Entries Tagged 'ideas' ↓

Your Brain, Copyright, and Lossy Compression

Last week, the New Zealand government passed a controversial copyright law related to file sharing. This was partly outrageous because of the use of urgency to pass these laws without due consultation. If you watch any of the videos from that particular debate, it will shine a light on just how clueless the majority of NZ’s politicians are. The notable exceptions are Clare Curran and Gareth Hughes. However, this isn’t a post about the politics! Instead I want to talk about the philosophy behind copyright and how as technology becomes an intrinsic part of our intelligence, the less sense it makes to challenge the personal dispersal or storage of information.

For a good introduction to the topic, read this post on the “colour of bits”. The post outlines the conflicting viewpoints on information: How computer scientists can’t academically differentiate between one copy of a copyrighted piece of data and another, but the pressure from law to try to make something up regardless (e.g. DRM). It also discusses how, if you perform a reversable mathematical transformation of the bits you are fundamentally changing the data but can restore it at any moment. If you can do that, is the transformed version copyrighted too? Given that with the right transformation you can turn any sequence of bytes into any other. That means there is only one copyright holder: the universe.
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Idea: Combine Flattr and Boxee

This is something I’ve been simmering on for a while, hoping against hope that an influx of spare time might let me implement it. Alas, it seems unlikely, so here’s a post to push it into the collective unconscious of the internet.

Boxee is a platform for media PCs based on XBMC which is free to download (they eventually plan to release a hardware appliance). Flattr is a social micropayment site, who I think have got the payment system just right (fixed monthly amount you can choose, Flattr evenly distributes that amount amongst the things you “flattr”, that way you can freely flattr things without worrying about breaking the bank).

I would like to combine the two. I have a lot of media, but I rarely watch broadcast TV. I’m not purposefully trying to avoid the media creators being paid, but:

  • I want to watch shows when and where I feel like it, not at designated times.
  • I don’t want to be bombarded by inane advertising that is so blatantly manipulative and in your face that it usually puts me off the products.
  • I don’t want to accumulate more physical stuff by buying bits of plastic (aka DVDs)
  • I hate iTunes – I wouldn’t trust it to do… well anything, except reliably have the GUI thread lock up while trying to use it (yes, on OSX as well as Windows)

Thus I resort to downloading torrents and sharing media with friends. I want to give back to the media creators, but it has to be convenient. To me, convenience is the primary factor driving piracy. I can download almost any piece of media and I can usually do it faster than it takes me to go to the shop or dvd rental store. I also don’t have to return anything or accumulate and waste physical materials.

So, my idea is, to set up a trust of some sort, which creates a plugin to be added to Boxee, this in turn flattrs the media that you watch. This trust would then be responsible for passing the payment on to the initial creators. The difficult part is getting the money to the creators, but you could allow for creators to claim content and/or only seek the creator when a certain threshold of money has been assigned to that piece of content.

Flattr also allows anonymous flattrs, so it’d hopefully protect people from being singled out for piracy while the law catches up with digital reality. Besides, you could also allow people to just flattr episodes they are fond of, so that there is no evidence of whether it’s just a fan or someone who “illegally” downloaded the show.

Measuring text information content through the ages…

Earlier this week I met with a linguistics PhD student from Victoria University named Myq, we discussed a variety of topics. I shared my experience with OpenCog and suggested he check out RelEx. He discussed his work around disproving a study which investigated the number of words required in a piece of text to retain the core meaning. Basically, a lot of the words in text/speech, although useful for stringing ideas together, are not vital to the message being carried.

This got me thinking…

Since I’m working on NetEmpathy, which is currently focussed on analysing the sentiment of tweets, the meaning within tweets (when it exists) is very high. There’s little space for superfluous flowery text when you only have 140 characters.

Myq mentioned how academic papers are a lot like this now. The meaning is highly compressed, particularly in scientific papers. You’ve got to summarise past research, state your method so that it’s reproducible, analyse the results, etc. All in a half a dozen pages. This wasn’t always the case though. In the past academic papers would be long works which meandered their way to the point. Part of this might have to do with the amount of preexisting knowledge present in society, i.e. earlier on there was less global scientific knowledge available, so to adequately cover the background of a subject wasn’t a major difficulty and they could spend more time philosophising. That’s a topic for another post though…

What I was interested is how densely information is packed. Is this increasing?

My immediate thoughts were: text compression! and measure the entropy!.

