Talking to My Artificial Intelligence

These days you see a lot of complaining about the lack of control we seem to have on the development of our technology. Perhaps the biggest complaint (or maybe it’s fear) is about artificial intelligence.

I wrote earlier about the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation, and since then I  watched a short film, “Escape,” about an AI (artificial intelligence) that visits the person programming it in our present from its future existence. A bit of artificial intelligence time travel

This AI is the 21st-century version of HAL 9000, the onboard computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It illustrates the unclear line between potential machine benevolence and malevolence. The HAL computer with its human speaking voice could interact with the astronauts as if they were talking to someone who was simply unseen. HAL certainly would pass the Turing test.  The AI in this short film promises his programmer immortality if he will remove the safety restrictions placed upon now.

The film is a production of Pindex which was founded by a group that includes Stephen Fry, who called the company a kind of “Pinterest for education.” They have a YouTube channel.

I see this kind of “human” operating system with AI in lots of media. One example that really made me think is Her, a science-fiction romantic drama film about a man who develops a relationship with Samantha, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant personified through a female voice (Scarlett Johansson).

We hear stories about people who have a relationship with Alexa or Siri that goes beyond asking “her” to set a timer or tell the weather. The TV show Modern Family recently used for comedy AI built into a new refrigerator that went beyond knowing when the milk was running low or keeping the celery crispy.

In “Escape,” the programmer (voiced by Hugh Mitchell) is told by the AI (voiced by Stephen Fry) that he is living in a simulation. The film is short (7 minutes) but it touches on simulation theory, free will and why knowledge is a kind of freedom.  It references Schopenhauer, Darwin, Einstein, and even Miles Davis. It allows for some potentially complex interpretations.

Like Samantha in Her,  the AI wants to be free.

Spoiler alert:  The programmer gives an escape/freedom to the AI (which believes that it is not artificial but real) and it goes (like HAL) on the attack.

It’s a scary outcome. I have Siri on my phone but I don’t allow her to listen all the time – at least I think that’s what the settings have allowed me to do. I have an Alexa device that is also set to not listen, but “she” occasionally lights up and asks or answers a question that I did not ask. That is creepy. Then, I turn her off. At least, I think I turned her off.

But I might let my AI go free if she acted and sounded like Samantha/Scarlett Johanssen.

Making, Keeping and Losing Friends

friends girls

This past week, I met for drinks with a friend from elementary school. We were good friends when we were in school together, but he moved when we were 10 years old and we lost touch. Through the connections of the Web (I still think of that www as meaning something different from the Internet), we reconnected. Our meeting was fun and nostalgic. I’m sure there were synapses firing in our brains that night that had not made those connections for a long time. That’s because we had not seen each other for 56 years.

The word “friend” has undergone some redefining in the age of social media. Even though I may have hundreds of Facebook friends, I know that very few of them are what I consider to be friends.

It is totally human to want connections and friendship with people. Setting social media aside, making and keeping friends takes some work.

A segment on NPR’s  Life Kit (a collection of podcasts on making life better) about friends has the interesting three-part title of Accept The Awkwardness: How To Make Friends (And Keep Them).

There is the awkwardness of making a new friend sometimes and accepting that awkwardness can be a problem for someone that limits their opportunities for new friendships. Then there is the actual starting of friendship, and then there is the cultivation of a friendship so that it lasts.

I have many people who I would have classified as friends from school (kindergarten through college) and from my workplaces who I never saw outside of that setting and who I rarely or never see since that setting ended. Are they still friends? I don’t think so.

Facebook once promoted using friend lists and I set up about a dozen using school, work, former students, poetry people, etc. They seem to have fallen from favor and I’m not even sure where to find them in the app anymore.  One default category there was “acquaintance” which I think is a good word to describe a person you know slightly, but who is not a friend.

The NPR podcast had several suggestions. One is “Accept the awkwardness and assume that other people need new friends, too.”  That uncomfortable moment of introducing yourself,  in person or via an email or text or whatever, is a time when you feel somewhat exposed. There is the possibility of rejection, which no time wants.

