Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The evolution of AI (Artificial Intelligence)

I've posted previously about how slow it will be, that we won't have something approaching human intelligence anytime soon. But, eventually, as AI evolves, it could start working on itself, and then start advancing very quickly:

How Artificial Superintelligence Will Give Birth To Itself
There's a saying among futurists that a human-equivalent artificial intelligence will be our last invention. After that, AIs will be capable of designing virtually anything on their own — including themselves. Here's how a recursively self-improving AI could transform itself into a superintelligent machine.

When it comes to understanding the potential for artificial intelligence, it's critical to understand that an AI might eventually be able to modify itself, and that these modifications could allow it to increase its intelligence extremely fast.

Passing a Critical Threshold

Once sophisticated enough, an AI will be able to engage in what's called "recursive self-improvement." As an AI becomes smarter and more capable, it will subsequently become better at the task of developing its internal cognitive functions. In turn, these modifications will kickstart a cascading series of improvements, each one making the AI smarter at the task of improving itself. It's an advantage that we biological humans simply don't have.

When it comes to the speed of these improvements, Yudkowsky says its important to not confuse the current speed of AI research with the speed of a real AI once built. Those are two very different things. What's more, there's no reason to believe that an AI won't show a sudden huge leap in intelligence, resulting in an ensuing "intelligence explosion" (a better term for the Singularity). He draws an analogy to the expansion of the human brain and prefrontal cortex — a key threshold in intelligence that allowed us to make a profound evolutionary leap in real-world effectiveness; "we went from caves to skyscrapers in the blink of an evolutionary eye."

The Path to Self-Modifying AI

Code that's capable of altering its own instructions while it's still executing has been around for a while. Typically, it's done to reduce the instruction path length and improve performance, or to simply reduce repetitively similar code. But for all intents and purposes, there are no self-aware, self-improving AI systems today.

But as Our Final Invention author James Barrat told me, we do have software that can write software.

"Genetic programming is a machine-learning technique that harnesses the power of natural selection to find answers to problems it would take humans a long time, even years, to solve," he told io9. "It's also used to write innovative, high-powered software."

For example, Primary Objects has embarked on a project that uses simple artificial intelligence to write programs. The developers are using genetic algorithms imbued with self-modifying, self-improving code and the minimalist (but Turing-complete) brainfuck programming language. They've chosen this language as a way to challenge the program — it has to teach itself from scratch how to do something as simple as writing "Hello World!" with only eight simple commands. But calling this an AI approach is a bit of a stretch; the genetic algorithms are a brute force way of getting a desirable result. That said, a follow-up approach in which the AI was able to generate programs for accepting user input appears more promising.

Relatedly, Larry Diehl has done similar work using a stack-based language.

Barrat also told me about software that learns — programming techniques that are grouped under the term "machine learning."

The Pentagon is particularly interested in this game. Through DARPA, its hoping to develop a computer that can teach itself. Ultimately, it wants to create machines that are able to perform a number of complex tasks, like unsupervised learning, vision, planning, and statistical model selection. These computers will even be used to help us make decisions when the data is too complex for us to understand on our own. Such an architecture could represent an important step in bootstrapping — the ability for an AI to teach itself and then re-write and improve upon its initial programming. [...]

It goes on about ways that we could use to try to control AI self-evolution, and reasons why such methods may -or may not- work, and why. Read the whole thing, for many embedded links, and more.


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A Chinese Fly from Hell

This looks scary:

Giant flying bug with fangs discovered in China
Researchers in China have found what is clearly the most frightening looking insect ... ever.

What's being called the Giant Dobsonfly has an 8.3-inch wingspan and snake-like fangs.

It's not entirely clear how much force would have to be applied to kill the dobsonfly or what sound is made by the insect as it is squashed.

But, we're entirely sure that the sound upon discovering a dobsonfly is a loud shriek, scream or cry.

How long until this fly is found in the states?

Exactly. [...]
It looks like something from the SyFy channel. It doesn't say that it can harm people, so perhaps it just looks scary? But what are those fangs for?

