The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘computers’

The World Just Wasn’t Ready, and Other News

December 11, 2014 | by

webvan mark coggins

Rest in peace, WebVan. Photo: Mark Coggins, via Flickr

  • Tim Parks was dismayed to find that his students were so enthralled by “the printed word and an aura of literariness” that they’d miss obvious absurdities in what they were reading. His advice? “Always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write ‘splendid,’ but also, ‘I don’t believe a word of it.’ And even ‘bullshit.’ ”
  • On a similar note, Oxonians are obsessed with finding marginalia in their library books: on Facebook, the Oxford University Marginalia group “now has two thousand five hundred and three members, making marginalia to Oxford something like what a cappella is to Princeton. ‘The Oxford libraries are still heavily used, and the curriculum remains relatively stable, so you have so many students reading the same texts’ … ‘The books are thrashed, basically.’ ”
  • Not many people are managing to slog through literary best sellers, experts say: “A study has shown the most downloaded ebooks of the year were not necessarily ever finished by hopeful readers.” Just 44 percent of readers made it through The Goldfinch, and 28 percent got through Twelve Years a Slave.
  • Crummy computer news, part one: they’re better at flirting than we are. “Women were okay, able to judge with 62 percent accuracy when a man was flirting with them. Men were worse, accurately guessing that a woman was flirting just 56 percent of the time. The Stanford guys’ flirtation-detection system, in comparison, was able to correctly judge flirting with 71 percent accuracy.”
  • Crummy computer news, part two: all the seemingly horrendous dot-com ideas of the nineties were actually pretty decent. Remember WebVan? No? They wanted to use the Internet to deliver fresh groceries to your door—just as dozens of profitable companies are doing today.

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The Crack-Up

July 22, 2014 | by

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Image via Markscheider/Wikimedia Commons

For longer than I care to admit, I have been unable to scroll down on my computer. This is only the latest in a series of laptop-related inconveniences, but, given the nature of my employment, is something of a problem. If you manage to catch the scrolling bar to the far right of the screen, you can generally navigate okay, but if you relax your vigilance for a moment and move your cursor, that option is closed, and it is necessary to refresh the screen. At least, that’s the only way I know how to do it.

I have lived without video and Flash capacity for some five months now, and it has been a rich, full life, but this scrolling situation seems untenable. I am going to have to go to the Genius Bar, a prospect I dread.

It’s not that I mind the trip, the wait, or even the well-deserved condescension of the Geniuses. At least this time around, there is no varicolored crayon wax mysteriously covering my computer, leading me to mumble some absurd, half-formed lie that implied I either had small children or was a preschool teacher. I’m just terrified that they’re going to tell me the computer can’t be saved, that the scrolling is indicative of a more serious—terminal—illness. (From this you might imagine how conscientiously I deal with actual medical issues.) Read More »

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Bad Connection

June 17, 2014 | by

Living with the Turing test.

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Researchers from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) using an IBM type 704 electronic data processing machine in 1957. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As of last week, the Turing test has—allegedly—been passed. In 1950, Alan Turing famously predicted that in the early twenty-first century, computer programs capable of sending and receiving text messages would be able to fool human judges into mistaking them for humans 30 percent of the time, and that we would come to “speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” Two weekends ago, at a Turing test competition held at the Royal Society in London, a piece of so-called “chatbot” software called “Eugene Goostman” crossed that mark, fooling ten of the thirty human judges who spoke with it.

The official press release described this as a “milestone in computing history”—a “historic event.” Was it? We should not, of course, take a press release’s word for it. (Said release describes the winning chatbot program as a “supercomputer,” a head-scratching conflation of hardware with software.)

