The Singularity

Ars Technica had a podcast on The Singularity. The podcasters talking about The Singularity (capital T, capital S) got it pretty much all wrong, as usual. As usual I’m not surprised.

Remember these two things:

1. Ray Kurzweil’s efforts are not The Singularity. To give his project a name, I’ll call it a singularity, a self-centered, uninteresting and considerably watered-down version of The Singularity. Since it’s of little importance to humanity in the long run I ignore it.

2. The podcasters made a common mistake. They thought The Singularity was something that humanity could consider, think about, pass judgement on and decide to do it, or not. Then they applied their own preferences to The Singularity (well, their confused notion of The Singularity) and judged whether it was desirable, or likely to happen, etc. In other words they anthropomorphized it. 

But that is far from what will happen.

To straighten this out let’s first describe The Singularity. The real one, not some muddled and weakened version. The Singularity is not a single moment, or event, or invention. It is the process by which a species such as Homo Sapiens creates a new and distinct species, far more powerful in every sense than the original. The new species may be entirely biological, or entirely non-biological, or a mix. The process will have a beginning, a chaotic, disorderly, and often harmful middle, and eventually reach something approaching an equilibrium or calmer period with a far, far advanced species. Because this process takes place through successive generations, each generation creating a more powerful one, exponential improvement happens and thus from our perspective a singularity, resulting in something so far beyond us we cannot imagine the result. 

 So let’s examine how The Singularity will begin. That is all we can do: once it gets going, by its very nature we cannot predict where it will go.

The beginning starts with at least one group of people–but almost surely several groups scattered around the world and starting within months or a year or two of each other–creating something smarter than themselves. This smarter thing can be either all biological (genetically engineered), or all machine (robots using quantum computers or memristors for their brains), or a combination. I think it will be genetic engineering because I think small, relatively cheaply funded groups will be able to do it, but no matter. 

The exact nature of this Generation 1 person or thing or cyborg doesn’t matter. I call us Generation 0, and this new thing Generation 1.

Generation 1, somewhere, will be a success. That is, it will live and thrive long enough to not only reproduce, but to recognize improvements that can be made in itself, and make them, creating Gen 2. Likewise Gen 2 improves itself, creating Gen 3, and so forth, creating The Singularity.

That’s the short version. 

We can make intelligent comments only about the beginning: Gen 1, and maybe a little about Gen 2. It’s my opinion that within 20-30 years from now (2012), genetic engineering will easily be far enough along to make some tries at increasing intelligence and insight. Actually the state-of-the-art is almost there now but we are held back by “ethics”. So what I really mean is that within 20-30 years some super-rich individuals, or governments with no Western-style “ethics”, will fund applied research to engineer a smarter human. And it won’t be just one group that we can all vote on–should they, or shouldn’t they? No, it will be several groups, perhaps many groups, around the world. A few will be shut down by their governments, others won’t. Some will fail and quit, others will succeed and continue. But it will not be controlled. It will be driven by curiosity, by greed, by desire for immortality, by lust for power, by whatever and all excuses mankind has always made for bold new ventures.

Some Gen 1 people or machines will be created. Depending on their nature they will be somewhat smarter than Gen 0 (us) or a hell of a lot smarter. Some may self-destruct into schizophrenia or other mental illnesses associated with intelligence, others will not. The point to remember is that our opinions about this now are utterly irrelevant. Attempts to make Gen 1 will take place, and some may succeed.

After Gen 1 it becomes possible to make only vague “predictions”. If succeeding generations take hold, and create evermore intelligent and insightful and capable generations, at some point the billions of Gen 0 people left behind will be to Gen X, as we Gen 0 are to chimpanzees…or maybe rats, or maybe ants. That is, the remaining billions of Gen 0 will be at best an amusing curiosity, probably an annoyance, at worst something to be removed. 

 Oh, that can’t happen? Really? Just like genocide did not happen to the Native Americans when Europeans discovered America? Like the Nazis didn’t kill millions of Jews for a better Germany? Just like the poor even now are not exploited by those of us in post-industrial societies to maintain our middle-class life styles?

Gen 1, 2, and so on will not be lovingly selected for their empathy or compassion. They will be created for their raw abilities. As throughout human history the stronger have exploited the weaker or removed them, so it will be during The Singularity, until some Gen X becomes so powerful over nature and the universe itself that they will have no need to exploit Gen 0 or remove them. Gen 0 will be simply left alone. But before that Gen X arrives it will be bad times for Gen 0, just as for hundreds of years it was bad times for Native Americans, until those of European descent achieved complete mastery and then was secure to feel compassion. 

I do not support this, nor oppose it. It is like supporting or opposing the sun or rain. Attempts at The Singularity are inevitable, though the final outcome is not. It is highly likely that of the probably billions of civilizations on other planets that came before us, The Singularity is a necessary period to pass through before a civilization can take its place in the galaxy and universe. It is neither good nor evil. It is just there.

