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.

From the new issue of Salvo – An interview with Robert P. George

An Interview with Robert P. George
by Marcia Segelstein
An excerpt from the interview:

 

Won’t there be huge ripple effects—for example, in terms of what’s normalized and taught in public schools?

Oh, sure. Of course, in many places public schools are already teaching a message about marriage and sexual morality that is profoundly contrary to the traditional teachings affirmed by Jews as well as Christians of all denominations. Institutions are coming under pressure in their hiring practices, for example, to conform to liberal ideology about marriage and sexuality.

Supporters of redefining marriage have made their argument in the form of an analogy with racial segregation and racial injustice, attempting to stigmatize, marginalize, and demonize Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others who believe in the traditional definition of marriage. And it’s been a very effective strategy despite the fact that it is intellectually bankrupt. The consequences of that strategy will play themselves out as people who oppose the teaching of the Abrahamic faiths and other faiths on sexuality and marriage depict those who seek to honor their convictions about marriage as bigots.

So, for example, anti-discrimination laws will be used to force churches to hire people who lead lives contrary to the Church’s teachings in their schools, in their social services, their soup kitchens, their drug rehab centers, and so on. This will have a terrible effect on the Church’s ministries because the success of those ministries hinges on those participating as providers sharing the faith-based convictions that inform the enterprise. Some—perhaps many—ministries, in order to protect their own consciences, will have to fold up. The same will be true for the teachings of Christian schools and probably Jewish and Muslim schools. Their accreditation would be placed in jeopardy. So there will be many grave consequences for freedom and for conscience.

And Salvo executive editor James Kushiner posted this elsewhere, from the interview. Also some enlightening answers here:

Salvo: One conservative Christian recently wrote that in the battle for traditional marriage, “Christians too often chose intolerance over charity when it came to how they treated gays.” Have we, as Christians, demonstrated a lack of love for gay people?

Robert George: No, we’ve been falsely accused of showing a lack of charity and a lack of love because that was very convenient to the arguments of the other side, a very effective tool. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people of all faiths who’ve been involved in the protection of marriage have gone out of their way, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes out of its way, to proclaim the truth that all men and woman are precious. Human beings have a profound and inherent dignity, an equal dignity, as creatures made in the very image and likeness of the Divine Creator and Ruler of the Universe.

This has never been something hidden. It has been frequently affirmed and re-affirmed, yet there are those who wish to refuse to hear it because it’s politically useful to their cause to depict Christians as mean-spirited or bigoted or hostile to people just because they don’t like something about them. It’s a slander. And for us to pretend that the slander is true is itself a sin against the truth. I’m all for confessing error and wrongdoing where error and wrongdoing have been committed. But I see no point in confessing sins that one has not committed, especially when doing so is the precise objective of those who wish unfairly to tar people or a movement as bigoted or hostile.

What’s So Appealing about Comic Book Movies?

X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer, as of this writing, surpassed its franchise predecessors and grossed over $500 million, which is not far behind 2012’s blockbuster, Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon.  Avengers grossed over $600 million. As long as comic book movies keep winning in the box office, Hollywood is happy to indulge. Indeed, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is set to come out in theaters in May 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse will come out sometime in 2016. What is it about comic book movies that have such mass appeal?

1)      The Obvious: Over-the-top fight-scenes using high-tech graphics all done by super-fit people in tight-fitting outfits (or in the case of Mystique, no outfit)

More than mere eye-candy, there is something to the visual component of all of the recent comic book movies. Comics have always been about visual as well as verbal communication, but now the visual is accomplished with striking effects. Consider the high-budget fight scene guaranteed to appear in every comic book movie. The viewer not only sees or reads about the fight, but is able to experience it through the use of camera angles, lighting, and choreography. <Minor Spoiler Alert> For example, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the scenes in which the future mutants are fighting the sentinels intentionally uses lighting and backdrop to convey despair, while the fight scene between the past mutants and the sentinels, is well-lit and hopeful.

2)      The Just: The good guys beat up on the bad guys

Human beings have an innate desire to see justice done. The protagonist(s) winning over the antagonist(s) satisfies some deep yearning for cosmic justice. One major theme in comic books is good versus evil. Stan Lee originally wrote Tony Stark (Ironman) to be an unlikable protagonist in the comic books. But, the appeal of the Ironman movies, particularly the first movie, is his redemption and subsequent fight against evil to make things right.

3)      The Alien: Mutants are weird, but not too weird

One literary device that writers often employ is the “alien” or the “savage”. This character is an outsider to the world as we know it that causes us to look beyond ourselves. It introduces the other. One classic example is the noble savage in Huxley’s Brave New World. He serves to question the infrastructure of the world that all of the other characters find completely normal, and in questioning the fictional world, he is questioning those similar elements in our world. Marvel’s mutants are not aliens, but serve the same purpose of representing the other. A theme in several of the X-Men movies is  prejudice and dehumanization.

4)      The Myth: Superheroes as modern-day gods

It is no secret that there are many parallels between comic book heroes and pagan gods, the writers even going so far as to borrow gods, such as Thor and Loki. Comic book heroes are inhumanly powerful, but with human flaws, making them both relatable and god-like. And, like pagan gods, they can be intimate with humans (Wolverine, The Wolverine), they can hate humans (Magneto), and they can have compassion on humanity (Professor X).

