Artificial Intelligence in the News

There’s been much ado about artificial intelligence lately. This has largely been prompted by a computer convincing some people that it is a 13-year-old boy and an article written by a veritable who’s who among emerging tech thinkers warning of the risks of superintelligent machines.

Lol Humans

A computerbot, named Eugene Gootsman, was able to convince 33% of people who interacted with him for five minutes via chat that he was a human. This was touted as a clear instance of a computer passing the Turing Test, but it was met with some criticism, including this piece in by Gary Marcus in The New Yorker.

Ironically, rather than showcasing advances in human ingenuity, the Eugene Gootsman experiment reveals some of our less noble attributes. For one, in order to make computers sufficiently human-like, programmers needed to make the machines dumber. As Joshua Batson points out in his Wired commentary, prior winners in an annual Turing Test competition incorporate mistakes and silliness to convince the judges that the computer is a person. This calls into question the value of a test for artificial intelligence which requires a machine to be “dumbed-down” in order to pass.

Secondly, the Turing Test, as it was presented in the media, could easily be one of those tests that the psychology department at your local university conducts on willing participants. The results of the Eugene Gootsman test say more about the judges than it does about the machine. Taken from another perspective, 33% of people tested were more gullible than the rest of the participants.

You Have to Want to Want It

This is contrasted to Stephen Hawking’s warning in an Independent article, co-authored by Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek, that superintelligence may provide many benefits, but could also lead to dire consequences if it cannot be controlled.  Hawking and company write that “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.” Yes, one can imagine technology doing this, but the question is can the technology imagine itself doing this?

Hawking assumes that we will have the capability to engineer creativity or that creativity will somehow emerge from technology. However, we see from the examples of Eugene Gootsman, Watson the computer, Google smart cars, and Siri, that complex programming does not produce ingenuity. One could argue that the only way a machine would even muster up the “motivation” to do any of these things is if a human programmed that motivation into it.

An example from science fiction is Asimov’s three laws of robots. These are the inviolable principles programmed into the hardwiring of every robot in Isaac Asimov’s fictional world. These laws provide the motivations behind the robots’ behavior, and while they lead to some ridiculous and troubling antics, they are not the same as a robot coming up with its own fundamental motivations. In Asimov’s series, I, Robot, the impetus behind each of the robots’ behavior harkens back to these pre-programmed (ostensibly by humans) laws.

This is not to dismiss the field of artificial intelligence. This is to call into question some of the assumptions behind the recent hype regarding the progress and the potential peril of AI. Technology is becoming increasingly more powerful with the potential for both helping and hurting. Hawking’s warning that “the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all” is worth heeding. However, the problem is not endemic in the machine but in the humans that make and wield this technology.

The Language of Morality

When it comes to making moral decisions, is it better to have emotional distance or to have compassion?

An ethics professor once told me that ethics is not about choosing between right and wrong because you should always choose what’s right. Ethics is typically about choosing between two wrongs. Certainly, if two people are approaching a decision from differing moral foundations, they may disagree on the “right” decision, but what the professor meant was that they are still trying to decide the “right” decision in a difficult situation in which there are “wrongs” that must be weighed on both sides of the issue. When people disagree, they are often prioritizing the wrongs differently.

Let’s take a typical example from ethics class: if a train is running out of control, and one track has one person tied to it and another track with five people tied to it and you have control of the switch that will direct the train to either of these two tracks, which one do you pick?

More than merely a macabre puzzle game, these improbable scenarios are meant to illuminate how one makes ethical decisions. Often, in the train example, people will kill the one person to save the five people. The next bit is to change the scenario slightly to see if the same kind of utilitarian calculation applies. For example, the one person on the train track is your father, and the five people on the other track are strangers. You still have control of the switch, what do you choose to do? Or, another way to change the scenario is to change the demographics of the victims. What if the one person is a child, while the five people are escaped prisoners? Or, the one person is a woman and the five people are men?

Thankfully, we rarely find ourselves in such troubling situations. However, what influences our answer to these questions becomes much more important when we move out the realm of imaginary trains and into real situations. One example of this is in medicine. Bioethicists often debate how to determine who receives scarce medical resources.

Take the train example, and whether your answers changed when we changed the demographic of the people tied to the rail. This is quite similar to the questions ethicists ask when it comes to deciding who should receive an organ from an organ donor. There are more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are available organs, so we have a situation in which the ethicist must decide how to choose the person who lives in a fair and just way. This is a case of weighing out the “wrongs” because no matter what the ethicist chooses, someone will likely die.

