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Posts Tagged ‘artificial intelligence’

The Art of Insomnia, and Other News

July 15, 2016 | by

A 1955 oil painting by Dr. Seuss. Photo: The Art of Dr Seuss and Liss Gallery, via the Guardian.

  • Today in deeply disturbing ontological questions: in the not-too-distant future, we can reasonably expect to upload simulations of ourselves to computers to enjoy eternal digital afterlives. So, uh … as Michael Graziano asks: “Did you cheat death, or merely replace yourself with a creepy copy? I can’t pretend to have a definitive answer … My own perspective borrows from a basic concept in topology. Imagine a branching Y. You’re born at the bottom of the Y and your lifeline progresses up the stalk. The branch point is the moment your brain is scanned and the simulation has begun. Now there are two of you, a digital one (let’s say the left branch) and a biological one (the right branch). They both inherit the memories, personality, and identity of the stalk. They both think they’re you. Psychologically, they’re equally real, equally valid. Once the simulation is fired up, the branches begin to diverge … Is it all one person, or two people, or a real person and a fake one? All of those and none of those. It’s a Y.”
  • For those of us still among the biologically alive, there are more pressing matters, like, what happens when you and your paramour build yourselves the perfect new home for your perfect new love, and then you break up? It happens, you know. Even to famous architects, whose work survives the love affairs as a tribute to a broken heart. Leanne Shapton writes, “My friend Niklas Maak, a writer and architecture critic, took me to a house on Sardinia where the actress Monica Vitti once lived. The house, called La Cupola, was designed and built by the Italian architect Dante Bini for Vitti and her then boyfriend, the director Michelangelo Antonioni, in the late ’60s … It was beautiful. It was a wreck. It blistered on the rocky hillside: a perfect dome, gray weathered concrete and granite connected by a bridge to an eroded staircase … Looking around the main room, it was easy to imagine Vitti stepping carefully, cinematically, barefoot down the banister-free staircase that Antonioni built to watch her descend. But by 1972, Vitti and Antonioni were at the end of their affair.”

Elaborate Networks of Siphons, and Other News

May 13, 2016 | by

Detail from an illustration in an 1851 English edition of Hero’s Pneumatica.

  • While we’re on government-generated weekend-reading material: if you’re feeling morbid, you could try, instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s catalog of the ways people have died on the job. Something about its bland, administrative style makes it a chillingly effective memento mori: “Worker was crushed when tractor he was driving, pulling a bin dumper full of pomegranates, fell onto its side. Worker was possibly trying to make a U-turn while going too fast … Worker was engulfed after standing on a pile of beans at a bean plant … Worker was crushed by a rack of baked goods … Worker was eating lunch and swallowed a bee … ”
  • Well before the likes of Alan Turing, the notion of artificial intelligence came alive in automata, i.e., self-moving machines. The first robots were, in a sense, waterworks. Jessica Riskin writes:Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping … Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for handwashing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.”
  • It’s one thing to translate a dead author, who can no longer quibble with your decisions—but a living author is another matter entirely. “The few living authors I’ve translated,” Lydia Davis says in a new interview with Liesl Schillinger, “tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, Whatever you think is best, this is really your work, that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, No, that’s not it at all, and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, What exactly did you mean? Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, I’m here to help in any way I can. I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now.”

Pacing the Roman Countryside, and Other News

March 29, 2016 | by

Francis Towne, The Baths of Caracalla, 1781. Image via the British Museum/The New York Review of Books.