Comic book movies appeal to a mass audience because they touch on timeless elements, including, but not limited to its visual appeal. It’s the old story retold in modern trappings.

Related:

See “X-Men Ethics Class” from Salvo 18

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.

On Nihilism and Rampage Murders

A recent kudos on a Salvo article from the latest issue:

I think it is one of the best summaries of the “rampage murders” and I wish more people would read it.   I read it twice and he makes many important connections, that legislation for mental health and gun control will not fix the problem.  It is much deeper – a culture that lacks any transcendence. Existential nihilism is a logical conclusion to our cultures obsession with contraception, abortion, and inability to integrate faith in God.

You can read the article here: The Zombie Killers: Nihilism Threatens Us with the Walking Dead by Regis Nicoll. From the article. Could Mr. Nicoll be onto something here?…

The increase in zombie-like murders is gut-wrenching. But if we think we can thwart the perpetrators with the silver bullets of executive orders and congressional action, we would do well to recall Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Those efforts failed—and to the extreme—because legislation and law enforcement, by themselves, cannot imbue a moral sense into the heart of the offender, or renew the moral climate of society. Only a Transcendence that speaks to the deepest yearnings of the human spirit for wholeness, meaning, and significance can do that.

Unless the nihilistic worldview is abandoned for one that recognizes such a Transcendence, we can expect a rise in the number of walking dead and their devastating crimes. We must teach students and young people to reject what some of the supposedly brightest minds today are selling them—that the universe is meaningless and without purpose or supervision. Such nihilism only deadens the soul, which, after all, was created for communion with the living God.

The Argument of Tears

USAF Cellist

by Terrell Clemmons

A typical crowd of tourists, seniors, and schoolchildren on field trips was mulling around the large lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when a young man, wearing full military dress and carrying a cello, walked toward a chair curiously placed in the center of the large room and sat down. He took up his bow in one hand, stretched his other arm to adjust the sleeve, and began playing with calm, expert finesse.

After the opening measures, another soldier musician approached with a standup bass and joined in. A small riser was brought out, and a graying maestro removed his overcoat and accepted the conductor’s baton from an assistant with a cordial salute. An oboe came in with the melody, followed by strings, brass, clarinets, flutes, even a harp.

Mothers holding children swayed with the music. Faces broke into smiles and wonder. A few people started recording the flash concert on their cell phones.

The crowd has stopped mulling around; the rockets, space capsules and bi-plane hanging from the ceiling are forgotten. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by the US Air Force Band under the direction of Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor, is enough to render these museum artifacts, sophisticated as they were in their time, as just so much scrap metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cKE8pyfcZc

Then come the vocals:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright …

If you look carefully, you can see a few museum-goers wiping away tears while other faces appear close to tears. In fact, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue as you watch.

Now why is this? Why is it that, all those bystanding technological accomplishments notwithstanding, this music has the power to slip right past the intellect and, drawing from unseen wells of emotion we didn’t even know were there, summon the heart to come forth and behold something greater?

Or to phrase the question in the language of science, what is the explanation for this universal phenomenon we call joy? Or rapture? Hold that thought.

Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an atheist named Ken. A medical doctor, Ken is very intelligent and articulate. His mother had passed on a few weeks prior, and the conversation turned to his reaction to it. “I was walking down the street Tuesday,” Ken said, “by an antique shop. And I had looked for a particular kind of double-striped cranberry glass that my mother collects. It’s very rare. And every time I go by this antique shop I look to see if they’ve got any in the window. I’ve never seen it. And I realized as I walked by that I never really need to look for that — and here his voice broke away. An emotional wave had struck him, seemingly, out of nowhere, and he couldn’t finish the sentence, I never need to look for double-striped cranberry glass again…

He changed the subject and soon afterward ended the conversation. It made me want to cry for him – not so much for the loss of his mother, but for the loss of his ability to grieve the loss. He feels something very deeply, but he’s cut himself off from both the source and satisfaction of that longing. Ken has rejected belief in God for lack of evidence, yet he misses the evidence that springs from the emotional wells of his very soul.

C.S. Lewis wrote about the innate desire for something beyond. That desire is also a form of nascent knowledge. “Most people, if they had really learned to look in their hearts, would know that they do want, and acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.” The human soul was made to enjoy some objects that are “never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” He called it joy; he also called it longing. A literary critic, he even at times called it Romanticism. This desire, Lewis wrote, is distinct from others in that it is itself desirable. “To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”

To want to have what? Look at the rest of the words of the first stanza of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” penned by Robert Bridges to be sung to the masterpiece:

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.

Souls aspiring to do what? To soar to uncreated light.

Christmas NightTo rise up to God, to be united, or re-united, with our Maker. Why is Ken moved at the remembrance of his mother? Because God made both him and his mother for eternal relationship, and those relational bonds transcend death. Why are museum-goers moved by beautiful music? Why are we moved by beautiful music? Because God himself is beautiful, and he made us to dwell with him in glory and beauty. It’s part of the created order. We long for it, and we know it.

The tears tell us so.

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