Category Archives: Uncategorized

Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

Singularity-word-cloudIn Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes, “The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don’t like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don’t like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don’t like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs.” See what the proponents of these words mean by them…

…and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.

==Progress toward AI?== 

Baby X, a 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter day by day. Researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand interact with the simulated toddler, reading, teaching, smiling, playing games, even singing into the computer’s microphone and webcam. The blonde youngster mimics facial expressions, laughs, reads words, even cries when he is left alone.

1400832509352“An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively “teaching” the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction,” writes Becket Mufson, in the Creators Project.

This is precisely the sixth approach to developing AI that is least discussed by “experts” in the field… and that I have long believed to be essential, in several ways. Above all, by raising them as our children – even fostering them to homes in small robot bodies – we will gain many crucial advantages – that I lay out (somewhat) in Existence.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s Robo Brain is currently learning from the internet — downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format, accessible to ‘helper’ robots who will function in our factories, homes, and offices. “If a robot encounters a situation it hasn’t seen before it can query Robo Brain in the cloud,” said one researcher. Follow its progress on the Robobrain website.

Meet Jibo, advertised as “the world’s first family robot.” Kinda creepy but attractive too…

Asimov-three-laws-roboticsEver hear of “neuromorphic architecture?” Silicon chip design that uses transistors — (5 billion of them in the latest IBM chip) – to create analogues of the nonlinear response patterns of biological neurons. The latest version, from IBM, is called “True North” and it is simply spectacular. Its prodigious pattern recognition capabilities are only matched by its stunning (by four orders of magnitude(!)) power efficiency. This is where Moore’s Law, augmented by new neuronal and parallelism software, may truly start delivering.

Now… How to keep what we produce sane? And where on the chip – pray tell – do the Three Laws reside?

Ah, well… I have explored the implications (yin and yang) of the Asimovian laws in my sequel which tied up Isaac’s universe – Foundation’s Triumph. Meanwhile, serious minds are grappling with the problem of “how to keep them loyal.” For example…

==Creating Superintelligence==

bostrom-superintelligenceNick Bostrom has published the book “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies,” that is well-reviewed by Andrew Leonard in Salon.

“Risks that are especially difficult to control have three characteristics: autonomy, self-replication and self-modification. Infectious diseases have these characteristics, and have killed more people than any other class of events, including war. Some computer malware has these characteristics, and can do a lot of damage…

“But microbes and malware cannot intelligently self-modify, so countermeasures can catch up. A superintelligent system [as outlined by Bostrom would be much harder to control if it were able to intelligently self-modify.” writes Bostrom.

Nick Bostrom makes a persuasive case that the future impact of AI is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced. Instead of passively drifting, we need to steer a course. Still, his litany of “be careful what you wish for” parables is taken straight from the pages of a century of science fictional “what-if” scenarios. Geeky sci fi archivists need to be present, during the programming, to point out: “you may want to rephrase that… cause way back in 1947 Leigh Brackett showed that it could be misconstrued as…”

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.” Interesting article! In fact the mystery of the First Great Renaissance… the burst of human creativity around 45,000 years ago… is discussed in EXISTENCE!

But — if I may mention it — the real correlation with this notion… that sexual selection resulted in gentler, more “feminized” males, was presaged by this paper of mine… Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution.

==Developing Brains==

EMPATHYResearcher Talma Hendler has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. Parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts. Very cogent and thought provoking.

This interesting article in Wired explores how movies exploit both of these networks to make you identify with the characters. Only the manipulation is now going scientific!

And veering a bit… When did modern humans arrive in Europe, and by how much did they overlap with our fading cousins, the Neandertals? New studies suggest it all happened earlier than most had assumed, perhaps around …45,000 years ago.

Now throw in…. Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development.


==and organs==

Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory to form a replacement thymus, a vital organ of the immune system.

By deciphering the detailed gene expressions by which a lizard regrows its tail, scientists hope to re-ignite regrowth processes in mammals like us, that have been dormant for 200 million years. Both of these stories are straight from my story “Chrysalis” in this month’s ANALOG!