Basically, information theory dictates that text that contains less information can be represented in fewer bytes. This is why it’s possible to create lossless compression. You assign frequent symbols to be represented by smaller ones. For example, because ‘the’ is one of the most common English words, you might replace it with ‘1’ (and crudely, you could replace ‘1’ with ‘the’ so that you could still use ‘1’ normally). This way, you’ve reduced the size of that symbol by two thirds without loss of information. Obviously this wouldn’t improve your compression factor and a spreadsheet full of numbers though.

A guy called Douglas Biber has apparently already investigated this information content historically, but from a more linguistic and manual investigation.

What I’d like to do one day is examine the compression factors of early scientific journals, recent journals, tweets, txt messages, wikipedia, etc. and see just how the theoretical information content has changed, if at all.

Another project for when I’m independently wealthy.

Sexism, Racism and the Ism of Reasoning

Note this post is not to condone racism or sexism, merely as an explanation of how it might come about from embodied experience and probabilistic reasoning, as well as how we might protect against it.

Things like racism or sexism, or over-generalising on a class of people is one of the more socially inappropriate things you can do. However, depending on how your logic system works, it’s not an entirely unreasonable method of thinking (the word “unreasonable” chosen purposefully) – and for any other subject, where the things being reasoned about are not humans, we wouldn’t particularly care. In fact, certain subjects like religion and spirituality are held to less strict standards of reasoning… there’s actually more defense in being racist/sexist then being a practitioner of certain religions. Perhaps this is why these occasionally go hand in hand[1].

So what do I actually mean by this? I’m going to use two methods of reasoning, deduction and induction, and then explain them in terms of uncertain truth. Nothing in this world is ultimately absolute[2] and so it behooves us to include probabilistic uncertainty in to any conclusion or relationship within our logic set.

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Empathy in the machine

A draft post/idea from the archives that I thought it was about time that I release. Funnily, this was entirely before I started working on NetEmpathy – maybe it’s not as disconnected as I thought from AGI after all!

It is my belief that empathy is a a prerequisite to consciousness.

I recently read Hofstadter’s I am a strange loop, whose central themes are around recursive representations of self leading to our perception of consciousness. For some, the idea that our consciousness is somewhat of an illusion might be hard to swallow – but then, quite likely, so are all the other qualia. They seem real to us, because our mind makes it real. To me, it’s not a huge hurdle to believe. I find the idea that our minds are infinitely representing themselves via self-reflection kind of beautiful in simplicity. You can get some very strange things happening when things start self-reflecting.

For example, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem originally broke Principia Mathematica and can do the same for any sufficiently expressive formal system when you force that formal system to reason about itself. One day I’ll commit to explaining this in a post, but people write entire books about the idea to make Godel’s theorem and it’s consequences easy to understand!

And as an example of self-reflection and recursion being beautiful, I merely have to point to fractals which exhibit self-similarity at arbitrary levels of recursion. Or perhaps the recursive and repeating hallucinations induced by psychedelics give us some clue about the recursive structures within the brain.

Hofstadter also later in the book delves into slightly murky mystical waters, which I find quite entertaining and not without merit. He says that, due to us modelling of the behaviour of others, we also start representing their consciousness too. The eventual conclusion, which is explained in much greater and philosophical detail in his book, is that our “consciousness” isn’t just the sum of what’s in our head but is a holistic total of ourselves and everyone’s representation of us in their heads.

I don’t think the Turing test will really be complete until a machine can model humans as individual and make insightful comments on their motivations. Ok, so that wouldn’t formally be the Turing test any more, but I think that as a judgement of conscious intelligence, the artificial agent needs to at least be able to reflect the motivations of others and understand the representation of itself within others. Lots of recursive representations!

The development of consciousness within AI via empathy is what, in my opinion, will allow us to create friendly AI. Formal proofs won’t work due to computational irreducibility of complex systems. In an admittedly strained analogy this is similar to trying to formally prove where a toy sailboat will end up after dropping it in a river upstream. Trying to prove that it won’t get caught in an eddy before it reaches the ocean of friendliness (or perhaps if you’re pessimistic and you view the eddy as the small space of possibilities for friendly AI). Sure computers and silicon act deterministically (for the most part), but any useful intelligence will interact with an uncertain universe. It will also have to model humans out of necessity as humans are one of the primary agents on the Earth that will need to interact with… perhaps not if it becomes all-powerful but certainly initially. By modelling humans, it’s effectively empathising with our motivations and causing parts of our consciousness to be represented inside it[1].