COB

The other day an engineer arranged a field trip to see some work going on, and sent an email to our group. Amidst the information and instructions was this tidbit: “…we’ll leave at 1:30pm and return by COB”. COB, of course, means Close Of Business, and in this context meant about 5pm.

However we have a couple of engineers who arrive irregularly, though usually late (9:30 to 10am) and dependably leave early (1 to 2pm). So in talking about the field-trip memo with our wise-guy engineer, who always sees a funny twist in everything, this guy said, “Hey, what happens if your COB is 1:30pm? What are those people supposed to do??”

I thought that was funny as hell. I rushed back to my cube and Replied-All to the original email with that question: What if your COB is 1:30pm? Then awaited the reaction.

First was our boss. She came out of her office laughing about it. I thought that odd since she is the one who implicitly approves all the short hours.

A staff engineer asked me about something else and before leaving said, “What does that mean? Is COB 1:30pm?” I said it was sort of an inside joke and if he didn’t understand it, not to worry about it. Fairly quiet after that, even when one of the targets of the Reply-All came in (9:30am) and the wise-guy and I razzed her some.

But at 1:30pm I stuck my head in her cube and said “COB!” The original staff engineer started collecting his group and before leaving told me, “Hey, I sure wish I could have COB at 1:30pm!” Smiling, I replied “But you can…anyone can in this group.” He looked surprised and departed.

At 1:40pm the target engineer left for her home. COB delayed by 10 minutes! And so it goes in our little corner of State work.

Explaining Failures

A friend sent this:

There are a wide variety of excuses available to all observers to “explain away” a failure. And since rocket scientists know that the first step towards one’s next disaster is to forget about — or deny — the previous disaster, the North Korean insistence against all evidence that their first two satellites were actually successful, is not auspicious.

The first and most traditional reaction from Pyongyang to a satellite failure would be simply to pretend it succeeded. That worked for them in 1998 and 2009, but this time there is too much scrutiny from visitors and worldwide radio amateurs to make such a pretense attractive.

The next choice, however, is worse: Blame foreign enemies. If the failure occurred early in flight, the South Koreans can be implicated. If it occurred farther away, out of radio contact, U.S. malevolence is an obvious scapegoat. This is an instinct that we even saw in some supposedly sensible Russian space experts when their recent Mars probe tripped on its face just out of the starting gate. U.S. radar interference was widely suggested as the cause, a gimmick that North Korea could be expected to copy for its own needs.

Alternately, Pyongyang could blame internal enemies intent on sabotage, an old Stalin-era trick. It could help fuel a major purge of less-than-perfectly-loyal officials during the ongoing regime transition. Hundreds could be fired, and many shot — a convenient excuse for a housecleaning.

He sent this with the hint that just by changing the failure from rockets to, say, a numerical models; and by changing the incompetent builder from North Korea to a certain individual; the above could be a near-perfect description of what happened in our little group. And so it is. The multi-million dollar failures, in a number of projects, of said individual have been totally ignored, declared in fact successes, or blamed on others (the individual has a long supply of excuses). No corrective actions are taken, he is simply given another project to fail at.

Lawyers Trump Common Sense

Lawyers Trump Common Sense…yeah, nothing new there. But here’s a recent example at work.

Another engineer had spent a few months working on technical data and information for a legal case my agency is involved in. Last week the Chief called me in…the other guy was no longer involved and I needed to do the work. And by the way, his work could not be used by the attorneys though if I wanted to look at it I could. Oh, and don’t use emails to discuss the work…best just to talk person-to-person.

What The Eff?

Did the first guy really screw up or what? Chief didn’t want to say much. But reading between the lines, I figured out that the first engineer had prepared his work in a finalized package, a report that summarized his work. This apparently made his work and himself subject to subpoena or whatever the legal term is…he could be called to testify and all his work available to the plaintiffs. Whereas if an engineer new to the case–me–worked on it without making any work final or pretty, that person wouldn’t be discovered. The whole thing smells of attorney nonsense and distinct incompetence, but whatever. On we go, wasting time and money.

iPhone experience

Soon after I got my iPhone I realized it could change the way I organized my on-line life. I didn’t want everything in the iPhone, but did want everything accessible from it as well as from my Windows 7 and Ubuntu home and work computers. That meant many things had to be shifted to the “cloud” (on-line servers):

  • Email: I kept my existing Yahoo and Google accounts but changed my desktop POP accounts for them to IMAP. This way when a message is read or deleted on any machine, its status is reflected on all others.
  • Calendar, to-do lists, contacts: There are many of these, I finally decided on Google for these. Not the prettiest or most powerful interface on either desktop or iPhone, but the most universal supplier on the Internet. On the iPhone I use CalenGoo for the Google calendar, GeeTasks for Google tasks, and the basic iPhone contacts for Google contacts. NOTE: for the latter to work you have to set up your iPhone’s gmail account using these instructions (very non-obvious): http://support.google.com/mobile/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=138740
  • File, photo, notes, etc. sharing between devices: got free accounts for Dropbox and Evernote and their corresponding free iPhone apps.
  • Passwords: For some years I’ve used Passpack to safely create random passwords for every on-line account and store them in an encrypted pack on the Internet. The passwords are accessible through a web browser and they have a decent mobile web page for the iPhone. Similar features may be had through LastPass or less conveniently through mSecure.

