Saturday, September 8
I have this strange quirk which makes me associate songs of my youth with computer games that I played at the same time. Back a long time ago, when my brother and I were playing Wing Commander 3, and then a bit later when I spent an entire summer playing Civilization 2, the memory of the songs that were on the radio are tightly locked into my mind. OMC and OMD featured quite significantly with regards to Civ2, at least.
Of late, I've been listening to a lot of classical music. I've always enjoyed listening to classical music but a few months ago it didn't occupy many of the slots on my mp3 playlist. That changed when it came to my end of year exams. Since I tend not to want to break into song when I'm trying to revise, classical music seemed the ideal choice for something that would help me concentrate and find a rhythm - and it was music that didn't have words!
Anyway, I bring up all of this vaguely interconnected mess of memories because I'm really looking forward to the release of Civilization 3. Civilization has always represented to me - and to countless others - a wonderful game that withstands replaying so many times. Now that a new version is being released with some incredible new features, well, I'm paying close attention to its development. So I interested to read a claim by Firaxis (the developers - don't worry, old Sid Meier is still behind the helm) that in Civ3, unlike previous Civs, the game AI will not cheat unless on the highest difficulty setting, Deity.
This has caused no small amount of mirth among die-hard Civ fans who are all too well aware that in Civ 1 and Civ 2, you couldn't move for the amount of cheating that the AI did, at all levels. I quote from one poster:
"Regarding the AI having no cheats except on Deity; I remember when I first got Civ2, I saw an interview with Sid Meier where he proudly proclaimed that the AI didn't cheat at all, except when it came to Trireme movement. I remember it well, because many times in later years I would curse their cheating ways and think about the sheer chutzpah of making that statement. So beware of the hype on that point, the track record from the man himself isn't good."
'Curse their cheating ways,' I love that. But remember kids, this stuff is important. It matters to people. Civ isn't just a game; it's a way of life.
Friday, September 7
Some of the first science fiction that I read was made up by those Star Trek fiction books that you can see neatly lined up in any large bookstore. I probably read them mostly when I was 11-14, back when I didn't know Asimov from Clarke and Star Trek was the only real point of reference I had for, what seemed to me at the time, good science fiction.
For the most part, Star Trek fiction is pretty bland derivative stuff, limited by the fact that it features all of the same characters on the same few ships with the same reset button that occurs at the end of each novel. See, the authors aren't allowed to kill off any main characters or else it wouldn't agree with the rest of the Star Trek universe. They aren't stopped from giving their starships magical powers - as long as they disappear in an equally magical way before the end of the novel.
I did read quite an interesting Star Trek novel once involving time travel which I thought had some clever ideas. Imagine my annoyance when I read the exact same ideas in an Isaac Asimov novel a couple of years later (The End of Eternity). Talk about derivative.
I suppose I should have listened to my friend Colin - "Any book with a number on its spine should be avoided at all costs. The higher the number, the further away you should be." By that rationale, I should have a 100m exclusion zone around any Star Trek book, but to be entirely fair there are some exceptions to this. I have, on occasion, read some adequate and even innovative Star Trek novels which generally excel by dint of their skirting the edge of the 'Star Trek book rules'. They are unfortunately few and far between, and really not worth looking out for when there are so many other decent novels out there.
The reason I bring all of this up is because I've been following the Virtual Voyager Season 8 project recently. I feel like I should be ashamed of saying that I'm reading Voyager-based fanfic, when the TV series itself was so utterly disappointing, but VVS8 does a better than average job of writing an intelligent and coherent series of stories set after then end of Voyager on TV (no, it's not about when they get home to Earth. There is, of course, a twist.) Probably the reason I like it is because the entire premise of VVS8 is based on the fact that Voyager Season 7 was a complete piece of crap and in the eyes of the VVS8 authors, deserved to be undone to the fullest extent.
Thursday, September 6
Amusing road sign seen by one of my friends:
followed by a scrawled 'Hammertime' written beneath it. According to my friend, he wasn't able to drive properly for another ten minutes after seeing it.
Wednesday, September 5
There's been a bit of a hoo-hah about Stephen Hawking's comments on the intelligence of AIs superseding that of humans and posing a risk to us. I'm quite disappointed that most people who've heard of the story - many of them perfectly intelligent individuals - are not impressed by it.
I've read a fair bit here and there about the progress made in artificial intelligence and also the prospect of a Singularity developing. If I recall correctly, a singularity is a stage in history where technological development is proceeding so quickly that it is impossible to predict what will happen the next day and things are largely out of our control.
So, okay, you could say that we can't predict what's going to happen tomorrow - and we can't. But we can predict quite accurately what will happen with technological developments. I can tell you, for example, that light emitting polymers will be out on the market in one to two years and that we'll be seeing terabyte hard drives next year, and there'll be ultra-high-res LCD or thin-CRT monitors on the market next year. And I'm sure all of that will come true. But imagine if you couldn't predict what was going to happen tomorrow.
