5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple WordsThing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Allow me the awkward start of explaining two things before offering my lukewarm reception of “Thing Explainer.” First, I loved “What If?” (this author’s previous book.) I thought that book was brilliant, gave it my highest rating, and eagerly anticipated Munroe’s next book (this one.) Second, I didn’t deduct because this book is a pain to read on an e-reader (at least the basic model I have.) That’s on me. I should’ve known better, and accept full responsibility. All I will say on the matter is to recommend that–if you still do want to read this book—you get a hard copy. [If you have an awesome reader, your results may vary.] The hard copy is large-format, and that’s useful because the graphics are so crucial and the text can be hard to read (some of it is light text / dark background and some is dark text / light background.)

The author uses only the most common 1,000 words of the English language to explain the operations of many modern technologies (e.g. laptops and helicopters) and scientific ideas (e.g. the workings of a cell or the sun.) It’s an intriguing question, and I can see why Munroe was interested in it. Can one convey the inner workings of objects like nuclear power plants or a tree with a rudimentary vocabulary? You can. Munroe does. However, the next question is, “Should you?” I come down on the side of “no.”

One might say, “But this is a book for kids [or people with a child-like grasp of language], you aren’t the target demographic.” Perhaps, but the book doesn’t do children any favors because the brainpower needed to puzzle out what the author is trying to convey through imprecise language can be more than is necessary to expand one’s vocabulary. [e.g. What do “tall road” or “shape checker” mean to you? If you went straight to “a bridge” and “a lock,” you may be more in tune with Munroe’s thinking than I, and thus more likely to find this book appealing.] For adults, it’s like reading essays by an eighth-grader who’s in no danger of being picked for the honor roll. Without the combination of the book’s graphics and a general background in science and technology, I suspect the book would be a muddle. I’m not against explaining ideas in simple terms, but I felt the book takes it too far and it becomes a distraction.

On the positive side, the graphics are great—sometimes funny while providing enough detail to get the point across without bogging one down. Also, Munroe’s sense of humor comes through here and there throughout the book (though it’s hampered by the lack of vocabulary.)

The book includes the list of words used as an Appendix (though you obviously won’t find the word “Appendix.”)

If it sounds like something that would interest you, pick it up. It’s hard to say that I’d recommend it, generally speaking. It’s funny and educational, but it’s also distracting and tedious. I neither hated it, nor loved it. I give it the median score of “meh.”

View all my reviews

Robot Karateka Threat Underwhelming

Worried that Terminator-like robots may kick humanity out its pole position among sentient beings? You can sleep well tonight. A news report today suggests that the Karate Kid’s kicking dominance is not yet under threat by Robo-karateka.  In other words, Ralph Macchio can still out kick the state of the art karate robot. The Cobra Kai’s plans to achieve world dominance via a fleet of Karate androids have been thwarted for the time being.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

View all my reviews

Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum

The plane is the HF-24, India's first indigenous figher jet (circa 1960's)

The plane is the HF-24, India’s first indigenous fighter jet (circa 1960’s)

I visited the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum last week. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The admission fee is only 30 rupees (less than 50 cents in USD terms.) I ended up being pleasantly surprised. It took me back to childhood visits to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Granted it’s neither on the scale of the windy city’s museum nor as well-maintained, but it’s largely interactive and has some fascinating–if often retro–displays. It’s great for kids or adults who’d like to revisit the science that they’re forgetting, and to do so in a way that’s entertaining.

The museum consists of five exhibit halls and a few other stand-alone displays both inside and outside the building. Outside one will see an old locomotive, a copy of India’s first indigenously-built fighter jet, an Archimedes water drill, and a big steam turbine. One’s visit inside, unfortunately, begins inauspiciously with a solitary animatronic T-rex that looks a bit dog-eared.

Also on the ground floor, the first exhibit hall one visits is the Hall of Engines. This covers steam power, gasoline engines, turbines of various forms, as well as displays of human and animal powered technology. There are hand-crankable cut-away scale models that allow one to see how the various engine designs work. There are also cut-aways of some full-sized engines. Overhead there are a series of wire tunnels through which billiard-size balls circulate, having been hand-cranked up into the track by various mechanisms. This, I believe is intended to demonstrate gravity power, which it does in a whimsical Rube Goldberg-esque sort of way. There’s also a video on simple machines that looks like it was initially made for 1950’s school children in America.

There are two exhibit halls on the first floor (that’s the second floor to Americans), one that deals with electricity and another called “Fun with Science” that’s all hands-on exhibits intended to spark the interest of school-aged children. The former covers the basic science of electricity as well as looking at the various generation methods, including nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and fossil fuels.  The latter has interactive exhibits of the kind found in many a science or children’s museum. I would say the exhibits here are largely geared toward middle school and high school students. There is a small exhibit on the top floor that is aimed at young elementary school age students.

The second floor has a biotechnology exhibit hall as well as one that deals with space. The biotech hall covers basic biology, agriculture, and even beer brewing. The space hall discusses the history of space technology and particularly focuses on India’s Chandrayaan-1 moon-orbiting mission. (If you didn’t know that India had orbited the moon and delivered an impactor to the lunar surface, you are in good company. I had no idea either. But this was back in 2008-2009.)  Anyway, it was good to see some Indian focus. As I was traveling through the exhibit halls up to this point, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a great deal for the school children passing through this museum to take national pride in. There was a lot of material about discoveries made in places like Germany, America, and Japan, but not a lot of segments on contributions of national scientific heroes as one would expect at such a museum.

