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singularity

“Naked Singularity” by new 1lluminati

I got to thinking again about “The Singularity” when I read this week about robots teaching other robots as part of some research at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The technological singularity, often just simply called the singularity, is the idea that the invention of artificial superintelligence (ASI, a step beyond AI) will result in very rapid technological growth and then dramatic changes to human civilization.

The term was popularized by sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge in his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity” but goes back earlier to the mathematician John von Neumann, who spoke of “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology in 2005 as a sequel and extension to his previous books, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). Kurzweil predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence, and then once the Singularity has been reached, machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined.

Kurzweil and others see the next phase to be when intelligence moves beyond Earth until it saturates the universe. Some people say that the true Singularity is the point at which machines intelligence and humans merge.

In the past decade, some famous folks like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk expressed concern that full artificial intelligence could result in human extinction.

The Singularity’s potential benefit or harm to the human race is being debated.

But my current interest is this idea of the machines using “social learning.” In your lifetime, you have probably learned more by observing or interacting with others than you learned in any formal “school” setting. This kind of socially acquired knowledge is different from what we learn on our own, or in a classroom.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that robots would some day also learn this way. The robots at MIT are learning from one another. A robot is programmed with a knowledge base so it has information about how to interact with objects such as door handles. This knowledge base helps the robot navigate the constraints of the world, such as the physical necessity of having to turn a handle before pulling a door open. A human “teacher” only needs to demonstrate the action once. Then, the robot can pass its knowledge on to other robots.

Maybe that doesn’t fit you definition of teaching. True. This transfer of skills between robots still needs  intervention from a human. For now…

What they are working on at MIT is demonstrating tasks to one robot that can then transfer its skills to other robots that are different. Others with different body shapes and strengths can use the skills in other ways. Their goal is independent social learning in robots – cultured robots.

If we reach the singularity – or is it that the machines reach it? – they will no longer need us. Does that make you feel hopeful or hopeless about the future?

Novelist Sinclair Lewis is known for a number of novels he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. Main Street (1920) gave him wide recognition and he followed it with Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925). The latter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but Lewis declined the award. After Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929), Sinclair Lewis became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

One of his lesser known novels is It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935.  He was writing during the Great Depression and during a time when most Americans were oblivious to Hitler’s rise to power. Certainly Lewis had Hitler in mind and was warning Americans of the possibility of such a leader rising to power in the United States – even though most Americans would have said “it can’t happen here.”

Lewis was also connecting his character Buzz Windrip with the Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel’s publication.

Lewis’ novel has gotten some attention again now because people are seeing parallels to Donald Trump’s campaign and administration. Take a look at the novel’s description on the back cover of Lewis’ book and you can see why.

It Can’t Happen Here is being viewed as a prescient novel that seems more like contemporary commentary on our current political climate.

During the 2016 Presidential campaign, I spent some time in Europe and a number of people I met in Eastern Europe asked about Donald Trump. I said that I didn’t think, at that point, that he had much of a chance of getting the nomination or winning. I was there during the week of the Brexit vote and a number of Brits told us that would not be passed. When it was, they were shocked, and told us that don’t be surprised if the same feelings aren’t present in America and would help Trump’s campaign. “Don’t think it couldn’t happen in America too, ” they warned me.

I did some reading about Sinclair Lewis, who I have not read since my undergraduate days. He graduated from Yale University in 1908, but had an interrupted college career as he worked at several part-time jobs. One of those that caught my attention was a period he spent working at the Helicon Home Colony.

The Colony was novelist Upton Sinclair’s socialist experiment in New Jersey. Upton Sinclair Jr. was also an American writer who is best known for his classic muckraking novel The Jungle. Helicon Home Colony was an experimental community he formed in Englewood, New Jersey using the proceeds from The Jungle. It was short-lived. It was established in October 1906, but the home burned down in March 1907 and the experiment ended.

After graduating Yale, Lewis worked as an editor and journalist, and published several novels that gained little attention. But Main Street in 1920 gave him recognition.

