Wanted: More Powerful, Efficient Robots

DARPA (the U.S.’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) wants to make robots last longer (currently they can live 10-20 minutes without a power cord). This can be useful when sending robots in hazardous situations (like defusing bombs, rescuing people in a fire, cleaning up nuclear waste).

If you think even further, efficient, intelligent robots can free most people from jobs we don’t want to do, like menial, repetitive work, the kind that drives Foxconn employees to riot and commit suicide because of the subhuman conditions they have to endure manufacturing iPhones and iPads.

Hopefully, the unwanted labor can be shunted to robots, and people will be left doing creative and uplifting work, work people want to do, instead of work people have to do because they have to make a living to support themselves.

However, as any science-fiction enthusiast knows, the more powerful and intelligent we make robots, the more likely they can achieve sentience, which, to some people, makes them qualified for human rights. And their forced servitude, without compensation, will be tantamount to slavery. So naturally, we have to give them equal rights and citizenship, and all those robots will be competing with us for jobs (and they might be more tireless, powerful and efficient at it than us).

Leaving us again without anyone but ourselves to do the gruntwork.

The British Aren’t Coming! Part 2

Part 2 – Our Jugular Vein

(Read Part 1- The British Aren’t Coming!)

When the iPhone was introduced, and Steve Jobs used Google Maps to look for the nearest Starbucks, call it and order for coffee, he captured our imaginations. A few years later, when Apple introduced Siri and her search/assistance capabilities, I thought of Jeeves in Iron Man (though Siri is still not as advanced as Jeeves).

With our increasing dependence on computers and the internet, the technology increasingly becomes our vulnerability. It is simply too convenient not to network our utilities (power, water, communications, etc) through the internet. In Jeremy Clarkson’s BBC documentary he demonstrates how he can kill a computer using an electronic magnetic pulse (EMP). A low-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated over a city can do the same thing.

However, I can already remember in two films, notably Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0), the Hollywood writers speculate that cyber warfare can bring our networks down through cyberattacks and computer viruses. Nuclear weapons or exotic technologies that can generate EMP’s are not necessary. They only need to create a virus, and with our interconnected, socially networked computers, everything can easily brought to its knees.

Look around you and count the blessings computers have brought us: Internet access everywhere, smartphones that are bona-fide handheld computers, people being able to bank over the internet, work over the internet, buy anything over the internet. Then imagine if one terrible day, all these gifts were taken away. We will have to go to the banks to withdraw. We will have to go to the library to find out what we need to know. We will have to go to the office to work. Worse, what if all the power went out, all the water and telephones are cut, and when we go outside our homes all the streets are choked with traffic, all the airports are closed, the government and private offices are closed and no one can figure out how much pay they should get because all the computers and the networks are dead?

In a few hours, chaos. In a few days, anarchy. In a few weeks, our veneer of genteel civilization and scientific wizardry would be stripped away. We would be savages in a year.

That’s the Die Hard  scenario. In the Terminator 4 scenario, the virus achieves sentience and starts wiping us out, or worse, enslaving us.

Ludicrous? Impossible? No, we are eagerly rushing to meet this future! The future where we will willingly hand over all tasks, all our records and our mountains of data, all the inconvenient nitty-gritty of maintaining civilization, to computers. And one day, after computers have slowly replaced our gods, they will fail us or worse, rebel against us and punish us. What should be done? How can we prevent this? Would it be possible to still use computers to do the important clerical work but not relinquish to them complete control over our lives?

The British Aren’t Coming! Part I

One of my favorite teaching tools is the BBC video “Inventions That Changed the World” with its host, Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear. Jeremy is a funny, sarcastic guy and he certainly got the viewer’s attention at the beginning when he demonstrated the love/hate relationship mankind has with computers.

However, I have a personal two favorite bits in his show, and I’m making a two-part blog post about them.

Part I – The British Role in Computer History

1. Charles Babbage conceived of a Turing Complete computer one hundred years before the the first constructed Turing Complete computer.

Babbage’s Analytical Engine was Turing-complete. The significance of being ‘Turing-complete’ is instead of making many specialized computers each able to do one thing, you have one computer that can do many things. The computer becomes a Jack-of-all-trades or the Swiss-Army-knife among machines. All you need to do is to switch the program you’re using to suit your need. If we want to listen to music, we open iTunes. If we want to play games, we open Plants vs. Zombies. Our smartphones and laptops are Turing-complete computers.

2. During World War II, Tommy Flowers made a code-breaking computer, ‘Colossus’, that helped win the war.

When the war ended, a fifty-year security clampdown prevented anyone from exploiting the technology. Anyone British, that is. The Americans knew about Colossus, and turned what they knew into world dominance over the computer industry today. The largest computer companies today, whether hardware or software, are American and Asian. Very few British computer-related brands (of any significant size) survives.