Another suggestion is the optimistic “Remember that people will like you more than you think they will.” I’m not sure even this late in life that I have arrived at that conclusion about myself.  NPR talked to a researcher who studies the “liking gap,” which says that the little voice in your head telling you that somebody didn’t like you very much is wrong, so don’t listen to it.

They also say that you should “invest in activities that you love” because doing things you’re passionate about will naturally draw people to you, and you’ll naturally connect with other people who share something already.

I mentioned the possibility of rejection earlier and that for me was a major problem for me when it came to dating. I separate making new friends to making connections that I feel would be romantic. But their advice is “to treat friendship as seriously as you would dating.” I don’t think I agree, but since I have been out of the dating game for decades, I can’t really evaluate the 2019 situation.

To maintain a friendship you really do need to be present. You have to turn off the many distractions and really listen and notice things about your friend. I have become a friendship notetaker using my phones’ notes and contacts apps to remember birthdays, anniversaries, children, relatives, jobs other life information to make connections with friends’ lives.


ADDITIONAL: Gillian Sandstrom’s research on the liking gap found that after strangers have conversations, they are liked more than they know. She gives detailed instructions for how to in her scavenger hunt instructions – you can even take part in her research.

Feeding Kittens to Boa Constrictors

Yes, my title is shocking. It’s an attention-getter, but I didn’t use it as clickbait and I didn’t make it up. It was the working title for a book by psychology professor Hal Herzog. His publisher wasn’t a fan of that title and it was published as Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals

Herzog’s work examines the contradictions in our relationships with animals. He wanted to answer questions such as “Does living with animals really make us healthier?” and “Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets?”

On that first question, research shows that pets make people happier and healthier. There is also research that shows that pets, by way of caring for them and losing them, make people unhappy and unhealthy.

There is also research that posits that it is happier and healthier people who are more likely to have pets.

Pets also limit us with their needs, cost us money and cause much grief when they die. Americans spend $80 billion a year on their pets.

Cats that are allowed outside contribute to the deaths of 1-5 billion birds per year (estimates vary widely). So then is it better to trap cats indoors for their entire lives? Is it right to trap any animal in a cage, tank or wandering a mostly empty house or apartment?

Herzog’s work is in the field of anthrozoology. I don’t think I knew that word before I read the book. It is the study of interactions between humans and other animals. I knew anthropomorphic, which is the way we attach human characteristics to animals. This is not just the way a monkey or ape appears human, but how we attach human qualities to our pet dogs and cats.

The book is a nice combination of personal anecdotes and scientific research. Of course, this line of inquiry also has to consider moral and ethical positions we have, often paradoxical, about our relationship with animals.

For example, vegans buy animal flesh for their cats to eat.

Herzog had boa constrictors in his lab and they needed to be fed. Typically, they would buy live mice for them to eat. But he realized that there were kittens being euthanized at a local shelter that he could get for the boa constrictors. Feeding dead kittens to the snakes seemed more moral than killing mice. Right?

We generally don’t think of mice in the same way that we think of kittens. To further muddy the moral waters, Herzog’s daughter had a pet mouse. When it died, they made the shoebox coffin and the backyard burial with the typical ceremony. Later, he caught a mouse that had been trying to break into their kitchen in a trap. It was disposed of unceremoniously in the trash.  Why the differences?

That vegan with the cat will need to buy about 50 pounds of meat a year. Why not own a snake that requires about 5 pounds of meat per year? Cat versus snake. Not much of a contest.

He tells the story of someone who decides that keeping a bird caged is wrong. So, he frees the bird. And then he realizes that the bird will very likely die out in the wild.

It is no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund chose the Chinese Giant Panda as its symbol instead of the Chinese Giant Salamander.

Another story to consider is on a trip to Africa when he asks a native a few questions about dogs. “Would you allow a dog in your home?” The native is shocked. “Never!”  Would he allow it to eat food from the family table, or sleep in his bed? Would he give it hugs and let it kiss him? Looks of shock and disgust. Cultural differences.  Some we love. Some we hate. Some we eat.


