Saturday, October 15, 2011

worst news in robotics...ever

Okay, so this isn't Skynet, but this is seriously not good. It reveals not only the weaknesses in our information systems, but a bigger problem with risk assessment and management in U.S. defense policy.

The "little" problem: there is a virus that has infected the U.S. Predator drone program. The computers that control the drones have been infected, and no one knows quite what the virus does. One thing that officials know is that the virus is logging all the keystrokes made on those computers. That's a problem when you're talking about classified movements and operations.

The HUGE problem: U.S. defense officials are "concerned but not panicked" about a virus that they do not understand and have failed to eradicate. They continue to fly drones in the compromised program, raising questions about the military's priorities. If we could build a hypothetical mind controlling virus and infect U.S. soldiers with it, would the Army continue to deploy those soldiers? Of course not. And yet, while we don't know what's going on with the drones, and therefore cannot even estimate the risks at stake in deploying them, there has been no reduction in the program. This does not bode well for those of us who--ever since the Challenger blew up--have hoped that the U.S. government would improve its risk assessment practices. When we're talking about robotic planes that carry weapons, we need to be smarter than this.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

science and the public

This past winter I wrote a paper about how more scientists involved with robotics and AI need to get involved with the public because, at present, most of them who are say little other than "the world will be magical" and wave their hands about and then pass a tin cup. While this definitely has some social value--it would be nice, for example, if Singularity University does more than simply create entrepreneurial opportunities and provide Ray Kurzweil with a check though I definitely think the jury is still out on the matter--I am skeptical that such voices are the only ones we need to hear. After all, robotics and AI pose serious dangers to individuals and societies.

As a big fan of both robotics and AI, I'm enthusiastic about continued research but I think we need to be a lot more cautious about how we deploy them, especially as they enhance certain aspects of military engagement (killing people from far away) and radically reshape public and private flows of information (through robotic spies or through AI algorithms).

The paper I wrote, "Martial Bliss: War and Peace in Popular Science Robotics," will come out in a special edition of Philosophy & Technology later this year. My basic hope is that roboticists will start engaging with the public, working toward a broad coalition that can guide our technological choices (which I absolutely refuse to believe are predetermined). We need to talk about what we, as a society, think is worth having and then work toward that.

In happy news, some other folks are picking up on the same issue. The New York Times has just published an essay about the need for scientists to speak to the public, which is apparently composed of people ignorant about things scientists actually say or even of who might actually be a living scientist. Of course, knowing what scientists believe might be a problem, as apparently learning new (and correct) information actually causes some people to harden their faith in falsity (anyone who's ever discussed global warming, tax policy, or evolution by natural selection with the U.S. Republican party faithful will already know this).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

All Your Taxes Are Belong To Us!

okay, not all of them. in fact, if the government implodes, there won't be any taxes collected or, if they are, they won't be disbursed to anyone but very rich people.

but assuming that the government continues to function in some sort of reasonable way, i'm pleased that it will be funding my research into religion and virtual worlds. i have been awarded with a National Science Foundation grant to study meaningful experiences and transcendence in virtual worlds, particularly video games. the grant comes under the auspices of the human-centered computing division and will be used to establish a research group of undergraduates who will study virtual worlds and then write papers about them, which they will hopefully present and/or publish. i will write a summary paper of the findings with the students co-authoring.

i'm accepting applications from students right now and hope to do interviews in a week or two so that i can have the team ready by 9/1.

there's a quick webpage here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

the nanofuture / science and science fiction

so there are wonderful books, like neal stephenson's The Diamond Age, that engage nanotechnology and the ways it will reshape the future. now eric drexler, the man most responsible for present nanotech research, has a new "non-fiction" book coming out next year. 

although i put non-fiction in scare quotes, i look forward to reading it. the scare quotes are not to indicate i think his book will be irrelevant or untrue. indeed, i think drexler's a genius and many of his claims may well turn out true (though certainly others will not). it's just that between sci-fi and pop science, it's often difficult to tell which one portrays the future more truly.

as i've pointed out elsewhere, the interesting thing about pop science books like drexler's is not that they're necessarily more informative than science fiction or that they're going to be more likely's that they lay claim to a scientific prestige that legitimates them in different audiences. drexler asserts that his book will be valuable, for example, to policy experts. well, i'd say stephenson's book or doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribes also say interesting things about policy and are likely to be as helpful as drexler's for politicians navigating the future (which is to say that they'll either be utterly prescient or utterly worthless and no one knows which). and yet, when a sci-fi author writes about the future there's a certain social cachet missing and i've yet to decide if that's fair.

that said, i look forward to drexler's new effort and will purchase it when i can.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

in pursuit of meaningful education

today's topic has nothing in particular to do with robots or religion or video games or other. it's about education.

in the U.S., we've seen blistering attacks on college education over the past two or three decades, from decimated public funding to the end of a meaningful education for students, which has been replaced by (poor) vocational training. instead of teaching students how to think about the world they occupy, our colleges and universities have increasingly turned toward teaching students that they should just do their jobs (and poorly at that, as students, especially in business schools, now think they don't have to work anymore).

once upon a time, state governments actually paid for their constituents to attend college; nowadays they resist doing so. see this article about reduced funding in washington, for example, or this article about reductions at my undergraduate alma mater, the university of texas. reductions in public funding mean additional pressures on faculty to raise money, on alumni to give money, and on colleges to monetize their educations and market themselves as places that lead to jobs.

colleges and universities are not places that lead to jobs. or, at least, they shouldn't be. they are places where we grow as people, becoming better citizens. acquiring skills in reading, writing and critical thinking should further that goal, first and foremost. secondarily, they are useful for jobs. in fact, for most jobs, they're about the only important skills. the things a student learns in business school are largely irrelevant without them. sadly, the marketing of school tends to discount the very classes where reading, writing, and critical thinking are learned, thereby ensuring that many of today's college graduates leave school with no meaningful ability to contribute to their workplaces or their country.

