A ritual for the new year

At my Unitarian Universalist congregation today, we had our annual ceremony to usher in the new year. Instead of a traditional service with a message (sermon), the worship leader guided us in thinking through what we most wanted to give up from the old year. We each wrote it on a slip of paper, and burned it in a burning bowl (a bowl of sand and our flaming papers). Then we considered what positive words to make our own for the new year.

These types of rituals never interested me in past years, but this year it seemed especially meaningful. I found myself really considering what I would like to discard from this year, and what traits I could be focusing on in the coming year.

To watch your fears and angers from the year past burn up is powerful. Release your fear, your anger, your despair. Burn it up. It is yours no longer.

Find your power, your love, your compassion, and hope. Find your courage, your mystery, your ability. Find them, and use them. Seize the moment and soar into the future, ready to succeed.

Happy New Year!

Comments on Sweet Survivors

On Sunday, I shared with you an old sermon, Sweet Survivors, by Rev. Tom Owen-Towle. Today I want to share with you my thoughts and comments on that sermon.

When I first found the sermon, I was attracted to it because he was talking about the future, and how young people don’t believe in the future the same way the older generations do. He writes, “Some young people don’t even anticipate a future at all, let alone shaping a future.”

At the time Rev. Owen-Towle was writing this sermon, I was a young child. And as I have grown, I have found that my cohort, my peers, do not see the future as the same rosy place that our parents and their peers do. As a teenager, this seemed very disconcerting. Couldn’t they see that we (our society, our species) couldn’t go on any further? As an adult, I find that we (my peers and I) do not discuss this bleakness in quite the same way we did as teenagers, but it is still there. We do plan for the future (it might happen the way it is supposed to) but we also plan for the fact that it might not be the way we have been told it will be, and we do not necessarily expect it. We tell our children to be prepared, that change is coming. Don’t get too attached to your comfortable life, it cannot last.

To find a written piece that discussed this anxiety, that didn’t sweep it under the rug as something shameful, and to be written by a member of the older generation, was amazing to me. Here was someone who understood! (Now, he thought the future was darkened by nuclear weapons, I think the future is darkened by climate change and population growth, my husband thinks the future is darkened by artificial intelligence, but these are just details.) And not only did he understand, but he had ideas of coping with this bleak future — ways to behave and be in the world that is changing for the worse under our feet.

We are to hold onto joy, act with compassion, say yes to life, acknowledge we are not perfect, maintain balance, appreciate beauty, and support each other. A beautiful prescription for living a good life in a changing and dangerous world.

I was so moved by the entirety of this sermon that I asked Rev. Owen-Towle for permission to reprint it here on this blog, which he kindly gave. I hope you have appreciated it as much as I have.

The way things were (fiction)

I can barely remember when the long black strips of roads were filled with cars and trucks. They are all gone now, and the roads — were they called interstates? — sit empty. But if you go out there on a quiet day, you can still hear the trucks going past.

They are cracked now, with the grass and the sage pushing their way through and across them. When the wind is right, blowing away from the village, I can still hear the whooshing the trucks made as they lumbered past the cars.

It’s time to leave now, they say. Everyone is packing up and moving on. The long-journey ships are loading up, taking everyone into space. It’s time to let the planet recover, they say. A few people get to stay, tribes that belong to the land. I don’t belong to one of those tribes. My family leaves for the embarkation point this morning.

But me, I’m not moving on. I’m never gonna leave this place, not if it kills me. I’m gonna die here someday. Maybe it will be today, ’cause I never am gonna leave my place.

“Grandma! It’s time to go!” I can hear them calling me now. The wind shifted. I push myself up off the hot black road with my cane and cross it. The sage is above my head, and I struggle past the huge bushes. I’m careful not to fall on my way down the embankment to the creek — I don’t really want to die today.

Under the spreading juniper tree, I crawl carefully into the cave under its roots, where the creek undercut years ago. They’ll never find me here. I can hear them searching for me, coming closer and closer, calling me. My daughter’s voice is shrill — she always has needed me near her. Well, she’ll have to do without me for once. My son and my daughter’s husband are the closest. I can hear them clearly.

“Look, here’s footprints.”

“Lower your voice, man. If she’s gone off, it means she really doesn’t want to go with us. I’m not gonna make her.”

“She’s in her right mind?”

“Mama’s never been out of her mind a day in her whole life. If she says a thing, she means it. Didn’t you hear her at dinner last night?”

“Well, yeah. But I didn’t believe her. Anna didn’t either.”

“Come on. It’s time to go. We’re gonna tell Anna we couldn’t find her, and you’re gonna make sure she doesn’t either.”

“You sure about this?”

“Yeah. Now come on.”

Their footsteps and voices recede into the distance. I can hear Anna crying. But I breathe a sigh of relief. Alone at last and I’m gonna stay. I should have known I could count on Lars. He always was my obedient child.

The Singularity is Coming

There is currently no consensus on how closely...

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And we are helping it along.

The Singularity will come when intelligent robots are all around us. There will be a change in the human world like nothing ever seen before. For more on the Singularity, read Victor Vinge.

Today, in my Twitter feed, I find two articles on robots and artificial intelligence. There was I have seen the future and its sky is full of eyes, about the drone airplanes that are beginning to fill the skies, both civilian and military, peaceful and policing.

And there was an article on the living toys that ex-Pixar engineers are going to be creating.

From the article:

Imagine the youngest of children using Web-connected toys carrying character-driven chatterbot artificial intelligence programs. If done well, the possibilities for child development, education, language learning and more are awe inspiring to consider.

<sarcasm>Just what we need: intelligent robots to whom we can turn over our children’s development.</sarcasm>

Seriously, there are 4 possibilities for life after the singularity, listed in order of decreasing likelihood. These are paraphrased from Josh Cogliati.

