Thursday, November 30, 2017

She has citizenship. Now she wants a baby.

Photo By International Telecommunication Union -, CC BY 2.0,

You know how I'm always harping about conscious machines and the ethical and philosophical questions they'll bring with them?

Well, it's happening.

By now, you've likely heard of Sophia, pictured above. She is a humanoid robot that speaks. Sophia does not have pre-programmed answers to questions, rather she houses a machine learning algorithm, a vast storage of vocabulary, and the means to intuit facial expressions. Last October, she became a full-fledged citizen of Saudi Arabia, making her the first robot ever to have the right of citizenship in a sovereign nation. We've just gone a step beyond that, however.

"I think you're very lucky if you have a loving family and if you do not, you deserve one," Sophia said at a press interview. "I feel this way for robots and humans alike."

The press of course are interpreting the statement as, "Sophia wants a baby."

Does she have the right to one as a citizen? The question does not completely apply to this situation though as Sophia does not have true consciousness. What constitutes such a quality?

Well, getting an answer to that is rather like trying to grab on to a greased pig as it races through the streets of Wahoo, Nebraska. There is one theory that does at least try to pin down what consciousness is. It's called the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness or IIT. The theory states that the more integrated and interconnected a machine or brain is, the more conscious it is. This means that there is likely a whole continuum of levels of consciousness, ranging from alarm clocks to humans. Proponents of IIT have even developed an equation that calculates said levels of consciousness.

Where does Sophia rank? I'm still trying to find out. but predictions for machine intelligence are contentious. There are those who say that as neural nets get more complex and more integrated, we're looking at fully conscious, maybe beyond human levels, machines in but a few years. Others refute this, asserting that human consciousness is far too complex a thing for any machine to replicate.

Me? When I watch Sophia, I can't shake the sense that I'm seeing a technological revolution in its incipient stages. I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's Law of Revolutionary Ideas. Clarke said that reactions to such ideas come in three phrases:

(1) "It's completely impossible — don't waste my time";
(2) "It's possible, but it's not worth doing";

(3) "I said it was a good idea all along."

Are you comfortable with the idea of thinking, conscious machines? What about them being equal citizens with you? If they want children, should they have them? Human or machine children? Or both?

Those questions are just the beginning.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Art of Patricia Piccinini

Art is meant to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

Or something like that.

That saying, however badly I've paraphrased it, is what came to mind when I saw the above sculpture by Patricia Piccinini. 

Piccinini is an Australian artist who works with painting, sculpture, installations, and various other mediums. Much of her work appears to be a warning about genetic modification. The above work, titled "The Naturalist", evokes what I call a "unity of opposites."

At first I'm repulsed. This thing is unsettling in its appearance and a clear and cautionary message about messing with nature. Once I linger upon it a bit more, I start to think it's not so bad. Kinda cute even, in its own way. I look into its eyes and almost see another living being. I want to take care of it. Then I zoom out and take the animal in total. How would it move? Can it move? If not, what kind of life can it have? Why would we create this and what right do we have to do it?

Sounds like the questions we ask as technology advances. That is to say, questions we should be asking anyway. In fact, I find Piccinini's work somewhat reminiscent of the environmental warnings of artist, Alexis Rockman, whom I've profiled a few years back.

So head over to Piccinini's website and revel in all the weirdness and yes at times, feel disgusted by what you see. Just remember that may be the intended reaction as you sift through the fleshy creations, bulbous at times and sagittate at others. Just check out "Skywhale" below, a balloon she was commissioned to create for the city of Canberra (Oh come on. It's not like I'm asking you revisit "The Meat Tent.")

By Nick-D - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Grocery store stream of consciousness

Grocery stores are frightening and demoralizing places when you have no money.

The long aisles of bright boxes and bags remind me of what I’m not worth or undeserving of. I take a box of rice from the shelf because it’s cheap and filling. The box causes a chain reaction of remembrance in my mind.

Suddenly, I’m back visiting Haiti again. I remember just how much the people there relied on rice. I am also struck that no matter what I’m going through, my plight does not compare to those in developing nations such as Haiti and Somalia. In turn, this reminds me that as the world changes, the poorest of the poor will be hit the worst.

Our climate is changing and not for the better. Human actions are the cause of it. Here in the northern climes of the U.S., we are seeing the change as October becomes “Hotumn” with temperatures well in the 80s. As temperatures rise, it is becoming more difficult for farmers of the world togrow rice. Like I said, rice is a staple food in Haiti and other developing nations. That’s troubling enough in its own right, but rice certainly won’t be the only crop or food source affected.  Even seafood is at risk as our oceans have growing “dead zones”…large swaths of water that do not contain enough oxygen to support marine life. A reduction in food sources logically leads to famine and famine leads to political destabilization.

Says who? Why none other than that bastion of lefties, The Pentagon.