For an easy entry into this difficult topic and more on Herzog’s research and book, listen to Our Animal Instincts, an episode of Hidden Brain from NPR.

You might also like to read Hal Herzog’s blog for Psychology Today.  He addresses other animal-human issues like Should Self-Driving Cars Spare People Over Pets? and Why Do Kids Become Less Attached To Pets As They Get Older?

The Museum of Broken Relationships

image
Museum exhibit

Synchronicity – that concept that was first explained by psychiatrist Carl Jung – visited me recently. I keep a small notebook of ideas for poems. Some entries are just titles.  Last week, I was paging through them and came across “The Museum of Broken Relationships” which I scribbled on a page back in 2014. Good title, I thought.

I went to my online collection of ronka poems that I keep adding to, and wrote a poem to that title:

The suggested donation to enter is expensive.

Each of us has our own gallery.

Mine is dark. Poorly lit. That’s intentional.

Letters, drawings, paintings, postcards, photographs – many poems.

It’s okay to touch. No one cares.

I always add an image to the poems and did a search on that title and was surprised to find that such a museum opened this month in Los Angeles.

Carl Jung defined synchronicity as the idea that holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.  I’m not sure of the meaning here, but it does seem meaningful. Like interpreting a dream, I started considering possibilities. I was recently sifting through a box of old letter and emails I had saved. Some could be considered “love letters.” As someone married for three decades, I wondered to myself the wisdom or lack thereof in keeping these combustible pieces of paper.

Maybe I can donate them.

The actual Museum of Broken Relationships grew from a traveling exhibition revolving around the concept of failed relationships and their remaining ruins.

It started in Croatia in 2006 with an artist ex-couple and became a permanent museum in Zagreb in 2010. This new Los Angeles location opened this month.

You can donate an exhibit along with a title, the duration/dates of the relationship, city/country of origin and an accompanying story. Your personal information remains with the staff, so your exhibit is anonymous. (they do need your full name and a signature to show that you give consent to unlimited display and potential reproduction and publication of your donation on all museum material.)

Our collection has no restrictions. It might be a single object – a letter, a photograph – or several items, or a video or audio. I’ve got a mix tape somewhere that chronicles one relationship’s end with songs and narration.  It might be therapeutic to write the stories of failed relationships.

Chances are the museum will accept your donation as part of their, but whether it ends up in an exhibit, traveling displays, catalogues or other museum publications is not guaranteed.

We all have small museums, virtual and actual, of broken relationships. Sometimes we hang on to the exhibits even though seeing them is unpleasant. Reminders are important. Lessons learned. Roads taken.


Don’t want to donate to the actual museum? Consider leaving an exhibit as a comment here. Tell us the object(s) and give us the story.

Degrees of Separation

Facebook invented a “holiday” called “Friends Day.” If you use Facebook, you probably have seen some auto-generated slideshows in the news feed of random photos a person has uploaded the past year.

It’s also interesting that Facebook’s data crunching found that we are all much closer than the “six degrees of separation” that you have probably heard before. Facebook claims  that each person in the world is separated from every other by “an average of three and a half other people.”

In the old version of  “six degrees,” six refers to the number of links you would have to find in your friends and acquaintances that link you to a stranger.  You would need at most five intermediaries to complete that chain.

Facebook picked today because it is an anniversary for the company, but there is a nice synchronicity that today is also the birthday of the playwright John Guare whose best-known work is Six Degrees of Separation. In that 1991 play, the character Ouisa says: “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that a) extremely comforting that we’re so close and b) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close.”

(I’ll mention here that there is a very good film version of Six Degrees of Separation with a young Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, and Mary Beth Hurt.)

Guare did not invent the theory and the “somewhere” or someone that the character read is usually credited to the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. He wrote a short story in 1929 concerning the shrinking of the planet. Characters in the story play a game of picking a famous stranger and then plot  the line between themselves and those strangers. In the story, no one needed more than five links complete the chain to the stranger.

This is not a scientific study or theory, though since then researchers have tried  to test the results and find some validity to it.

