Monday, February 27, 2006

Two-Word Search and a Click: Eleven Crocodiles Eat Denzel Washington

The 21st Century is a period of identity crisis for the traditional media. Conferences and commentaries almost daily explore what is happening to newspapers, magazines, and network news in a world of blogs, podcasts, instant messages, and the like. In this changing environment it is easier than ever to present the world with nonsense opinions, and propaganda: easier than it is to provide reasoned analysis and verifiable reporting.

In the past, knowing the organization that sponsored or published the information helped to understand its motivation and trustworthiness. Americans who cared about political commentary knew the difference between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They understood what the ACLU or the People for the American Way stood for. The Christian Science Monitor earned a world-wide reputation for fair reporting. Today, some authors are well known enough to judge and stable organizations do run web sites and blogs. But now, no one needs a sponsor or publisher to put opinions, some of them radically slanted or poorly researched, before audiences of millions.

Consumers of the new outlets of news and information need a skill set they never needed before. One of those skills is to be extremely skeptical of unknown-source information. Skepticism treats information as unproven until it is supported by trustworthy evidence. (This is opposed to cynicism which questions the motives of sender of the information.)

It is vital to have an increased awareness of sources of information and how that might affect its value. Unless the author of a blog is well-known to the reader, blogs (including perhaps this one) should be treated as entertainment, not education. Education gives one the knowledge and skills to live a better life (however defined). Entertainment simply distracts one from life. The term “educational television” was developed during my school years to discriminate it from the entertainment type. However, a lot of educational TV is merely a distraction from daily life in which the ones having sex are animals instead of soap opera actors.

The sources of many web sites, blogs, and podcasts are hidden from the consumer. But the worst examples of hidden-source information in my mind are rumors promulgated by email. Within the past few months my email was a source of “information” about a 21 foot crocodile killed while hunting humans in New Orleans, the rehabilitation facility Denzel Washington bought for the Army, the occult connection between the World Trade Center attacks and the number 11 and several more fabrications.

What do these three stories have in common? None of them are true. They are classic urban legends hanging out in their new home on the Internet. The crocodile wasn’t 21 feet long, wasn’t hunting humans and wasn’t killed in New Orleans. Denzel made a donation to an Army medical program but not for a whole rehab facility. The WTC story was a combination of biased evidence selection, bad math, and made up facts (a.k.a. lies).

In an environment where information is easier to get in more ways than ever before, the responsibility of people who use these means is greater also. Rumors, gossip and lies have always been, and always will be, with us. Unfortunately now, careless, clueless and conscience-less people have a tool to spread their misinformation in a flash to many others, even around the world. The quick, easy, fast, and basically free sharing of information is a strength of the Internet and is also one of its weaknesses.

Responsible correspondents, whether they are bloggers for the New York Times or friends forwarding emails, must use the strength of the Internet as a response. It is easier to track down nonsense, if only one will take the time to do it. Each of the stories above took a two-word Google search and one mouse click to find information discrediting it. (I pride myself on this “two-words-plus-one-click” ability.) The links above to the stories I described are to three different web sites that specialize in shooting down urban legends.

The next time you get an incredible email and have the urge to pass it on to friends, take the time to try two-words-plus-one-click. Before you pass it on, you have a responsibility to check it out. But don’t take me off your lists completely. I need a little nonsense now and then to keep the grey matter sharp. So to my friends and students: You keep sendin’em along, and I’ll keep knockin’em down.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Isaac Newton in Motion is Acted Upon by an Outside Force

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was chartered by King Charles II around 1660 to learn about nature, especially that benefiting the public good. The Royal Society changed science from a secretive activity of the sophisticated few to a public undertaking. The Society founded the first scientific journal which was written in English instead of Latin as papers had used before that time. Kreis (2002) describes the role of the Royal Society in expanding science “By 1700, science had become an issue of public discourse. … Science itself gave an immense boost to the general European belief in human progress…”

Asimov (1972) credits Sir Isaac Newton’s participation in the Royal Society as fulfilling the revolution begun by Galileo and bringing science into public life. Newton’s impact on natural philosophy led thinkers to find uses for science in other aspects of society. Thomas Jefferson drew extensively from this scientific world-view in formulating the Declaration of Independence whose foundation influenced the creation of the US Constitution.