The release says this is the first time a computer program has scored above 30 percent in an “unrestricted” Turing test. This appears to be plausibly true. We don’t have access to the transcripts of these conversations—the organizers declined my request—but we know that the persona adopted by the winning chatbot (“Eugene Goostman”) was that of a thirteen-year-old, non-native-speaking foreigner. The Turing tests of the 1990s were restricted by topics, with the judge’s questions limited to a single domain. Here, the place of those constraints has been taken by restricted fluency: both linguistic and cultural. From correspondence with the contest organizers, I learned that the human judges were themselves chosen to include children and nonnative speakers. So we might fairly argue about what, for a Turing test, truly counts. These questions are deeper than they seem. Read More »

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Warhol via Floppy Disk, and Other News

April 25, 2014 | by

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Andy Warhol, Andy2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

  • Shakespeare: playwright, poet, armchair astronomer. “Peter Usher has a very elaborate theory about Hamlet, in which the play is seen as an allegory about competing cosmological worldviews … Claudius happens to have the same name as Claudius Ptolemy, the ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer who we now associate most closely with the geo-centric Ptolemaic worldview.”
  • From the mideighties: Andy Warhol’s rediscovered computer art.
  • New research by the University of California-San Diego’s Rayner Eyetracking Lab—nobody tracks eyes like the Rayner—suggests that speed-reading apps might rob you of your comprehension skills.
  • I have been surreptitiously scrutinizing faces wherever I go. Several things have struck me while undertaking this field research on our species. The first is quite how difficult it is to describe faces … We might say that a mouth is generous, or eyes deep-set, or cheeks acne-scarred, but when set beside the living, breathing, infinitely subtle interplay of inner thought, outward reaction and the nexus of superimposed cultural conventions, it tells us next to nothing about what a person really looks like.”
  • In Germany, business is booming. The secret: pessimism. “German executives are almost always less confident in the future than they are in the present.”
  • Discovered in an archive of the LAPD: more than a million old crime-scene photographs, some of them more than a century old.

 

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Immune System

March 26, 2014 | by

Living in fear of 1999’s Melissa virus.

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My father died when I was six, and though I didn’t, couldn’t, step into his shoes, I did inherit his role as my family’s IT guy. When I was around eight, I installed Windows 95 on our home computer with no adult assistance. This was a source of enormous pride and stress. I had dreams involving catastrophic software failures, corrupt data, red error boxes, low-res neon-green background screens. I wanted to find something arcane in Windows 95, something mystical. I looked through every file it installed on our computer.

A few years later, at my prodding, we bought an America Online subscription and lurched into the merge lane of the Information Superhighway, where my stress compounded. If I had any doubt that the Internet was a wild, dangerous place, it was dispelled by the bray and hiss of the 56k modem, which seemed to tear into my phone line—implying the abrasion and contusion necessary to connect.

After that, though, came the chipper baritone of the AOL spokesman: “Welcome!” Within the cheery confines of AOL’s walled garden—buddy lists, channels, chat rooms—I felt, as the company wanted me to, safe. I had a screen name. I had a password. Read More »

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Brian Christian on ‘The Most Human Human’

March 14, 2011 | by

Photograph by Michael Langan.

Brian Christian, who studied computer science, philosophy, and poetry, has just published his first book, The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive. Recently, he answered my questions about the Turing test, online romance, and conversation fillers.

Your new book has an odd but intriguing title: The Most Human Human. Can you explain what it means?

The Most Human Human is an award given out each year at the Loebner Prize, the artificial intelligence (AI) community’s most controversial and anticipated annual competition. The event is what’s called a Turing test, in which a panel of judges conducts a series of five-minute-long chat conversations over a computer with a series of real people and with a series of computer programs pretending to be people by mimicking human responses. The catch, of course, is that the judges don’t know at the start who’s who, and it’s their job in five minutes of conversation to try to find out.

Each year, the program that does the best job of persuading the judges that it’s human wins the Most Human Computer award and a small research grant for its programmers. But there’s also an award, strangely enough, for the human who does the best job of swaying the judges: the Most Human Human award.

British mathematician Alan Turing famously predicted in 1950 that computers would be passing the Turing test—that is, consistently fooling judges at least 30 percent of the time and as a result, generally considered to be intelligent in the human sense—by the year 2000. This prediction didn’t come to pass, but I was riveted to read that, in 2008, the computers came up shy of that mark by just a single vote. I decided to call up the test’s organizers and get involved in the 2009 contest as one of the human “confederates”—which meant I was both a part of the human “defense,” trying to prevent the machines from passing the test, and also vying with my fellow confederates for that intriguing Most Human Human award. The book tells the story of my attempt to prepare, as well as I could, for that role: What exactly does it mean to “act as human as possible” in a Turing test? And what does it mean in life?

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