Scientists report using laser light in ultrafast pulses to control the quantum state of electrons contained inside nanoscale defects located in a diamond, and also observe changes in that electron over a period of time. The findings could be an important milestone on the road to quantum computing.

SCIENCE-TECHNOLOGYAnother team has devised a way to make microscopes magnify 20 times more than usual. This magnification allows scientists to see and identify substances and matter as minuscule as or even smaller than a virus.

Direct synthesis of ammonia from air and water? At low temperatures and pressures? If this membrane method can bypass the usual harsh processes, the news can be significant for liberating poor farmers everywhere to make their own fertilizer.

Looks plausible… if amazing! A transparent luminescent solar concentrator developed in Michigan can be used to cover anything that has a flat, clear surface. Visible light passes through. But organic molecules absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight such as ultraviolet and near infrared, guiding those packets to the edge of the solar panel, where thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it into energy. Fascinating… another potential game changer.

Stanford scientists develop water splitter that runs on ordinary AAA battery.

How to tell if a Chelyabinsk style meteorite came from an asteroid? Here’s the basic rule of thumb. “The speed of whatever collides with Earth’s atmosphere depends on its orbit, which in turn depends on its source. The impactor’s entry at 19 km/s means that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not from a ballistically launched missile, whose speed is less than 11.2 km/s; a short-period comet, with an average speed of 35 km/s; or a long-period comet with an average speed of 55 km/s. As investigators began retracing the path of the meteor that blazed across the sky, their reconstructed orbit bore out that provenance.”  

Oh, anything much faster than 60 kps either fall naturally from outside the solar system… or was accelerated by someone with boojum powers and maybe ill intent!

what-if-munroeRecommended: what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of the brilliant xkcd).

Researchers from UC San Diego’s structural engineering department are using drones to capture unique views of the earthquake damage to Napa’s historic landmarks. Our own Falko Kuester explains how this new tech is helping.

And finally:

Don’t bogart that puffer, my friend. Dolphins pass around a puffer fish — apparently to get high off its toxins. After a few chomps, you no longer give a fugu.


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Creativity tools and some cool miscellany

I’ve been using Scoopit to compile accumulations of my more popular articles, essays (and some outright rants!) under topic headings, where people might skim and pick whatever interests them.

Collected-articles-brin-3dSee this master catalogue of categories – a handy guide to a wide range of compilations of Brin articles by general topic area: Collected Articles of David Brin.

My latest specific compilation is all about HISTORY… does it run in cycles? Are there patterns? Is nostalgia (e.g. for the 1950s or for the Neolithic) justified? How do Republicans and Democrats wage war? What was the “Miracle of 1947”?  Why was the flick “300” filled with outright historical lies? And is Class War inevitable?  Above all, can we learn enough from the past to alter and improve the future?

As Joe Miller said: “Those who ignore the mistakes of the future are bound to make them.”

See also: A scoopit collection of articles and speculations about Taxes, Economics and Markets…

== Snippets of/on or about Creativity! ==

Steve-jobs-dogmaCreativity and genius are commonly seen as attributes of an individual, but new research indicates the role played by the surrounding group may be just as important. This fascinating article — Social group may be key to fostering creativity — mentions Steve Jobs’ now-famous 2005 address to Stanford graduates in which he advised his audience: ‘Don’t be trapped by dogma – that is, living with the results of other people’s thinking’.

A 1-minute video shows the projected completion of Gaudí’s Barcelona cathedral-extravaganza the Sagrada Família, imagining what it will look like when it’s finished in 2026.

Yeah postmen! See this rival to Watts Tower: Postman’s self-built palace, created from stones collected along route for 33 years.

