, has died. He was in his 80s and was afflicted by melanoma.

I first read his book of neurological case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, many years ago. I’ve read most of his other books. In those case studies, and in his other works, he revealed a remarkable sensitivity to the subjective experiences of his patients. Thus he told us how he saw his patients, objectively as a neurologist, and he helped us to understand and imagine the inner lives of his patients; how their afflictions felt to them. Continue reading

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We’re all the same!


Never to be forgotten is that, if blacks had come to Europe and taken whites to Africa as slaves, and if some hundreds of years later the whites were freed in a time of growing global awareness, the black reactions to losing property would be exactly the same as the white reactions in US border states during Reconstruction.

We’re all the same!

We’re just big buses for bacteria, pushed relentlessly by Big Bang energy and sunlight to gather sustenance so we can make more of our composite selves who will do more of the same. Loss of sustenance in any form, including one’s slaves, spurs fear, hatred and violence. Blackness and whiteness are recent historical accidents that, should our species survive so long, will almost completely fade from our memories. Long ago we forgot the Neanderthals but archaeology and science have jogged our memories of them. Today, our degrees of separation from the people of the US Civil War are very small, just two or three. Our degrees of separation from the Neanderthals are probably in the hundreds. Actually, we never completely forgot the Neanderthals: they lived on in folk tales with trolls and so forth. Eventually we’ll remember what dragons actually were.


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Filed under Civil War, Life