THEY READ EVERYTHING

GOOGLE’s BOOKWORMING EXPERIMENTS AND AI DEVELOPMENT

I love reading. I read about 3 books a week. I know many people who read more, much more. Reading and writing goes back about thirty thousand years. The act of scribbling things down in various formats, from stone walls to tablets to wax to wood to paper to print to computers forms a method of recording everything, from casual notes to high culture to science. Its  is one of the essential elements for a species’ survival and advancement. Without text civilization would suffer failure. In other words civilizations that don’t  record things, pass on technology and skillsets and develop, well they simply collapse. Equally true is the fact that a society with superior technology and recorded skillsets will rule others. Knowledge is power. Its a cliché, but things become clichés for a reason.

One of the more under-discussed, under-reported and unexplored things that I have frankly been haunted about is the fact that in recent years the multinational Google are big readers. They have surpassed their goal of reading every book that has ever been written and making it available online in Google Books. Google say that 129 264 880 books are the total on the planet. I think its into the billions myself, not to mention the exponential speed of text growth since the inception of the internet. More to the point Google’s reading experiment, no doubt hugely successful, has changed our civilization forever.  It’s not simply because all the reading and scanning  of all of those millions of books without the permission of the copyright holders resulted in a much publicized lawsuit. Its because knowledge is the most valuable asset and the most useful currency available. If it is, as I hold it to be, then why do this?  Why would Google want to read and store every book available? What’s so interesting about reading every book ever written? I was intrigued. Then I read how Google had gotten into robotics and artificial intelligence.

Put this way, a book represents the most complete representation of a human thought process, the most comprehensive working out of human interactions in the world as recorded in language in fiction history, geography, poetry, maths, philosophy, science and the arts. One mirrors the human experience through reading, especially books. A book comprises an approximation of a complete act of consciousness, moving from premises, accumulating data, putting forward arguments, telling a narrative, drawing strands of various objections to opposing arguments, reflecting on emotions and human and non human interactions at many levels of complexities, and finally reaching what we understand as a satisfying conclusion to the book. Added together in all the books we get something approximating the deposit of recorded human experience. From there we move on into music, the plastic arts, painting and so on. So, one of the most perfect sources for a schematic of human consciousness and intelligence’s grasp of the many problems of life in constructing Artificial Intelligence is in reading.

Reading is not so much an obligation, but for the most part, enjoyable. Wonderfully enjoyable. In fact it can become an addiction. I would go further and say that people who read little or nothing except what their work demands or the daily tabloids are missing out on not only one of the great pleasures of life, but one of the truly great consciousness expanding experiences possible for anyone. Regarding the act of reading as something that is the purview of students or academics or nerds is simply a type of anti intellectual prejudice about something that is essential for living. I shudder to think what might be the effects of this kind of attitude if were to become more widespread.

But to get back to what Google might be working on. If they build a working AI, which seems a little more than likely, then it will become an essential component for all high functioning robots. If this happens, then the technology will undoubtedly become cloned and copied and cheaper and widespread very quickly. AI technology will then become part of what we now know as the internet, but will transform the internet utterly into something we no longer recognize as the web.

AI will do everything we do. It will perform all automated functions, will run departments, do accounting, become part of scientific work, build roads and ships and planes, look after our children and run our hospitals and operate our transport systems. AI will be field tested in battle and become the indispensable weapon for every modern army.

In fact as predicted in so many science fiction novels, AI will grow exponentially in sophistication to such an extent that they will probably be regarded as people at a certain point, that is if and when they pass something akin to the Turing Test.  Some wont, of course and will be left in another new sentient life form classification.

As so much work will be done so much more efficiently by AI, populations will drop hugely because it will become economically unviable to have anything more than two children, as there will simply be no work for them and average incomes will drop as work done previously by humans will now be done by AI. Its hard to believe that it could happen but AI will sadly increase even further the gap between rich and poor, and will lead to more wars.

New missions to find habitable planets will increase in effectiveness exponentially with the use of AI, and it won’t be long before people will begin to ship off world to find new places to live. New colonies and new sources of wealth will be discovered off world and life will be discovered on other planets. All this is speculation on my part. I know that.

I also could go on. The possibilities get wider and wider and wilder and wilder. My views are also pretty dystopian on this AI development. But I am not going to speculate further. But from all this one thing is highly likely. It is this: like so many revolutions before, the act of reading as a mirror for all that we know, all that we are, has become yet another key starting point for a new technological revolution.  

 

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Ursula K Le Guin’s Cracking Speech at the National Book Foundation Awards

 

Ursula K. Le Guin accepts the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

A Brief Riveting Speech by a Mistress of Letters about the difference between writing for a market and writing for art.

 

A few days back a brilliant writer, someone who was somewhat relegated to the genre of science fiction and fantasy, was hugely honoured at the U.S. National book awards. This is in itself a matter of considerable significance. Ursula Le Guin has been re imagining our possible futures for decades in her novels and poetry, and science fiction, a genre which never really got the kinds of recognition it deserved as an art form ( I am a huge fan of same) is now beginning to be really recognized, because we are now living in the age of science fiction.  As Videos tend to disappear from You Tube,I quote Le Guin’s speech here in full. She received the award from Neil Gaiman. 

“Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.”

Brilliant Stuff from a brilliant mind.

The Earthian

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One of the nicest things about living in Wicklow is the chips one gets in the local chipper. Linas  chipper, aside from having the trademark Wicklow Town polite pleasant friendliness, cook some of the nicest chips I have tasted since my time as a little boy eating the chips from the Aprile cafe on Richmond Street Dublin City (I wonder if it is still there). Last Friday I went up to get a bag and outside the takeout there stood a man with a sign saying he was an Earthian, travelling the world and he was accepting donations of food. I felt a little odd, indeed, I always feel a little guilty not giving donations but I walked past this person, looking down and seeing he introduced himself as an Earthian, a word representing a concept I regarded as interesting, mainly because I have something of a lifelong interest in science fiction. His eyes were clear, calm and observant. His teeth and skin were in excellent shape. He was dressed in a reflective coat and a heavy belt (which looked new). He wore a white rimmed hat, no sunglasses, heavy socks and a pair of formidable walking boots. This person was not however your typical walker. He greeted each person that passed him rather calmly and courteously. He also didn’t seem to care whether or not they greeted him back and there was an air of calm about him I liked. I didn’t greet him, and I avoided his gaze. I don’t remember whether he greeted me. I went home and ate my chips and mentioned that odd fellow who was looking for food donations outside Linas Take Away in Market Square.

The thing was I met him again. The following Sunday, Iza and I went to a barbecue at the Dominican Ecology Centre at Bayview Wicklow Town, literally five minutes walk from our front door, and once again outside the Domincan College and Ecology Centre (apparently 70 acres in size). And there he was. 

Earthian

Again he was greeting people and occasionally people were coming from the organic shop and giving him food. Everyone who gave him food got a hug, something I liked to see but made others rather jittery. He apparently doesn’t accept any kind of money. I wondered how he paid for medical expenses or tickets or suchlike. I asked him how he got past airport security since he doesn’t have a passport, doesn’t have a name, and no country of origin. I do believe though he comes from the middle east.  The name, in other words referring to himself as Earthian – a citizen of Planet Earth, a planet with only human borders and political entities and blocs that have been fought over for millennia, wont get one through very highly guarded regulated monitored borders, especially airport security. He smiled and said he doesn’t use airports. I said that’s a good thing, because if you don’t present a passport you tend to get sent back. He smiled again, and he said – sent back where? I mean, he said, if you don’t have an address where would you get sent back to?  The holy naiveté made me smile, and, well its a good answer, one he very obviously had given before to many other people living in the paranoid post 9/11 Earth.

Earthian’s thesis, if it can be called such, is that if a sufficiently substantial movement could be generated to remove the notion of borders on this rather small planet, then one of the prime motivators for war and conflict would simply evaporate. I agreed in principle with him, but considered it rather unlikely this would ever happen, seeing as much of the planets economic systems are run on the notion of private property, capitalism, and profit, which is how things are and not in any way, to my mind, an evil in themselves – just not something that hugely interests me, and definitely interests Earthian rather less. his worldwide travels began after the economic crash in 2008, when, working as a computer engineer, he took the decision to allot eight to twelve years of his life to travel all over the world with a message of peace and certainly with all the hugs he was distributing, love, an acknowledgement of the ultimate unity of the planet despite its many deep divisions, the need for caring for the ecosystems that make it up, and a striving for an end to war. I pointed out he was only one person. He pointed out this proverb which made us all laugh.

If you think you are too little or too small to make a change you obviously haven’t spent a night with a mosquito (African Proverb)

I hope never to spend a night with a mosquito, but I do know that my hero Socrates used refer to himself as a stinging fly (a mosquito certainly comes under that description), someone who used ask the awkward questions which showed up the hypocrisy and self deception of the greedy and the thoughtless. Then again lets not pursue that analogy to its logical end, considering what horrible things happened to Socrates. Anyway we talked for a while and then we wandered into the organic shop inside the Domincan grounds and Earthian (I still cant get used to calling him that) stayed outside. we wandered round saying hello to people, talking, and visiting the animals, most of whom were going to be slaughtered ( its always disturbing to see creatures fed the finest foods, looking exquisitely beautiful, in the best of health, only to know they only exist in such a state to be  devoured by those who care for them) After a while I returned to Iza to see her sitting with our friend, engrossed in conversation about his travels. There is hardly a country he has not been to. I believe he is going to England next, and then to Iceland, a difficult place to get into. We offered him money before we went our separate ways. He refused. We asked him what he would like. He said whatever we wanted to give him. We went into the organic shop and bought him some goodies, and gave them to him after he came back from the toilet. He hugged us both.  And then he was gone. An interesting person. I kind of miss him now.

