Monday, July 24, 2017

Human-level intelligences and you

There has been much ado over the years about computers becoming as intelligent as humans. Several goals have been set up and surpassed, and for each feat of computer engineering we have learnt that intelligence is a slippery thing that requires ever more refined metrics to accurately measure. Beating a human in chess was once thought a hard thing to do, but then we built a computer that could do it - and very little besides it. It is a very narrowly defined skill being put to the test, and it turns out intelligence is not the key factor that determines victory or defeat.

Fast forward a bit, and we have computers giving trivia nerds a run for their money in Jeopardy. Turns out intelligence isn't the defining factor here either, on both sides. For computers, it's all a matter of being able to crawl through large amounts of available data fast enough to generate a sentence. For humans, it's a matter of having encountered something in the past and being able to recount it in a timely fashion. Similar tasks, indeed. but neither require intelligence. Either the sorting algorithm is optimized enough to get the processing done on time, or it is not. Either you remember that character from that one soap opera you saw years and years ago, or you do not.

The win condition is clearly defined, but the path to fulfilling it does not require intelligence proper. It can go either way, based on what basically amounts to a coin toss, and however you want to go about defining intelligence, that probably is not it.

The question of computers becoming as intelligent as humans has ever so gradually been replaced with an understanding that computers do not have to be. In the case of chess, a specialized dumb computer gets the work done; the same goes for other tasks, with similar degrees of dumb specialization. Get the dumb computer to do it really really way, and the job gets done.

If all you need is a hammer, build a good one.

A more interesting (and more unsettling question) is when a human becomes as intelligent as a human. This might seem somewhat tautological: 1 = 1, after all. Humans are human. But humans have this peculiar quality of being made, not born. As creatures of culture, we have to learn the proper ways to go about living, being and doing, And - more to the point - we can fail to learn these things.

Just what "these things" are is a matter of some debate, and has shifted over the years. A quick way to gauge where the standards are at any moment in time would be to look at the national curricula for the educational system of where you happen to be, and analyze what is given importance and what is not. There are always some things given more attention than others, some aspect promoted above others. And, at the core, some things are deemed to be of such importance that all citizens need to know them. Some minimum of knowledge to be had by all. Some minimum level of intelligence.

And there are always a number of citizens who do not qualify. Who are not, for any given definition of intelligence, up for it.

When does a human become as intelligent as a human?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Some words on media permanence

It is a strange thing about media artifacts that some of them age well, while others do not. Some can be forgotten for decades, only to find a new audience willing and able to engage with them. Others can not be revived as easily, and are thus consigned to reside only in the memories of those who were there at the time.

To be sure, this applies to things that are not media artifacts, too. Things happen, and after they have happened you were either there or you were not, and your memories of the event are shaped accordingly. It is a very important aspect of the human condition.

But the point of media artifacts is that it is possible to return to them at a later date. They are supposed to have some sort of permanence - it is a key feature. Books remain as written, pictures as pictured, movies as directed. It would be a substantial design flaw if these things did not last.

Though, then again, some things do not last. Books fall apart, movies fade, hard drives crash. Entropy is not kind to supposedly eternal things. Look upon these works, ye mighty.

But. All these things aside: some media artifacts age well, and some do not. Some can be readily introduced to new audiences, while others remain indecipherable mysteries even upon close encounter. There is a difference, and it is very distinct from the question of whether or not we're trying to jam a VHS tape into a Betamax player.

This difference can be clearly seen if we contrast Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. Despite being from roughly the same time, belonging to the same genre and sharing a non-insignificant portion of plot elements, one of these television series is instantly accessible to contemporary audiences while the other is not. Though it pains me to say, it takes a non-trivial effort on the part of those who are not nostalgically attached to Babylon 5 to view it with contemporary eyes. A certain sensibility has been lost, and the gloriously cheesy CGI effects turn into obstacles to further viewing. Surmountable obstacles, but obstacles nonetheless.

The same goes for computer games. I imagine that, should we use the Civilization series as a benchmark, there would be different cutoff points for different audiences. For my part, the first iteration is unplayable, and I suspect many of my younger peers would balk at Civilization 2. I also have fears that 3 or even 4 might be too much of a learning curve for those who were not there to remember it. Not because the games are inherently impossible to play, but because the contemporary frameworks for how games are supposed to work (and how intuitive user interfaces are supposed to be) have shifted between then and now.

A certain sensibility has been lost.

It would be a mistake to label this development as either good or bad. The young ones have not destroyed theater by their use of the lyre, despite all accounts to the contrary. These changes are simply something that have happened, and have to be understood as such. Moreover, it is something to take into account as yet another generation grows up in a society overflowing with media artifacts, old and new.

Some of these artifacts will constitute shared experiences, while others will not. Such is the way of these things.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Care for future history

These are strange times.

Since you're living in these times, the above statement is probably not a surprise to you. In fact, it might very well be the least surprising statement of our time. Especially if you happen to have a presence on twitter, and even more so if this presence is in the parts where the statement "this is not normal" is commonplace, or where a certain president makes his rounds. The two are related, in that the former refer to the latter: it is a reminder and an incantation to ensure that you do not get used to these strange new times and start to see them as normal.

These times are not normal. These times are strange.

In the future, there will doubtless be summaries and retrospectives of these times. More than likely, these will be written with academic rigor, historical nuance and critical stringency. Even more likely, all the effort put into making these retrospectives such will be made moot by this simple counterquestion:

Surely, it wasn't that strange?

We can see this future approaching. Less strange times will come, and frames of reference will be desensitized to the strangeness of our time. In a future where it is not common for presidents to tweet at the television as if encountering the subject matter for the first time, the claim that there once were such a president will be extraordinary.

Surely, it wasn't that strange?

It behooves us - we who live in these strange times - to leave behind cultural artifacts that underline and underscore just how strange these times were. Small nuggets of contemporaneity that give credence to the strangeness we ever so gradually come to take for granted. Give the future clear direction that, yep, there is a before and an after, but not yet, and we knew it.

It is the implicit challenge of our time.

Better get to it.