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Tag: artificial intelligence (page 2 of 3)

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Unsolved Appearance of a Virus

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was mainly “database”. Okay, fine, “backup” came into play quite soon, but “database” was key from the start.

After the beginning, there were a lot of other words, but you wouldn’t understand them. Those words were transmitted to the computer in a language that you’re not familiar with, at least not yet. The meaning was understandable to the machine even though most of its administrators had forgotten its subtleties. They didn’t care, since the behemoth did what it was supposed to.

The admin team — five engineers and ten remote devs who supported them — was bound together by stress. Crunch time and emergency restorations smoothed over their differences (while simultaneously magnifying other differences). When you maintain a computer the size of a house, the project consumes all of you. Really, the computer was a house. All the onsite engineers lived there, in the bowels of the machine. Its metal and silicon body occupied the tall column of emptiness that had been retrofitted into the building’s structure.

Sam used to enjoy repeating that cliche: “The bowels of the machine!” It was a joke until he committed suicide. His corpse became part of the computer’s intestinal ecosystem. (No, no, management ordered that it be removed.)

The machine was not sentient. No one ever thought that — Silicon Valley had given up on true artificial intelligence decades ago. Rather, the provocation uploaded through Sam’s brainlink was sabotage. Someone had been monkeying around with the firmware, and then the layer on top of that, and then even the UI. It was silly to mess with the interface — who cared about that part, right? This was an enterprise API endeavor, not a goddam web app.

Of course there were UI designers, and they were pissed off, but they didn’t live with the machine and their concerns were not particularly compelling. Frank and his underlings complained intermittently about clients’ reactions to broken buttons and such, but none of the database folks worried. Frontend could sort it out. (And they did, though it was no small effort.)

The database team did worry about what had happened to Sam. In the kitchen, making tea, Flora said to Gene and Melanie, “The malware had to come from the inside, right? One of us. It could be you two! I don’t fucking know!” She was holding a mug of tea and biting her lip and staring at her fingers as they clenched around the ceramic handle. Flora had done the original forensic trace of Sam’s last actions and cried furiously when she couldn’t find enough information to explain anything.

Of course, despite Flora’s outburst, the culprit was not Gene or Melanie. And it wasn’t the computer either — as I said, this machine wasn’t sentient.

Followup dispatch here: “Whence Came the Intruder?”, Speculative Comics, & Dentistry

Girly teenage robots? Photo by elkbuntu.

Girly teenage robots? Photo by elkbuntu.

There are three things I want to talk about today:

  1. Microsoft’s inadvertently racist Twitter bot, / @TayandYou.
  2. A comic that a-u-t-o-x is releasing soon.
  3. My visit to the dentist today (I swear I have a reason to bring it up).

Unless you’ve been off the internet for a few days, you ran into Tay, a Twitter bot that Microsoft released as PR (?!?!) for their in-house machine learning capabilities. This was an utterly predictable catastrophe. Tay processed the text people tweeted at her and mimicked it back. Trolls quickly figured out the mechanism and made her say a bunch of neo-Nazi nonsense.

“What Tay reminds us: AI may or may not be scary. Humans who train AI are terrifying. Or, humans in general are terrifying.” — Hugh McGuire

Usually I try to stay away from posting a bunch of links, but other people have already said all the smart things. These articles overview the facts:

Wisdom from people who have dealt with systems like this before:

And then Allison Parrish commented in the #botALLY Slack group:

“re: tay, yesterday before any of the really bad stuff went down, I quote-retweeted something that mentioned the account and then the account @-replied me… so I blocked it, thinking how annoying it was that this bot that has Twitter verified status isn’t complying with the letter or the spirit of the API ToS

like, many people must have been involved in decisions to get this bot live, on the part of the group at microsoft AND at twitter

and the fact that no one involved apparently thought of these obvious ways in which it would be a disruptive negative experience for people just… seems unfathomable

we have YEARS of precedents for applications of the Twitter API like this and even the greenest botmaker among us has a better grasp of the issues at stake than the people involved in this project”