== Tools that hinder… and help creativity ==

microsoft-word-dieIn Why Microsoft WORD Must Die, my colleague Charles Stross channels my own hatred for Microsoft WORD, the  default word processing program which we are all forced to use, via by tricks of intentional proprietary format lockdown. Whose formalisms infest every competitor system because of habit-inertia. Clearly an instrument of medieval torture, designed specifically in order to impede an author’s productivity — using WORD is like having an evil imp on your shoulder, occasionally driving a spike into your temporal lobes.  How I miss Word Perfect for Mac 1997, which was near ideal, helped me to be creative, and when something unpleasant happened I could simply click Show Codes, find the nasty hidden formatting error and eliminate it! Refusing to let us do that simple thing proves what the goal is, for the giggling, hand-rubbing makers of WORD.  Sadism.

(Dig it… I do not hate all things Microsoft!  I use other products. But Charlie Stross is dead right about WORD.)

While on the subject of a writer’s tools… what I left out was my use of Quickeys … probably the most useful program of mine beyond a word processor and browser  People have heard about “macros,” but I know so few folks who actually use them as fantastic productivity aids. My big, expanded keyboard has every function key re-assigned and the command/control/shift and Alt versions too!  And some double combos.  In addition, you can do the same thing to the numeric keypad, since those numbers have different ASCII than the ones along the QWERTY top row.  Everything I do a lot, from copy or paste to select-all to typing my blog URL or gmail address to appending a short bio to an email I am sending… all of them pop in at one stab of a key… and believe me it adds up!

What I never understood is why Windows and MacOS and Linux don’t simply offer this as a service.  Heck I don’t use any of the advanced services offered by Quickeys and still it is my best pal.

Now Quickeys has a cheap/useful competitor. aText accelerates your typing by replacing abbreviations with frequently used phrases you define.  Someone try both and report back here!

== Miscellany! ==

Watch today’s births and deaths in (somewhat simulated) real time.

Scary… if true?  Launch code for US nukes was ‘00000000’ for 20 years. Eeep.  I suppose you needed a new generation of flag officers, trained in professionalism, for the meaning of “safeguard procedures” to sink home.

Amazing footage of the Army’s new mobile laser system shooting down drones and 60mm mortar shells.

Read a fascinating appraisal of the unexpected causes and surprising outcomes of Somali piracy, by Jean-Michel Valantin.

This is a great guide to a dozen grammatical quandaries that can mess up even experienced author-pundit-sages! (Well, a couple of them.)

An awesome new version of the electric (hybrid) bike.

Okay, Google deserves cred for this piece of lovely tear-jerking schmaltz that probably did good in the world while spreading Google’s message and winning it some biz.

RitualStreetCorner A town in Germany is doubling down on the same principle that I cited in the “Ritual of the Street Corner.”

A growing number of patients are finding their health care options governed by the church’s guidelines as Catholic hospitals, long major players in the health care market, have been on a merger streak, acquiring everything from local hospital systems to medical practices, nursing homes, and health insurance plans.

Doppelgangers!  See this photo series of unrelated “identical” faces.   Within ten years, the internet will automatically find your doppelgangers.  Like Andre Agassi and me!

Crazy Russian Hacker survival-prepped dudes show you some unusual survival tricks! Oh. Great hacks for college life!

How to open a can without a can-opener.

Ten LifeHacks every college student should know.

== Art & Music: more coolstuff ==

history-rock-musicAn incomplete but very on-target audio-visual guide graphic to 100 years of rock music. Stuningly appropriate illustrative musical riffs!

Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century sketches indicate something between a harpsichord and a cello, where spinning wheels of horsehair run along the strings. He named it the “viola organista.” Da Vinci never did build the instrument. Others tried, with varied results. Now, after four years, Polish pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki has managed to bring the curious instrument to life. 

This artist mom is having way too much fun using her baby as a prop. It looks likely to be utterly charming, harmless and delightful. But you gotta wonder what the kid knows… or will someday make of this!

Amazing.  A monument of sadness and love, visible from high altitude.

Forced perspective…coool optical illusion car commercial.

And finally…CRACKED does it again, listing 5 Amazing Pieces of Good News Nobody Is Reporting. Well, most of YOU already knew all this.  Still, this site is a great way to start the new year by shoving it in front of your favorite cynics.

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Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking

To what extent is the world filled with conniving villains and dastardly plots… and how much of it erupts from our fertile imaginations? It may not surprise you much that I take both sides on this matter.