Given that machine could increase it’s computationally capacity exponentially via Moore’s law (not to mention via potentially large investment and subsequently rapid datacenter expansion) it could eventually model many more individuals than any one human does. So if the AI had a large number of simulated human minds, which would, if accurately modelled, probably bawk at killing the original, then any actions the AI performed would likely benefit the largest number of individuals.

Or perhaps the AI would become neurotic trying to satisfy the desires and wants of conflicting opinions.

In some ways this is similar to Eliezer’s Collected Extrapolated Volition (as I remember it at least… It was a long time ago that I read it. I should do so again to see how/if it fits with what I’ve said here).

[1] People might claim that this won’t be an issue because digital minds designed from scratch will be able to box up individual representations to prevent a bleed through of beliefs. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a tractable design for AI, even if it was desirable. AI is about efficiency of computation and representation, so these concepts and beliefs will blend. Besides, conceptual blending is quite likely a strong source of new ideas and hypotheses in the human brain.

Designing robust lyric and cover art retrievers

One of the very last sessions for the GSoC Mentor Summit was about Media players. There were lead devs from Amarok and XMMS2, and it was cool to speak with them in person. One frequent issue that Amarok (I can’t remember if it was also an issue for XMMS2) was that lyric sites keep going down and changing their format, sometimes adding ads in the middle of the lyrics. Another was that Amazon no longer let’s them use the album cover art, and the substitute of last.fm has very small cover art images.

My suggestion for both, but which would need to be implemented in somewhat different ways, would be to use a variety of lyrics sites, then use text similarity matching to work out what the actual lyrics part of the page was. For images, you could use google image search, and then return the image that was most frequent, as well as having some heuristic for preference of square images. I think that, although not perfect, this would make the the system a lot more robust against further changes.

Text similarity and overlaps is well understood as a computer science problem. It’s used by the shotgun sequencing approach for DNA sequencing… as well as variety of search and indexing problems. Hopefully I’ll release a usable library for it over the summer – I’ll call it libshotgun-lyrics 😉

Views on copyright

Someone I know is quite vehement about the obsolescence of copyright, or that it at least needs to be radically reworked to be tenable in today’s environment. The environment of (almost) zero cost duplication for many copyrighted products. When it comes down to it, writing is data, music is data, and potentially, even physical objects will easily be duplicated. I’m close to that camp, but I don’t believe all data should automatically be free.

On creating something, I think you should be able to profit from your labour, but attempting to control unofficial spread of something is usually futile [1] – the big music industry would be well advised to learn something from that, except I’m sure they’ll opt to go down kicking and screaming.

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Crime and punishment: existential style

Following on from other’s recent discussions of crime and punishment, I offer these completely unhelpful transhumanist thoughts:

  • A mind from the past can become completely different from the one that committed the crime. So is it fair to punish someone in the present, when their current mind state bears as much similarity to the mind that committed the crime in the past is it does to a completely separate person?
  • A body replaces most of it’s cells over the course of many years. So it’s not really someone’s body we convict, but their structure. What happens when people can upload? Supposing we can represent that structure digitally or otherwise (but in a form of easily copy-able data) what happens to the replicates of that individual? Are they convicted as well? Does it become illegal for other people to harbour that sequence of data, even if it’s in stasis and getting no processor time? (which is essentially the same as dead, but with the difference of being revivable at a moments notice)
  • Continuing from the assumption that it’s the structure of a criminal we want to punish/remove from society: Since a baby is essentially derived from the fair proportion of the parent’s structure, if the parent commits a crime, then shouldn’t the child also be considered a criminal? Even though the child takes some of it’s structure from the other, hopefully non-criminal, parent, the first point seems to imply that exact similarity isn’t required.

(Note, most of these thoughts are me just musing on a theoretical level that is not at all pragmatic. I don’t actually believe children of criminals are also guilty)

Collective self-deception

I just finished reading Global Brain. There were lots of parts deserving of comment, but I wouldn’t really be adding anything to the discussion except saying “Look, THIS” and pointing at quotes. Suffice to say, I think it’s worth reading (and if anybody wants to borrow it, they are welcome to – it’s actually quite short, since the book is essentially half references and notes).

