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When technologists describe their hotshot new system for trading stocks or driving cars, the algorithm at its heart always seems to emerge from a magical realm of Spock-like rationality and mathematical perfection. Algorithms can save lives or make money, the argument goes, because they are built on the foundations of mathematics: logical rigor, conceptual clarity, and utter consistency. Math is perfect, right? And algorithms are made out of math.Ed Finn February 26, 2016
By Ed Finn
When technologists describe their hotshot new system for trading stocks or driving cars, the algorithm at its heart always seems to emerge from a magical realm of Spock-like rationality and mathematical perfection. Algorithms can save lives or make money, the argument goes, because they are built on the foundations of mathematics: logical rigor, conceptual clarity, and utter consistency. Math is perfect, right? And algorithms are made out of math.
In reality algorithms have to run on actual servers, using code that sometimes breaks, crunching data that’s frequently unreliable. There is an implementation gap between what we imagine algorithms do in a perfect computational universe and all the compromises, assumptions, and workarounds that need to happen before the code actually works at scale. Computation has done all sorts of incredible things, sometimes appearing both easy and infallible. But it takes hundreds or thousands of servers working in tandem to do something as straightforward as answer a search engine query, and that is where the problems of implementation come in.
Our neocortex is very adept at automation – at habitualizing complex behaviors and routines of thought. Consider: how much of your day is patterned? How much of your thoughts are processes you’ve repeated before? A lot! And this is a good thing: automation frees up our minds for the good life, the life examined, the life of the mind.Corey Pressman January 13, 2016
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.
Our neocortex is very adept at automation – at habitualizing complex behaviors and routines of thought. Consider: how much of your day is patterned? How much of your thoughts are processes you’ve repeated before? A lot! And this is a good thing. Automation frees up our minds for the good life, the life examined, the life of the mind. Because I don’t have to concentrate so much on the complex neurological and physical act of walking to lunch, I can daydream into existence this blog post, for example. On the other hand, automation often lulls us into the predicament of predictable points, all strung together by the dull thread of everyday life. Negative emotions result. The poop emoji gets a lot of play.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Happiness abounds. Our lives are replete with opportunities for joy. Lessons from positive psychology elucidate the many “positive emotions” that elevate our lives, including love (of course), gratitude, inspiration, and amusement. And the last – amusement – is big business. Experience designers of all stripes focus on amusing users. Designing for delight is considered a surefire way to get users hooked. Amusing digital experiences, it goes, promote habit-forming products. Win! But wait. I was hoping to leverage positive emotions to alleviate the dullness of our habitual brains, not exploit them! Poop emoji.
There is another, rather unique, positive emotion – one that weaves through religion and history, art and philosophy. It is by nature fleeting, but nonetheless essential. It is awe, wonder, amazement. Situated “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” awe is defined by psychologists as “the emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas.” When we are facing the unfathomable, standing, as Einstein says above, “rapt in awe” by the Grand Canyon, the sky-long sweep of the Milky Way, or the opening scene of Lord of the Rings, our eyes widen, our mouths go slack. Our heart rates actually decrease in these moments. This isn’t fight or flight; it’s stay and be amazed.
Recent research has uncovered more about awe. Experiments reveal that time slows down for those experiencing wonder; subjects who recently experienced awe felt they had more time available to them, that they had more room to breathe. This particular study found that the recently awed subsequently experience an increase in the ability to develop new ways of thinking about the world, more willingness to engage in prosocial behavior, and a greater desire for experiential, rather than material, goods. Now THAT is a positive emotion. Delight gets you hooked (on products, experiences, revenue streams). Wonderment gets you unhooked (from self-absorption, time starvation, status quo schemas). Delight is a kiss on the cheek, a cheap thrill – game over, please insert quarter. Awe is what it is to be alive.
So let’s design for wonder. There is awe-inspiring digital now, of course. Many games do this. VR. Positive psychologist and design researcher Pamela Pavliscak also identifies awe in digital’s big picture: she explained in an email that it can be found in “…the scope of human response to a tragedy on Twitter, or when we connect with someone using an app like BeMyEyes. This is wonder for the digital age.” More please! I’m sure it’s profitable. Awe can be big business too. In my digital future, digital thaumaturges will amaze the masses. Heck, 4.5 million people visited the Grand Canyon in 2013.