I only discovered It Can’t Happen Here recently via a tweet – which seems appropriate if you are making a Trump connection.

I think I will have to give Lewis’ novel a read.

From the summary I read, Lewis was clearly portraying a genuine U.S. dictator. But Lewis’s character of Windrip is not so much an American Hitler as he is a con-man – a good one who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but he has no overarching ideology or desire for world domination.

I’m behind on picking up on the novel because I can see online that since the 2016 United States presidential election, sales of It Can’t Happen Here shot up and this old novel made it to Amazon.com’s list of bestselling books, as did Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. As with Orwell, Sinclair Lewis wrote what he considered a warning about something dangerous he saw beginning in America and portrayed in fiction how that might eventually play out in reality.

I read about two studies that were done concerning IQ and the more general sense of just how smart we think we are.

Your IQ (intelligence quotient) was probably tested and measured in school, though you probably were never told your magic IQ number. Think you might be a genius?

Genius IQ is generally considered to begin around 140 to 145. That’s about ~.25% of the population or 1 in 400 people. There are varying guides to how the geniuses are divided up. One guide shows:
115-124 – Above average (e.g., university students)
125-134 – Gifted (e.g., post-graduate students)
135-144 – Highly gifted (e.g., intellectuals)
145-154 – Genius (e.g., professors)
155-164 – Genius (e.g., Nobel Prize winners)
165-179 – High genius
180-200 – Highest genius
>200 – “Unmeasurable genius”

Einstein was considered to “only” have an IQ of about 160.

Since the early 20th century, IQ scores were increasing at 10 points per generation, but in the last twenty or thirty years, humans have started getting dumber – if dropping IQ scores are to be believed.

The trend that IQ increased throughout the 20th century is known as the Flynn effect, named after intelligence researcher James Flynn after he observed the rises in IQs for every decade in the 20th century. But in recent years there has been a slowdown or reversal of this upward trend, at least in some countries.

The Flynn Effect is attributed to a variety of societal improvements during the 20th century, including prenatal and early post-natal care, reduced exposure to lead, reduction of pathogens, improved nutrition, better education and improved social environment.

But from the 1970’s onwards, our intelligence has started falling. Are we getting dumber?

One theory concerns dividing our intelligence into two types: fluid and crystallized. Blame is thrown at schools that value and judge you on your ability to recall information for tests and exams. That is crystallized intelligence. It is a type of intelligence that is fine for many service class jobs.  An increasing number of people are going into these kinds of service jobs, and many of those jobs are being dumbed down. You don’t need to add or subtract or even put in amounts when the iconized cash register shows you a picture of a soda or a burger or fries and does it all for you.

But fluid intelligence is what we use for problem solving, critical thinking and higher order skills. It’s not that fluid is better; it’s that both kinds are needed for higher intelligence.

Let me bring in here a second effect: the Dunning Kruger Effect. This was developed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University who found a cognitive bias that occurs when people fail to adequately assess their level of competence (or incompetence) at a task. They consider themselves to be more competent than they actually are.

The theory has a far less academic name, according to the Urban Dictionary, as “Mount Stupid.” This is a mountain you climb until you get to the place where “you have enough knowledge of a subject to be vocal about it, without the wisdom to gather the full facts or read around the topic.”

It sounds like pop psychology, but there have been serious studies done on the effect. People with low ability do not have the necessary critical ability and self-awareness to recognize how low their ability actually is, and that leads them to have an inflated view of their own competence and knowledge.

In much cruder terms, this effect occurs when people are “too stupid to know how stupid they are.” Have you ever noticed this effect?

Dunning and Kruger tested developed their theory with tests of humor, logic, science and grammar. They found that those who performed best consistently underestimated their ability. But those who performed worst believed that they had in fact done well. As cognitive ability worsens, so does the ability for the participant to accurately assess their ability.

Again, in simpler terms, those with only a little knowledge were more dangerous than those that knew they had no knowledge about a subject. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing“ said Alexander Pope way back in 1709.