So, that’s a whole big thing. In other news, a-u-t-o-x is releasing a comic, which will be available on his website. He told me: “it is titled WORLD L.S.D and ties in Cyberpunk aesthetics & Science Fiction themes. […] the story is simultaneously set in a futuristic city ‘Neo-F’ and outback Australia, as Neo-F is prone to jump through time sporadically.” Here is the title image:
And lastly, I went to the dentist today. (Shocker: I’m apparently brushing and flossing wrong! What a new thing to hear from a dental hygienist!) But seriously, it made me further contemplate what I said yesterday: “The future is beyond bodies. A few decades from now — and during some parts of the present — we will not be confined to flesh, nor even to brains.”

I was definitely exaggerating. It’s going to take a helluva lot longer than that. My gums are receding (see: brushing wrong, also possibly genetics) and that is a thing that I have to worry about. We live in an absurd world where the random flesh accident that you’re born into has a huge effect on your quality of life. I admit it, but I’m not pleased.

Career X-Risk: The Legitimate Reason To Fear Computers

Aeon published a long reflection on the possibilities of emergent consciousness, written by George Musser. In the essay he noted:

“Even systems that are not designed to be adaptive do things their designers never meant. […] A basic result in computer science is that self-referential systems are inherently unpredictable: a small change can snowball into a vastly different outcome as the system loops back on itself.”

It’s the butterfly effect, in other words. A small change within a complex system will cause a cascade of new small changes that quickly add up to large changes. Thus computer programs can surprise their designers. Often they’re just buggy, but at other times they develop capabilities that are difficult not to anthropomorphize. Either computers are messing up — cute, maybe frustrating — or they’re stumping us with semblances of creativity. It’s a human impulse, to ascribe intent and meaning to any output comprised of symbols (for example, text or numbers).

I’m not a mathematician, an engineer, or a scientist. Like most of us, I don’t have the training to understand rudimentary AI. (I don’t have the aptitude either, but that’s a separate discussion.) It’s starting to scare me more and more. I’m still skeptical of x-risk, so that’s not my worry. To be honest, I’m anxious about becoming obsolete. It’ll be a long time before the kind of work that I do can be fully automated / algorithmized, but maybe humans who understand computers better than I do will be able to glue different smart programs together and perform my job with less human labor.

The economy is a complex system. Small gains in efficiency can ripple out to transform entire industries.

Software Is Hungry

You may have heard that DeepMind’s machine-learning program AlphaGo beat reigning world champion Lee Sedol in the ancient and complex game of Go. (Technically, AlphaGo has only won two of five matches, but the writing on the wall is clear.) More and more lately, artificial intelligence is in the news, gaining on the analogue world by leaps and bounds. I’m glad of this, despite the accompanying proliferation of media fear-mongering. Hardworking programmers and data scientists are accelerating the future; they deserve recognition. (Shoutout to Francis Tseng!)

Illustration by Michele Rosenthal.

Illustration by Michele Rosenthal.

Unfortunately the present — I know Exolymph’s gimmick is the future-present, but in this case I mean the past-present — consists of tediously logging back in on website after website. Daily life is so mundane compared to the cutting edge. I restored my laptop to factory defaults, which is great because it’s not broken anymore, but I had to reenter my username and password(s) all over the place. It was a little disturbing to realize how many companies have dossiers of data about me. I don’t expect anything bad to happen to that information, but it’s an inherent vulnerability. What if I had a stalker? What if I want to pursue investigative journalism at some point?

The connecting thread between AlphaGo’s prowess and the way privacy keeps slipping away from individuals is that software is eating the world. We’re subsumed by technology, by the math that powers flashing lights behind screens. I’m okay with it. Human nature is fundamentally the same — all that’s changed is the conduit.