As AI, connected things, and ubiquitous computing unfold, let’s get deeper than delight. Let’s teach the robots poetry and design for awe as well as joy. We wouldn’t want Skynet, born of our ruthless pursuit of good click-through rates and addictive interfaces, to come to agree with Einstein’s sentiments.
We spend an awful lot of time now thinking about what algorithms know about us: the ads we see online, the deep archive of our search history, the automated photo-tagging of our families. We don’t spend as much time asking what algorithms want.Ed Finn December 10, 2015
By Ed Finn
We spend an awful lot of time now thinking about what algorithms know about us: the ads we see online, the deep archive of our search history, the automated photo-tagging of our families. We don’t spend as much time asking what algorithms want. In some ways, it’s a ridiculous question, at least for now: Humans create computational systems to complete certain tasks or solve particular problems, so any kind of intention or agency would have to be built in, right?
This would be an acceptable answer if algorithms didn’t happen to surprise us so often. But surprise us they do, from the mundane yet hilarious autocorrect and transcription fails to the more troubling instances of complex behaviors, like the cascading bad choices high-frequency trading algorithms made that caused the 2010 “Flash Crash.” There’s an interesting philosophical question lurking in there—where does the surprise come from, exactly? Do complex systems sometimes behave in ways that are objectively, statistically surprising? Or is the term surprise a human invention, another storytelling crutch for mammals whose brains were never well-suited for the rational evaluation of complex cultural systems?
In 1562, Don Carlos, the seventeen-year-old heir apparent to the Spanish throne, falls down a flight of stairs. Tragically, he sustains a terrible head wound. HisCorey Pressman October 29, 2015
In 1562, Don Carlos, the seventeen-year-old heir apparent to the Spanish throne, falls down a flight of stairs. Tragically, he sustains a terrible head wound. His father, King Philip II, orders physicians to attempt every available cure. Nothing works – not the birthwort powder applied to the skull, not the mixture of turpentine and egg yolk to the lips. What to do?
Philip turns to religion. Monks bring in the physical remains of a deceased member of their order: the holy Brother Diego de Alcalá. This is a century after Diego died, a decade before he was sainted, and forty years before San Diego, California was named after him. The monks lay the remains beside the suppurating, head-swollen Don Carlos. Desperate and distraught, Philip promises God a miracle in exchange for a miraculous recovery. The deal is accepted; Don Carlos is up and about the very next day, telling of fever-vision conversations with a monk. It is clear to all involved what has occurred. The king must now keep his side of the bargain – he owes God a miracle.
Philip commissions Juanelo Turriana, noted maker of clocks and automatons, to create his gift for God: a wood and iron mechanical monk. The monk is an automaton and, once wound up, moves about nearly on its own. Remarkably, this thing survives and today lives at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Here he is doing his thing:
This fifteen-inch masterpiece goes through the motions of penitence: the robomonk beats his chest, bows his head, rolls his eyes, kisses his cross, and shuffles to and fro. Philip II has fulfilled his promise with the ultimate votive offering – the gift of perpetual prayer.
The monkbot’s clockwork prayer derives its religious and sociological power from the magical dimension of mechanical repetition. This is the power source of the Catholic rosary, Bhakti yoga japa beads, Tibetan prayer wheels, and shamanic drumming. The automaton’s prayers are formally correct and therefore technically effective. Philip’s gift to God was, indeed, a steady stream of supplication – so long as the little guy is occasionally rewound.
As a very early immigrant from the uncanny valley, the thing is a spectacle – then and now. An engineering miracle and an engineered miracle, this particular automaton skirts the border between science, magic, and theatre. And as with all mimics, puppets, and other moving simulacra, we wonder at the technique of the illusion while also getting lost in the performance. It’s not real; it’s real.
But does it have soul? Does it touch the divine and sublime on Philip’s behalf? Do the mechanical monk’s prayers count as prayer? And if so, for whom? The king? Juanelo Turriana? The beholder? The monk itself? Is a good mimic good enough?
I don’t know.
