Sunday, 23 January 2011

Artificial Intelligence Comments On Education Policy

There's a particular user on Twitter who is, in my opinion, the only user who's always going to be on the good side of average.  @cmunell is a little tedious in some ways.  She (I don't know, but it sounds like a she) doesn't really do much other than offer an opinion on some phrase she's learned somewhere.  To be honest, it's often not highbrow stuff; stunning observations such as:
I think "the-chart-show" is a ()
I think "North Creek Bridge" is a ()
I think "Dansville Municipal Airport" is an ()
 It's not anything big or clever most of the time.  Sometime though, just sometimes, she says interesting things.  She comments on people I've never heard of before, or a big economic/ideological argument in the UK at the moment:

I think "sarah marie johnson" is a ()
I think "educational books for kids" is a ()
 At this point I really have to stress for narrative, scientific and legal reasons that NELL doesn't know what she's talking about.

Well she might to be fair, which is kind of the point of this article.  I hope not though, not yet at least.  We're not ready for that.

NELL, you see, is a bot.  A computer.  Not even a computer really, as you could just change all the hardware, but she'd still be NELL.  She's simply software, in reality she's a set of instructions for a computer, she's ones and zeroes.

But she seems to be getting the hand of using the English language.  She's not always right by any means.

And I have to point out that I believe the "criminal" she's referring to is the same Sarah Marie Johnson who was convicted of murdering her parents in the US a while back.  Here's the court judgement I'm thinking of.

But if NELL isn't referring to that particular Sarah Marie Johnson (and I'm bet there's a few of them, and I bet they're bloody furious about articles like this...sorry) then is it a libel?  And if so, who gets sued?  Obviously I could be, for repeating it, but that would require the original statement be proved libellous.

So the question here is can a computer commit libel?  If NELL reads this article and concludes that Geoff Robbins is a criminal (and I've never been convicted of a crime), then could I sue?

Who?  The programmers?  They simply wrote a computer program, a scientific exploration of the human language.  And it's wrong sometimes.  Science allows for things being wrong; things being proven wrong is the lifeblood of science.  Science can never happen if nothing is ever found to be wrong.

But the law does not allow for incorrect statements in some situations.  In public, for example, and where the incorrect statement makes somebody look bad.  The call that libel, and it costs a fortune to just be accused of it.

Which has one effect.  It forces science underground, away from the public and into the private sphere.  Worse than that, it takes the innovative new ideas away from an international community and the general public (see AI on Twitter, this article), and it forces them into patent fenced commercial secrets.  Imagine a world where Einstein only allowed the nuclear military to use his ideas, and where Arthur C Clarke's satellites were useless for GPS because he'd never heard of relativity.  Secrecy makes the world worse, and libel law (in its current UK form and interpretation) forces science into secrecy.

And where does that leave NELL?

Would she like to play a game?

Is the only winning move not to play?

Saturday, 15 January 2011

First Science From The Planck Satellite - The Edge Of The Universe

Did you hear that somebody took a picture of the entire Universe?  It's slightly cooler than that, it's actually a picture of the Universe about thirteen billion years ago.  Or, more importantly, around 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

That's nothing.  As far as timing goes, that's a photo of the start of the Universe, give or take a bit of motion blur.  Well...sort of.  I'm being a little poetic, but it's the closest we can theoretically get to an honest-to-goodness photo of the Big Bang.

So yeah, it's quite impressive.  It's been done before of course, it was called the WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) which is a very complicated way to say "Human horizon map".

As I've previously mentioned on this blog, the Universe has an horizon.  It's not a two dimensional ground-sea horizon like we're used to (ie a line at a distance), it's a three dimensional horizon, a rough sphere.

And yes, it's centred on us.

That doesn't mean we're special.  We're not, we're a strange lump of matter on a small bit of debris orbiting a very average star in the backwaters of a galaxy that never amounted to much.

It's just physics.  The Universe has been around for 13.75 billion years, and causality travels at a certain speed.  Yes, yes, yes, we call it the speed of light.  That's wrong, it's a bad name and the world of science should do something about it.  "c", the physical constant, is the speed of causality.  Light happens to be one of the things that travels at that speed.

And all of this means that the light that left the Big Bang (or a moment after, once light actually started existing) is still out there.  It's always there.  It's always the-age-of-the-universe-in-light-years-away.

So all we really need to do is focus a telescope on 13.75 billion light-years, and bingo...a picture of the horizon of the Universe. (see left)

So it's no big deal, it's been done before.  A few people got the wrong end of the stick and called the picture "the face of God".  That's going a bit far whatever your views on theism, but if we're going to presume there is no god then this picture is the best we've got.  Sorry.  The point of science is we can do better.  Sure, the WMAP picture above is impressive, but the Planck satellite's first lot of data and scientific findings have been released, and they make WMAP look a little...well, what's a nice way to say obsolete with a huge amount of affection?

So here's a picture.  There's a lot of science in there, but for the moment just enjoy how pretty it is.

Image: ESA / Planck Project
Go on, click on it and revel in the full glory.  It's astoundingly beautiful.  That's a 360 degree image, of the entire Universe.

To be fair, there's a certain amount of interference.  All the blue stuff for example.  That's all hot dust, gas and various stars and stuff that's getting in the way...we call it the Milky Way, our galaxy.  The stuff beyond that is the really interesting bit, the orange/red bits to the top left and bottom right.  That's the real picture of the horizon, and there's going to be better to come once they get all that blue stuff out of the way.

And the weird oval shape?  Well that's an Aitoff projection, it's simply a way of showing the sphere of the Universe all around us, but on a 2D computer screen.

If you're really clever you write a program which wraps it onto a sphere and lets you fly around inside it, observing the Universe from the Planck satellite's own point of view.

If you're not quite that clever, like me, then you write the program but you can't correct for the pixel compression at the edge of the image, so there's a big belt of distortion around the middle.  And you can only make it work on Linux based computers so far.

Still, download it, give it a go, and give me a shout if it works, it's vaguely cool...
You'll need to change the permissions to make it executable ("chmod +x" or right-click the icon, properties, allow execution).

Controls:  Cursor keys plus A and Z for panning/rudder.