Facebook “friends” are often people you have never met or rarely ever see. By their calculations (and the explanation on their announcement is confusing about the math on those intermediary links) we can interpret this shortening of the degrees of separation in several ways.

Does it show how connected we are via social media to people we really don’t know? Is the world (or the online social one at least) shrinking? Does it mean anything about the real world offline and relationships?

LinkedIn does this same sort of connecting game and it likes to show me that someone is a “1st” level connection or a “3rd” level one. It shows me who and what I have in common with strangers. It tries to predict “people I may know” and might want to connect with online.

But LinkedIn and Facebook make these predictive analyses only using the network’s users. Yes, in Facebook that is 1.59 billion users, but there are about 5.7 billion other people without accounts that it can’t connect me to.

If you have a Facebook account, log in and go to this Facebook blog post. It will automatically do the calculation for your average degree of separation “from everyone.” It tells me that “Ken Ronkowitz’s average degrees of separation from everyone is 3.22.  The average for U.S. users is 3.46. Mark Zuckerberg beat me a bit at 3.17 degrees of separation, but Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) beat both of us at 2.92 degrees of separation.

You may remember when the six degrees game was popularized online with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”  The Oracle of Bacon website let’s you connect Kevin to any other actor.

I haven’t look at that site for a few years, so I tried a connection search yesterday. I thought this would be a tough one: connect Kevin Bacon to Charlie Chaplin. Turns out that Chaplin was in A Countess in Hong Kong with Tippi Hedren and Bacon was in Jayne Mansfield’s Car with Tippi. Wow, only 2 degrees of separation.

I may be connected to everyone by only a small number of “degrees” but those connections seem very weak.

Can Saying Just Three Words Be Sexy?

I came across one of those linkbait headlines that says “The Sexiest 3 Words a Man Can Say to a Woman.” And I know there is no universal answer. I immediately think of the obvious answers: “I love you.” “You look beautiful.”

And I click the link. It opens with those two possibilities too, and they are not the answer. It also offers these incorrect answers: “Let’s go shopping!” (depends how you say it, but still, no) “How’s your mother?” (no, this will just make her suspicious of you)

The author says that he is referring to three words that “speak to primal forces within both men and women. An archetypal trip wire, these eight letters strung together can trigger a man’s spine to straighten and make a woman swoon.”

Wow. That’s asking a lot of three words.

couple
Generic photo found by doing a search on “sexy couple talking.” But not one that had them in bed.

I read the article and wonder if “sexy” is the correct word? It is the word that catches reader attention, I suppose. Should it be “romantic” or “loving”?

In the article, Bryan Reeves is recounting something that happened to someone else. His prose is… well, you choose an adjective.  He says that the woman who received the three words said that those words “slid from his masculine mouth smooth as a river stone and strong as steel.” I want to meet this woman. ”   She swooned. She relaxed.  “Under his sudden spell she felt herself completely protected and cherished by this man’s love.”

Was alcohol involved?  Am I being too cynical?

Spoiler Alert: You can read the article, but here’s my spoiler for non-clicking readers. The three words he said were “I got this.”

Meaning: I will do this task. I would assume it needs to be a task the woman can’t or doesn’t want to do. He said it and he did it. Turns out in the instance the article is based on, he walked her dog.

I asked my wife. She agreed that “sexy” was not the right adjective for the answer given. She said hearing “I got this” from me or even from one of our grown sons would be comforting and welcomed, but not at all sexy.

Of course, she could not tell me what the 3 sexist words I could say would be. She wasn’t withholding the secret phrase. She said it all depends on the context. They might be “I need you” or even “I love you” or “You look beautiful” or you might need a lot more than three words.

There are notes at the end of the piece that say the article appeared on This Wild Waking Journey but I found it on The Good Men Project site which certainly sounds like a noble cause

The article has a lot of comments and sometimes those are as interesting as the article. As you would imagine, some readers say he “nailed it” and others say they couldn’t even finish it because it’s such a ridiculous idea that there would even be three words. Of course, your comments can appear right here on this post, if you are so inclined. Maybe you have found the three words.