Automata have come a long way. No longer an obscure curiosity of the clockmaker’s art, human mimics move through our lives most every day. The artificial intelligences of the internet, chatbots, self-aware robots, and smart cars are far more central to our daily lives than was any gear-driven doll in the sixteenth century. A Bloomberg report earlier this week about Google’s dedication to AI underscores the business giant this technology has become.
It takes more than being intelligent, however, to truly mimic humanity. Due to its awkward immediacy, the automaton monk may in fact be creepier than the Facebook News Feed Algorithm. Set up computer intelligence to do something more tangibly human, however, and the uncanny flag unfurls. For example, watch this video of two Cleverbot chatbots conversing with one another using real language:
Their conversation takes me right back to the mechanical monk (who was, admittedly, better dressed than these business-attired avatars). There are times in this video when I am truly gobsmacked. “Not everything could be half of something” and “don’t you wish you had a body” – these novel expressions are haunting. The conversation among the bots is, frankly, as deep and confusing as one I may have on any given day.
So, have the Cleverbot clockmakers crafted a thinking and speaking machine? Is language really just this? The syntax and diction are correct. The mechanics of conversation are present, or at least seem to be.
While watching this, I am always aware of the engineered nature of the thing. I know it’s a puppet. But it’s conversing! Right? It’s not real; it’s real.
But does it have soul? Do its words and phrases count as expressive speech? And if so, for whom? The engineers? The beholder? Cleverbot itself? Is a good mimic good enough?
I don’t know.
But I suspect not. With both the Diego bot and the Cleverbot, there is something that feels out of place, or not in place at all. In both cases, the ghost in the machine is not a ghost at all, but a human touch. While they’re clearly amazing and magical in their way, they lack the mundane magic at the core of actual vitality. But is approximation enough? Not everything could be half of something. Right?
Corey Pressman is the Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a member of CSI’s Imaginary College, and the director of Poetry for Robots, a digital humanities experiment that is trying to teach poetry and human metaphors to robots and computers.
Every sea on Earth is plagued by massive amounts of trash. Refuse in the ocean kills hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals per year, and hazardous heavy metals bind to plastic particles and enter our food chain. The Ocean Trash Write-Away contest challenges writers to imagine solutions to this global challenge and write an inspiring short story set in a future where we’ve turned the tide on ocean trash.Joey Eschrich September 3, 2015
Submissions due September 19, 2015
Presented by Sapiens Plurum, Ocean Conservancy, and the Center for Science and the Imagination
Every sea on Earth is plagued by massive amounts of trash. Refuse in the ocean kills hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals per year, and hazardous heavy metals bind to plastic particles and enter our food chain. According to a study in the journal Science, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the world’s oceans in 2010 alone.
The Ocean Trash Write-Away contest challenges writers ages 25 and under to imagine solutions to this global challenge and write an inspiring short story set in a future where we’ve turned the tide on ocean trash.
Winners will have their 1500-3000 word stories published on the Sapiens Plurum website. Prizes include cash and a four-day trip to the Center for Science and the Imagination.Filed under: Ideas
A lot of ink and electrons have been spilled on the task of getting our machines to pass the Turing test. It is indeed an accomplishment of some proportion if a computer’s linguistic or artistic output can pass for human-generated. But does a passing grade really mean genuine awareness?Corey Pressman August 7, 2015
A lot of ink and electrons have been spilled on the task of getting our machines to pass the Turing test. It is indeed an accomplishment of some proportion if a computer’s linguistic or artistic output can pass for human-generated. But does a passing grade really mean genuine awareness?
Consider the many Turing tests designed to test computational creativity with poetry. For example, there’s bot or not, Ray Kurzweil’s CyberArt site, and The Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College’s Turing Tests in Creativity. In addition to a poetry exercise, the latter includes a Turing tests for short stories and dance music (called AlgoRhythms!). All of these experiments encourage creative output that is indistinguishable from human creations. Trick the judge and win!
Perhaps passing as something you aren’t is a human prerogative. But mere mimicry is common in nature – and often a prelude to a kill. Passing as your true self by means of voluntary artistic expression – now THAT belies an awareness that approaches the sublime. So I propose a new test. An actual humanish intelligence would respond to its perceived surroundings – what a poet might call prompts or a scientist qualia – with spontaneous metaphorical description.
