AI vs I

December 30th, 2017

At dinner this evening with a really interesting group of people, the topic came up of Artificial Intelligence. One of our party asked “So when will C3PO take over from us humans?”

I happened to be the only computer scientist at the table, so it fell upon me to push back against the premise underlying this question. I tried to articulate the difference between the fantasy of A.I. in popular culture and the reality of A.I. as it actually exists.

I fully acknowledge the psychological power of our collective dystopian fantasy of A.I. It didn’t start with Skynet and Ex Machina. We’ve had Frankenstein’s creature, the Golem and Prometheus.

But the reality of A.I. has nothing to do with that. Computers can do a pretty good job of creating a simulacrum of human behavior, but that is very different from human behavior itself.

By analogy, you can record a human voice with a tape recorder and listen to the playback, but that’s not the same as listening to a human singer. Imitation is not the same as equivalence.

Maybe none of this matters. The fact that millions of people are embracing a fantasy about some pop-culture construct of A.I. really has nothing to do with the actual state of A.I.

But it’s still kind of weird.

All the TV shows

December 29th, 2017

If you can find a good TV show for your Netflix DVD queue, it makes life simpler. No matter how many movies you choose, they end up running out. But with a TV series as your back-up plan, you’re golden.

Today I went through all of the Netflix choices for TV series on DVD. The list went on and on. After a while I felt as though I was browsing through Borges’ Library of Babel.

Eventually I managed to make it through the entire list, but it took a surprisingly long time. During my long journey, I learned many things, such as the importance of spelling.

For example, The Flash and The Flesh turn out to be extremely different TV shows. It is also comforting to know that Hazel and Gomer Pyle, USMC are at my fingertips should I ever need them.

But the interesting thing was how many shows there were that I simply had no interest in seeing. I began to be cognizant of a vast and endless industry existing simply to entertain, and that for me it pretty much wasn’t working.

I’m not sure whether this is a reflection of me, or of that industry. I suspect it’s a little of both.

Worst poem ever

December 28th, 2017

Every year I honor December 28 because a terrible disaster on this day — the collapse of the Tay Bridge in Scotland in 1879 — led to a terrible disaster of an entirely different sort. I am speaking, of course, of the infamous poem by William McGonagall.

The Tay Bridge Disaster is to 19th century poetry what The Room is to modern cinema. McGonagall’s commemorative poem is so jaw droppingly inept that it is nearly transcendent.

Here is a link to the poem in its entirety. If you would like just a taste, I quote below the last few lines of this immortal misfire, which admittedly concludes with some very sensible advice:


I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Spectrum of behavior

December 27th, 2017

In the post-Weinstein debate, a lot of people have been publicly coming down on Matt Damon for arguing that there is a “spectrum of behavior”. Yet as far as I have been able to tell, not a single woman I personally know disagrees with him.

When I was in my early twenties I experienced unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature on a number of occasions. This unwanted physical contact came, at different times, from both men and women.

Being a heterosexual male clearly didn’t exempt me. On the other hand, none of these “perpetrators” were predators in the manner of a Harvey Weinstein.

Rather, they were invariably people who had deluded themselves, with no evidence, into thinking that something mutual might result. In other words, those situations were not about power — they were about cluelessness.

I certainly found such encounters to be annoying, but I also felt somewhat sad — not for me, but for those clumsy idiots. They were clearly looking for some kind of connection, and they were also clearly not good at reading signals.

I am fortunate that I have never experienced any sort of forcible sexual assault, so I couldn’t presume to know the pain of somebody who has. But let’s not be confused about this: Rape is a serious and horrifically dehumanizing crime, and we should not lump it together with annoying physical overtures.

My understanding is that people who have experienced such an assault may spend the rest of their lives dealing with the lack of physical safety that they must always carry with them. That is an incredible burden, and it damages lives.

So yes, I agree that we should not say that putting your hand on somebody’s ass without their permission is ok — because it certainly is not. No person should ever be disrespected, and our culture has a long and terrible history of disrespecting women in particular.

But I also think that we must be careful not to lump all battles together without distinction. To do so would be a serious disservice to people who have endured rape.

But beyond that, the distinction Matt Damon is making is important, because ultimately feminism is a plea for rational discourse. Without such distinctions, the serious feminist awakening currently at hand may be drowned out in the noise of general shouting.

In the war on a culture of unthinking male supremacy, there are multiple battles to be fought, but they are not the same battle. If, in our anger, we lump them all together, we may end up losing the war.

Proper motivation

December 26th, 2017

I’ve noticed that the bottleneck to my being able to solve technical problems when writing software usually doesn’t seem to be the technical part. Rather, it has more to do with motivation. You may have noticed something similar in your own work.

Suppose, for example, that you were to ask me, without context, “Can you implement a mesh simplification algorithm?” I could truthfully answer yes, but I might have a difficult time of it. Everything else in my life would be competing for the sort of focus I would need to get the job done properly.

Yet as it happens, I am currently working on a project that requires me to create and animate some interactive 3D creatures. Because the project will run on mobile phones, those creatures need to be made from simple triangle meshes, and I can’t really move on to other parts of the project until I get this part done.

