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That Space Cadet Glow #116
Issue 116 - 25th February 2021
In this edition I ask: How good a job does AI make of mimicking human emotions? (spoiler alert: not very); how do you get spinach to send you an email?; and what makes a genius? Plus some sweet soul music to keep you sane through lockdown. Enjoy!
Return ticket to the Uncanny Valley
It was only three issues ago (#113) that I wrote about some researchers' efforts to explore whether any object (which would by extension include AI) can have 'agency' i.e. the ability to alter the environment, and themselves, with purpose to suit an agenda. That work was very much in the realms of Artificial General Intelligence, but there are also examples where researchers are using current (but still advanced) AI to try to endow some human traits on AI , including empathy and personality. Although the work is very good, it is, in my humble opinion, way too big a stretch to compare what the AI 'experiences' and what we experience. One example is where an AI has been trained to predict the end goal of another AI. This is actually harder than it sounds because most AI predictions are concerned with what is going to happen next rather than at the end (this is akin to watching the first part of a movie and predicting the final scene rather than just what the actor is going to do next). The great thing about the work is that the inference is done by the predicting AI just watching the actor AI - there are no rules to follow or labels to check. Watch enough examples and eventually (to an accuracy of 98.5% apparently) it can work out the intent of the actor AI. It really depends on how you define empathy, but I don't think many people would suggest that the predicting AI has actually developed 'empathy' as we would experience it. In another example, Microsoft has applied for a patent to create chatbots that can have the 'personality of a specific person'. They will do this by training it on images, recordings, social networks, emails, letters, etc. so that it can converse as that personality. Some of you will remember Replika which has tried this before (originally trying to recreate the creator's dead boyfriend) and, of course, that Black Mirror episode. They both focused on the more macabre angle, but even just trying to create an actual 'personality' seems too big a leap for some computer code to do. Maybe I'm ascribing too much value to human attributes, and being overly precious about it, but in my mind (excuse the pun) AI is fundamentally naive, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact again and again.
climate-emergency @ spinach.com
This is a headline you can't ignore (especially if you write an irreverent technology newsletter every month): "Scientists have taught spinach to send emails". The idea is that the spinach roots can detect minute changes in the soil (such as nitroaromatics which could indicate the presence of explosives from landmines) and then trigger an alert, in this case, an email back to the researchers. By altering how the plants photosynthesise, carbon nanotubes within the plant leaves emit a signal which is then read by an infrared camera that triggers the email. Apart from the fact that nefarious armies will learn not to bury their landmines in spinach fields (duh!), the technology could be expanded to other uses, such as detecting pollution and other environmental conditions. Now that humans have dominated and exploited all the animals, it's about time we got the plants to work for us as well...
The Dead Genius Society
O, to be a genius - to have your brilliant work flow effortlessly from your hands as though already fully formed. But apparently, it's not all it's cracked up to be. Many genii are selfish, obsessive crackpots who are a pain to be around ('almost no one loves the genius until he or she is dead'), as this stimulating article from Aeon sets out. The writer runs a 'genius course' at Yale and has been trying to distil the essence of genius through years of research, but has come to the conclusion that there are no answers. He describes an interesting thought experiment, after first trying to formulate what a genius is into an equation (Genius = Significance of the change affected x Number of people impacted x Duration of impact). He imagines Einstein on a desert island with only a few other inhabitants - could Einstein still be described as a genius if his theories only impacted a few people or they didn't have the ability or belief to follow up on them? (cf. the sound of a tree falling in a forest that no-one hears). My own question around what makes a genius brings in the aspect of 'opportunity' - would Elon Musk be described as a genius if he hadn't had billions to spend on making his visions real? Are there many more Elon Musks out there with even greater 'visionary genius' capability but without the opportunity to project or realise them? Does being a genius at making money lower the bar to becoming a visionary genius in our society? All I know is that, as a naturally (some would say voraciously) curious person, the only comfort of being firmly in the not-genius camp is that Leanardo da Vinci was once described as 'the most relentlessly curious man in history’. And that's good enough for me.
Thee Sacred Souls - It's Our Love
If your imagination has been captured by NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover, then you have to watch this video of its landing. Truly amazing.
Do you remember in the last issue I told you about facial recognition for pigs? Well now Huawei, whose mobile phone business has tanked, are launching a whole AI pig farming project.