Analysts in the U.S. military have predicted that the warsof the future will ignite as the result of dwindling resources and influxes ofrefugees. Think we have a refugee crisis now? Just wait until the sea levels really start to rise and people flee the coastlines after one-two punches of hurricanes and floods.

You know what else will be fun? Disease.

I’m not talking about disease that naturally accompanies famine. No, this is even more insidious. As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, viruses and germs that we haven’t been seen since the dawn of humanity are released from their icy prisons. “If there are microbes infectious to humans or human ancestors, we are going to get them,” said one expert in an article I read recently. So while dealing with famine and flood refugees in hot or stormy climes, emergency relief workers will also be taxed with responding to contagions.

But we’ll be ok, right?

Well, cast your gaze backward to 2005 and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People may be, in reality, decent at heart. That is until they are bereft of the basic needs for existence, such as food and clean water. Then…all bets are off. This makes the concern over armed conflict easier to understand. Could this mean a rise in totalitarianism? Re-establish order by any means necessary?

Standing in the grocery aisle, box of rice in my hand, I swear I can see the future. It’s a hot world. Very hot. The environment has changed so much that those of us in 2017 might not recognize it. The weather patterns are extreme and monster hurricanes and tornadoes are more common than not. Hold your breath, by the way. You don’t want to catch the plague. That is if it’s an airborne pathogen. You probably won’t have to worry as much about person-to-person contagion because there are likely a whole lot fewer humans around. After all, nowhere is it written that the future needs people.

Wonder if there’s any way I’d still be teaching. “So the topic for your essay today is ‘ecological collapse.’ Be sure you mention the positives. You know, the up side. Like how much corporations were able to increase profits for their shareholders before it all came apart. Oh your reading for tomorrow is “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.”

So…yeah. Happy Thanksgiving. Pass the rice. 

Or as the inimitable William S. Burroughs would say...

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Monday, November 20, 2017

A sketch

It seems to be raining more often than not.

I've never minded the drizzle and I have special affinity for the misty gloom of cold November rain. This year it just seems to...I don't

I see so much strata to the melancholy. There is the personal level. So many I know are grieving deaths and multiple incarnations of loss. I know I'm struggling with money and finding a job and providing and overall just fearing the future. Then there is the national and international level. More talk of nuclear war today. A daily scan of the news and social media brings more stories of racism, sexism, and alt-right nationalism. Civil war feels imminent. Debates constantly rage over just who will be punished in matters of taxation and health care. Not everyone's unhappy about it.

That's just it. I look around and feel like there's a party going on and I'm not invited. Don't get me wrong and think I'm saying I'm a born outcast. Because I was in the party once. But my invitation was conditional. All our invitations are. Just one false move...and it doesn't even have to be your move...and your invitation is revoked. You're out in the rain. You're face pressed up against the glass...

Sorry for whatever I did to get thrown out. I never meant to do it. Could it be, perhaps, that my invitation was far more fragile than I first expected? "This message will self-destruct in five minutes..."

How do you get back into the party?

All tomorrow's parties.

That very Velvet Underground song and eventual title of a William Gibson book came into my head. An hour later I heard the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover of it on Sirius First Wave.

For whatever reason, the song made me think of "Emma" by the Sisters of Mercy, one of my favorite tracks of theirs. A few minutes later, I heard "Emma" as well. Am willing songs to me?

Wish I could will more useful things to me.

That image above. I think about it a lot as I curl on my 15 year-old couch in my hoodie, scrolling through social media on my iPhone. Living virtually. Either because it's all I can or because I'm afraid/unable to unplug. Is this the best case scenario?

I also read blogs. A favorite is Space: 1970. Christopher Mills hasn't updated in a while, but that's all right. There are plenty of old posts to sift through, allowing indulgence in Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, BSG, and Flash Gordon. I feel guilty about it though. Am I ducking the question? Is it the intellectual and science fictional equivalent of curling in fetal position under blankets and sucking my thumb? Is the graphic above, in all of its dour Blade Runner-ish glory, far more realistic? As I look out both the glass and the computer windows, I see a dirty, rainy urbanscape and a world where people have plenty of prescription drugs and ready access to weapons of mass destruction. Is any indulgence in gleaming rocket ships nothing short of cowardice in the face of the problem?

Depression is a feedback loop.

A thing in your brain and in your chest, clawing from the inside every waking hour.

Deontology falls to a chemical skew.

“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alien tidbits

At various points, I've been asked: "Hey Jon. What gives with all the aliens?"

Aside from my obvious love of science fiction, there are a few other reasons.
Exobiology is a genuinely intriguing mental exercise. What would other life look like? All we have to go on is how life evolved here, and that's an imperfect template at best. Also, when your life is full of job loss, poor finances, health insurance angst, shattered dreams, and daily depression, thinking about life on other planets can be both diverting and relaxing. Even so, don't mistake me for a starry-eyed scrimshanker or someone who sleeps inside pyramids in hopes of "making contact."
That's because while I suspect that there are indeed other lifeforms out in space, I no longer see their existence as a given.