You can't, and what's more, such a scenario sounds so fantastical that you can't be bothered commenting on it. Fair enough, since nothing quite like it has ever happened before in recorded history. That's not to say that it might not - with the help of AIs.
AIs are far from sophisticated these days and they have a bad press. Artificial intelligence and neural nets encompass a huge range of applications including the oft-mentioned facial recognition software being used at football stadiums to AI programs that can design machine parts more efficiently than humans. They are not sophisticated enough to simulate true intelligence as we know it on a human scale, and that's partly because our computers aren't fast enough whatever anyone might say: the brain has over 100 billion neurones and several orders of magnitude more connections between them. Each neurone is not just a switch - it's a signal processing unit, like a minicomputer.
As far as I know, no computer is quite as advanced as that, yet. Processing speed isn't the only problem - software and architecture (both arguably intertwined with 'processing speed' if such a concept can be applied here) are also lacking. Human ingenuity has not progressed to the stage where we can design the software for an AI that will work well. Many attempts miss the mark completely, by simply cramming databases full of information, making a few rules and then expecting magic to happen (I simplify, I know).
However. 20 years from now, processing power will be thousands of times faster than it is now, if not faster - on par with human processing power. By then, AI software development will have progressed. Now it gets exciting - say you get an AI that is sophisticated enough that it can design another, more advanced AI. Set the sequence off, and you get a runaway process where AIs are progressively becoming smarter and smarter.
"But, Adrian, how on Earth could an AI create something more advanced than itself?"
"Well, do you think that humans can design something with a greater intelligence than themselves? I'm not just talking about computers, but identifying genetic factors within ourselves that are responsible for intelligence - not an easy task, by far, but not insurmountable - and increasing them, to create smarter humans. If you think that's possible, then surely AIs can do the same?"
So imagine if this runaway process happens, with AIs getting smarter and smarter and smarter. Imagine if the AIs have control of manufacturing facilities, so they can fabricate more advanced hardware. It's not that hard to imagine the last point, because computers are already in control of factories and AIs will undoubtedly be in the future. If you're a computer manufacturer, you'll want your best AIs to be in control of factories to speed up the process of making faster computers.
They get smarter, and smarter and smarter. Things are accelerating daily. What happens then? Will these AIs, with intelligences twice, ten times or a million times that of ours, be kind to their creators or angry?
Don't call it science fiction. Space ships were science fiction 100 years ago, and the Internet wasn't even envisaged 50 years ago.
Monday, September 3
I've just had the opportunity to watch the recording I made last night of Testing for God, and I was delighted to see that it was perhaps one of the most intelligent documentaries I've seen of any subject - and that this documentary was about how science is pushing God out of lives through an explanation of the creation of the universe only made that achievement more impressive.
The documentary producers managed to put together a good cast of scientists and theologians including Roger Penrose and Frank Tipler, people who are at the top of their respective fields in mathematics and physics. There was a good, informed discussion about exactly how we have evidence for the Big Bang and how it may have come about through fluctuations in the quantum foam. They then, to my hopeful expectations, moved onto the problem of the setting of the 'parameters' of the universe through physical laws and then had old Tipler talking about the anthropic principle. I doubt that there's been a TV programme in recent history that's managed to deal with such concepts in a concise and clear manner - you can't believe how pleased I was to hear someone refer to the 'God of the Gaps' on TV.
It wasn't perfect - things rarely are. I felt that the programme spent too much time building up the promise of science explaining everything and then engaged in a bit of schadenfreude* in saying that when you got down to it, the anthropic principle wasn't entirely satisfactory and thus science had 'committed suicide' with its explanation of the Big Bang, which was a bit absurd.
Also, the production values were a little uneven. The interviews were perfectly fine but some of the voice editing and computer generated sequences looked like they belonged in a bad Discovery Channel documentary (read as: they looked really cheap and nasty).
Still, I'm not one to pick at these things (hah!). It was only the first programme in a three part series and the next episode will examine the problem of biological evolution. I'll certainly be looking forward to see how they handle that.
*On checking this on Google, I discovered I spelt it correctly the first time! It reminds me of a passage in Steve Pinker's How the Mind Works, where he talks about the erroneous assumption of some ethologists that other cultures (usually small, out of the way primitive tribes) don't share the same emotions as us like sadness and anger, because they don't have words for them. This belief persisted for a while until some researchers went over to talk to the tribes and say, 'Hey, have you ever felt like this,' and the tribespeople say, 'Yes! You mean that there's a word for that?'.
It's like saying that only the Germans can experience a malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others just because they're the only guys who have a word for it, which, I'll hope you'll agree, doesn't make any sense at all.
An excerpt from a not entirely original yet still amusing response to all those damn email forwards people keep on sending. It warms my 'old hand of the Internet cynic' heart to see this.