of course, in a world where education has been divorced from citizenship and meaningful public life, institutions like academic freedom and tenure appear irrelevant (leading to ongoing fights about them). all too many commentators (most, though not all) on the right side of the political spectrum now fight vigorously against tenure as they seek to produce a cadre of mechanical workers.

it is not surprising, of course, that when academic freedom comes under attack, so too is freedom. nowadays, all you have to do is label your restriction of rights a "patriot act" and you can rest assured that people will lack the ability or the inclination to resist. tenure is important but it is important not just to protect intellectual inquiry from political attacks but also as a reminder that colleges are not and should not be business schools (though MBA and MPA programs and also accounting programs certainly have a place in them). going to college is not about getting a job; it's' about becoming a real citizen. you can do that without college, but it's easier with guidance than without it. let's restore our colleges and universities to their mission of learning. let's fund them publicly and give students a chance to learn enough that they will be truly productive in our society.

Friday, July 8, 2011

singularity snapshots ... hooray for religion!

So there have been an enormous number of things happening in transhumanism lately, including more press for Kurzweil (obviously), more voices on H+ as a religion, and--most awesomely--an evangelical Christian who claims that Jesus predicted the Singularity.

I'm short on time so I'm skipping the Kurzweil press. After all, he gets plenty.

Giulio Prisco recently revamped his 2004 essay on how transhumanism is religious, leading to the usual chorus of "ain't no way my beliefs about stuff that hasn't happened yet and cannot be confirmed in the immediate future are religious!" You can see Giulio's essay here. As I keep claiming, transhumanism is, indeed, a religion. It's nice that a growing number of transhumanists are coming on board with Prisco; publication with H+ Magazine is a sign of some respectability in the community. And it's not as though this is some sort of problem. After all, as I commented on his post, religion is a tool and, like other tools, it is not inherently evil. Moreover, the guy who coined the term transhumanism to refer to this movement (Julian Huxley) actually saw it as religious. I've got an article dealing with that issue (and others) coming out this summer.

Also, BoingBoing recently featured a brief spot on how transhumanism has connections to a 19th century Russian Orthodox thinker.

Someone new is talking about the folks that I lump into the Apocalyptic AI, category, calling them "informatic futurists," which is probably even more awkward than my term. The author, Abou Farman of CUNY, evidently used the term at a conference in May. Can't we get something short and sweet? I'm still dreaming of being the one who gets a catchy term going.

Finally, for now, and best of friend Eric Steinhart notified me that the folks at RaptureReady, whose Rapture Index I've shown to students for years, have now decided that Jesus predicted the Singularity. Obviously, I look forward to the transhumanists' response to being enfolded within the Christian evangelical community.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

the difference between academia and journalism?

I have friends who are journalists. I like them a lot. I hope that none of them would ever, ever deliberately misquote someone they've interviewed.

I was asked to discuss Neil Gaiman's American Gods by a journalist writing for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. The  journalist asked several questions by e-mail and asked that I respond very swiftly to them. I did because I like to be helpful.

The journalist--who has no excuse because my words were right there in his e-mail--misquoted me. He writes:

Not everyone loved "American Gods" a decade ago. In his introduction to the new edition, Gaiman mentions that some critics complained the book was "not American enough"; others "that it was too American."
Robert Geraci, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College, believes he knows why.
"I think Gaiman's book may not please those who believe there is an America," he said. "However, as a Brit who's lived in America for a long time, Gaiman can see things about our culture that we can't -- or that we prefer to ignore. In showing us the real complexity of America, which includes the America of recent British immigrants as well as the America of the First Peoples, Gaiman can't help but annoy those who prefer a mythic America that is uniform and coherent." 

What I actually said--in response to whether or not Gaiman's book is "not American enough" or "too American"--is:

debates over what is "american" are muddled from the start, as "americanness," if anything, means a conglomerate of cultural practices, ideas, and institutions. while American Gods omits some of these (such as the overwhelming presence of protestant christianity), it captures the essence of the u.s. as a "melting pot." ... gaiman's book is not a perfect snapshot of american life (what would be?), but it does brilliantly explore our cultural heritage(s) by situating america in the long history of religions and peoples."

There are some reasonably significant differences between what I said and what the piece's author attributes to me and you'll note that I don't anywhere claim that this issue is the reason why some people didn't like the book (which a reader could reasonably infer from what was written). I was asked about whether particular criticisms of the book were valid and asked how I would respond to people who held them. My answer fits that question, not the one I am possibly alleged to be addressing.

More to the point, there are some very significant ethical issues in claiming that you're quoting someone when in fact you are not. In my classes ... I call this sort of thing lying and I fail students for it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

unending publicity

I have to admit, with all the publicity over the Singularity, etc. these days, I feel pretty good to have published ahead of the curve. :)

Scientific American, for example, just published the latest popular essay on the subject, this one authored by Carl Zimmer and apparently based upon an essay he wrote for Playboy, of all places. It's a pretty standard mix of "gee, a lot of this looks really cool" and "some of this is probably a outside the realm of likely." I'm probably in Zimmer's camp here, though my writings are not generally intended to evaluate the likelihood of any apocalyptic promises made by Kurzweil, Moravec, etc.

My ongoing effort to ensure that credit is found where it is due, however, seems to be a losing effort. In ten pages, Hans Moravec's name never comes up. Vernor Vinge? Yes. Ray Kurzweil? A dozen times or more. Moravec (the man whose work both Vinge and Kurzweil base their promises upon)? No. Sigh.

Maybe I should just send Mr. Zimmer a copy of my book. : )