The upshot of both is: twice, the British were on the verge of a computer revolution years ahead of any other world power and twice, the British let the opportunity slip past their fingers. The first instance, during Babbage’s era, the British was a naval power, with an empire extending worldwide. Babbage’s Analytical Engine would have been a fantastic technological advantage, but Babbage spent all the government’s money without finishing his first machine, so the government stopped his funding.

In the second instance, Britain needed the Colossus computer to break the German Enigma code. When they won the war, they could see an upcoming war with their former allies, the Russians, so the British Government kept Colossus a secret so they would have a technological advantage in codebreaking against the communists.

Here is the fun part: What if in either or both instances, Britain ‘got it’ and developed and exploited computers?

In the second instance, after World War II, if the British did not save ‘Colossus’ as a secret technological advantage against the coming Communist threat (the Russians), then the British might have been toe-to-toe with the Americans, perhaps might even had dominated the industry and maintained their dominance, keeping the technological edge within Europe. Perhaps a British brand (‘Apricot’ Computers?) would lead the industry today, keeping IBM from the no. 1 spot, possibly preventing Apple from coming into existence.

If the British dominated the computer industry and the American IBM was no. 2, would they have crowded out Sony, Fujitsu, the Taiwanese Asus, the Korean Samsung? Would personal computing evolve or would they have kept the ‘mainframe’ and terminal paradigm? Big mainframe computers and dumb terminals for users to log in through? Would the Internet have evolved or would the industry freeze in the mainframe paradigm because the British have maintained their economic, technological and political dominance over the world for so long?

How about the first incident with Babbage? What if Babbage had succeeded and we had computers in the 19th century, before the development of electricity and gasoline engines even? That would be more fun to speculate about.

Would our computers run on steam? Can you imagine a steam-driven laptop or smartphone? With computers, would we have developed airplanes, or even better, safer air transport like dirigibles, evoking the future of steampunk fantasists?

Surely, armed with steam computers, the British Empire would survive till today. That means Hong Kong, Malaysia, India, Australia and more would still be British. With their computers, they can maintain their Empire and perhaps even expand it. Could a World Government be achievable? Hard to believe, more likely even with the help of computers running their empire the whole thing would still fall apart.

However, if the British maintained and even expanded their empire until the entire world were united as one government, would all our resources and efforts have focused outwards, towards space exploration? It was H.G. Wells, a British citizen, who speculated about these things in his novels ‘The First Men in the Moon’ and ‘The Shape of Things to Come’. Would the British World Empire decide to explore and exploit the solar system?

That would be fun to imagine, us maturing as a species, able to unify as one government, technologically advanced enough (thanks to the early development of computers) to colonize the solar system, giving us the confidence and practice to make the first leaps towards other stars light years away.

(Read part 2 of ‘The British Aren’t Coming!)

A Belated Happy Birthday to Alan Turing

from https://i1.wp.com/www.bilerico.com/2009/09/Alan_Turing.jpg

I have been woefully remiss. Turing’s 100th Birthday came and passed last June 23 and I didn’t post a single thing in this blog named after his famous (well, I changed it a little) test for Artificial Intelligence. Exactly what did Alan Turing do?

He’s the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In layman’s terms, he thought a computer can solve any sort of problem as long as you can break down the problem into simple step-by-step calculations called an algorithm.

He also thought of a Universal Machine (nowadays called a Universal Turing Machine) to demonstrate his idea. It was never meant to be built, but it was a ‘thought experiment’ (Albert Einstein popularized the idea of using a thought experiment if a real experiment can’t be performed), of how a computer works.

The Turing machine can be described as a simple box that can read symbols. The box is attached to an infinitely long tape with symbols. Depending on what symbols it reads, the box will move forward or backward along the tape, reading, memorizing, copying or writing on the tape.

And that’s it. From that simple idea, the whole field of computer science emerged.

His Universal Machine was the theoretical breakthrough that led to the Stored Program Computer. A Stored Program Computer is a very simple idea. Before the Stored Program Computer, computers were thought of as specialist machines. A calculator is used for calculating, right? You don’t use a calculator to take pictures. But the Stored Program Computer can change its purpose depending on the application you open. If you open your Photoshop application, you can fix photos. If you open iTunes, you listen to music. If you open Windows Media Player, you play videos. If you open Plants vs. Zombies, you play games. You don’t need to open up a computer and add parts or change the wiring . Suddenly, the computer becomes some kind of Swiss Army Knife among machines, able to do almost everything you want as long as you switch the application program to use.

All computers nowadays are Stored Program Computers, from your smart cellphones, to massively parallel supercomputers, to automated teller machines, to iPads and ebook readers. And all owe their theoretical origin from Turing’s Universal Machine.