Apparently it lives in pristine water, and is very sensitive to water changes, even changes in PH. Follow the link, for video and more.


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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Esperanto, a created, living language

I thought it was a kind of dead language, like Klingon. But apparently, it's not:

The creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhoff, was a very interesting fellow:
[...] Zamenhof was born on 15 December (3 December OS) 1859 in the town of Białystok in the Russian Partition (north-eastern Poland) in the age of national insurrections. His parents were of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and his wife was born in Kaunas, in one of the biggest Jewish centres of the time. He appears to have been natively bilingual in Yiddish and Russian,[3] presumably the Belorussian "dialect" of his home town, though it may have been only his father who spoke Russian with him at home. From his father, a teacher of German and French, he learned those languages and Hebrew as well. He also spoke Polish, one of the major languages of Bialystok alongside Yiddish, (Belo)Russian, and German, and it was Polish that was to become the native language of his children. In school he studied the classical languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He later learned some English, though in his own words not very well, had an interest in Lithuanian and Italian, and learned Volapük when it came out in 1880, though by that point his international language project was already well developed.[4][5]

In addition to the Yiddish-speaking Jewish majority, the population of Białystok was made up of Poles and Belarusians, with smaller groups of Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others. Zamenhof was saddened and frustrated by the many quarrels among these groups. He supposed that the main reason for the hate and prejudice lay in the mutual misunderstanding caused by the lack of one common language. If such a language existed, Zamenhof postulated, it could play the role of a neutral communication tool between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

As a student at secondary school in Warsaw, Zamenhof made attempts to create some kind of international language with a grammar that was very rich, but also very complex. When he later studied English, he decided that the international language must have a simpler grammar. Apart from his parents' native languages Russian and Yiddish and his adopted language Polish, his linguistics attempts were also aided by his mastering of German, a good passive understanding of Latin, Hebrew and French, and a basic knowledge of Greek, English and Italian.[6]

By 1878, his project Lingwe uniwersala was almost finished. However, Zamenhof was too young then to publish his work. Soon after graduation from school he began to study medicine, first in Moscow, and later in Warsaw. In 1885, Zamenhof graduated from a university and began his practice as a doctor in Veisiejai and after 1886 as an ophthalmologist in Płock and Vienna. While healing people there he continued to work on his project of an international language.

For two years he tried to raise funds to publish a booklet describing the language until he received the financial help from his future wife's father. In 1887, the book titled Международный язык. Предисловие и полный учебник (International language: Introduction and complete textbook) was published in Russian[7] under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto" (Doctor Hopeful). Zamenhof initially called his language "Lingvo internacia" (international language), but those who learned it began to call it Esperanto after his pseudonym, and this soon became the official name for the language. For Zamenhof this language, far from being merely a communication tool, was a way of promoting the peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures.[2] [...]
What a fascinating man. Read the whole thing for embedded links and more.

I've been reading about Esperanto lately, because I've been reading a book about language learning, Fluent in 3 Months. The author, Benny Lewis, recommends learning Esperanto as your first second language, because it's easy to learn, you make progress quickly, and many studies have shown that people who learn Esperanto as their first second language, have a much easier time learning other languages successfully. Benny talks about this on his website:
[...] I always encourage people to spend just two weeks learning Esperanto, for the purely pragmatic reason of it giving them a boost in their main focus language. There was a great recent TEDx talk specifically about this idea of using Esperanto as a springboard to learning other languages. But moving on from that, those you can use Esperanto with make it all the more worthwhile to learn.

At Esperanto events, I’ve made some fantastic open minded friends, and sang, laughed, argued, flirted (and more…), played, explored and eaten with them there. And while travelling, I’ve met up with other speakers who I know will share the philosophies of the community of open mindedness and friendliness, while being modern and forward thinking.

One way you can meet Esperanto speakers in many cities is via Pasporta Servo, which is kind of like Couchsurfing, only it started many decades before. I also simply use Couchsurfing itself and search for speakers of the language and Google info about the local city’s community. It turns out every city in China has an active Esperanto community, and I’ve met up with several speakers in this trip already!