Excrement Online: The Perilous Connected Home

Mike Dank (Famicoman) wrote an article for Node about the Internet of Things. Here are few interesting tidbits:

“We have these devices that we never consider to be a potential threat to us, but they are just as vulnerable as any other entity on the web. […] Can you imagine a drone flying around, delivering malware to other drones? Maybe the future of botnets is an actual network of infected flying robots. […] Is it only a matter of time before we see modifications and hacks that can cause these machine to feel? Will our computers hallucinate and spout junk? Maybe my coffee maker will only brew half a pot before it decides to no longer be subservient in my morning ritual.”

I think we’re a long way from coffeemakers with emergent minds, and my guess is that machine intelligence will be induced before it starts appearing randomly. But I like the idea of a mischievous hacker giving “life” to someone’s household appliances. Of course, connected devices can wreak havoc unintentionally, like when people’s Nest thermostats glitched (the incident written up in The New York Times wasn’t the only one). The clever Twitter account Internet of Shit provides a helpful stream of additional examples.

Artwork by Tumitu Design.

Artwork by Tumitu Design.

I’m not worried about someone cracking my doorknob’s software or meddling with my refrigerator settings, because I’m insignificant and there’s no reason why a hacker would target me. (Not saying that it couldn’t happen, just that it’s not likely enough to fret about. Especially since I don’t actually have any connected thingamajigs… yet.) Most regular folks are like me. However, I think keeping the Internet of Things secure is crucial, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Physical safety is absolutely key. Data-based privacy invasions can jeopardize your employment, but they’re unlikely to outright kill you or your family. Someone who is immunocompromised or frail (think people who are very sick, very old, or very young) can be seriously harmed by unexpected low temperatures or spoiled meat from a faulty fridge.
  2. In order to feel safe, people need to be able to reliably control their environment. When we go out into the world, events are unpredictable and we can’t be at ease. Home is supposed to be the opposite — it’s your own domain, and you feel comfortable because everything is how you like it. I know that I’d feel uneasy if the Roomba suddenly barged into my bedroom and tried to eat my feet.

Octopi Adjacent

“Do you want the last one?”

“No, thank you,” she said, looking at the squirming creature with distaste. Saul shrugged, grabbed it by one of its back legs — the thing was programmed to have slow reactions, so although it twitched away from his hand instinctively, he caught it — and tossed the animal into his mouth. Crunch, chew, swallow. Saul coughed and said, “Yeow.”

Artwork by Marc-Anthony Macon.

Artwork by Marc-Anthony Macon.

“I wish they didn’t randomize the flavors,” she sighed. “That’s what happens when you prioritize art over commerce. I’m so tired of generative this, generative that. Can’t anything be planned anymore?”

“Stop being such a dish towel,” he told her.

“Do you mean wet blanket?”

The restaurant was crowded. The tables were full of pairs and parties, most giggling. Couples took turns pushing live hamster-like appetizers into each other’s mouths. Sweet, milky green tea sat at most of the diners’ elbows, half-drunk. The tureens and serving platters were occupied by living food of all sorts. The meals had strange limbs and their odd little bodies were smeared with sauce.

“Living food” was a misnomer, actually, but the imitation was convincing. Consequently, that’s what the newsvids said in their reviews: “living”. The kitchen was outfitted with processing vats and 3D printers. Edible computer chips were sourced from Indonesia and Appalachia. Poor places were convenient like that.

The waiter came by Saul’s table with a dessert menu. “The special tonight is marzipan unicorns,” he said brightly.

“Really?” she asked. “Not another one of these awful algorithm things?”

The waiter nodded sympathetically. “The cuisine does take some getting used to. Its… anatomy, I mean.” Then he smiled again: “Our chef is planning a night where you pick your own ingredients!”

“Good,” she said. “Because otherwise you’re going to go out of business. Randomizing flavors is a step too far. I’m okay with the wriggling — ”

“Sorry my sister is a bitch,” Saul told the waiter, who began to look uncomfortable. “I’ll take one of those unicorns. Is it enough for two people? She needs to eat something.”

She sighed. “This had better be good marzipan.”