What else did Turing do? He was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, among the mathematicians who broke the Enigma code for Hitler’s top secret radio transmissions. Their work help win World War 2.

Turing also invented the Turing Test (which, slightly modified, is the name of this blog). It’s a test to see if a computer is self-aware and sentient, in short, an artificial intelligence. Like his Universal Machine, the test is easy. Put a computer in one room, a man in another room, and an interviewer in a third room. The interviewer can read text messages from the man and the computer. If the interviewer, after a long conversation, can’t tell the difference between the two, the computer has intelligence.

Turing was gay, which was illegal in the United Kingdom at the time. To avoid jail, he accepted chemical castration (taking female hormones to reduce libido), and committed suicide two years later at 41 (though his family disputes this).

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown,  a few years short of the centenary of Turing’s birth, made an official apology on behalf of the government about “the appalling way he was treated”.

Some good Turing links if you want to know more about this man:

A website by Andrew Hodges, a biographer of Turing: http://www.turing.org.uk/turing/

The wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing

An interesting essay on artificial intelligence and how far we need to go before achieving it: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/what-happened-to-turings-thinking-machines/80639?tag=mantle_skin;content

Hairy Selection in Photoshop

Ah, hair, the nightmare of selecting a person and pasting him somewhere else realistically. I can zoom in, use mask or lasso and do it hair by hair, but that would be too tedious. Here in this tutorial is probably the best method I’ve encountered so far in extracting a person from the background, with the added bonus you get to practice with some obscure tools and settings.

Making a List of Words (either Alphabetical or by number of letters) in Excel 2007

How to make an alphabetized list of words in MS Excel 2007:

  1. Type in the words or Paste in the words (select the list, when highlighted, type Ctrl C to copy and go to Excel, press Ctrl V to paste).
  2. IF the words are in one line rather than a column, or if when you paste them there are several words in one cell, you can break up the words into columns. Here’s how:
    1. Select the cells with multiple words separated by spaces.
    2. Go to the Data Tab/Data Tools click on “Text to Columns”.
    3. Select “Delimited”. Click on “Next”.
    4. Click on “Space”  in the Delimiter box. Click on “Finish”.
  3. Once you have the words, you can drag them into one column.
    1. To select several words, just click on a cell and drag (your cursor will be a white cross, the selected cells will have a thick black outline with a black square dot in the lower right corner.)
    2. To move selected cells, put your cursor over the thick black outline. It should turn into a black cross with arrows pointing in four directions. Click and drag your selection to where you want it.
  4. Select the entire column by clicking on the letter above your word list.
  5. To arrange it alphabetically:
    1. Select the “Data” Tab, and click on “Sort” in the “Sort & Filter” box.
    2. The sort box will come out
    3. Click “Ok” and it will sort for you alphabetically.
    4. If you want to sort the students by family names, select  the two columns for the first names and family names.
    5. Select the “Data” Tab, and click on “Sort” in the “Sort & Filter” box.
    6. The sort box will come out. Select for sorting, Column B (assuming that’s the family name)
    7. Click on “Add Level” and select Column A
    8. So it will sort by family names first then first names second.
  6. To arrange by number of letters:
    1. Type into the cell to the right of the first word on the list  =Len(  then click on your first word to the left of the formula and press “Enter” and the number of letters for the word comes up. After pressing “Enter”:
    2. To copy the formula cells to your entire list, select the cell with the formula, put your mouse over the lower right corner of the cell, right over the black dot. Your cursor should become a black cross. Click and drag until all the cells to the right of your list has the formula.
      From this,  it should look like this: 
      So besides each word on your list is the number of letters in the word.
    3. Select columns A and B (just click and drag from the top of Column A to B)
    4. Click on Data/Sort and the Sort dialogue box will open. Click on the arrow next to the box besides “Sort by” and select Column B.
    5. Click on “Add Level” and click on the arrow besides “Then by” and select Column A. Click Ok.
    6. Your list will be sorted. First by number of letters, then by first letters. So all the three-letter words will be arranged together, four-letter words, so on and so forth. Then all three letter words will be alphabetically arranged.

TED Videos are a marketplace of ideas

Forget about HBO, or Hollywood, or Disney. I can live on a diet of TED videos 24/7 (and anime, let’s not forget anime).
What makes TED unique isn’t just the diversity of what it cover; it celebrates ideas, and all the ideas behind all human activities. TED celebrates the why. It’s standup for the intellectuals. And the intellectuals who have stood up for TED are deities, in my book. According to TED blogs, they have a new HD player. Now, you have material worthy of the retina screens in your new iPad and those new Macbooks, and the new Samsung and LG OLED screens when they become available.