People make decisions based on many factors, but an article in The Economist indicates one unforeseen factor. A study in which some participants were asked two variations of the train scenario in their native language while other participants were asked these scenarios in a different language showed a difference when asked in a different language. Participants were not fluent in the other language, and were tested to ensure they were able to understand the question. In one scenario, the train will hit five people who are lying on the track, and the only way to save them is to push a fat man onto the track in front of the train. You cannot jump in front of the train; the only way to save them is to shove the fat man in the path of the train. The other scenario is the switch and two tracks mentioned above.

The switch scenario emotionally distances the person from the violent act. When given the switch scenario, most people opt to kill the one person in order to save five. This was the case whether the question was asked in a person’s native language or in a different language. However, when the person must push the fat man onto the track, about 20% of people would push the fat man onto the track when asked in their native language (This was also the same for people fluent in a particular language), but when asked in a different language, the percentage was 33%.

After several tests and analyses to account for factors such as cultural mores and randomness, the study confirmed that when people are asked about the fat man scenario in a different language, they were more likely to push him onto the track compared to when they are asked in their native language or a language in which they have fluency. It seems that the different language provides emotional distance similar to the way the switch provided emotional distance.

We live in a globalized world in which many people communicate and make decisions in a different language. Based on this study, it seems that language barriers also create emotional distance that is not necessarily there if the person is making the decision in his or her native language. In the area of medicine, this may have implications for patients who are asked to make a decision while living in a different country that does not speak his or her language. Additionally, this may have implications for patients who are unfamiliar with technical medical jargon, in which the use of jargon may be similar to hearing a problem in a different language. This may prompt a patient to make a more emotionally distanced decision.

Signs in the Stars


“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Thus was the question posed by the Magi upon arrival in Jerusalem, presumably to Herod, the king in situ at the time.

What had they seen? Why did they come to Jerusalem? It makes sense that, if they were looking for the King of the Jews, they would go to Jerusalem. But how did they know that a king had been born? A King who would be “King of the Jews?” What did they see?

Fred Larson got interested in that question after setting up Christmas decorations on the lawn with his daughter, Marian. She’d wanted three wise men in the yard and then said, “Daddy, make a star!” What’s a Dad to do? He made a star.

But that got him thinking. Well …what was the star? When he came across a science article by a Ph.D. astronomer who took the position that the Bethlehem star had been a real astronomical event, he set out to investigate this puzzle.

He went to the book of Matthew, specifically chapter two, and, paying careful attention to every word, noted nine data points about the star, according to what Matthew had recorded:

  1. It indicated a birth.
  2. It had to do with the Jewish nation.
  3. It had to do with kingship.
  4. The magi saw the star in the east.
  5. They had come to worship the king.
  6. Herod asked the magi when the star appeared. This indicates that he hadn’t seen it or otherwise been made aware of it, implying that the star was not overly striking in the sky. It did not command attention, except to those who were looking with a certain wisdom and knew what to look for.
  7. It appeared at a specific time.
  8. It went ahead of the magi as they traveled to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
  9. It stopped over Bethlehem.

This was a considerable amount of data to work with, but it presented quite a puzzle. He bought an astronomy software package and started studying the sky. Because of the extreme precision of planetary motion, modern software allows us to see, not just snapshots but simulated animations, of the night sky from any point on the globe at any time in history.

He quickly ruled out a shooting star, a comet, and an exploding star or nova as explanations for the Bethlehem star because they didn’t fit the data recorded by Matthew. That still left another class of stars, however: the planets, which at that time were called “wandering stars.” The word ‘planet’ comes from the Greek verb for ‘to wander,’ and the planets were called that because they ‘wandered around’ in the sky against a backdrop of apparently fixed stars.

Might one of the planets have something to do with the star? Larson, an attorney skilled in analytical thinking, proceeded with this as his working hypothesis.

He zeroed in quickly on Jupiter, the largest planet, named after the highest god in the Roman pantheon, which has been known as the “King Planet” from ancient times. Magi watching the night sky from Babylon would have seen Jupiter rise in the east and then form a conjunction with a star called Regulus (which also means ‘king’) maybe 2-3 times in their lifetime. It would be a notable occurrence, but not an exceedingly rare event.

Larson pressed on. As planets wander across the sky, he discovered, they will at times go into what astronomers call retrograde motion. They will make what appears to be an about face loop and then continue on their way. They aren’t really reversing or looping, but viewed from Earth, this is what the path looks like because from Earth we view it from a moving platform. He looked at Jupiter’s retrograde motion with respect to Regulus and discovered that on very rare occasions, Jupiter does what appears to be a triple loop around Regulus. One of those conjunctions occurred in September of 3 BC on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Now this is something to sit up and take notice of – the King planet forming a conjunction with the King star, even drawing a celestial “halo” around it. This event would have been exceedingly rare and would certainly have captured the attention of watchful stargazers. But would it really move them to mount their camels and take a 700-mile journey across the desert to Jerusalem?