If I’d just needed any old mesh simplification, there are some fine software packages out there that could have done it for me. But because I will require fine control over the mesh structure, I needed to implement this myself.

I was really dreading this step of the project, because I was worried that it would take days to complete and I’d become mired in implementation details. Yet it turned that the key was to focus not on the technical challenge itself, but on the cool animated creatures that I want to bring to life.

So the other day, excited about those creatures and eager to meet them, I sat down at my computer and managed to implement the whole thing in a morning. Turns out that what I really needed was the proper motivation.

I suspect that this generalizes to other situations.

One on, one off

December 25th, 2017

I have an extended period of time available to get work done this holiday season, since nearly everybody else here is taking time off. That gives me free rein to get lots and lots of stuff done.

The other day I even put up shelves in my office — something I would never be organized or focused enough to accomplish during the semester. I wonder whether there is a word for the concept of “the luxury of having time to get all your work done”. If there isn’t such a word, somebody should come up with one.

I’ve noticed something else too: I get more done when I alternate between work days and non-work days. That seems counterintuitive, since it leaves me only half as much actual work time.

But I suspect it’s more complicated than that. On the non-work days, my mind is still working through the longer term problems, but in a far more relaxed and free-wheeling way.

So when I show up again on one of my work days, everything is a lot clearer, and I know just what to do. When you are doing creative work, a “one on, one off” schedule is a very nice way to remain unstuck, and to balance the needs of short term and long term goals.

There are also two additional benefits to this schedule: (1) after a long and intense day of hard work, I really look forward to taking a day off, and (2) after taking a day off, I really look forward to getting back to work!

Confraglidation

December 24th, 2017

I was at a meeting the other day with some colleagues who were discussing market prediction. In particular, they were trying to figure out whether a certain market would end up fragmenting or consolidating.

A fragmented market is one in which there are many players. One example would be shoes. There are lots of companies around for you to buy shoes from, and there is no clear dominant player among shoemakers.

A consolidated market is one in which one player ends up with all the marbles. An obvious example of this is internet search. Sure, there are other search engines around, but at least here in the U.S. pretty much everyone uses Google.

Listening to this discussion, it occurred to me that sometimes it’s not so simple. A market can be consolidated in one part of its supply chain, but fragmented in another part of that supply chain.

For example, for PC games Valve’s Steam is the dominant player for delivery. Yet there are an enormous number of suppliers for the games themselves.

Similarly, all of the apps that run on your iPhone come to you via Apple’s App Store. Yet there are many providers for the apps themselves.

To cite yet a third example, Amazon is clearly trying to be the universal delivery system for everything. Yet Amazon is certainly not in the business of creating all of the many things it would like to deliver.

So it seems that in our modern internet age, we are entering an era of what might be called confraglidation. The market for delivery is becoming ever more consolidated, whereas the market for providing content is becoming ever more fragmented.

Just the four of us

December 23rd, 2017

I’ve been at the lab today from morning until evening, and for most of that time I have been the only one here. The atmosphere is the exact opposite of the frenzied end of semester rush of this past week.

Within the eerie silence, I have been accomplishing an enormous amount of work. I also feel calm and relaxed here today in a way I have not felt for quite a while.

This morning it really hit home to me why a lab can be such a difficult place to get work done. It isn’t the presence of other people per se, but rather the nature of how we communicate.

During the semester, at any moment somebody might need something from me — and several times every hour, somebody generally does. Yet today, it’s just the four of us here: the computer, the whiteboard, the coffee machine and me.

I am happy to report that the four of us are getting along splendidly. And a lot of work is getting done.

Don’t perfume the roses

December 22nd, 2017

We are currently working on a production in a new medium. It’s not exactly cinema, nor theater, nor virtual reality. It’s some kind of other medium that nobody has ever tried before, related to all of those other media, yet different.

As we reach out to our creative community for thoughts and advice, I am noticing a pattern. The computer scientists look at this as a kind of experimental laboratory for what is possible. They want us to push it to be bigger and more spectacular, more novel and nonlinear, more different from anything that has come before.

In contrast, the writers and storytellers are pushing us to simplify, scale down, find the essential core of character arcs and relationships. They are advising us that less is more, particularly when dealing with a new storytelling medium.

As much as I like computer graphics and animation, cutting edge special effects, and all of the whiz bang possibilities of new media, I am siding with the writers on this one. We need to let the medium unfold in its own way, so it can reveal to us its true magic.

I am reminded of something Jean Cocteau once said: A poet who tries to write poetically is like a gardener who puts perfume on his roses.

Wearing some device on your head

December 21st, 2017

One argument people frequently make about future wearables is that nobody is going to want to walk around in public wearing some device on their head. This is a reasonable point, and it has been made before.

In 1972, when Andreas Pavel tried to get major corporations, including Yamaha and Philips, interested in his portable music player, they all turned him down. The general argument was that nobody would ever want to walk around in public wearing headphones. So instead he patented it.

When Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka pushed a similar initiative about six years later, he was able to throw the full weight of his company behind it. In 1979 the Walkman came out, and quickly took over the world.

It seems that Pavel had been right all along. And after decades of legal battles, Sony eventually agreed to pay him for his invention.

So maybe yes, if it is useful and it makes people happy, lots of people will be ok walking around in public wearing some device on their head.