Of course many of them are into language learning and travel, but we tend to talk about whatever else comes up. In many situations, the structure of the language actually lets you be more expressive than non-constructed languages. [...]
Read the whole page for embedded links, videos, and much MUCH more.

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The evolving demos, raised living standards

Why did the British surge ahead during the industrial evolution? Would you believe, it was awareness of numbers, and patience?

How learning to pass the marshmallow test explains global economic evolution
[...] Paul Solman: So we get to 1800 and now suddenly things become dramatically different. If you’ve got a line for growth per person that’s basically horizontal along a timeline of all human history, suddenly after 1800 it looks like it’s going straight up?

Greg Clark: Yes. Sometime around 1800 this dominant feature of the world up until then, which was very slow technological advancement, changed, and we moved to a world where technological advancement was systematic, expected, occurring all the time. But I should emphasize that that change is actually much more gradual than that 1800 date would suggest.

There was a break at some point between, say, 1600 and 1900 from this Malthusian world to the modern world, and that, for the advanced economies, just dramatically changed their nature.

What I want to emphasize here is the bizarre and puzzling nature of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s important to understand that this is one of the intellectual puzzles of history that’s on a par with the biggest puzzles in physics, or in astronomy, even though people generally don’t appreciate this. And perhaps the reason is that modern economists have constructed a false history of the world in their minds. They tend to assume that since high-income modern economies have certain economic features –

Paul Solman: Free markets, rule of law…

Greg Clark: …stability, peace, open government, and that low-income modern economies tend to have violence, market interference, restrictions — what must be the case is that the pre-industrial world suffered from all of these problems, and that then somehow people stumbled on the right institutions, and then growth occurred.

Paul Solman: And by “institutions” you mean markets, the sanctity of contracts?

Greg Clark: That’s right. Property rights, markets, representative government, limitations on the power of government. And it does turn out that England, which was in the vanguard of this movement, was a politically stable society with limited democracy, and very little government interference.

However, when you study the long history of the pre-industrial period, it becomes apparent that, for example, if you go back to 1300, England already had all the institutions you needed for modern economic growth.

England had a government tax rate that averaged 1 percent. It had, for hundreds of years, zero inflation. It had no government debt. It had absolute security for most people of their property rights. Most markets were free. For hundreds and hundreds of years, England had everything it needed for modern growth. If you go back to ancient Greece or ancient Rome, or probably even ancient Babylon, they had institutions enough for getting growth.

Paul Solman: We have the tablets from ancient Babylon because they were incised in clay, and there were all kinds of contracts.

Greg Clark: They had home mortgages, they had rental contracts, they had labor contracts, they had urban societies.

But, says Clark, the Babylonians obviously didn’t have modern economic growth. Nor did the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese or anyone else, even though they had many of the institutions that economists credit with the advent of prosperity.

Greg Clark: It’s the dominant paradigm in modern economics. The idea in this is that economics has an amazing power. Institutions – I mean, it’s just the rules of the game in any society. If we don’t like the rules we have, why don’t we just change them? And then apparently, we could have endless growth.

That I think, is what gives economics its power and its appeal. But that’s what I’m trying to argue against.

I think the key was that there is very strong evidence that people were changing through this long Malthusian interval. Human nature seems to have been changing. It may well be culturally. It’s impossible to rule out that it’s actually genetically. What we find, if we look back at the earliest societies, is that people tended to be violent, impulsive, impatient. They didn’t like to work.

When we get to societies like England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, you can see that people are accumulating capital in ways that they never did before. There’s much less violence – ordinary day-to-day violence — in the society.

People’s levels of education have expanded enormously. They are much more aware of numbers.

The upper classes in ancient Rome mostly didn’t know what age they were. On their tombstones they would record ages that were just fantastical – 120 in a society where life expectancy at birth was 25 to 30. No one seems to have thought: “This is crazy.”

