The Impending Robot Revolution


Below is a quote from Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near. To put it in context: The singularity is a time when humanity as we know it will suddenly change drastically, due to advances in technology. For example, our brains will be enhanced by nonbiological computers, and we’ll spend half our time in fully immersive virtual reality. Some of the major advances that will lead to this change are what Kurzweil refers to as “GNR”, which stands not for the name of a band with a perpetually delayed album, but for “genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.” Here is the quote:

“The most powerful impending revolution is “R”: human-level robots with their intelligence derived from our own but redesigned to far exceed human capabilities. R represents the most significant transformation, because intelligence is the most powerful “force” in the universe. Intelligence, if sufficiently advanced, is, well, smart enough to anticipate and overcome obstacles that stand in its path.”

Is it just me, or is that terrifying? This isn’t science fiction; Kurzweil actually believes this will happen in the not-to-distant future, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Yet it sounds like science fiction, and not happy utopian future science fiction, but The Matrix / Mad Max / Blade Runner / oops we destroyed the earth science fiction.

Sure, it could go either way. Maybe the obstacles standing in the path of these superhuman, superintelligent, and presumably supersized robots will be obstacles that overlap with humanity’s: global warming, crime, obesity, premature baldness. But what if their obstacles are us? We with our dull neuron-based brains and squishy bodies?

I’m sure Kurzweil has speculation on how we’ll prevent this from happening (I’m only halfway through the book). I just hope he doesn’t underestimate the human race’s ability to make extremely stupid decisions, or overlook the fact that when it comes to world-altering technology, it only takes a small group of sketchy people to get their hands on it to do great harm. Let’s hope we can overcome that stuff, though, because virtual reality would be kickass, and I do like my squishy body.

Stephen King’s Richard Bachman’s “New” Novel

I saw this book in Chapters the other day, and my eye was drawn to Stephen King’s name. Of course, this is exactly what the publishers wanted my eye to do, because everyone knows who Stephen King is, but fewer know Richard Bachman. The funny thing is, the book’s only author is Bachman, whose name you may be able to make out in tiny letters at the top. It’s only the forward that is written by King

Since when does the writer of the forward get a bigger font than the writer of the novel?

Granted, it would be less forgivable if King and Bachman were not the same person, nullifying any confusion about who wrote the book. Still, weird.

I was also surprised to see King putting out another book so soon after his last one. But it turns out that this was written in the 70s as one of the original “Bachman books”, then never released. King only rewrote Blaze recently, in addition to writing like 5 other novels from scratch. He can write books faster than I can read them.

I can’t imagine the time, motivation, and willpower it would take to write 2 or 3 novels in a year. Actually, scratch that; if I was being paid millions of dollars to live in a fancy house in Maine, and all I had to do was spooge my fantasies into a keyboard all day every day, it would take zero willpower. I’d drop everything and do that in a heartbeat. No, scratch that; in a hamster’s heartbeat.

A hamster’s heart beats over 450 times per minute!

And it’s spelled hamster, not hampster. Where does everyone get that P?

Oh, hey, maybe I should go study for my big set of exams coming up in 2 weeks instead of procrastinating by looking up animal heart rates. Unless anyone wants to offer me a novel deal for enough cash to take a few years off of school and write? I haven’t really written anything before, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. Anyone?

Overthinking


Us psychology types are constantly reading and thinking about things like logic, experimental design, and statistics. I recently came across a nice little article, Mistakes in Experimental Design and Interpretation, that summarizes a bunch of issues in designing and interpreting science experiments.

I found the last point the most interesting:

Mistake I9: Being Too Clever

Sir R. A. Fisher (1890-1962) was one of the greatest statisticians of all time, perhaps most noted for the idea of analysis of variance. But he sullied his reputation by arguing strongly that smoking does not cause cancer. He had some sensible arguments. First, he rightfully pointed out our Mistake I7, correlation is not causation. He was clever at coming up with alternative scenarios: perhaps lung cancer causes an irritation that the patient can feel long before it can be diagnosed, such that the irritation is alleviated by smoking. Or perhaps there is some unknown common cause that leads to both cancer and a tendency to smoke. Fisher was also correct in pointing out Mistake D1, lack of randomized trials: we can’t randomly separate children at birth and force one group to smoke and the other not to. (Although we can do that with animal studies.) But he was wrong to be so dismissive of reproducible studies, in humans and animals, that showed a strong correlation, with clear medical theories explaining why smoking could cause cancer, and no good theories explaining the correlation any other way. He was wrong not to see that he may have been influenced by his own fondness for smoking a pipe, or by his libertarian objections to any interference with personal liberties, or by his employ as a consultant for the tobacco industry. Fisher died in 1962 of colon cancer (a disease that is 30% more prevalent in smokers than non-smokers). It is sad that the disease took Fisher’s life, but it is a tragedy that Fisher’s stuborness provided encouragement for the 5 million people a year who kill themselves through smoking.

It’s a nice reminder that sometimes, knowing too much can get in the way of seeing the truth that’s right in front of us, and can even be deadly. If we don’t agree with some conclusion, we can whip out all the “correlation does not equal causation”, “research is still inconclusive”, and “there was no control group” we want, but that doesn’t make the conclusion false. Deep issues concerning statistics and scientific reasoning are important, sure, but sometimes we just need to look past these trees and see the giant fucking forest that’s been there all along.