  1. The sky’s the limit: The robots tell us we can’t go any higher than the top of Earth’s atmosphere, ie no more satellites for us, no more space travel.
  2. No more humans: The robots exterminate humans.
  3. No more transistors: Thou shall not create transistors. Transistors are the foundation of all computing. If we get really scared of the robots, we will never create another computer.
  4. Technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is what most people imagine when they imagine life with robots. Highly unlikely. If robots are truly intelligent, they are people and we can’t enslave them (because slavery is wrong). And how do you actually enslave someone with thousands of times your intelligence?

Newspaper Column: Artificial Intelligence

Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons (also kn...

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Note: I wrote this column with my husband, Josh.

In May of 1997, the computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion. In February of 2011, the computer Watson beat the world Jeopardy champions. Someday in the future, humans such as you and I will probably not be the smartest beings on Earth.

Martin Hilbert and Priscila López, in a 2011 paper in the journal Science, estimate that the total computing ability of the world’s computers passed the computational ability of a single human brain in 2007. They also estimate that the combined computing power of humanity’s general-purpose computers have been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 58% between 1986 and 2007. While it is difficult to compare human brains with computer computation with precision, the Hilbert and López calculation, if anything, appears to be over-estimating the computing power of a single brain, so the combined power of human computers very well may have passed a single human earlier than 2007. In short, humanity could very well already create a computing system that was smarter than any human if we just connect enough existing computers and knew how to program it.

Every day, there are computer scientists working to create computers that search the Internet better, that can identify photos and people in those photos, that can create reports for humans from knowledge found on the Internet, cars that tell their owners when they need maintenance, and so forth. Every computer that is created to be better at interacting with humans and bringing humans the knowledge they search for brings closer the day of truly intelligent computers and robots that are smarter than humans.

We believe two things are almost inevitable: Intelligent computers and that they will not obey us. We have no reliable way to keep intelligent robots from turning on us ― we can’t make something more intelligent than humans our slaves (at least not for long). And if you think they can be programmed not to hurt us, think about how many bugs are in the average computer program, which is much less complicated. Most people think in terms of Utopia when thinking of robots ― we can make them do what we want when we want ― in reality they will be much too powerful. The more we expect from our computers the closer we bring the day of reckoning ― smarter than human artificial intelligence. Is this a good thing?

How it turns out for humanity depends on how the artificial intelligence treats us. This relationship could range from the robots being helpful when they wish to the robots attempting to destroy us. We don’t know how it will all play out but we think this needs to be discussed more.

The above essay was originally published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on June 16, 2011.

Additional Comments by Josh:
Human brains seem to be made up of components that are much bigger than comparable computer components. Human brains are much more efficient energy wise. Therefore, all that may be required for smarter than human robots is an increase in energy efficiency, without any more improvements in computing speed or size. Note also that since electric signals can move at the speed of light (3e8 m/s), 1.5 million times faster than nerve impulses, so a computer could be over 100 miles long and still have communication across it as fast as a human brain.

The belief that humans can somehow contain computers, either by limiting their actions through programming or by limiting their access to physical control, is probably incorrect. Think about how many loopholes are in things like human laws, and remember that lawyers are only human. Limiting the robots (such as by providing them only with a computer monitor for output) would only last until the computer managed to either trick a human into doing something that seems innocuous, or they manage to do something else tricky (such as perhaps using tempest radiation for radio transmission and receiving).

The way I think about a intelligent computer, is that it could do the kinds of thinking that a human could do, just faster. So imagine you could ask a hundred people a question. They think about it, and then come up with an answer. So a computer with a hundred times the computational ability of a human would be able to think as fast as a hundred people, except it would probably be even faster since it could coordinate a response better. So a question that would take an hour to answer would be answered in about half a minute.

Humans do take care of less intelligent animals, but we call them pets.

It might be possible to avoid having smarter than human computers (if everyone were Amish, this would not be a problem), but this would require serious restrictions on technology. Basically, this would require restricting the total computational power of humanity. If the computational power is not restricted, then it becomes possible that someone could accidentally create an intelligent computer.

An intelligent malevolent computer connected to the internet could do serious damage. Most of humanity’s industrial capacity is connected to the internet in some way. Almost all of humanity’s telecommunications capacity is connected to the internet.

One key question is how soon human level intelligent computers appear. If Hilbert and López are correct that humanity had the computational power of a human in 2007, and this continues to grow at 58% a year, then every 5 years, the computational power grows by about a factor of 10 (1.58^5 = 9.8). So in 2012, the world computational power is 10 human brains, in 2017 it is 100 times, in 2022 it is 1000 times, in 2027 it is 10,000 times. Diverting 1/1000 of human’s computers is much easier than diverting 100% of the the computers.

Technical Appendix

Nerve speeds: ~100 m/s ~200 m/h

The Control of Neuron Number. Robert W. Williams and Karl Herrup, 2001,

300 neurons – nematode worms ( Caenorhabditis elegans ) http://wormweb.org/neuralnet

Human brain – at least 10 billion neurons, perhaps as many as 1 trillion, most likely 95–100 billion neurons

Complexity of neuturons: Probably not that great. Just three differential equations in the Hindmarsh-Rose model.

Size of Neurons:
Soma: 4 to 100 micrometers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurons and http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html#neuron )

Axon and dendrites: 1 micrometer thick.

Size of computer chip components (feature size):
45 nanometers (0.045 micrometers) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore’s_law)

Computer processing power and growth rate:
6.4e18 instructions per second in 2007

Comparable to 10e17 nerve impulses in one human brain per second.

Growing 58% compounding annual growth rate since 1986

The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information
Martin Hilbert and Priscila López
Science 332, 60 (2011);
DOI: 10.1126/science.1200970

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