But scientific thinking did not thrive everywhere. In France science initially impacted timekeeping and the monetary system, led to the development of the metric system and otherwise affected public life. The French Academy of Sciences became comparable with the Royal Society in importance. But when Napoleon came to power, he put science in its place. To him, such thinking was only good if properly controlled by select leaders.

In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush emphasized the importance of science to America’s future. He proposed putting as many as 70,000 new math and science teachers in our public schools as a part of his “America’s Competitiveness Initiative” to keep America economically viable. In last year’s State of the Union Address, he called for an initiative to colonize Mars, assuring that math, science and engineering would be national priorities for decades to come.

But as opposed to this rhetoric, real support of science has been the opposite. The Bush Administration uses the traditional tools of controlling the science agenda of the nation, e.g. funding. Like other Presidents, government funding of research matches the priorities of the Administration. Nuclear power was in under Nixon, out under Carter, in under Reagan, and so on. Tellingly, the proposed 2006 National Science Foundation budget is 35% less than Bush promised in 2002.

This Administration has also proven to be more manipulative of regulations to help its political allies than any before it. In opposition to scientific reports from its own National Park Service, Department of the Interior and EPA, the Administration has rolled back regulations to aid utilities as well as energy-related and other industries. Facing over a dozen reports confirming global warming from his own agencies, Bush simply held the position that the jury was still out.

But far more than any President before, Bush appears bent on abandoning the antiquated thinking of Newton and the Royal Society that science should be done in the open and for the public good. More Napoleonic in tone, science is only good for the public when it serves political aims. In 2004 Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Bush officials are “engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition.” Just a few examples:

EPA officials and Senators exposed the Administration’s role in suppressing information about air quality in the Ground Zero area around the World Trade Center site in 2003. Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley of the EPA reported that White House officials influenced reports that underestimated health hazards.

Last year James E. Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies revealed how his superiors tried to prevent release of NASA climate information. He was told to remove information from NASA’s web site about record warm temperatures in 2005. Other NASA scientists gave the New York Times emails from political appointees seeking to suppress scientific information. Hansen expanded his accusation this week saying that administrators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration engaged in the same practices.

Susan Wood quit August 31, 2005 as the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Women’s Health. At issue was a recommendation by an FDA advisory committee to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B contraceptive. Bush appointee, Lester Crawford, overrulled the proposal. The Government Accounting Office reported that of 68 advisory committee recommendations between 1994 and 2004, this was the only one rejected. Wood stated in an email, “I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence…has been overruled.” Wood claimed that when she asked when Crawford would act on the application she was told the “decision from above” (implying the White House) hadn’t “come down yet.”

Those 70,000 teachers might not do a lot of good if they treat science like the current Administration. Will they teach that government-sponsored research is the property of political appointees and their bosses? Will they treat science as it is now defined in Kansas (with which the President agrees): i.e., a way of understanding the natural world—unless you really, really prefer another explanation.

Perhaps the only engineering project George W. Bush has ever pulled off is Isaac Newton spinning in his grave.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Paradox of Tolerance

If tolerance (or acceptance, or approval) of others is a primary value, how is it to be applied to others who are themselves intolerant? To refuse to tolerate the intolerant is itself intolerant, but to tolerate the intolerant promotes intolerance at one remove. It seems that there is no simple answer. If perfect tolerance is unobtainable, or not obtainable through our own actions, we might at least seek to maximize such tolerance as can be achieved. This would require us to strike a balance of some sort between putting up with intolerant others, and protecting further others and ourselves from their intolerance. How such a balance should be struck would depend on the specific situation. If the intolerance of the intolerant expressed itself in mere unfriendliness, then little harm would come from leaving them alone. If it expressed itself in bombings and beheadings, this would require harsher measures to suppress - a more directly intolerant policy in order to produce an ultimately less intolerant result.

The current struggle between radical Islam and the West presents a crisis for the value of tolerance, not just as it competes with other values such as safety and democratic self-development, but also in competition with itself. Broadly speaking, the "nicer" we are to those who see themselves as lethal enemies of ours, the more we encourage their intimidation of ourselves and others, and the more we risk the ultimate destruction of tolerance itself. It is, of course, a matter of debate how dangerous these enemies have become, and which mix of policies (ignoring them, appeasing them, attacking them) works best to minimize their threat.