All Along the Watchtower

Battlestar Galactica as Theology

The excellent Battle star Galactica, which I loved watching, does have a heavy dose of theism running through it, which makes it even more interesting to watch because it touches on subjects other more conventional series rarely dare to go near. Not only that but it holds the view that those who do not embrace Gods Plan for them, are in trouble. For instance Gaius Balthar the brilliant womanising egomaniac scientist who caused the death of billions (incidentally hands down my favourite character) is consistently in one form threatened with death or ruin or being found out (which would entail the death penalty) if he doesn’t do Gods bidding, which is usually the Cylons’ bidding. Its an interesting if not delightful vision of God, and an even more delightful vision of God who didn’t do squat to stop mass genocide by encouraging Gaius not to allow the beautiful Cylon alien lover into his life and into his mind.

The existence of evil (genocide, evil deeds, disease, war etc.) doesn’t disprove the existence of God. It also doesn’t prove it. Its just that God seems more interested in making Gaius Balthar a believer than stopping the death of billions of his beloved children.  The existence of a well designed universe (the stars, planets, the beauty and order of the universe, human and non human intellect etc.) neither proves nor disproves the existence of  God. It does however demonstrate a well ordered universe for which a good explanation is needed. If in the case of the well designed universe or the existence of evil or the existence of consciousness or miracles or private revelation, the balance of probability shows in favour of the existence of God (it actually doesn’t by the way – not by a long shot, but go with me on this one) rather than not, this does not in any way constitute what even remotely might be considered a proof of Gods existence. Probability can never replace evidence. You cannot employ scientific methods on a subject (God) and start weighing probabilities. Its something of a desperate attempt to prove the ultimately disprovable. R. Swinburne has a book on it, which I finished recently, or rather dragged myself kicking and screaming through recently. You can get it here. Be warned though, its heavy going and feels at times like logical legerdemain than good argument.

Battlestar Galactica however is addictive viewing. The world ends and a race of robots chase forty thousand human survivors across space as they search for a mythical Earth spoken of in scriptures and prophecies and suffusing the dreams and longings of the leaders and followers with equal measures of hope and despair as they struggle internally to survive with what little they have left. They are outnumbered, outgunned and with a divided leadership with something of a penchant for massive internal strife. Worse still there are enemy agents in their midst, agents that are almost so human that they are indistinguishable from humans, agents who are capable of sexual and psychological manipulation at the highest levels of leadership and of the intelligentsia, of regeneration, resurrection and rebirth. These enemies within, these humans who are not humans who do not know they are not humans, but robots who have yet to be ‘switched on’ Manchurian Candidate style are in a position to destroy the leadership of Battle star Galactica and  perhaps the entire fleet. So the enemy is everywhere. These are foes in which no amount of intelligence gathered  is ever lost, even if you shoot them out an airlock into the cold emptiness of space. They also have a plan, and they seem to have won the war. This space chase for the last forty thousand survivors is a a mere mop up operation, so one might think.

The kinds of tension that such a virtual pressure cooker of circumstances is the complex mind bending, reality distorting, hyper-violent story of Battle star Galactica where nothing is as it seems and God has a plan to save mankind, right down to the tiniest of events, down to what appears to be the most tragic and impossible of circumstances. No event is trivial, no death accidental. Randomness or evolution or natural selection or dreams and hopes and the ancient prophecies are all emanation from the all good all wise all loving God, who has gifted all his beings, whether they be human or robot or a blend of both (Cylon is the name for the robots, and they have evolved into being part machine part organism). Some of the brightest and most brilliant are inadvertent puppets of the Cylons until they discover what evil they have done through their selfishness and negligence and some of the most nondescript of the crew do the most good and make the smartest moves of all. No one in this show is free of wrongdoing, just as no one is completely evil.

This is a series that thankfully defies description and defies convention in the best possible way. Its a space opera and its not. Its feminist and yet some of the female characters commit horrifically unethical acts, pro gay both in the military and in civilian life and yet this is not even an issue that is open to debate, pro equal rights and yet filled with all kinds of injustices, pro democracy yet it feels at times like a military dictatorship. It debates just war theory, the death penalty, the ethics of torture, abortion rights, the limits of democracy, the power of unions in an unjust labour situation, the power and necessity of sexual self expression for a healthy being, the stratification of society, education rights, the value and values of spirituality, the debate between science and religion, polytheism versus monotheism versus strict scientific rationalism versus atheism, historical inevitability and the cyclical nature of history, and the meaning of comedy.

Most of all this is a story that though set in a science fiction genre. As the story progresses, it talks all the time about a plan, a plan set in motion since the beginning where an all benevolent  being wants his children to live together in harmony. This theology is of course debated, dismissed, disparaged, and renewed throughout the story. In the end the answer is there is no answer, but a deepening of the mystery of the human and non human will to live, will to power and will to survival and will to understand, the necessity of reconciliation, and the egoless embracing of  wisdom.

You might be wondering why I called this blog post ‘All along the Watchtower”. Aside from it being one of the most marvellous songs ever written by Bob Dylan performed by Jimi Hendrix, and it being a catchy title for a blog post, its a song deeply embedded in the storyline of Battlestar Galactica. It acts as a mnemonic and a mantra for the continuing self discovery of the central characters. its one whose use you will hopefully love as much as I did when I was finally made to watch this wonderful series.