29 April 2009

Music emerges from complexity

This is a good example of what emerges from sufficiently complex systems.

As a system becomes more complicated, new properties begin to emerge.
"The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe..The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. At each level of complexity entirely new properties appear. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. We can now see that the whole becomes not merely more, but very different from the sum of its parts."

It's not so much that no one, if they'd sat down and thought about it, could have predicted that people would make music with old computer parts. People make music with everything they can get their hands on. It is that computer parts would not have existed without a certain level of system complexity; they simply require too much infrastructure to be available at a lower level of complexity.

There is no inherent difference between a person turning an old trash can into an instrument and a person turning an old computer into an instrument. However, one of them only requires that trash cans exist, while the other requires that computers exist.

Cavemen lost in a modern world, or international percussion sensation?

We will always be able to hit something, or pluck something, and get a noise out of it. With a certain amount of experimentation and elbow grease we could figure out how to get a musical scale out of just about anything. However, new tools require us to learn new techniques. Notice that no one was banging on the old computer parts. The concept of "hit it until it makes a sound you like" is not new, and might even be buried somewhere in our genetic code. Taking over an old computer system's drive unit and figuring out how much juice to give it, and for how long, and in what combination, to get a particular sound requires an entirely new thought process.

Not everyone likes every instrument. If you happen to want to play an instrument that does not exist you have two options: invent it or wait for someone else to invent it. To invent an instrument requires knowledge, which means that someone might learn something new just so that they can invent (or play) an instrument.

Once these new skills and ways of thinking are out there they can be applied to areas where they might not have been generated spontaneously and they can even inspire brand new ideas. Thus increasing the complexity of the system even more and allowing for even more emergence.

27 April 2009

Robots are better in conception than reality

Few topics inspire as much excitement (among a particular crowd) as robots and, more specifically, the future of robotics. I have to admit a particular fascination with this subject, partly because robots are pretty cool, but mostly because the subject covers such a wide range of possibilities. Will robots become our overlords? Will robots consume the Earth and everything on it as raw materials? Will robots and humans live together in harmony forever? Will robots become grim killing machines with little subtlety and less emotion? Will they always be a disappointment?

Mike Treder writes, "But what if, instead, the recursively improving computer brains of robot warriors allow them to become enlightened and to see the horror of warfare for what it is -- to recognize the ridiculousness of building more and better (and more costly) machines only to command them to destroy each other? What if they gave a robot war and nobody came?"

In contrast, Jordan Pollack writes, "Most people's expectations of robots are driven by fantasy [...] We have to master either software engineering or self-organization before our most intelligent designers can dare play in the same league as Mother Nature [...] In case you missed them, today's most popular robots are ATMs and computer printers."

The robot apocalypse will be underwhelming.

They both bring up good points, but Pollack's is much more in line with reality. Robots inspire such heights of fancy that one cannot distinguish the history of the concept from the history of people jumping to some absurd conclusions. For example, South Korea is officially writing up a code of ethics to protect robots from human abuse. So, they've jumped right past questions of whether or not robots can even be abused and are making sure they are protected just in case. This is an interesting thing for a country's government to be throwing their resources and prestige behind considering there are plenty of people in their own country, a certain nearby country, and all over the world who are being abused by people right now. It indicates that 1) the level of absurdity of the things politicians do in South Korea is equal to the level of absurdity of the things politicians do in America or 2) they are more worried about hurting the hypothetical feelings of robots than the actual feelings of humans.

Cardiologist robot is procrastinating.

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time in one form or another. Right here in the States non-professionals are arguing over whether or not robots should be held responsible for their actions, while the military itself is dragging its feet over even defining the requirements. (if the requirements are not defined then no progress can be made)

People have always been worried that "the military" will jump feet first into autonomous killing machines, laughing manically the entire time and possibly dying ironically when their monstrous creation turns on them. The reality is that military professionals take their job very seriously and are incredibly reticent to give a machine the authority to do anything at all. Anyone who has had to deal with the results of lowest-bid government contracting is reluctant to trust anything built by a government contractor. Giving it a gun and orders to "Git 'em!" is the last thing any professional will do.

Pictured: Unlikely.

Additionally, why would the military ever embrace autonomous soldiers? If they ever worked correctly they would simply take the soldiers' jobs. The only incentive the military has for incorporating robots is to expand into capabilities they did not have before (reconnaissance) and to protect their own soldiers lives while increasing the danger to the enemy's soldiers. And what do we see? That the thousands of robots being used right now are gathering information and defusing bombs. That is the reality of the situation. As communication links improve you might see teleoperated fighting robots, but I do not think autonomous soldiers will ever be embraced by the military.

Innovation Never Decreases

The great thing about innovation is that it builds on itself. The problem is that people always seem to think it doesn't.

It is not so much that every time a new innovation appears, especially a disruptive one, people publicly claim that nothing will ever top it. It is that people seem to instinctively think that a great new idea will stop more things from happening than it will initiate the beginning of. When nuclear weapons were invented people claimed it would end warfare.

The reality is that new ideas only lead to more new ideas. Yes, innovations often make something else obsolete, but they never render it completely unnecessary. By way of example, the enemy cannot launch a nuke, if you disable their hand.

Yes, a nuke is crazy effective at what it does, but it does not do everything. The invention of nuclear weapons did not render anything which had been invented before unnecessary (ED: like knives). You can see this same pattern in any other area of innovation. The invention of transistors did not render vacuum tubes unnecessary. The invention of graphic design did not render painting unnecessary.

