Learning To Speak Chatbotese

So, two chatbots were learning to negotiate and were talking to each other.

(This sounds like the first line of a bad joke, doesn’t it?  And for those of you, like me, who aren’t exactly sure what “chatbots” are, they are computer programs designed to engage in simulated conversations with human beings, such as over the internet.  I think they also can be called “dialog agents.”)

Anyway, researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab were using “machine learning” to train these two chatbots to negotiate and deal with each other, through talking or engaging in “simulated conversations,” or whatever.

70720-the-terminator-endo-skeleton(“Machine learning,” for those of you who are clueless about it like me, is an artificial intelligence model in which computer behavior isn’t tied to specific, fixed programming.  Instead, it involves the use of analytical algorithms that allow computers to review and “learn” from data, with the computer programming changing as new data is assimilated, thereby hopefully allowing the computers to identify new insights or patterns in the data they are reviewing.  Got it?  Well, I’m not sure I really do, either, but at least I didn’t use the word “iterative” in describing it.)

So, anyway, the researchers were observing these two chatbots that were using machine learning to develop their negotiation abilities when the researchers noticed something odd:  the two chatbots had stopped using human language and started to use a language of their own.   And they also quickly picked up on standard techniques that allowed them to become pretty effective negotiators.

Interesting, isn’t it, that computers using techniques that allowed them to follow their own leads ended up realizing that human language wasn’t the most efficient way to proceed, and decided to  develop their own form of communication?  And, in so doing, they scratched off another of the former dividing lines that are supposed to differentiate humans from everything else — the ability to develop language.  It would be fascinating to know what the chatbot language was like.  What were the words used?  Did it involve any adverbs?

We’re on the far technology frontiers these days, where we’re inching closer to true artificial intelligence and computers that think for themselves and, presumably, will start to factor their own interests into what they are doing.  You can think of the Terminator movies, or 2001, or The Matrix, or any of a slew of sci-fi novels where computers go rogue and target humanity — or you can hope that computers will just be happy to acquire some form of self-awareness, without using their remorseless computer logic to judge the imperfect humans that created them and find them wanting.

Maybe the chatbots invented a word for that.

A True Clockwork Expert

More than two hundred and fifty years ago — so long ago that America was still a collection of diverse, squabbling colonies — a British carpenter and clockmaker named John Harrison made an outlandish claim.  He contended that he had designed a pendulum clock that, if wound properly and in timely fashion, would keep time so accurately that it would lose only one second of time over a 100-day period.

clock_3272964b.jpgYou would think that Harrison’s claim would have had some credibility, because he had just invented a device that had solved one of the knottiest problems confronting the British Empire of that day — namely, allowing sailors to figure out their longitude on long sea voyages.  Latitude could be determined by looking at star charts and comparing constellations to the horizon, but longitude posed a seemingly impossible problem.  Harrison solved it by creating the chronometer, a device that kept remarkably precise time calculated from Greenwich, England.  By determining the local time, such as high noon, and then comparing it to the Greenwich time kept by Harrison’s clock, sailors could calculate how far away they were and determine their longitude.

But even though Harrison had solved the longitude problem, and won a large prize from the British government for his ingenuity, his claim to be able to build such an accurate pendulum clock was met with churlish derision.  Harrison was ridiculed, his claims were said to involve “an incoherence and absurdity that was little short of the symptoms of insanity,” and his clock design was forgotten for centuries.  But Harrison’s achievements became the subject of interest again in the 1970s, and a clockmaker attempted to decipher Harrison’s plans for the clock and build a replica.

Harrison’s design, called simply “Clock B,” then was tested, and the test results confirmed that Harrison was right all along.  During its carefully controlled 100-day trial, Clock B lost only 5/8 of a second when measured against official Greenwich time, and it was declared by Guinness World Records to be the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”  Centuries after his death, Harrison was vindicated:  he was right, his critics were wrong, the design of Clock B was an amazing accomplishment for a clockmaker who lived during the mid-18th century,

It just goes to show you — sometimes the conventional wisdom isn’t wisdom at all.

I Have A Dumb Refrigerator

As the world reels in the face of another computer hacking attack, this time at the hands of the “wannacry” virus, I have come to realize that my refrigerator is dumb — and I really prefer it that way.

img_4173It sounds mean to say that my refrigerator is not “smart,” but it’s true.  It’s shiny on the outside but not very bright, if you know what I mean.  It keeps our food cool, or downright frozen, and it gives us ice and cold water at the thrust of a cup, but that’s about it.  It’s not linked to the internet or controlled by an app.  It’s not programmable and tracking data about electrical usage that I can access when I’m drinking coffee at the office.  It doesn’t stream music or take verbal commands or have an inside/outside video camera or suggest recipes when we’re trying to decide what to have for dinner.

It’s embarrassing to say it, I guess, but our other key appliances — the stove, the oven, the microwave, and the washer and dryer — are pretty much equally dumb.  It’s not their fault, it’s just the way they were made.  In fact, they probably even lack the self-awareness to recognize that they are . . . different from their more gifted cousins.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure that we have any really smart devices around the house.  Our seven-year-old car has satellite radio and a GPS system, but that’s about it in the high-tech department.  These days, that’s kindergarten stuff.  Our TV allows us to access various content providers, so it’s probably at about the third-grade level.  And our 10-year-old desktop computer is so laughably backward that it might as well be sitting on a stool in the corner with a dunce cap on.