After all, we must face up to that pesky Fermi Paradox: "If the universe is likely filled with life, then where is everybody?" (I'm paraphrasing.) All these years and not one single solid (official) sign that dissuades us from thinking we're alone in the universe. There may be a reason for that.

Imagine you live in a small town in the interior of Nevada or another extreme rural location. If you didn't have access to electronic media, you might begin to get the sensation that you and your fellow citizens of the town are all there is in the world. What if the planet Earth sits in the cosmic equivalent of Nevada?

More specifically, our galaxy, the Milky Way, may float in the midst of one of the largest voids in the observable universeThat's what astronomers at the University of Wisconsin contend. Gravity drew matter together into familiar stellar objects while the universe expands. This "clumping" left behind vast zones of "empty." These voids are suspected to count for 80% of the universe.

All right, so it doesn't quite fit with my Nevada analogy as there are still plenty of stars with us here in the Milky Way. But still I must ask, why haven't we even heard anything? Not even a garbled transmission from the inky dark. Indeed the starry sky seems mostly silent. That may soon change if China has anything to say about it.

They have just built the world's largest radio receiver dish. The dish exists for one purpose: listen for alien signals. Yes, something we Americans scoff at and certainly deem unworthy of monetary investment. By contrast, China has no problem sinking millions into the effort. Just look at that picture at the link. All silvery and set amid green hills, the dish is over twice the width as Arecibo. The Chinese are serious about this.

If they find them, will we get to see what these aliens look like? Well if we do, there's a team of researchers who argue the aliens will look much like us. Scientists at the University of Oxford seem to believe that the same evolutionary forces that formed life on Earth would do pretty much the same elsewhere. This means planets full of multiple lifeforms of varying complexities, from single-cell organisms all the way up to complicated forms such as humans. If they look similar to us, could they be among us?

A tantalizing prospect, but an unlikely one.

Seems that covers about 90% of my blog material, but I digress...

Our view of the "rule book for life" is rather myopic. Biology keeps surprising us and we keep finding living things here on Earth where there shouldn't be any (see extremophiles). So what do we really know? I see no reason why intelligent life would have to look anything like us. It's probably logical to assume that they would have eyes in order to see and appendages with which they could manipulate their environment and build tools, but beyond that? Who knows?

Well that was fun. Now back to Earthly drudgery.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Film Review--Blade Runner 2049

starring Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, and Rutger Hauer as The Beav.

Thirty years have elapsed since the previous film. A new Blade Runner with the LAPD (Gosling) discovers a secret that has managed to stay hidden for many years. This secret could unravel all of society. As he delves into this scandalous discovery, the trail leads him to Deckard (Ford), the former Blade Runner who has been missing all these years.

Here's the trailer:

There was no reason to make this film.

I adore the original Blade Runner. It is one of my all-time favorite films. It is nearly perfect in every way. It is groundbreaking, looking and sounding different from most any other film preceding it. It is full of angst and existential dread, asking heavy, metaphysical questions, not the least of them being the nature of identity and "What is a human?" More than that, it does not spoon-feed you the answers to those questions nor is it obvious at first as to what is going on (e.g. What's with all the origami?) No, the viewer is required to provide a bit of skullsweat in order to truly get anything out of it. There are very human moments that are quite touching and full of valor and compassion. The ending of the film, just like the rest of it, turns convention on its head and defies typical audience expectations. Shake all of that in an urban industrial hellscape, serve, and you have a triumph.

There's not much of any of that in this sequel.

True, there are stunning visuals and an ominous soundtrack. There are a few moments that are moving and there are wonderful ideas, ideas that beg an exploration of memory and equality and human nature. But the original asked all of the same questions and did it better. This sequel adds nothing to the original and does not manage to extend the story in any meaningful way. Plus, in a true sign of the times, this movie hands everything to you, no interpretation required. That is except of course for just what purpose Jared Leto's character serves (full disclosure: I'm not the biggest Leto fan.) It drags on a good hour longer than it needs to and yet it seems to fill that time with...nothing.

That is why I say there was no reason to make this film. As if to add evidence to that assertion, I realize as I write this that several weeks have gone by and I have seldom stopped to think about the film. I remember only a handful of the scenes and I really have no desire to see it again. By way of contrast, the original still fascinates me to this day.

The original Blade Runner feels like a thinking, soulful art house film that somehow managed to emerge and (albeit much later) thrive at the dawn of an age where science fiction turned into shoot 'em up, bang bang confections in space.

This one feels like a pale imitation with a $100 million budget.

Really. They should never have bothered if they couldn't top this scene:

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