All an innovation does is expand on what came before. It gives us new options. Because an innovation creates new options, without completely invalidating the previous options, it expands the collective number of options. This means that there are now more things to be innovated upon, which means more innovations, which means the number of options expands exponentially. It is equivalent to the expansion of the area of a circle (ED: quadratic) as the circumference increases.

Innovation is a process that makes itself more likely. Any new innovation will only provide a new possibility; it will not negate the possibilities that came before.

An Uncommon View on MidEast Oil

People tend to assume that America is too dependent on the MidEast for oil. This is also assumed to be a bad thing because American policies often conflict with MidEast policies (imagine it's an homogeneous block for a moment) on pretty much every point. Things like "being there" and "not leaving" for example.

The general train of thought is that America should not be sending money to "our enemies" in the MidEast because they just use it to undermine our power, destroy our alliances, and even attack our homeland. This is an especially powerful argument because, well, we do send them money and they do use it as a resource to fight us. However, taking the step of declaring that to be such a bad thing that we should no longer buy oil from the MidEast is, in my opinion, unjustifiable.

The DIME (diplomacy, information, military, economic) is an old mnemonic which helps one to think about situations like this. Any conflict involves, or at least could involve, these four factors. For example, America has very little understanding of MidEast language and culture (diplomacy). America also suffers from a significant lack of good intelligence regarding the goings on of the area (information). What we do have is a strong military presece and relatively strong economic ties.

The thing is that economic ties go both ways. There would be no trade without two parties and two different items of value. The MidEast has too much oil and not enough money; America has too much money and not enough oil. So we trade, and we both get something we want. When people complain about the MidEast using the money it gets from us to fund projects contrary to our interests they always fail to mention that we use the oil we get from them to fuel projects contrary to their interests. That is the nature of competition. Two entities finding all of their interests aligned is. . .unusual.

If we stopped buying oil from the MidEast, leaving aside for a moment the question of where we would make up the difference, what would happen? I propose that the MidEast would sell it to all the other countries which are interested in using more oil. Additionally, with the United States leaving the market the price of oil would drop, which would mean the numerous less-wealthy countries would be able to buy up what was available. Yes, it's a simplification, but it is not the important part. With the US and the MidEast no longer economically involved with each other at all, there would be very little incentive for the two to get along. At the moment we depend on each other (to a certain extent), so there is an incentive to keep things from spiraling out of control. But that incentive is primarily economic.

This is similar to the situation America is in with regards to China. The two are so closely intertwined economically that they cannot afford to disagree too severely.

I propose that the solution to the situation is exactly the opposite of the common "wisdom." The US should become more closely intertwined with the MidEast so that we gain even more control over their actions. Isolation from the MidEast will only lead to a situation in which they really do not care what they do to us, because they are not dependent on us in any way. At the moment we buy their oil, thus proping up their authoritarian governments, which in turn keep the population somewhat in check. If their governments were free of our influence, and yet still in need of a scapegoat for the misguided anger of their blood-feuding populations, they could easily encourage acts contrary to American interests that they would have discouraged previously. Since this is exactly what we do not want, we should not cut the one significant tie we have with the MidEast, and in fact we should strengthen it.

The News Needs to be Free

The problem with the news is that it is a business.

Any corporate entity which exists to turn a profit will, by necessity, make the pursuit of profit its highest priority. It must, otherwise it will disappear. Its very existence depends on an ability to perpetually take in more money than it expends. By way of a reality check, this is analogous to every 'living' thing our science is aware of. If something needs more resources than it gets, it starves to death.

The vast majority of news organizations depend on advertising dollars for their existence. Advertisers choose where to send their money, and how much to send, based on how many people 'visit' that place and how likely they are to pay attention to the ads found there. This means that news organizations maximize their profit by attracting as much ad money as they can with as small an expenditure of resources as possible. By way of a reality check, this is a description of a business model.

Therefore, the incentives are all wrong. The organizations investigating and reporting the news do not care about the quality of their product. They care about the ratio between how much it cost them to attract eyeballs and how much they can charge advertisers for those eyeballs. The quality of their product is related to that ratio, but only indirectly, and there are many competing variables.

If we, as the public, want to receive the best news possible we will have to take steps to institutionalize the proper incentives. In my opinion, the proper incentive is one which puts the quality of the news at the absolute top of the goal hierarchy. We want news organizations to think first about producing high quality news. This would seem to require that they be freed from worrying about the existence of their organization, since any entity which worries about its own existence will do so first. The only exception is when an entity selflessly decides to sacrifice its existence for something more important. However, this would be effectively useless since it would dissolve the organization we wanted to exist to provide us with news.

One way to accomplish this is to establish a source of money, like an endowment, which supports the news organization. In this way it would be independent of outside interests like advertisers and would be able to focus on properly reporting the news. It is possible (likely?) that there would be less of an incentive to work hard since the money is guaranteed, but this could be mitigated by a board of directors who would carefully choose a CEO for the organization and hold them to high standards.

A news organization like this would be able to provide context for events. When a plane crashes, they could afford to sacrifice space to boring facts like how thousands of planes landed safely at the exact same moment, and how the average person is still safer just sitting in an airplane than anywhere else. They could report ALL the details of a "police brutality" story; like how that poor, mentally disabled man managed to fight off a half dozen officers, and almost got a gun out of its holster, before they decided to taser him. This hypothetical organization could put the events into context, and could report when someone is lying by digging up their own words or actions previously reported (just as one example). The average person could trust this source of information because it would be free from selfish influences.