That forward? I got it. I've gotten it. I do not wish to keep receiving it. I was neither moved nor inspired. It was neither clever nor funny. I was not amazed at the stupidity of that criminal, nor disgusted, appalled, and chagrined by the United States Government. I do not marvel at how inexpensive things used to be, nor am I astonished that kids today don't know about things that happened before they were born.I had a problem with forwarded mail from some of my friends a couple of years back, when I was much younger and more foolish (ahem). I believe my response was to launch into a bitter tirade about the utter inanity, uselessness and complete inaccuracy of 100% of forwarded emails. Having being on the Internet for a while even back then, I was used to reading and writing such rants but alas my friends were not and still to this day I am reminded (not very often, and only by one person) of it.
Ah well. Forwarded emails irritate me, and the template response above seems as good (and funny) a weapon as any against the menace.
Sunday, September 2
A few jumbled thoughts after seeing The Right Stuff on Sky Cinema tonight.
This film is an absolute masterpiece; not only does it defy pigeonholing into a single genre but it manages to evoke some of the widest range of feelings I've ever encountered in watching a single movie. I was expecting the film to lag slightly, as it's over three hours long, but by some stroke of genius it managed to fill that time so there isn't a dull moment.
When you consider that the film doesn't follow a single character - strictly, it follows at least 8 main characters plus a whole supporting cast - the achievements of its direct, Philip Kaufman, really begins to stand out.
I don't think I've laughed more at a movie than I did in watching this one; it managed to make me laugh out loud more than any comedy film - although that's not difficult as with many of the recent comedies I tend to feel more embarrassed than amused. There wasn't any of forced or childish MTV humour that you see in lesser flicks like Armageddon or Space Cowboys - in any case, they all ripped their stuff off from The Right Stuff.
It's the sort of film that makes you proud to be an American (if you were an American, that is), but at the same time it doesn't project some kind of untarnished image of the country - it pokes fun at itself and occasionally reveals that all is not well. What did bring a smile to my face was the way in which it managed to highlight the glorious excesses that America seems to excel in.
After watching this film I'd ordered the DVD within five minutes. Admittedly, I've had my eye on it for several months now and it only cost £8.99 (Play247.com) but even so, it's a rare movie that I'll buy on DVD.
There's an extremely interesting looking programme on TV tonight called 'Testing God' - all about the issue of God and religion in an increasingly scientific world. I don't expect to hear many new arguments from the programme - after you've read the talk.origins newsgroup for a few weeks, you become an expert in all the arguments and refutations used in the Creationism and Creation Science debates. But it's still good to see this sort of thing on television. It's the first of a three part series and is on Channel 4 at 8PM.
[This also happens to overlap with The Right Stuff on Sky Cinema, which annoys me no small amount since I've always wanted to watch that movie. Sure, I can use a VCR but ideally I'd have like to tape both. Well, never mind, I can always buy the movie on DVD.]
I've been thinking a little about a discussion I had last night that began with homeopathy. Homeopathy, in a nutshell, involved the dilution of allergy-inducing substances in water where the water is taken by the allergy-sufferer. The theory goes is that the minute quantities of the allergen 'immunises' the sufferer against it in future. The problem is that the dilutions used in homeopathy are such that in the end water sample you only have a few molecules (if any!) of the allergen and certain not enough to do anything at all.
I forget who brought it up (probably me, after I got too excited about some related subject) but then I dismissed the whole thing as a placebo and then went to the toilet. When I came back I explained that, yes, of course placebos had a measurable and often positive effect on patients but in the end they were placebos and probably the agents of change were the results of hormones or other chemicals secreted from the brain that bolstered the immune system.
Then someone said something interesting - imagine if you're a terminally ill patient and you've tried all the scientific remedies possible for your illness and they haven't worked. You're a scientific person and you know that homeopathic medicine is a placebo. Nevertheless, you take it. Will it make any difference?
I replied that the answer depended on your mental state at the time, because that's what placebos really rely on - if you don't believe that the placebo is going to help you, it probably won't. But, I wonder, can a scientific individual who knows rationally that it is a placebo ever believe that it will help them? It's like trying to get two things for one.
Anyway, all of this reminded me today of an article I read a year or two ago about how researchers conducted an experiment where they gave patients a valid and proven medicine, and then they asked them to visualise their immune system physically attacking the illness (whatever it was) - imagining the phagocytic white blood cells engulfing the foreign particles and the T cells releasing antigens to neutralise them. From what I recall, the patients who visualised the process fared better than those who didn't, statistically speaking. Which definitely puts an interesting spin onto the whole psychological impact of healing debate.
So, that closes one of the more interesting chapters of my life - the Guide that I've written for the A.I. game is now well and truly finished. It's currently sitting on Vavatch Orbital although it'll be moved to its traditional home at www.cloudmakers.org soon enough.
It weighs in at 650KB and I imagine that it would probably fill 200 single spaced A4 pages. The last section alone, which took me a couple of days to write, is 90KB long and consists of the Wrap-up Report, which takes a long hard look at the game and considers its future beside other online multiplayer games.
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Sorry for not being more talkative about the subject, but when you've just written well over 20,000 words in the last two days it tends to take something out of you.