Probably not, but there was still more going on. Babylonian astronomers were well familiar with the constellations of the zodiac – the same ones by which astrologers today make inane predictions. Larson “turned on” the constellations (meaning he had the software draw them out and label them on the screen), and he watched the September, 3 BC retrograde pattern Jupiter displayed with respect to Regulus against the backdrop of the constellations.

What he discovered was a remarkable display involving the constellations Virgo – the virgin, and Leo – the Lion (the lion symbolizing the kingly Jewish tribe of Judah, from which the Messiah was to come). For someone studied in Jewish history and Messianic prophecies, the symbolism would have been stunning.

Larson asked still another question. What if this Rosh Hashanah celestial display was the announcement in the stars, not of the birth of the Messiah, but of his conception? He ran the software forward nine months to see what the sky looked like then. What he found pretty much rocked his world, and I can’t do it justice in an ordinary written blog post. You’ll have to watch the presentation (and I highly recommend you do, you can get it from his website or Netflix) to see it all play out.

But I will leave you with this: Never be afraid to press the Scriptures and investigate the universe. You will find that the heavens indeed declare the glory of God, and all the Earth sings his praises.

And these: according to Starry Night astronomy software, here are three astronomical occurrences that took place during the years 3-2 BC:

  1. In September, 3 BC, during Rosh Hashanna, Jupiter “crowned” Regulus in the constellation Leo.
  2. In June, 2 BC, the king planet, Jupiter, and the mother planet, Venus, formed a conjunction, creating the brightest star anyone on earth would ever see.
  3. In December, 2 BC, Jupiter went into a small retrograde loop in the southern sky, meaning it would appear to be stopped over Bethlehem if you were looking at it from Jerusalem.


Coincidences? Fabrications? Or the Lord of heaven and Earth announcing the invasion of the Jewish King in the stars?

You decide.

CO2: Elixir of Life

Elixir of Life?

Yes, ‘Elixir of Life.” Elixir of Life is the label two scientists apply to carbon dioxide. Despite the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared it a dangerous air pollutant, the son and father team of Dr. Craig D. Idso and Dr. Sherwood B. Idso, in their book, The Many Benefits of Atmospheric CO2 Enrichment, unabashedly say just the opposite:

“Atmospheric carbon dioxide is the elixir of life. It is the primary raw material out of which plants construct their tissues, which in turn are the materials out of which animals construct theirs. This knowledge is so well established, in fact, that we humans – and all the rest of the biosphere – are described in the most basic of terms as carbon-based lifeforms.”

Indeed. “Not only are increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 not dangerous to human, animal, or plant health,” writes Jay Lehr, science director of The Heartland Institute, in his review of the book, “they actually benefit earth’s many life forms, counteracting the deleterious effects of real air pollutants.”

The two scientists bring impressive credentials to bear on their admittedly non-conformist declaration.

Dr. Craig D. Idso is the founder and former President of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change and currently serves as Chairman of the Center’s board of directors. He earned his B.S. in Geography from Arizona State University, his M.S. in Agronomy from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and his Ph.D. in Geography from Arizona State University.

Dr. Sherwood B. Idso earned his Bachelor of Physics, Master of Science, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the University of Minnesota. From 1967 – 2001, he served as a Research Physicist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory in Phoenix, Arizona, and as an Adjunct Professor at Arizona State University in the Departments of Geology, Geography, Botany and Microbiology. He is the author or co-author of over 500 scientific publications.

Unless you’re an avid environmental scientist, though, you may find The Many Benefits of Atmospheric Co2 Enrichment rather boring reading. It’s filled with charts, graphs, and summarized results of scientific studies. But the executive summary version is fascinating.

In sum, the two scientists document 55 ways in which elevated atmospheric CO2 levels benefit the earth’s biosphere. For the reasonably scientific-minded not given to dicyphering science journals for everyday reading, Jay Lehr handily summarized ten of them:

Air Pollution Stress on Plants—As the CO2 content of the air rises, most plants reduce their stomatal apertures, or openings through which they consume carbon dioxide, and thereby reduce the intake of harmful pollutants that might damage their tissue.

Diseases of Plants—Plant diseases are commonly reduced as a result of improved immune systems that result from increased CO2 in the surrounding environment. This has been proven by hundreds of plant studies.