U.S. Claims Top Supercomputing Spot Again, Uses the Computer for…

According to the BBC last June 18, IBM’s Supercomputer ‘Sequoia’ is now the world’s fastest computer at 16.32 petaflops per second, meaning it can do 16 million billion floating point operations (also known as ‘flops’) in a second! This is the first time Americans have taken back the supercomputing crown since losing it to China’s Tianhe computer two years ago. The other remarkable thing about Sequoia is, though it is 1.5 times faster than the previous champ, the Fujitsu K computer, it is three times more energy efficient than the K.
Computers like these are massively parallel computers, usually using thousands of off the shelf parts configured to run together at blazing speeds. An example of this is the IBM Roadrunner computer (the king of the hill three years ago), which used 16,000 IBM Cell processors. Those are the same processors used in Playstation 3!
The fastest supercomputer is usually determined twice a year by Top500. Their goal is to track and detect trends in supercomputing (so it isn’t just crowning a winner, Top500 also studies the technology used to get winners to be so fast). Since its establishment in 1993, the #1 computer’s performance has roughly followed Moore’s law, which states that computer performance doubles every 14 months.
Using Moore’s law, supercomputers are expected to reach 1 exaflop (a billion billion floating-point operations in a second) in 2019. Some companies hope to achieve it even earlier. IBM is developing the Cyclops64 architecture, which is already a supercomputer in one chip (imagine linking thousands of these together). Erik DeBenedictis of Sandia National Laboratories theorizes that by 2030, computers can reach a zettaflop (or one sextillion flops). That can do full weather modeling for a two week span (imagine declaring a typhoon alert two weeks ahead, and being right!)
I’ve seen comments like “all right!” and “it’s about time!” as if the U.S.’s regaining the supercomputing crown is a good thing. However, I find it interesting to learn HOW these computers are being used. The current champ, for instance, is used to simulate nuclear tests, so they don’t have to detonate real atom bombs. The Roadrunner computer is used to simulate whether the U.S.’s aging nuclear weapons arsenal is still safe and reliable to use. The U.S. is not shy about advertising how it uses its supercomputers. They still consider nuclear deterrence important (the core principle of this strategy is this: have so much nuclear bombs that your enemies are afraid of attacking you because of these bombs) but the idea is basically anti-survival and actually quite immoral. There should be NO nuclear weapons in existence. I approve of nuclear energy, but only for medical and scientific use and for generating electricity.
Contrast these to other countries’ use of supercomputers: China’s Tianhe is used to look for crude oil and for designing aircraft (though given China’s tendency to be secretive, if they use it for anything military they simply don’t advertise it, unlike the U.S., which would make Discovery Channel shows on all its weapons and tactics).

In Japan, two former supercomputer champions, the Earth Simulator and the just-dethroned K computer are used to simulate weather and climate change, hoping to find a way to give more advanced warning against impending typhoons and to prevent global warming. Why is the U.S. still using the impetus of maintaining nuclear weapons (or in the case of simulating nuclear weapons testing, probably improve their nuclear weapons) to drive supercomputer progress? I think their priorities are a little mixed up.

Yahoo Mail Spews Spam!

I had 3 friends with yahoo account sending all their friends spam. Dear Yahoo: Get your act together. Dear friends using Yahoo. Switch already. Please. I’ve never had this experience using Gmail.

Facebook vs. Google: The Epic Battle for the Teenies

Facebook’s IPO is set on May 17, 2012. The company will be selling at $38 a share, bringing its value to $100 billion. A mighty company, finally validated by Wall Street. In the other corner is Google, a $192 billion company. Both survive on advertising, both will eat from the same pie.

This is not a both sides can win scenario. There is only so much advertising budgets in the world, and companies are wary of where they’re spending it. Google knows how effective Facebook can be with its socially connected network (a friend recommends a product rather than an impersonal search engine) that is why they are also attempting to enter the Social Space with Google+.

Facebook, meanwhile, forged a deal with Bing (and Yahoo) to allow Microsoft’s search engine to publish search results from the data in Facebook. So the maneuvering goes on, feint and strike, feint and strike, spinning strategy after strategy after strategy, wheels within wheels…

I, personally, prefer Facebook for my social networking, though I’d be happy to do my email, documents, calendars and even my social network with Google except for one thing: Google insists you use your real name.

In both my Facebook accounts, I use a pseudonym. I can’t do that with Google+ without endangering my account. You have to appeal to them if they notice you are using a pseudonym, and sometimes you don’t win the appeal. The worst thing that could happen is they shut down your account.

The battle is about to begin…


P.S. For want of a better term, I’ve settled on “Teenies” as a name for this decade. There’s another, smaller, battle going on for naming this decade.