  • New York’s alright if you like saxophones, but it’s no place for existentialists: “When a boat carrying Albert Camus sailed into New York Harbor in March 1946, he was hailed as a moral emissary from war-ravaged Europe and the glamorous embodiment of a newfangled philosophy known as Existentialism … But a year later, Camus recalled his three months amid the city’s ‘swarming lights’ and frantic streets with a mixture of awe and bafflement. ‘I have my ideas about other cities but about New York only these powerful and fleeting emotions,’ he wrote in 1947. ‘I still know nothing about New York, whether one moves among madmen here or among the most reasonable people in the world.’ ”
  • If you think there’s no possible way for a painter to take a unique approach to the Roman ruins—because who hasn’t painted them?—look at the work of Francis Towne, whose color washes the city in eerie light: “Towne was forty-one, no stripling, when he arrived in Italy in October 1780. Born a Londoner, he had begun his career as a coach-painter, moving in his twenties to Exeter. There, he became a respected drawing master and painter of West Country landscapes, of scenes of the lakes and of North Wales. His work was admired, yet the London art establishment dismissed him as a provincial drawing teacher—while he, on the other hand, was equally disdainful in return, adopting the habit of his Exeter patrons of praising rural retirement and virtue in contrast to the vanities of city life … Towne’s paintings suggest a wariness about approaching the great city. He began with views from without, pacing the countryside … Towne preferred the back of things, the uncommon view, high walls, old Roman gates, suggesting a life beyond. He ignored modern Rome; he gives no hint of grand Papal processions, of high-life, of the color and glamor that wowed the young men on their Grand Tours.”
  • A casual reminder that spending time with Salvador Dalí was statistically all but guaranteed to yield a great story: “Dalí broke his silence. ‘My fisherman-Christ,’ he announced with a toss of the head. Before I had time to register surprise he added in a loud voice, ‘Now it is time to swim.’ Without a glance in my direction he made his way very precisely across the rocks and into the water. I decided that since I was the required audience the only course of action was to strip down to my underpants and follow him into the sea. Dalí began to utter, as though he was in a trance. As he did so he gave me my own surrealist moment, as his head appeared to be floating disembodied on the water, his eyes huge and staring past me towards the open sea, with the moustachios raised a little above the surface like twin periscopes … He launched into a declaration: ‘Every morning upon waking I experience the supreme pleasure of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí?’ ”
  • Then again, meeting Hilary Clinton can make for a great story, too, if you’re Terry Castle: “I haven’t rehearsed any jokey badinage to cast in HRC’s direction on being introduced; nor even tried out possible facial expressions in the mirror. The moment has arrived and I simply don’t know what to do. Thus it unfolds that even as Her (Mostly) Incorruptible Majesty reaches appreciatively for my hand, I am mortified to hear myself squeak out—like a dying baby bat mewling helplessly for its mother: ‘SORRYMYHANDISSOCOLD.’ Just that—all in a rush, all in a preternaturally silly little voice … Hillary Clinton—two-term First Lady, former New York Senator, US Secretary of State, legendary Iron Woman and all-around Smiling yet Fearless Maker of Executive Decisions on which our Great Country’s Future Depends—takes my frozen mitt in her own, enfolds it Don Giovanni–style, and now regards me with a rakish and appraising eye: ‘Well, Terry [she says]: We’ll Just Have to Do Something (heh heh) to Warm It Up. Won’t We? (Heh heh heh)’ Love-impaled Sappho, help me in my discombobulation! Did you hear that? HILLARY CLINTON IS FLIRTING WITH ME! She’s got my hand and she is warming it up! Bejeezus! (It’s getting positively toasty!) Not only that—my god! She’s giving me the Look! (What look?) The Look You Can’t Mistake! The Nanosecond Too Long Look! The Look you get when someone shows you her trowel for the first time! The Look you get when contemplating the Mysteries of Rosicrucianism!
  • Last week I reported in this space, perhaps with a bit of alarmism, that artificial intelligences are now writing award-winning novels and that the entire human storytelling tradition is doomed. I may have been wrong. “As Japanese publication Asahi Shimbum explains, the research team first wrote a novel of their own and then broke it down into its component parts. Only then did the A.I. involve itself, arranging the parts it had been given to create ‘another story similar to the sample novel,’ building it from words, phrases, characters, and plot outlines that had been fed to it. The Los Angeles Times claims that this means that the computers ‘did the hard work,’ which is true only if you consider plagiarism ‘hard’ … Literary algorithms almost always seem to work best when they’re producing the kind of texts such as contemporary poems in which we expect to find confusing elements.”

Pockets—They’re Still Great! And Other News

March 23, 2016 | by

Pockets!