The third floor has a full-sized exhibit hall dedicated to electronics and computer technology, and part of one hall that is split between a small “Science for Children” exhibit geared toward young children (pre-school and the younger elementary grades) and a temporary exhibit on chemistry. The chemistry exhibit is the most reading-oriented exhibit, except for a couple of models and a touch screen interactive periodic table, it’s pretty much a poster exhibition. The hall of computers and electronics has many interesting exhibits, such as a cylinder supposedly containing the 42 million transistors that it takes to make up one Pentium 4 processor.

There’s a nice poster exhibit about the 2012 Nobel Prize Winners. I assume this will be updated sometime next month after the new winners have been announced.

All and all, I’d say this museum is a bargain at several times the price.

IMG_0189

The IT Revolution & Crises of Self-Importance

Source: Ed Poor at Wikipedia.en

Source: Ed Poor at Wikipedia.en

If you’re as old as I (no, I’m not Wilford Brimley old by any stretch), you remember the days when you couldn’t count on getting a hold of another person instantaneously. Incidentally, the phrase “get a hold of” is apropos. Think of other times one might use those words. If one were a practitioner of judō (i.e. a judōka), one might use that phrase when talking about seizing an opponent in anticipation of throwing them.

Herein lies an intriguing irony. The person calling is dominating the called. That is, they are writing a check on one’s time that they believe to be cashable whenever the hell they please. Therefore, one might expect the person receiving random calls at random times to suffer a diminution of self-esteem. They are, after all, at the beck-and-call of some localized bit of humanity. However, on the contrary, the perfection of the electronic-leash has spawned a growing field of narcissists.

The reasoning that drives this plague of narcissism is as follows, “I am so important that some–albeit tiny–part of the universe is at risk of collapse if I’m not ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. In other words, I am a localized superman[/superwoman.]”

The thing is, you’re really not. The deflating truth is that none of us is so important that any portion of the universe will collapse if we are unplugged from the hive for a few hours– try it.

Now, you may be saying, “Look, I have my phone on all the time, and I talk on it much of the day, but I’m not one of those loud people whose conversation lays waste  to the solitude of people around me everywhere I go.”

The thing is, you really are. Those annoying bastards that you “hurrumph” at when you’re not on the phone–that’s you when you are on it. You make a connection at a distance and, like all others, become oblivious to your immediate environment. At best you are a destroyer of solitude; at worst you are a danger to yourself and others.

Google Thinks They Know Me, We’ll See!

I sent an email to my wife asking if she wanted to have pizza tonight. Lo and behold, there was a Gmail ad for Dominos by the time I hit send. From here on out, I’m using the code “murder the butler” in place of “buy pizza.” I don’t want Google knowing that I’m carbo-loading.  I have shame. Find me an ad for that, bitches.

In related news:

“watch TV” now equals “watch gay porn”

“have a beer” now equals “fire up the crack pipe”

“masturbate” now equals “file a fraudulent insurance claim”

 

You think you know me, Google? We’ll see.

 

 

TODAY’S RANT: Puny Machines

When the machines rise up against humanity, I will be high on their list of Homo sapiens to put through the chipper-shredder.

You may be asking, “How can such an unimportant person make such a self-important statement?”

Here’s my confession: I have killed more than my fair share of consumer electronics. Let it be known for posterity that these were all cases of manslaughter–or, I guess, machineslaughter. I never once had malicious intent, nor did I ever engage in premeditation. Furthermore, in a way, I mourned the loss of these machines more intensely than I did the death of granny.

Let me say, in my defense, machines are weaklings. The good news is that I don’t worry about them taking over just yet because you can always take out a marauding terminator with a can of soda–and even make it look like an accident.

The rant part of this post has to do with the divergence between what is advertised, and what is true.

Below is a video that Lenovo has put on YouTube to show how robust their computers are.

Here was my experience, avoiding the lunging paw of a hyper cat, I spilled a drop of milk the size of a quarter onto the upper mouse buttons. This killed my mouse instantaneously (I’m aware of the irony of me killing a mouse while my cat looked on in horror.) My entire laptop died a few weeks later from what I assumed to be related causes.

Your Experience May Vary

Your Experience May Vary

Since my last machineslaughter, I’ve  quelled my killing spree by implementing three simple rules.
1.) I don’t eat in the same room as my computer.
2.) I don’t drink within 12 feet of my computer.
3.) I must close the computer any time I leave the room, if a cat is present. (This is not so much to save the laptop as to prevent the cat from composing a witty coded email such as, “a;oreanrpwipfvchaqewutheiuancvpiwe. wpn2qeyt028hnfqv-,” and sending it out to my entire email list with his butt.)

Do I resent having to walk on eggshells around consumer electronics? A little. I’d like to be able to listen to my transistor radio while taking a bath. (Research notes: Do radios still have “transistors?” Do they still make radios?)

However, what I really resent is the manufacturer making it seem like its product is indestructible when, in fact, it’s really pretty puny.

That said, I like the fact that people are tougher than the forces of robopocalypse by virtue of the fact that we can get wet.  (Of course, by that logic, fish should be our gods.)

Until next time, keep your can of Coke at the ready (but don’t drink it, that stuff will kill you.)