The paradox of tolerance is vivid in the matter of the recent Danish cartoons of Muhammed, the violent reaction in the Middle East, and the confused responses of the European press and Western governments. Here is a useful column on the issue by Mark Steyn:

As Steyn knows, this is not just a question of cowardice or defiance. Imagine a domestic situation in which artists lampooned not merely Jesus or the Virgin Mary, who have long since been treated as fair game, but, say, Martin Luther King. Would or should domestic papers reprint anti-MLK cartoons (use your own imagination) to make a point about free speech, whether or not black Americans were threatening violence?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The 29th Day in the Lily Pond of Artificial Intelligence

Phenomena that grow geometrically remind me of the 29th Day Riddle. As the speed, power and memory capacity of computers contribute to the rise of artificial intelligence, the potential for geometric advances calls to mind the shock value of the 29th Day. I originally learned the riddle in an Ecology class in 1974. It goes: A lily grew in a pond. Every day each lily produces an offspring, thereby doubling the population. If the pond fills with lily pads in 30 days, when was the pond half-full? The answer is, surprisingly, the 29th day. Such is the nature of processes whose products grow geometrically.

Ecologists use the riddle to make a point about resource use and environmental disaster. The question is, when the pond was half-full after 29 days, did the pond creatures know they were on the brink of total lily coverage? After all, in 29 days only half the pond’s space had been used. The remaining area equals all that was used in the history of the pond. What’s the problem?

The 29th Day Riddle may inform our thinking about artificial intelligence (AI). The time is coming where computers may replicate or mimic human intelligence. Alan Turning devised the Turing Test to determine when machine intelligence matches the human kind. The first computer to pass it will mark the dawn of the 30th day. Are there clues that we are now at the 29th?

Most AI researchers admit that we do not yet have a full grasp of what human intelligence is. However, what we do know allows us to compare both systems on some basic levels. For example, speed is a factor in intelligent behavior. The person who solves a problem in a minute shows more intelligence than one who solves the same problem in an hour. In terms of raw speed, computers can already execute more commands per second than the biological brains of humans. This already gives computers the appearance of being smarter than humans in very limited ways. No human stands a chance of beating Mapquest in being given two random addresses and finding the way to get from one to the other. But Mapquest is not yet truly intelligent. It just has far more speed and power.

Memory is another factor that more or less indicates intelligence. With the Internet, any linked computer has access to information stored in countless memory systems. When humans die, much of what they know is lost. When machines wear out, their information memory can be simply transferred. Machine “memory” is collective and important information will virtually never be forgotten.

Vast memory combined with processing speed again allows machines to execute seemingly intelligent actions in limited domains. While my computer may not understand English, Alta Vista’s Babel Fish can translate English words into twelve languages faster that I can turn the pages of a dictionary. Google, Netscape and other search engines use the speed of computers to page through millions of web sites in seconds.

Ray Kurzweil in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, predicts that the 30th day may dawn about 2015. According to Moore’s Law computer power, like lilies, doubles every “generation.” Unlike lilies, a computer generation’s length shortens over time—now about 12 months. One generation after computers match human intelligence (the 31st day), the best computers will be twice as powerful. One more year and their advantage will be fourfold. Once computers program computers, the process accelerates.

Siding with those who believe intelligence, or a reasonable facsimile of it, is in the future of non-biological systems, I believe we should begin to consider the implications. Grandma told me to learn to work with my brain because, unlike physical labor jobs, “you can never be replaced by a machine.” I chose teaching which may be a good case study for looking beyond the 30th day.

While teachers may not become obsolete any time soon, the role would certainly change. What tasks are left when the classroom has dozens of video eyes, microphone ears, and speaker voices serving a superior computer brain linked to every bit of recorded knowledge? Will schools drop academic instruction and become exclusively places of socialization? What will the curriculum be when the nature of being an educated citizen is redefined? What happens to the utilitarian, career-prep function of schooling when traditional careers are left behind?

Potential changes range from trivial to foundational. Why have Driver’s Education when cars drive themselves, react faster, see in the dark, and never get drunk or tired? More profoundly, how do you teach math when Johnny and Suzie can converse with their calculators? What math is now important? Now how do you deal with the child's question "When are we ever gonna use this?"

If computer intelligence surges past human intelligence, will job security be for those who work with their hands? The car computers may tell the garage computers the car's brakes need replaced, but a human must do the labor. That is, unless we are also in the 29th day of the age of robots.