Tuesday, March 23, 2010

upcoming event with the Order of Cosmic Engineers

giulio prisco, of the order of cosmic engineers, has kindly invited me to Second Life to talk about Apocalyptic AI and give everyone an opportunity to tell me how abysmally wrong i am about everything. it should be a lot of fun, so do come out and join us! i'll chat for about 20 minutes and then we'll open it up for discussion.

the event will be held in the Singularity Club on the Transvision Nexus island in Second Life at 1 p.m. EST, tuesday, march 30.

so, grab yourself a glass of early afternoon wine, sit yourself down at a computer, and head on into virtual reality to talk about, well, virtual reality.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

robot art

many of my favorite things to see around the house or office are robots. i like functional robots, robots that are programmable to do things, but i especially like artistic robots. robots that, to paraphrase oscar wilde, are excusable in their uselessness only because one admires them intensely. i even make useless robot art...wooden boxes with little robots inside (i call them Machine Habitats). my kids even think they're pretty cool. one of my favorite possessions is Reflecto, created by Electro Artworks, and given to me by my wife for our 4th anniversary. my kids love Reflecto too but i had to forbid them from playing with him anymore (mostly) after i needed to mail him back for surgery. some day, i'll buy other pieces from EA, but for now Reflecto has to settle for unrelated robot companions. i also love the work of lawrence northey, though it remains financially out of the means of mere college professors.

my father seems to have caught on and has passed the news my way. he recently went to see a traveling robot exhibit curated by the san jose museum of art that is all about robots. the SJMA website includes some commentary by the curator and artists and shows some of the work in the show. i would love it if the show rolled through NYC because i would jump at a chance to see it.

one of the things i love so much about robot art is that it challenges our conception of nature. well, okay, so i like robot art just because i love robots and there's nothing much intellectual about it. but, given that, i think it's still worthwhile to engage the concept of how robots fit into nature (are they products of nature and, hence, natural? would intelligent robots think of nature as being filled with plants and animals or as filled with robots? perhaps robot plants and animals?). one of the things about robot art is that it so often manages to create a technowonder ... a fanciful whimsy (and we could all use more of that) without losing sight of the seriousness of scientific life and the modern world.

Friday, March 5, 2010

when will the computers get radically brilliant?

so i just read a piece by AI guru ben goertzel and compatriots written for a transhumanist magazine that concludes lots of current researchers believe that humanly or superhumanly intelligent robots are right around the corner (mid-century). oddly, the piece actually disputes this conclusion. we'll get to that in a moment.

the main data for the claim comes from a survey performed at the artificial general intelligence conference this year. it is worth noting that the folks who show up at the AGI conference are precisely the AI folks most likely to think that artificial intelligences can and will become "general" (equal to human intelligence or beyond). otherwise, why would they be there? even at this conference, 9 out of 21 respondents believed we will never see superhumanly intelligent machines and significant minorities doubted our ability to accomplish more modest goals as well.

in my own research, not all that many researchers either a) worry about this question or b) think it likely that such an outcome is likely any time soon (even though it is presumably possible). after all, as one roboticist at carnegie mellon univeristy's robotics institute put it to me, we don't understand the neural activity of lobsters (which have 214 neurons)...so it is rather silly to suggest we'll have human mental abilities understood and/or replicated in the next twenty years (as many people predict, following upon the work of hans moravec and, later, ray kurzweil).

wonderfully, though, the authors point toward the fact that in a survey done outside of the AGI conference, 41% of respondents believed that human/superhuman ability was "more than 50 years off" (which includes a really, really long stretch of possible time frames) and another 41% believed such ability would never be achieved. this means that 82% believe that such technology is either impossible or of indeterminately long time away. the authors tell us that these numbers, like their own data at the AGI conference "suggest that significant numbers of interested, informed individuals believe it is likely that AGI at the human level or beyond will occur around the middle of this century, and plausibly even sooner." this conclusion is simply without merit, as their own data are far more optimistic than the 82% who think that AGI is far off or impossible!

that said, we should all get behind goertzel, et al., who do provide one meaningful conclusion: "these days, the possibility of 'human-level AGI just around the corner' is not a fringe belief. it is something we all must take seriously." whether transcendently intelligent computers are coming or not is beside the point; the authors are absolutely correct that these ideas play a serious role in contemporary culture. let's not miss them as we wander around in our rose colored glasses.