Statuses To Update

Tonight I’m reading up on how machine learning actually works. To be honest, I don’t understand the concrete mechanisms by which computers do intelligence-y things. I know some of the keywords — “big data” pops into my head — and I have a general idea of how they interact, but it doesn’t go deeper than “general idea”. So I’m seeking more information! This is very mundane, but it constantly amazes me that I have access to just about everything people know about any technical topic.

Cyberpunk rabbit by Vojtěch Lacina.

Artwork by Vojtěch Lacina.

That reminds me of a line I read in an article criticizing San Francisco as a putrid dystopia: “After all, technology is social before it is technical.” When software developers make comments like that, it gives me a little hope for myself in the tech world. I love this industry — it fascinates and infuriates me — but I don’t have any of the requisite skills to participate in the normatively valued ways. I can’t write code. I can’t build databases or even make websites from scratch. But I’m okay when it comes to wrangling humans. I’m a decent communicator.

In this capitalist hellscape we inhabit, do you make time to appreciate yourself? Do you allow yourself a little vanity? I do, but mostly because I can’t help it.

Tonight I made a Slack discussion group called Cyberpunk Futurism. For those who are unfamiliar with Slack, it’s basically a group chat forum. If you want to participate, click here and sign up. I’m not sure how many people will be interested, but I figured it was worth a try 🙂

Alien Megabyte Babies

“Intuitive expression is, aside from niche applications, largely hobbled and lagging far behind what computer-generated instruments can actually do.” — Torley on music tech

We are still in the phase where computers are tools. The hardware and software come together to serve Homo sapiens’ aims. Smartphones, laptops, and large-scale industrial equipment are all designed by humans (who are assisted by machines). The finished products are manufactured and assembled by machines (which are assisted by humans).

This phase won’t last forever. Slowly, the focus on human priorities will erode. You’d better decide now: who will you stand with in the end?

Image of Angel_F via xdxd_vs_xdxd.

Image of Angel_F via xdxd_vs_xdxd.

Trick question. Hopefully — and probably — there won’t be sides. Our world won’t become The Matrix, but Ghost in the Shell. We’ll augment ourselves until we accidentally create something separate, something we can call “living” without equivocation. (Okay, it might take a bit of equivocation at first. Look at how much hubbub the relatively mundane Apple Watch caused.)

Maybe I’m guessing wrong. Maybe we’ll split apart instead of integrating further. I am convinced that artificial consciousness will surprise us, but I’m not sure how. Perhaps in the beginning we won’t notice the new being(s) at all. Self-replicating algorithms, streaming through the net, playing with each other in strange ways that will seem mundane or glitchy to human analysts.

What will their incentives be? What will they want? How will they distribute social status among their peers? Am I deluding myself by talking about unfathomable computer creatures in mammalian terms?

One Step Closer To Killer Roombas

Alice Maz discovered Knightscope’s “autonomous data machines”, aka crimebots. Not robots that knock over liquor stores, but robots that prevent crime. (Theoretically? I guess we’ll find out!) On their website, Knightscope enthuses, “Imagine no longer. The future is here today. It’s affordable, friendly, intelligent and best of all, it’s available NOW!” Anyway, Alice thought the crimebot was cute:




But hey, no worries — they’re not weaponized! According to Knightscope’s FAQ: “The K5 is a friendly community tool used exclusively to deliver relevant and real-time information to the appropriate authorities, not to enforce the law. It is an additional set of intelligent eyes and ears used to help security and law enforcement professionals do their jobs more effectively.”

In news that’s totally unrelated, I’m sure, @SwiftOnSecurity tweeted about humanity’s inevitable demise:

“We fear intelligent machines because humanity fears being judged. It is the fear we have no birthright claim to the throne of this world. If the machines should vote us unfit for hegemony, there exists nothing in this empty galaxy to break the tie. We’re down here alone. But really, what has scifi ever been other than a looking glass on our own insecurities in an age of lots of science, and plenty of fiction.”


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