Flowers—Most plants produce more and larger flowers at higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Health Promotion—CO2 enrichment increases the quantity and potency of the many beneficial substances found in the tissue of our food crops which therefore make it onto our dinner tables with more vitamin C and other antioxidants.

Medical Plants—Atmospheric CO2 increases the production of many health-promoting substances in medicinal plants, which have been shown to fight a wide variety of human maladies.

Nitrogen Fixation—Increasing CO2 concentration improves nitrogen fixation by soil bacteria, which leads to increased nitrogen availability in the soil for plants that normally need additional nitrogen provisions.

Photosynthesis—Additional atmospheric CO2 typically increases the photosynthesis rates of nearly all plants.

Soil Erosion—Increased CO2 enables all plants to extract more moisture from their surroundings; as a result, plants expand their root systems and significantly stabilize soil, thus protecting it from erosion.

Transpiration—Plants take in CO2 from open pores, called stomata, through which moisture also exits the plant. With increased CO2 in the air, plants do not need to keep these pores open very long to capture the needed CO2, and thus less water is lost through evaporation, a process called transpiration.

Water Stress—When plants are growing under less-than-optimal soil water availability, higher atmospheric CO2 dramatically improves the plants’ chances for survival and healthy growth.

Cool, huh?

Spring is unfolding into summer. As a carbon-based lifeform, I invite you to join me in enjoying the richness of biological life and spreading the word about this wrongly maligned elixir of life.

The Greater Hoax

"You Can Save the Earth?"

Are you enjoying Creation this Earth Week? The first nationwide Earth Day was held on April 22nd, 1970, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union. Some say the date is only coincidental. Some say it’s isn’t.

I don’t know. But I do know this: Behind the ‘Save the Earth’ movement runs a forceful undercurrent of hostility to God that is consistent with his state atheism. Take a look at these snippets of media coverage on James Inhofe’s new book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future:

That last one, from Rachel Maddow’s personal blog on the MSNBC website, is especially telling, considering Maddow interviewed Inhofe and said she read the whole book. Presumably she invited him onto her show to discuss it, but she appeared wholly uninterested in the substance of it or the science supporting it. In fact she looked rather peeved when he went into it, but that could be because he blew her out of the water when it came to discussing the science. Click here to see the interview.

Clearly, what to her is all about going along with ‘consensus,’ is, to him, all about the science. That and serving the American people. And he knows what he’s talking about. The Senator, who serves on the Senate Committees on Environment and Public Works writes:

“I began my own investigation into the science in 2003, because I found out how much the ‘solution’ would cost and I said that if the United States was even going to consider such expensive, drastic measures that would fundamentally change our economy, the science driving that decision had better be solid. After my rigorous research, I found that it was not – and over the course of six years, more and more flaws continued to surface.”

This was in keeping with his principles for responsible public service:

“Because the Environment and Public Works Committee has primary jurisdiction over the issue of global warming, I realized that as Chairman, I had a profound responsibility, as any ‘solution’ to global warming would have far-reaching impacts for our nation. That’s why from the moment I took up the gavel, I established three key principles for our work on the committee: (1) it should rely on the most objective science, (2) it should consider the costs on businesses and consumers, and (3) the bureaucracy should serve, not rule, the people.”

The Greatest Hoax chronicles Inhofe’s decade-long service on behalf of the America people, explaining in plain language the scientific research and the legislative processes whereby it has been politicized, if not bastardized, in the name of saving the planet. In The Greatest Hoax he chronicles his efforts over nearly 300 pages and documents his facts with over 400 footnotes.

But Maddow mentions none of this, either in the interview or in her blog post titled, “Inhofe refutes climate science with scripture.” So where does that title come from? Inhofe is an unapologetic Christian. He quotes scripture;

“As long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” (Genesis 8:22)

Professing evangelicals differ on environmental politics, and Inhofe’s opponents, both in the media and Congress, use that to try and bring him in line. It is in that context that the Senator references this verse from Genesis. “God is still up there,” Inhofe reminds the evangelical alarmists, “and he promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains.”

So, to Rachel Maddow, Inhofe is an ‘opponent of climate science.’ Not ‘an opponent of a political agenda,’ not ‘an opponent of a scientific theory,’ but ‘an opponent of climate science’ due to ‘the far-right senator’s interpretation of Scripture.’ It’s as if the interview never happened and the Scripture quotation was the only sentence she read from the book. ThinkProgress and Right Wing Watch practice similar journalistic malfeasance. Meanwhile, the good Senator does his job, unswayed by sneers and mockery.

