Elias presents ... a worm!    Thoughts on family, philosophy,
and technology


Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Month One

Dahlia is one month old now! Time has flown, but I also find myself wanting her to hurry and grow up so that there will be more to her personality to get to know. She is already very strong, being able to turn her head while on her tummy for a couple weeks now, and she seems to have been able to smile almost immediately.

This girl's certainly no layabout, letting us know when she's unhappy, and often craning her head to look at the nearest bright window. Sometimes when she is relaxing in the sling with Daddy we sneak in some time playing Doom 3, a scary game that makes Daddy flinch when a monster jumps out and throws a fireball at us -- but not Dahlia, she is fearless.

Book review: The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil

Here is a slightly edited version of my review of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines:

2 out of 5 stars

This book speculates about both the advance of computer technology in the 21st century and the socio-political response to it. Although it is peppered with a few interesting notions worth skimming, much of the speculation is unreasonable and philosophically naive.

In the first chapter, Kurzweil attempts to lay a sort of theoretical framework for his speculations, which boils down to his belief that Moore's Law is just one instance of a cosmic principle of exponential advance which explains everything from the first second of the universe after the Big Bang to the evolution of life on Earth and now the evolution of technology. The second chapter argues that it is possible for an intelligence to create something more intelligent than itself: just as evolution "intelligently" created us, we will (soon!) create computers which will build machines of far greater cognitive ability than us. It is indeed intriguing to consider that someday machines will outperform humans in many ways, but the book to this point is best skimmed, because there's actually very little substance and a lot of dry, pseudo-intellectual filler.

Chapter 3 examines the philosophical problem that is going to be brought to the forefront by super-advanced computers: what is consciousness, and can machines possess it? Kurzweil unimpressively touches on a handful of schools of thought here (his sentences on Descartes made me wonder if he has read anything on the subject besides pop philosophy), though he does not try to decide between them. Instead, his prediction is social: eventually machines will be accepted as real people -- just as real people will physically merge with technology -- even if that sounds bizarre to us now. This theme comes up again and again, and it proves to be one of the only thought-provoking issues of the book.

Chapters 4 and 5 talk about the field of artificial intelligence, where it has been, and where it needs to go. In a section entitled "The Formula for Intelligence", Kurzweil provides his recipe for the strong AI of the future: recursion, neural nets, and genetic algorithms -- all taking hints from the reverse engineering of the human brain. This wishful thinking is one of the Achilles' heels of this book. For a software entrepreneuer, Kurzweil is strangely blind to the evidence: software is hardly becoming more complex or "intelligent" at all, let alone exponentially. Today's software systems are perhaps bigger but not significantly "smarter" than systems of past decades, and software quality continues to barely meet the lowest of expectations. Despite Moore's Law and the faith that it will continue to provide more and more cycles in the hardware world, progress in the world of software seems, to this software engineer of 15 years, to be nearly a flat line, not an exponential curve. Just compare how many hundreds of man-years have gone into the lastest version of Windows, versus what it would take to design and implement Kurzweil's ideal of software that is able to write more powerful software.

Part of the problem may be that Kurzweil simply ignores the fields of cognitive psychology and epistemology, which are in their infancy. He does not seem to even be aware of the issues in these fields which would have to be solved (probably by geniuses) in order to create "strong AI." Instead, the solutions he predicts are purely materialistic: brain deciphering, massively parallel hardware, and genetic algorithms.

Part 2 of the book focuses on potential technologies. The most powerful computers he speculates about are quantum computers, and he doesn't waste any time before asserting that someday we will be able to download the entirety of a brain's structure into a quantum computer, so that the computer will in effect have a clone of that person's mind. Kurzweil, in his materialism, does not seem to even be aware that there is a philosophical argument that this is impossible. He also speculates about nanotechnologies and how they will eventually give us a unprecented ability to manipulate physical reality.

Part 3 of the book is comprised of specific predictions for 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099. This book was written in 1999, and we can already see that some of his 2009 predictions are just simple extensions of things we were starting to see in 1999, while others wildly miss the mark, such as: "the majority of reading is done on displays", "the majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition", and "intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel." That Kurzweil could be so far off in his 10-year predictions does not bode well for his 20-, 30-, and 100-year predictions. Indeed, his predictions for 2019 sound like a science fiction novel, and of the ones that sound plausible I think he must be off by at least 30 years. His speculations for 2029 are just fantastic. In general he seems to "predict" based on the assumption that new technologies will be deployed as soon as they are available, underestimating a myriad of resisting factors: legal, political, social, economic, scientific, etc.