On the one hand, history is rife with schemers and secretive meddlers. You don’t need cryptic societies and Illuminati, just your run-of-the-mill feudal aristocracy that ruled almost every society that ever lifted itself to the level of agriculture. The mythology of inherited lordship – assisted and promoted by priests and bards – was the great scam that got pulled off on every continent, in every age.

On the other hand, we often see conspiracies where they are not. The psychological drivers are many and powerful. A need to explain one’s own poverty and failure. The allure of enticing pattern recognition, even when the patterns aren’t really there. And, above all, the warm feeling we get from being in the know. From being part of the elect group that can see what’s going on! While our foolish neighbors go about their business, bleating like ignorant sheep.

There are no richer, more voluptuous mental drug-highs than self-righteous indignation, resentment, and contempt for fools.


In the latest issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, has an excellent article, “The Conspiracy Theory Detector“, in which he categorizes the characteristics of conspiracy theories. I’ll summarize a few of his points:

1. — The conspiracy only emerges by “connecting the dots,” linking events that are unrelated except through the allegation of conspiracists.

2.–The agents behind such a conspiracy would “need nearly superhuman power to pull it off.”

3.–The conspiracy presumes that a large number of people have maintained total secrecy, often for a substantial period of time.

4. –The conspiracy involves a grand struggle for control of a nation or economy, or even world domination (the larger the issue, the more likely it’s a conspiracy).

5.–The conspiracy “ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.”

6. –The theory assigns evil, sinister motives to events.

7. –The theorist mixes facts and speculations, probable and improbable events, is consistently suspicious of all government agencies, and refuses to consider alternative explanations, typically rejecting any evidence that fails to confirm such theories.

I must add that just because a notion has all these warning signs, that doesn’t mean the conspiracy theory is wrong! In fact, would not the conspiring geniuses fake some of these very traits, in order to discredit the idea and divert smart people away from it?

Still, Shermer’s article offers some tools, for you to use as a free mind.


Richard Feynman said that. And I’m the one who said that self-delusion is the greatest of all human talents.

Indeed, recent science shows how good we all are at psychologically ignoring all evidence against our tightly clutched beliefs. Even when those beliefs are simply wrong. ”New research suggests that misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts — and often become even more attached to their beliefs. The finding raises questions about a key principle of a strong democracy: that a well-informed electorate is best.”

While we’re on the subject, here is a systematic taxonomy of logical fallacies. No one should graduate high school without knowing these. Seriously, you are ignorant if you aren’t at least glancingly familiar with them.

(Hang on a month or so, and I will supply you with an even more important tool: the paraphrase challenge! Impatient scholars can dive into it here.

Dang, how has the species even survived to get this far? Obstinate, delusional… and desperately clinging to our delusions.

If this sort of thing is common among intelligent species, across the galaxy, then ah, the Fermi Paradox is no paradox.


Controversies and public battles over science are nothing new, particularly when politics enters the fray. An article in New Scientist, “Einstein’s skeptics: Who were the relativity deniers?” begins, “When people don’t like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and plausible pseudoscience.” Einstein’s battles to defend relativity were reminiscent of today’s climate deniers and creationists.

See my article carefully making this distinction.

In 1920, five years after he published his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein wrote, “This world is a strange madhouse, Every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political affiliation.”

Einstein’s publication provoked opponents across Europe and the U.S. who set out to prove that relativity was wrong. Objections were raised not just in scholarly journals, but in letters, newspapers, pamphlets and public lectures. Some groups promoted anti-semitic conspiracy theories; others raised theological arguments. Their tactics had much in common with those used by creationists and climate-change deniers today. The Academy of Nations, an international network of Einstein’s opponents, published polemics against relativity, which they believed symbolized the incomprehensibility of modern science, and its break from classical physics. The New York Times declared in 1919, that relativity was a theory that could be understood by “only twelve wise men.”

Arguments continue to this day. The website Conservapedia lists 32 reasons why the relativity theory is wrong, and allows users to document counterexamples to relativity theory.

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