You also get in these early societies people giving numbers for battles that just make no sense in terms of what we now know about history.

Paul Solman: What’s an example of that?

Greg Clark: They typically quote 80,000 for some reason as a standard number, and it just seemed to mean “big.”

There’s a case in medieval England where someone testified in Parliament to having fought in a battle in his youth, which occurred more than 100 years earlier. No one interrupted to say, “What are you talking about?”

And so we really see big changes in terms of work effort, patience, interest rates in very early societies at astonishing levels. If you go back to ancient Babylon, your house mortgage would cost you in real terms 20 to 25 percent interest rate per year.

These were societies that offered fantastic profit opportunities – profit opportunities that even venture capitalists now would die for. They were available to everyone, and no one took them.

In ancient Greece, your standard return from completely safe investments was 10 percent. But on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in England, the rate is down to 4 percent. There’s just a fundamental change in people’s psychology. What that implies is that people were historically very impatient.

Paul Solman: So you mean the time value of money — the value of waiting — has simply gone down as time has gone on?

Greg Clark: Yes. There’s very clear signs that with risk-free investments, the amount you have to pay people to wait declines very dramatically. We know, in the modern world, that people vary in their degree of impatience and how much they have to be paid.

I have three children, and they vary very significantly across that factor.

We also know in the modern world that psychologists were able to test four-year-olds and say, “You can have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if you wait for a few minutes.”

There’s a bunch of kids that have to have the marshmallow, and others that just have this different psychology where they can wait. It turns out that’s a very good predictor of how they’ll do later in life. It seems to be a fundamental feature of peoples’ personalities: how willing they are to wait for gratification.

There seems to be this possibility that on a world scale, this was actually changing as we moved from hunter-gatherer society, to 1800. [...]
I'm sure one reason that people were "historically impatient", was that they didn't live very long!

Read the whole thing for embedded links and video.


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Saturday, July 05, 2014

Dark Chocolate and Leg Circulation

Does the former help the latter? A recent study suggests it does:

Could Dark Chocolate Help Ease Poor Leg Circulation?

[...] In a small study, people with artery problems in their legs walked a little longer and farther right after eating a bar of dark chocolate, the researchers said.

Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. The researchers believe polyphenols improve blood flow to the legs by affecting biochemicals that prompt arteries to widen.

"Our body secretes chemicals that naturally dilate blood vessels in response to certain stimuli, improving the blood flow to certain areas," said Dr. Richard Chazal, vice president of the American College of Cardiology. "Some of the chemicals inside dark chocolate could affect the way these enzymes are metabolized in the body," suggested Chazal, who was not involved with the study.

The pilot study involved 20 people aged 60 to 78 who suffered from peripheral artery disease, a narrowing of the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the legs, stomach, arms and head. Reduced blood flow can cause pain, cramping or fatigue in the legs or hips while walking.

The patients walked on a treadmill in the morning and again two hours after eating 40 grams of dark or milk chocolate -- the size of an average American chocolate bar -- on separate days. The dark chocolate in the study had a cocoa content of more than 85 percent, making it rich in polyphenols. The milk chocolate, with a cocoa content below 30 percent, had far fewer polyphenols, the study authors noted.

After eating dark chocolate, patients walked an average 11 percent farther and 15 percent longer than they did earlier in the day. That's about 39 feet farther and about 17 seconds longer, according to the study, published July 2 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.


The researchers found that levels of nitric oxide, a gas linked to improved blood flow, were higher after eating dark chocolate. They suggested that the higher nitric oxide levels may be responsible for widening peripheral arteries and improving the patients' ability to walk.

Both the results and the theory are "intriguing," said Dr. Mark Creager, director of the Vascular Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"The results are certainly interesting but modest, in terms of the walking distance improved," said Creager, who also serves as a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "With information such as this, one would anticipate these investigators will conduct a much larger trial with long-term treatment to confirm their observations."

Creager and Chazal noted that chocolate is also high in fat and sugar, and eating too much can contribute to health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.