So in our household, we’re surrounded by dumbness.  But with each new hacking attack, I’m thinking that’s really not such a bad thing.  While our refrigerator might not get great test results in the smart appliance department, at least we know it’s not spying on us, or accumulating personal information that some hacker could access, or subject to being controlled by the next round of North Korean mischief.  When the next “wannacry” or “stuxnet” or “bindlehoffer” virus is sweeping the globe and paralyzing smart households, it’s reassuring to know that our refrigerator will still be purring along, keeping the cottage cheese and beer cold.

When You Know Your Doctor Is A Hopeless Nerd

Look, I love the original Star Trek TV series as much as any ardent Trekker.  I loved Kirk, and Spock, and Bones, and Scotty’s thick Scottish accent, and Uhura and the cool little gadget she wore that stuck out of her ear, and Sulu and Chekhov.  I even liked some of the bad guys, like Kang and the Romulan woman with the bad complexion that Spock seduced in one of the later, forgettable episodes.

3-27-14-1But even I would never try to invent a tricorder like the one used on the original series.  Of course, as any dedicated fan of the show knows, the tricorder was a device that allowed the crew of the Starship Enterprise to gather enormous amounts of information simply by vaguely waving the tricorder in the general direction of an object or person.  In the classic episode City on the Edge of Forever, where Kirk must kill his beloved Edith Keeler, Spock apparently used a tricorder to record millennia of human history being displayed by the time portal that allowed Bones to go back in time and change human history so the Nazis won World War II.  (Trust me — this synopsis, while totally accurate, doesn’t do the episode justice.  It really is a great episode.)

But I digress.  Three ER doctors from Philadelphia, who seized upon the fact that Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy used the tricorder in diagnosing the medical condition of his patients, have invented their own version of the tricorder.  Their device monitors vital signs, goes through a series of questions that assist in the diagnosis, and ultimately helps the doctor to come up with a determination of what’s wrong with the patient.

So, these doctors are total Star Trek nerds — a conclusion confirmed by the fact that, as the article linked above shows, they had their picture taken in replicas of the uniforms worn by crew members in the original series.  So what?  It looks like they’ve been inspired by the show to create a useful diagnostic tool, which is a good thing.  No word, however, on whether this tricorder also makes that really cool whirring sound that fans of the show remember so well.

Next up — the transporter!

The Fall Of ESPN

Is ESPN the Blockbuster of broadcast TV?

Those of you who are over, say, 35 probably remember Blockbuster.  It was the place where you went to buy, or rent, new video releases.  For a time in the ’90s, you couldn’t go to any suburban strip shopping center without seeing a busy Blockbuster store thronging with people eager to get their hands on the new releases.  But then . . . things changed.  New methods of getting entertainment delivered directly to our houses were developed that made going to the Blockbuster store seem inconvenient, and expensive, and clunky, and kind of a pain in the ass.  And before you knew it, all of those Blockbuster stores were gone.

sc2ESPN seems to be following the same path.  From the new station that padded its programming with weird sports events like Australian rules football games, ESPN grew into a glitzy, multi-channel cable TV megaplayer that had an enormous impact on the sports segment of American culture.  Athletes would make a great play and mimic the Sportscenter theme song, hoping that their play would be broadcast on that nightly highlights show.  ESPN broadcast anchors became celebrities.  In 2011, ESPN had 100 million cable TV subscribers.

But then . . . things changed.  ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers, and those numbers continue to decline.  Ratings are down, and the channel has had to make some very public layoffs of some of its familiar on-air talent.  Even this NFL draft weekend, when the coverage on ESPN used dominate the sports conversation, ESPN doesn’t seem to be quite so significant anymore.  Why is this happening?  In part, it’s because people are giving up on standard cable TV in favor of watching content on the internet.  Cable TV packages are expensive, and watching events on the internet is free.  So why sign up for increasingly expensive cable TV programming with a standard package filled with channels that you don’t watch, when you can save that money and watch what you want on the internet?

Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a Blockbuster kind of way?

There are other proffered reasons for ESPN’s decline — the high salaries it pays on-air talent, the rising cost of obtaining broadcast rights for sports events, and even the theory that ESPN has increasingly injected “liberal” political views into its broadcasts, irritating sports fans with more conservative political views — but I think the real reason is the cultural change in people’s viewing habits.  When cultural shifts occur, companies can go from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ditch in a hurry.

Who knows?  In a few years, even that iconic Sportcenter theme song might be as forgotten as the once-familiar Blockbuster logo.

Automatic Soap Dispensers And Self-Driving Cars

There are some of those automatic soap dispensers in bathrooms at the firm.  We’ve also got automatic faucets.  Both are supposed to be triggered by waving your hand underneath.  The idea is to take the messy, germy human element out of the equation, and let sensors and machines do the job neatly and cleanly.

But here’s the problem — the machines are not very precise.  Sure, for the most part they dispense the dollop of soap or the stream of water when you place your hands underneath.  But 9 times out of 10 another injection of soap occurs after you’ve moved on to the water side, and vice versa.  So, a lot of soap and water seems to get wasted.

And it’s not just the automatic soap and water dispensers at the firm, either.  How often have you found yourself at the movie theater, or the airport, or some other public place, flapping your hands like a magician having a seizure in hopes that the balky machinery will dispense soap, or water, or a tiny section of paper towel that never is sufficient to fully dry your hands?  Typically, they’re not working correctly, are they?

So when I hear about the technological wonders of self-driving cars, and then read about how one of the prototypes had one mishap or another, I nod inwardly and think:  “No surprise there.  They’re just like those stupid soap dispensers.”

I’m probably not going to be in the market for a self-driving car anytime soon.

Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.