  • The cafard and mirthlessness that have long governed French philosophers have now extended to French writers of all kinds—a new survey says they’ve never been unhappier. Their proposed solution? Surrender. “French writers have never felt more badly paid, undervalued, or under pressure … More than half of established authors earn less than the minimum wage. Many are so depressed by the state of the book industry that they are considering giving up altogether, according to a new report that canvassed more than 100,000 authors of fiction and nonfiction … Although exact comparisons are difficult to make, French writers appear to be still doing better than their British or American equivalents.”
  • BREAKING: Nicholson Baker loves pockets. Give him a good pair of pockets, he’s happier than a pig in shit. And who isn’t, really? You gonna look me in the eye and tell me you don’t like pockets? “I’m a pocket-loving guy,” Baker says in a new podcast. “At any moment I got a couple pens—like why would you have just one pen? For a long time I tried to do everything with pockets … the pocketing of things. The prestidigitational trickery of being able to move things from the world of public visibility into a private place. It sort of feels to me like writing. Or I guess, what I like about writing, is that paragraphs take your most personal observations, or embarrassments sometimes, fantasies, whatever they are, and you fill them up, and it feels as if you’re putting them away or you’re stowing them, you’re pocketing them. But then because of the weird and wonderful act of publishing, you’re making public what you have hidden.”
  • Terry Southern’s letters are full of the humor you’d expect from him, Will Stephenson writes—but as windows into his personal life, they’re curiously opaque. “There’s something cold about Southern’s persona, in other words—he’s always in character, always on. The letters come complete with scenes and dialogue—a voice that’s arch and faux-pretentious, recalling the comedian Lord Buckley—and his habit of signing them under false names only thickens the fog. Reading the book, I wondered whether Southern would have really wanted to see it published, or whether that matters. I wondered whether I even liked Terry Southern anymore, having read it … The majority of these letters, though, have to do with the labor and economics of writing … In some ways, this is the major theme of the collection—where is the next check going to come from?”
  • Alex Mar on Doreen Valiente, once dubbed “the mother of modern paganism,” who believed that witchcraft was simply a means of accessing one’s own power: “One particular image of Doreen Valiente tells two unresolvable stories at once. In this black-and-white portrait, perhaps taken in the fifties at her home in Brighton, she is, at first glance, a suburban wife seated before a pale curtain, wearing a patterned cocktail dress, a string of stones around her neck. (She was in her thirties then, her jet-black hair cut short in a wavy bob, her lips and brows painted in.) But then the photograph becomes complicated: spread before her on a table is an altar laid out with a crystal ball, a bowl, rope, candles, and incense; in one hand she holds up a large bell, in the other a ritual knife … She is the Nerd Queen, a person of rare esoteric knowledge. She is Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft … ‘I had never felt any objection to working in the nude,’ she writes. ‘On the contrary, it was fun to be free and to dance out the circle in freedom.’ ”
  • I consider it part of my job to keep you abreast of quiet advances in the robot-writing community—so you should know that artificial intelligences can now write well enough to make headway in literary contests. “In Japan, a short novel co-written by an artificial intelligence program (its co-author is human) made it past the first stage of a literary contest … Humans decided the plot and character details of the novel, then entered words and phrases from an existing novel into a computer, which was able to construct a new book using that information … The prize committee didn’t disclose which of the four computer co-written entries advanced in the competition. The Japan News reports that one of the submitted books is titled The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, which ends with the sentences ‘I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement. The day a computer wrote a novel. The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.’ ”

Thanks, Sounds Good, I Love You

December 17, 2015 | by

How Smart Reply attempts to mimic the way we talk.

Google’s inbox logo—now with an enviable, elusive sense of satisfaction.

Last month, researchers at Google unveiled Smart Reply, a piece of artificial intelligence that scans the e-mail you’re reading on your phone and suggests three possible responses. Why bother composing an answer yourself? Now you can choose one of Smart Reply’s with a quick tap. “Do you have any vacation plans set yet?” asks the sample e-mail. “No plans yet,” you might choose; or “I just sent them to you”; or “I’m working on them.”

Smart Reply uses neural networks to calibrate its future suggestions, meaning it learns from how we use it. But Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist on the project, observed a “bizarre feature of our early prototype”: “its propensity to respond with ‘I love you’ to seemingly anything.” Analysis suggested “that the system was doing exactly what we’d trained it to do, generate likely responses—and it turns out that responses like Thanks, Sounds good, and I love you are super common.” Read More »

Amazing Robot Brain Translates Russian

January 7, 2015 | by

ibm701

The general layout of the IBM 701. Photo via Computer History

Sixty-one years ago, on January 7, 1954, a massive, terrifying, IBM artificial intelligence—referred to in the press as a “giant brain,” a “robot brain,” and a “polyglot brainchild,” among other wide-eyed terms—translated more than sixty sentences from Russian into English. It was the first public demonstration of machine translation. And yeah, the people were pleased.

The computer was an IBM 701, which was, according to its manufacturer, “the most versatile electronic ‘brain’ extant,” used sixteen hours a day for “nuclear physics, rocket trajectories, weather forecasting, and other mathematical wizardry.” But translating was an entirely different pursuit, and substantially more difficult: in fact, the computer knew only six grammatical rules, and its vocabulary comprised just 250 terms.

Working with Georgetown linguists, and with dozens from the media watching in IBM’s New York headquarters, a woman “who didn't understand a word of the language of the Soviets punched out the Russian messages on IBM cards.” (They used a Romanized version of Russian.) She began with sentences about chemistry, which probably unnerved the newsmen in attendance—how were they supposed to captivate readers with such examples as “The quality of coal is determined by calorie content” and “Starch is produced by mechanical methods from potatoes”? Read More »

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