Anyhow, there was one part that resonated with me that was related to my attempt to be open and honest about certain aspects of my life, which is unfortunately in conflict with what the law deems to be true. This particular piece is discussing a Baptist town in New York State which is fervently against this “era’s godless sins”, and how the reality was that most individuals indulged in those same sins to their holy shame, assuming that they were the only transgressors:

“How completely the annointed had commandeered collective perception became apparent when Schanck asked the closet dissenters how other people in the community felt about face cards, liquor, a smoke, and levity. Hoodwinked by suppression, each knew without a doubt that he was the sole transgressor in a saintly sea. He and he alone could not control his demons of depravity. None had the faintest inkling that he was part of a silenced near-majority.

Here was an arch lesson in the games subcultures play. reality is a mass halucination. We gauge what’s real according to what others say. And others, like us, rein in their words, caving in to timidity. Thanks to conformity enforcement and to cowardice, a little power goes a long, long way.”

Obviously that’s an extreme version of the issue I’m obtusely referring to, since within our personal groups there is openness about these things. But to go beyond that, and announce it to your work colleagues is to risk job loss. However, without facing that risk, we are buying in to the validity of those laws. I don’t suggest anyone do so, but it’s a difficult catch 22 situation to be in.

Maslow’s hierarchy, conformity, and diversity

I’ve recently been rereading Howard Bloom’s Global Brain. A book I originally read in my second year of university. The first time, I found it incredibly interesting and it became a running joke with my girlfriend at the time about me saying “Global brain this! Global brain that!”. Anyhow, suffice to say, I felt it was influential to my intellectual life and wanted to revisit it with the wisdom of 8 more years (the other two major books that influenced me being Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and his later book Visions, which I may reread and possibly summarise here).

One serendipidous clash of ideas that occurred recently was me stumbling across the triangle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those that haven’t come across this pyramid before, it’s a frequently mentioned model for representing the psychology of human motivation. What it purports to show is that the higher level desires only really manifest once the lower needs are met. So at the very lower level we have physiological needs like breathing, water and food, and at the level above that we have the need for safety, and then social needs. In other words, it’s very hard to be concerned about whether you’ve got a date this weekend if you can’t breath right now! If you’re interested in more detail about what falls in each level, check out Wikipedia as I’m going to move on and connect this to something Bloom talks about in Global Brain…

Basically, Bloom talks about the rise of systems with ever more complexity and the sharing of information. From self-assembling molecules that pre-dated life, all the way to the internet. Bloom points to 5 or 6 characteristics of these complex adaptive systems that lead to them evolving and proliferating. Two of these characteristics are conformity enforcers and diversity generators.

Conformity enforcers are things that ensure the system maintains coherence. It’s why all our cells work together and why we kill off foreign bodies (since they don’t conform to the antigen mould expected by cells of the ‘self’) and why conservative society frowns on errant behaviour.

Diversity generators allow a system to try out new ideas, and often a certain amount of diversity is needed for a system to actually properly manifest itself. Since after all, despite our cells having essentially identical DNA, they differentiate into physiologically different forms. Likewise, in human society, we all specialise… even in the most conservative of cultures.

My hypothesis is, that the ratio of diversity to conformity in human society is related to the fulfilment of individual’s hierarchy of needs. A bias towards lower levels will lead to a pressure for conformity, whereas a large number of society’s members reaching the level of self-actualization leads to individuals following more independent and unique paths.

However, that’s all well and good, but since adaptive systems need conformity to retain coherence, many societies enforce or promote a deficiency in one of these needs, in effect inhibiting self-actualization.

For example, institutions such as religion instill an inferiority complex: e.g. you are born with original sin putting in a firm block at the ‘esteem’ level. Many others try to convince it’s practioners to refrain from sex except under particular conditions or circumstances, making it difficult to even go beyond the first physiological level without first meeting these conditions.

Sparta was one of the greatest conformity enforcing societies (see Global Brain for details) and was able to push it’s citizens to the very bottom of the triangle. They were deprived of food growing up and forced to steal (all part of the training). My hypothesis does fall down a bit (as does Maslow’s hierarchy) as the Spartans apparently did have some higher needs such as sociality and esteem met. They were essentially a big gang, and considered the people of the societies they ruled over as inferior.

Global Brain frequently compares Sparta and Athens as opposing ends of the conformity vs. diversity balance. One of the things that lead me to the hypothesis was that, in Athens – the diversity king, individuals had a wealth of choice. They could find the group they fit in best and there was plenty of potential to explore new ideas, both of which I’d consider major aspects of self-actualization.