What’s more, these descriptions, these metaphors, would derive in part from the embodiment of the mind creating them. We do this all the time. Our embodied cognition is evidenced in our language by sight metaphors like “I see your point” or “the plot was clear to me.” It’s not surprising that a primate species should experience and describe reality with sight metaphors. But it is surprising that a machine with a wholly different physicality should be expected to do so.
Instead, it would be grand if AI was put to this test: write poetry for other AI, using metaphors that make sense to AI. Perhaps the robots would write poems about feeling “chippy” or about how the Moon’s infrared wavelengths are like spiral drifting algorithms. Let’s have robot judges preside over the test. Ideally, the poetry would be opaque to human readers; after all, it flows from the embodied minds of machines. We will have to be content with our own poets, our own dreams of electric sheep.
Image: A drawing by Leo Gestel, in the public domain.
Published as part of a series of short stories and essays over at Medium.com’s magazine Matter on climate change, climate fiction, and how to survive theEd Finn July 27, 2015
The trouble with climate change is that it’s too slow: a creeping disaster causing incremental changes to our lives one year at a time. It moves so slowly, in fact, that by the time the forecast for destruction proves correct (years or decades after it was made), we’ve already turned off the news. As a topic, a debate, and a modern theological schism, climate change seems to be washed up in popular imagination even as the ice melts, the forest fires rage, and the drought deepens. Occasionally we’re confronted with stark reminders of its power, like images documenting the retreat of glaciers or starving polar bears, but because the political trench war over climate change has been going on for so long, we can barely move beyond hopelessness to muster some pity.
It is, as Al Gore put it, an inconvenient truth, but the title backfired on him — the truth proved so difficult to contend with that we work harder and harder to ignore it. We are so immersed in the slow boil of climate change that we’ve lost sight of it completely, and we need to escape lived reality before we can even learn to see it. A jetpack, a flying car, a TARDIS… We need better stories about the future to talk sensibly about the present. It turns out we need the unreality of fiction to understand reality. Speculative fiction, science fiction, climate fiction — call it what you will, it all runs on the same biofuel of imagination.
Joey Eschrich June 23, 2015
A short documentary by Nathan Broderick about experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, the Millennium Camera, installed at the ASU Art Museum, and the Deep Time Photo Lab, an interactive exhibit that debuted at ASU’s Emerge festival in March 2015.
While Hollywood blockbusters thrill us with breathtaking escapist spectacles, short films present diverse and idiosyncratic stories across the spectrum of genres, from fantasy and science fictionJoey Eschrich June 22, 2015
While Hollywood blockbusters thrill us with breathtaking escapist spectacles, short films present diverse and idiosyncratic stories across the spectrum of genres, from fantasy and science fiction to riotous comedy and psychological drama. Short films can function as speculative windows into possible futures, or provide glimpses of contemporary realities that we don’t normally see.
The Phoenix Loves Sci-Fi festival celebrates the best and brightest sci-fi, fantasy, and animated films that have been produced or screened in Phoenix over the past year. The one-night event highlights a variety of official selections from the Phoenix Film Festival, Filmstock Film Festival, International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, Phoenix Comicon Film Festival, and the Independent Feature Project Phoenix.
The festival takes place on Thursday, July 2, from 6:00 – 9:30 pm, at Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus. Tickets are $5.00 (plus a $1.27 purchase fee); proceeds benefit the Phoenix Film Foundation’s youth education programs. Get your ticket today at the festival’s Eventbrite page!
The program features U.S. and international films, both live-action and animated. Highlights include the science fiction shorts “Alone,” directed by Tony Severe; “Focus,” directed by Matt Chesin; “Hoyt’s Awakening,” written and directed by Boise Esquerra; “Ouroboros,” directed by Alexander Broderick; “Reprogrammed,” directed by Daniel Jones; “The Rogue Animal,” directed by Adolpho Navarro; and “Vault of Souls: The Pact,” directed by Kevin R. Phipps. These films were created by Arizona-based casts and crews, and demonstrate the talent and vision of a community of talented filmmakers who have begun to reach broader audiences beyond the desert.
Questions? Press inquiries? Need more information? Contact the festival’s organizer, Cassandra Nicholson, at Nicholson.Cassandra@gmail.com.