Ultimately this book can be fun for skimming and raises a couple of thought-provoking issues, but as speculating about technology more than 10 years in the future is necessarily a foolish activity, there's plenty of foolishness to be found in here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Seize the news

For a while I was trying to not think about the war that much, and just consider it to be one more part of history over which I have no control (which is nearly true). The problem with that approach is that you can't escape headlines. By abandoning any attempt to actively make sense of the war's progress, I made my mind the passive recipient of the loudest voices of the news media. And if all you do is scan Reuters and Associated Press headlines, you will soon be convinced that Iraq is Vietnam, and you will feel hopeless. Well, it isn't, so don't.

For me, the daily antidote to non-objective war news has been the little-known blog of Merv Benson, a furniture-maker in Texas. Very simply, he quotes extensively (probably too extensively for copyright law) from news articles and blogs, and then gives a sentence or two placing it in his framework of understanding. I don't care for the posts about immigration (just build a fricking fence) and about how irrational the Democrats are being (uh, yeah, they're politicians), but most of the posts are about the war, which Benson, a formerly active Marine, follows with clarity and passion.

In the end, his blog reads like that sequence near the end of every gangster movie where the bad guys, one by one, finally get what's coming to them. Benson uses a rational standard for success and concludes every day that the Iraqi insurgents, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban are losing and losing big, something a thousand AssociatedPress headlines won't even hint at. Here is a typical comment by Benson:
The media uses the impossible standard of failing to prevent a failed attack as a measure of success ever since the failed Tet offensive. While the Taliban forces are being destroyed, to the media that is just another sign of a failed policy to prevent attacks. If they knew anything about warfare, they would be eager for the enemy to launch failed attacks. He is attriting his forces and not obtaining his objectives; short of surrender, it is hard to ask for more.
Thanks in part to Benson I have become relieved from the mirage of failure and doom that the defeatists among us want to project. In a sense, wars do not go well -- you can't use that word when thousands are dying -- but this is one war in which the bad guys are being incontestably defeated on every front we have opened. Even where we haven't opened a front but should have 27 years ago, i.e. Iran, that particular president's nuttiness is not, I think, going to get Iran an atom bomb, as the daily headlines shriek, but it will get his regime removed from power. So I'm not even worrying about that theocracy ruining the world and my life any time soon. I'm sure more bad surprises are in store for us, but the trend will continue to be in our favor, so long as our leaders stick to the current strategy.

Okay. Back to worrying about interest rates.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Elias rounds first

On Mother's Day, Elias and I headed to the park. He pulled the Radio Flyer the whole way there, about 4 blocks. The park was empty, so we headed to the baseball field. Elias has had a growing interest in the Little League baseball games we have been seeing, and he's made a big effort to understand the game, saying things like "batter hit bat" and "running bases!" This was his first time actually on the baseball diamond. We did a dry run, where I carried him and ran to each base, naming each one and what we were doing. Then he ran the bases himself, though he took a short-cut from first base to the pitcher's mound straight to third (ingenious!). Here's the photo of Elias running to first base for the very first time.

Later that day Amy came home from the store with a yellow, squishy bat and ball. Elias love love loves it, he wants to play everyday. Daddy's hand is the tee, which only occasionally results in a little pain.

Yesterday he turned 21 months. I've been thinking of so many accomplishments to list, but I'll have to get to that in another post.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Family notes

Dahlia is doing very well in week two of her life, and we all enjoy her to pieces. She lost her red tone after a couple days, and is fuller in the face now. Her personality? She makes lots of noises, such as little grunts and groans early in the morning when everyone else is still trying to sleep. During awake-and-aware times, Dahlia likes to look at faces, aka those things that move and make noise. Smiles are not uncommon from this one: Dahlia is very expressive in her face. We've decided that she looks less like Elias and more like Amy's baby pictures than anyone else -- although she is first and foremost just Dahlia. We've also been surprised how many people did not know that this is how dahlia, the flower, is spelled, and so they ask us how to pronounce her name. Oh well, I hope she doesn't regret this name later, I still think it is fittingly beautiful and unique.

Elias continues to try new things, like riding horses (picture below), and peeing in a toilet (sorry, no picture). His favorite things continues to be watering the flowers and helping Daddy make lattes. In the last few weeks he's started using negatives very effectively, saying "X, not Y" more than is necessary. I was wondering when he'd get the hang of "not". He's also fond of circuit boards now, since we had a disassembled doorbell switch laying around to talk about, and he can proudly identify resistors and capacitors. Hard to imagine what month 22 is going to bring.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Dahlia Jean Williams

Pictures here

Dahlia was born at 9:12pm, Saturday, April 29, 2006. Amy's labor went very, very quickly. We were home from the hospital Monday for dinner.

Dahlia looks a lot like Elias did, except she doesn't suck in her bottom lip. She was an expert eater immediately, and she likes to snooze a lot, and gets an angry look if you mess with her.

Elias loves to see his sister, he yells out her name triumphantly. Sleeping all together went smooth last night, but this is definitely going to be a whole new ball game for us.

Amy and I are very happy to have completed our family with Little Miss Wonderful!