The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You have heard that, right? It is a commonly said idea, but it is actually a different cognitive bias known as “Imposter Syndrome.”

When Nicholas Carr published The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains in 2011 (and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) people kept quoting his earlier Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google making us stupid?” He hit a nerve at the time – we enjoy the Internet a lot, but are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply by using it too much?

Carr references earlier thinkers from Plato to McLuhan and notes that the idea that every information technology (printed books to the Net) also changes our nature of knowledge and intelligence.

Thinking people feared that the printed book would erode our use of memory. But it actually served to focus our attention and promoted deep and creative thought.

Carr doesn’t think the Internet is doing good things. It encourages rapid, distracted dipping into bits of information from many sources. His theory is that what it is making us better at is scanning and skimming – not concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

But you’re reading this article and you’re thinking about it. Did it make you feel a bit stupider or a bit smarter to read it? Will you comment on it, or share it, or read more about it, or talk to someone else about it?

art class

A Penn State Medical School student participating in the “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” course – Image: Patrick Mansell via news.psu.edu

Educators have been hearing a lot about STEM the past decade. STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and there has been a big push to increase STEM courses and STEM skills in all levels from elementary school through college.

I am a proponent of STEAM which includes the arts and humanities into the mix.  So, I was pleased to read that students in the Penn State College of Medicine take a required humanities course in their fourth year to help broaden students’ perspectives and encourage them to bring a humanistic approach to their work.

Scientists and engineers are often designing products for human use, but their med school curriculum doesn’t usually include much humanities like psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature or art. The STEM fields increasingly need to consider biases, ethical problems and social inequities that are part of those other fields.

How about some impressionist painting? A seminar on “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” engages students with the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. Is this art history? No, the exercises range from “observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists… and through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.”

Art does good things to your brain – literally (see video below)

But we have a history of separating the humanities from the sciences. Think about how while industrialist Andrew Carnegie was donating lots of money to higher education, he was pointing out that the study of “dead languages” and other humanities subjects were useless pursuits. Industrialist Richard Teller Crane said back in 1911 that no one with “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness… are those who are useful.”

I think Aristotle was all for STEAM and with the creation of universities, medieval thinkers used the “Liberal Arts” of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) as a way to provide a balanced education.

Neil Degrasse Tyson asks “Suppose they did that back in Renaissance Europe? What would Europe be without the support and interest in art? We measure the success of a civilization by how well they treat their creative people.”

And although I’m thinking about art and literature here, I will note that Albert Einstein seemed to get a lot of use out of his violin that went beyond musical thinking.

 

We haven’t really nailed down what dreams are all about and there are still differing theories. In the explanation that Freud promoted, dreams are a way to see into our subconscious desires, thoughts and motivations. This is where we get the idea that the things in dreams (manifest content) are really symbols for the latent, or hidden, content.

Other theories view dreaming as a way the brain generates new ideas and creativity. This explains how people wake up with a poem or the solution to a complex problem.

A more everyday variation on this theory is another that posits that dreams are the way we process the day’s information. In sleep and dreaming, we categorize, prune away and store memories.

However, none of these explain the persistent idea that dreams, at least sometimes, seem to predict or foreshadow future events. The three theories first mentioned all deal with the past, whether it be the past 48 hours, or our childhood years ago.

If you have ever had a dream that later turned out to be “true” or prophetic, you probably have some belief in precognitive dreams.

J. W. Dunne, a British engineer and amateur philosopher, proposed that the way we believe we experience time as linear was an illusion. Human consciousness fools us into believing that, when in fact past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality. We have imposed this sequential time mental perception of time as a way to understand it.

He wrote about what he called “serial time” is a series of books beginning with An Experiment with Time (1928) , The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and Intrusions? (1955).

As the years passed, he connected “serialism” to psychology, parapsychology, theology, relativity and quantum mechanics. Several famous novelists were fans of his theories, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.