I don’t know enough to predict the future of the planet. But I do know that when the truth comes out, two things will be clear: (1) There is a God up there who has the earth and its climate firmly in hand, and (2) Senator Inhofe’s objection to green politics is not based on his interpretation of Scripture.

This week, marvel away at the beauty of the earth. And do what you can to preserve and protect the life that lives on it. But marvel even more at its maker, who created it out of nothing and daily holds and sustains it in the palm of his hand.

To believe otherwise is to buy into an even greater hoax.

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Let’s Rally for Reason

“Don’t be surprised to find out that there are atheists and agnostics in your midst,” Ted said to me, after railing against the evils of organized religion. I got the impression he expected some kind of visible reaction from me.

But I wasn’t surprised. He’d already said he was a humanist. The two kind of go together. Besides, I’m not horrified over atheists. I took the bait. You wanna discuss atheism, Ted? Let’s discuss atheism. “So, I get that you have problems with organized religion, Ted. But human organizations aside, do you believe there is a God? Or do you believe there is not a God?”

Ted didn’t give me a straightforward answer, though. Instead he referred me to Sam Harris, one of his “favorite authors and Freethinkers,” who takes issue with some Catholic teachings and other Christian ideas about God. That was fine for Sam Harris, but Ted didn’t answer for himself. So I repeated the question.

This time he answered. “I don’t believe there is a God,” he said, and followed up with a caricature of Christianity. “I don’t believe there is a supreme being that created the universe; and sits in heaven and watches every movement and monitors the thoughts of every human. I see very clearly the problems of organized religion…the hypocrisies, the greed, the sadistic, bullying behavior.”

Now I had something to work with. In the language of basic logic of reasoning from premises (P) to conclusions (C), I reflected his own reasoning back to him. “Ok, Ted, correct me if I’m wrong. From what I’m hearing, your reasoning goes something like this:

P: People associated with organized religion have engaged in objectionable behavior.
C: Therefore, there is no God.”

Since he’d quoted Sam Harris, I did the same for Harris’s reasoning. “And Sam Harris’s reasoning goes something like this:

P: The character traits of God as presented by some organized religions are objectionable to me.
C: Therefore, there is no God.”

At this, Ted clarified himself a bit. He was a “science guy,” and God, if he exists, is either “impotent…or evil.” And then he was ready to be done with it. “But, enough about what I think,” he said, and he shifted the subject to something else.

This exchange illustrates something about non-theists, whether they call themselves humanists, agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, or whatever label they prefer. At root, the atheist’s position is intellectually unsound.

Here’s another example:

Ivan: “I’m definitely an atheist. I am an atheist because I cannot believe in fantasy. There is no God. There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. That stuff was created by man to help man feel better about himself. When I look at the scientific facts, I cannot believe in that. So yes, I am an atheist. Absolutely.”

Terrell: “Which scientific facts?”

Ivan read off statistics about the size of the universe, emphasizing its vastness. “To think that there’s some type of supreme being, call it God or Jesus, that is bigger than that? That is concerned about us on earth? About our welfare? About our future? It’s absolutely preposterous,”

Ivan’s reasoning went like this:

P: The universe is really huge.
C: Therefore, there is no God.

Like Ted, Ivan considers himself a “science guy.”

Well, I like science, too. And, sure, the size of the universe is a marvel. But it says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. Nothing, whatsoever. Soon, Ivan was ready to call it quits too. “I believe that at some point, people end up with firm convictions,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. “Their viewpoints should be respected and further attempts to convert them should be avoided because not everybody wants to be converted.”

Ahh, now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: Not everybody wants to be converted. These two exchanges expose the heretofore hidden reality that Ted and Ivan have made a personal, philosophical faith choice to disbelieve. Believers need to remember this and press those vocal non-theists to make their case. The prevailing posture among atheism says the atheistic worldview is more intellectually sound and evolutionarily advanced—that atheism is the belief anyone would come to if he merely examined the scientific facts, all other belief systems being vestiges of Stone Age superstition on a par with moon worship and child sacrifice. But it’s not. Get the facts out in the open and it becomes pretty obvious. Theism stands. Atheism falls. Because there really is a God who created the universe.

The smart atheists seem to know this. Tom Gilson invited David Silverman, president of American Atheists, to co-sponsor an open, reasoned debate at the Reason Rally which will take place this weekend. He declined. William Lane Craig invited Richard Dawkins to debate. He declined.

Nevertheless, unreason notwithstanding, the Reason Rally will go on this weekend. Take it as an invitation to reason together with the non-theists in our midst. Theism is up to the challenge. Atheism isn’t.

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