Google: One step closer to an artificial brain – says Smithsonian

Artificial brains always grab attention. And the Smithsonian’s article title points to further progress. Google, with all it’s might, has pushed achievement in an intriguing direction. Image recognition is about as hard as you get for a machine, and tooling up a network of 16,000 computers so this mass capability can teach itself to spot cats is amazing.

Amazing for a number of reasons. One, that it worked, and could then go on to recognise other things as well, such as porpoises. Two, that this takes 16,000 highly capable computers to do a task that our brian does without thinking.

But it does point to possibility. We can now look at what the computre has taught itself to do, learn from that and build the next network in such as way that it can do it better, where better may be faster, more accurately, use less resources… etc.

It’s a long way from creating anything small and simple enough to be useful. It’s a huge way from creating anything that will meet or beat human flexibile capability. Note the claim was an artifical brain, not artificial intelligence…

Remember though that the first computers could do simple maths with small numbers, but occupied a shed… and now look a what you’ve got in your pocket.

An interview with E O Wilson – of ants and ambition

I had the privilege of interviewing E O Wilson over the summer. I’d been commissioned by Third Way magazine. Its one of the perks of being a writer, that every now and again you get asked to meet people who you have read, and read about, for years. Sometimes the meeting disappoints – but not this time.

We met on Skype. A poor substitute to talking with a table and a couple of cups of coffee in between, but vastly better than nothing. Edward is clearly not as young as he was when he did his first research, but his mind has lost none of its alertness and his ambition is still fuelled by a thirst for greater knowledge: he’d just come back from a research expedition to visit some of the island he’d studied 5 decades earlier.

And I was struck by the islands. I asked him why work on islands. His explanation was that they are perfect natural laboratories – particularly ones in relatively close-packed archipelagos. Each island is it own almost-closed ecosystem. It has its own fauna and flora, and if separated by great enough differences this can include its own sets of birds – as Charles Darwin discovered when he ventures to the Galapagos islands in H.M.S. Beagle. Tracing the similarities and difference is these isolated evolutionary systems gives clues and insights into ecosystems and evolutionary mechanisms. You can see species adapt, and speculate on the consequence of such adaptation over time.

In one set of experiments he eradicated all life on one island in a group, and then monitored its return. An interesting way of seeing life return, not be being re-invented, but by re-population.

As well as being known for his work on ants, E. O. Wilson has become a passionate campaigner for the ecosystem. His Biodiversity Foundation aims to “to promote worldwide understanding of the importance of biodiversity and of the preservation of our biological heritage.” It’s interesting though that despite the fact that he believes all life has evolved randomly and has its own right and value, he quickly these becomes highly anthropocentric in his rhetoric. The site states “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.” Is it really just about our use, and the value to us as humans? An interesting thought…

Can robots have feelings? BBC clip implies ‘yes’

Can robots have feelings?” asks a BBC web page title… and the answer implied is ‘yes’. Not only that we have a bishop saying they could pray and the more normal voice of Prof Kevin Warwick saying they should have rights and votes.

Let’s remember one thing in the whole of this game. Robots, however clever, are property and not people. They may have useful capabilities, but they will never be culpable. If something goes wrong, if a robot causes damage, it will be the owner who will be in court.

Just because someone has created machines with cute plastic faces doesn’t take away from the fact that robots are machines. We can programme them so that given a specific set of cues the servos move elements of the plastic to resemble a smile. But it is following code, not responding to feeling.

It’s ok to go around creating a career where people expect you to say wild things. Its fun to point a camera at them and capture their crazy comments, but few people who really know the technology well take any of this sort of hype seriously.

Bit of a shame that the BBC puts it up without any counter comments or anything that would resemble sensible debate. What we loose here is a sensible debate of the role that robots could, should and will play in society. We stop asking what it is that will make our societies better, safer and just and turn a serious issue into a joke… or was the idea to present robots as threats.

Let’s marvel at what we are capable of creating – but let’s not go crazy.

Nature and Nurture in politics – why so long to recognise?

Are we conditioned by our nature, our biological make up, or our nurture, our family / school / society / friendships etc? The argument is almost as old as arguing itself. And now a new survey of available evidence says, guess what?, that it’s a mixture of the two. An article published in the Economist (The genetics of politics) carries strap line: “Slowly, and in some quarters grudgingly, the influence of genes in shaping political outlook and behaviour is being recognised”.

It’s not really news. Surely not. We are beings with brains. Our brains are networked so that among other capabilities, they create and hold ideas. Some people’s brains hold on to maths concepts really well, others don’t. Some hold on to facts and figures, others have such short-term memory that they find it difficult for these pieces of information to take embed.

Have a look around your communities and you will see families in which all the children whizz at some particular task or activity – academic or athletic. The combined variations in the genes that exist in that particular splash of the gene pool set them up to succeed where others would struggle.

So why all the fuss? Simple really. In The Language of the Genes (1993) Steve Jones displayed a widely held anxiety that all too soon you can move from stating that a person’s intelligence is linked to their genes, to a move that says some sectors of society are more valuable than others. To prevent this occurring he argues that linking intelligence to genetics is silly and dismissed the whole idea saying: “Much of the work on inherited differences in intellect between races is contemptible and most of the rest is wrong.” Well, we can argue whether the research is poor, but that doesn’t mean the concept is flawed… just not proved.

In reality, genes create the capability for biological beings to grow brains. They must therefore have an infoluence of the nature of the brain. I don’t have a bird brain (no I don’t) because my brain genes are different to those in birds. The two are linked. Around the world, variations in genes occur, and it is not surprising that those variations enable people to think differently. Part of that difference could trigger different political thoughts, feelings, and aspirations and affiliations. As such there should be little surprise to find linkage between political thinking and genetics.

Discrimination occurs when we add value to one particular view or affiliation, creating a heirachy and favouring some over others. Racism is the easiest of discrimnations and one that has constantly blighted humanity, be it warring neighbours or enconomically fuelled slavery.

But let’s not allow the appropriate fear of discrimination cloud our view. Both nature and nurture play a role in most parts of life – the way our brains work is bound to be one of them.

New Eugenics – addition or deletion?

Interesting to see eugenics back in the news again, this time with Professor John Harris advocating that we warmly embrace its goals. In this News Night discussion he claims that eugenics is ok because we can do it from choice, while it was previously wrong because it came from co-ercion.

Its an interesting argument. The logic of personal choice, extended to parental choice seems hard to beat. Surely you should have the freedom to take important decisions without the state or other systems telling you what to do? Shouldn’t you?

The problem is that in eugenics nothing is neutral. While we may rightly strive to do everything in our power to make the lives of existing people better, and as such seek the basic eugenic goal of improving the human condition, eugencis soon goes down its historic route of sparing future generation of those who ought not to be born.

Prof Harris was quick to defend the idea of embryo selection as a means of weeding out those who may have poor lives, but was rapidly tackled by other people in the studio who point out that there is lots more to a happy life than just functional capability. Family structures, friendships, need and interdependence are the characteristics that build strong societies, not regiments of perfect people.

The aim is also likely to lead to dissapointment. You can have a perfectly delivered baby who gets knocked down on the way to school and spends the rest of her life in a wheelchair. In a society that only values perfection, she has little role to play.

So do I want to be imperfect? Certainly no. Do I wish people to be as good as they can be? Certainly yes. The challenge though, as one of the panel put it is to attempt to build societies that care for all, rather than attempting to build a popultion of perfect people. Do we want to add capability to our people and our places, or delete the ones who don’t seem to fit?