Vladimir Nabokov was another novelist who was taken with the Dunne’s idea that serial time allowed for dreams to “predict” a future we had already experienced. It also explained the déjà vu phenomenon.

In a recently published collection titled Insomniac Dreams,, we can see an experiment in time that Nabokov conducted himself.

Every morning for about three months, he would write down immediately upon awakening what he could recall of his dreams. Then the following days, he paid careful attention to anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream. This dream journal was recorded on index cards, which has also been his compositional method when he wrote Lolita.

He is surely not the only dream journaler who has believed that dreams are not just fragments of past impressions, but are both past and future events. Dunne said this was possible in his serial view of time because time then is not unidirectional but recursive.

Dunne would also say that the only way to observe the predictive nature o dreams is to pay careful attention to the content of dreams, as Nabokov and journaling do, and the events that follow in waking life.

Nabokov finds some instances of prophecy in his recorded dreams, but nothing I would consider extraordinary despite his idea that when you are confronted with predicted outcomes that might be explained as coincidences multiple times, you cease to believe they are coincidences and believe they “form the living organism of a new truth.”

I am more in the coincidence school of belief about the predictive aspects of dreams, and that they are given more weight when we pay closer attention, as Nabokov did.

Perhaps, I should do my own experiment paying closer attention to the followup days  and dream self-reflection. Though lately, I have not had any dreams to record as they seem to disappear before I even wake up with my dream journal beside me. What’s that all about?

 

I met pi in school. You probably met pi that way too. It is that number used to calculate the circumference of a circle. Pi is shown symbolically as:

π

Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an “irrational number” which means its exact value is inherently unknowable.

Using computers, we have calculated billions of digits of pi, starting with 3.14159265358979323…   –  but no recognizable pattern emerges. So strange. The digits of pi continue to infinity. Does anyone really understand infinity?

Ancient mathematicians did not like irrationality because it didn’t work with the concept of an omniscient God.

Recently I read about another pi connection which is also strange. In 1996, the UK earth scientist Hans-Henrik Stølum published a paper announcing that pi explains the seemingly chaotic paths of rivers in a mathematically predictable pattern.

This is called a river’s sinuosity. By dividing the river’s actual meandering length by the length of the direct line drawn from source to sea.

Of course, some rivers flow pretty straight from source to mouth , so they have small meandering ratios. Some rivers wander all over the place and have high meandering ratios.

But the average meandering ratio of rivers seems to be pi. Good old 3.14.

Albert Einstein used fluid dynamics and chaos theory to show that rivers tend to bend into loops.

If a river has a curve that will generate faster currents on the outer side of the curve. Those currents will cause erosion and so a sharper bend. That will eventually make the loop tighten. I have read that then chaos will eventually cause the river to double back on itself and form a loop in the other direction.

I did some more research on this river connection and found that this claim may not be accurate.

Someone put up a website at one point to crowdsource river data. The site at PiMeARiver.com seems to be dead now. People could put in the coordinates of the mouth and the source of a river, and the length of the river (from Google Maps and Wikipedia probably) to calculate the sinuosity of a river. That study looked at 258 rivers and found an average sinuosity of an un-Pi-like 1.94.

Hmmm. Maybe it is another mathematical constant, like the golden ratio (phi) which we often find in nature. That value is 1.618. Nope.

What about if you look at pi/phi? You get 1.94. Okay, that’s a strange “coincidence.”  Or something more than coincidence?

I need to be careful with all this, because I saw the film titled Pi. I saw this science fiction film when it was released in 1998. It is a difficult film to label. It is surrealist, psychological, thriller, that delves into religion, mysticism, the relationship of the universe to mathematics and number theory. It was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky in his directorial debut.

I read it as a cautionary tale. It is about a genius oddball mathematician, Max, who has been working for a decade trying to decode the numerical pattern beneath ordered chaos. The ordered chaos he studies is the stock market.

Max’s belief that there is some mathematical “code” underlying everything compares in my mind with Einstein trying to find that theory that explains it all. That quest frustrated Einstein through the end of his life.

Beware of that quest.

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