That takes care of cloud-like apps. Others:

  • GPS: GPS Drive from MotionX has great voice directions, including streets, for just $20/year. A free voice direction GPS is MapQuest.
  • Beatthetraffic for good traffic congestion reports and displays.
  • Google Maps app for easy lookup of bus times…and for Davisites, DavisTrans and UCD Mobile for Unitrans bus schedules and actual bus locations.
  • Shopping: RedLaser for scanning bar codes in stores and getting on-line prices. Yelp and Urbanspoon for store/eatery recommendations on the fly. Newegg, eBay, Amazon, etc all have their own apps.
  • Tunes: TuneIn Radio for Internet radio stations. Pandora and Slacker for genre music. Shazam and Soundhound listen to a tune and tells you what it is.
  • Photos: The only app I use consistently is HDR Fusion, which provides true High Dynamic Range, better than the fake HDR of the iPhone 4.
  • Communication: TeamViewer works surprisingly well on the iPhone (remote login). Skype and the various messenger apps work well. Speed Test will test the speed of your connection, WiFi or 3G.
  • Reference: Wolfram|Alpha has an app. Howjsay for word pronunciation. Dictionary has definitions, thesaurus, rhyming. Wapedia and other apps for Wikipedia. Google Earth has an app. USPS and UPS have their apps or there are tracking apps that combine several mail services.
  • Handwritten notes and sketches: Note Taker by Dan Bricklin is nice but Touchwriter works with Evernote. There are lots of these on the App Store, I’m looking for a “better” one.
  • Geek stuff: All-In Pedometer counts your steps and distance. Sheet2 for a powerful spreadsheet, Excel compatible. SPL Meter for sound levels. RTA Lite for sound frequency spectrum. Clinometer for a level.

The iPad and Doing Stuff

I got an iPhone 4 almost 2 years ago when it came out. It was the first Apple device I had owned, and it really changed the way I did day-to-day things. I put my calendar, to-do list, odds-n-ends bucket, pretty much everything in the “cloud” so I could access everything on the iPhone, Windows, and Ubuntu computers. I almost got an iPad 2 when it came out but wanted better resolution…so waited until the new iPad arrived, with 4 times the pixel density as the prior models.

There’s nothing wrong with the new iPad, least of all its screen. But after all of 2 days using it, I’m rather let down. I expected it would completely replace my Acer netbook and reduce the amount I used my desktop computer…but I don’t think it will. The reason is simple: if you’re trying to do something more than tapping around the web viewing sites or using apps, the iPad is hard to use.

Here’s why. First, it doesn’t have a keyboard of course. It turns out that those who touch-type–or have acquired speed in two-finger typing–need a real keyboard. Full-size is best but even my slightly reduced netbook keyboard is OK. It’s simply too frustrating tapping virtual keys on the screen for more than about one sentence.

Yes, I could get a Bluetooth keyboard but there are other problems.

A big one for me is the difference in web browser capability between iOS and other systems (Windows and Ubuntu for me, but also MacOS). On other OSs you have full-featured browsers, and I’ve setup ad blocking, do-not-track, Evernote clipping, powerful tab handling, and so forth. iOS browsers (I’ve tried a few) allow a small fraction of those capabilities. Even something simple like opening a like in a webpage in a new tab is awkward in iOS, trivial in other platforms. This really slows down my use of the web.

Then there’s the iDev paradigm of no tiling. That made sense with the small iPhone screens, but not now on the iPads. C’mon Apple, it’s last-century to permit the user to see and use only one app at a time on the screen. And some apps annoyingly lose track of what they were doing when you put them away and bring up another app…it’s hardly true multitasking. An aviation app I have, for instance, periodically has to download a few hundred megabytes of maps, and it cannot do this in the background.

All-in-all, the iPad is really, really nice for a shiny toy. But it’s simply not something to be productive with.

Lies, damn lies, and …

…statistics.

My agency is a defendant in a lawsuit, and my group is responsible for the technical work. So we have a list of several important tasks to do. What’s top of the list? Adding up all the degrees and years of experience in the entire group to impress the plaintiff and judge.  Wow! Hundreds of years!

Oddly, that same reasoning–that more experience means more competence and a better product–doesn’t seem to apply to individuals. The more experienced staff is pushed to the side while the inexperienced and those with proven incompetence are put in charge.