"People need to be very aware of the fact that there are many substances in chocolate bars that could have an adverse effect on health," Creager said. "I would not recommend that people eat chocolate bars to improve their walking distance."

Chazal agreed, saying the study's true value lies in identifying the way that polyphenols might affect blood flow to the legs.

Polyphenols also can be found in foods with less added sugar and saturated fats, such as cloves, dried peppermint, celery seed, capers and hazelnuts. [...]
So more polyphenols may be the answer, rather than just dark chocolate specifically. The article went on to say more studies should be done to confirm these findings.

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Palestinians can save Israel from itself.

Can the Palestinians really do that, to the benefit of everyone? This article says they have the power:

Israel doesn't have peace because peace and fear don't mix well
Israel simply cannot bring itself to use the bargaining chips it holds in exchange for the big prize. Why can’t it deliver the goods?
[...] A feeling of victimhood – as if our lengthy national childhood was one characterized by abuse – has turned us into a country that behaves like an abusive parent. This is how it works in 
nature, where violence is perpetuated from one generation to the next. The parents were fearful and beaten, so the children become thugs, yet remain fearful and lacking in self-confidence.

Where are the keys needed to break this impasse? One of them is the passage of time. Maybe there is no such thing as “Peace Now.” Maybe our temporal proximity to the trauma of the ovens does not allow us to act with cold logic, only with hot passion. Maybe we need to wait for the next generation, already born, to accomplish what two generations – ourselves and our parents – totally failed at doing.

The other key is unfair, placing responsibility for Israel’s wellbeing on the Palestinians, for their own good as well. I liken Israel to a lazy elephant, sprawled across the road. It has no motivation to budge. It enjoys seeing itself as big and powerful, heavy, reclining and satiated.

It’s not surprising that in politics it is the weak and hungry that are agents of change. In contrast to a strong agent that has no motivation to move, the weak Palestinian can effect change. How? Violence has not wrought change, since we have become inured, even addicted to it. Each blow only adds to the historical fate to which we believe we have been subjected to over time – to justifying the present situation on the backdrop of our traumatic past.

Only one thing will raise the elephant from its current pose: a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience, a creative and determined insurrection aimed at one goal – attaining equal rights. It seems as if there has been a recent awakening among Palestinians in this direction. This is reflected in a transition from a discourse about interests, power, terror and honor to a conversation about values, rights and liberties. Many Palestinians are rightfully angry at Israel, holding it accountable for many wrongs, but they are no longer afraid of it or feel threatened by making peace with it. They have internalized the positive aspects of a political settlement, and, in terms of their political mental framework, they are well ahead of many Israelis. More and more Palestinians are acting in the political arena without fear and with an ideology of nonviolent resistance. Israel has no response to such a course of action, neither a military, political nor moral one.

In contrast, Israelis are still an anxious collective. Since peace and fears don’t mix well together, we still don’t have peace. The dread inside us has taken on a life of its own, to which we’ve become accustomed and even addicted. Fears can play a positive role, keeping us alert in the face of dangers and threats, leading us to deal with them in an appropriate manner. For too many Israelis, any kind of peace is enmeshed in an existential dread, a condition that supposedly conceals a plot to eradicate us, posing risks but no opportunities.

There will only be peace here when the masses and their political leaders internalize the fact that peace is a therapy for our fears. It is the total, completely beneficial alternative to all our historical phobias – a condition that can replace or erase them. Paradoxically, the Palestinians – who now bear the brunt of our current historic phase of fears and phobias – can save Israel from itself. A million Palestinians who relate to Israel and its corrupting occupation with peace and conciliation, rather than with terror and hostility, will do well for themselves and us. [...]
Well, civil disobedience has worked as a political strategy in other places, most recently in South Africa. But I don't know how much of a chance it would have in Israel, as long as rockets keep flying over their borders at them.

If you read the whole thing, it explains a lot about the historical/psychological dynamics at work, that need to be overcome. That's a hard sell though, while the rockets continue to fly, reinforcing the old dynamics.

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