Moore’s Law, the Singularity and why we can’t keep up with technology…

When older people complain that the world is changing too fast we usually dismiss their concerns as the normal product of an ageing brain. They can’t keep up with technological advancements, we surmise, because they’ve lost too many neurons and their brain is unable to work as fast as it did when they were younger. But perhaps we’re wrong. Perhaps the world really is changing faster than it has in the past. And the older you are, the more past you’ve lived through and the longer you’ve had to keep pace with the change.

This is certainly the view that I have been persuaded by recently.

I started reading a great book by Raymond Kurzweil last year called, ‘The Singularity is Near: When humans transcend biology‘ and have found his arguments compelling. Essentially he maintains that technological evolution progresses at an exponential rate (often called Moore’s Law) and that we are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift in human evolution. This might sound like science fiction but it seems to ring true.

This morning I watched a video by glass company Corning which examined some its previous claims about the possibility of ‘intelligent’ [my word] glass as to what is currently possible with this technology, and what is likely to be possible in the near future. This is technology that only ten years ago would have been considered a life-time away [viz. Minority Report].

My sister, too, was only talking to me at the weekend about the impending shift towards ‘augmented reality‘ applications on smartphones and tablets. QR codes (which I’ve just got to grips with) are going to be old-hat by this time next year.

Finally, TED talks pointed me in the direction of a presentation given by Danny Hillis in 1994 which predicted this technology boom. Thus further supporting Kurzweil’s hypothesis.

So, if you are like my dad, who, when I was growing up was a technophile but is now finding himself left behind and over-whelmed by advances in technology, then don’t despair. Yes, technology is changing at an ever faster rate but we live in exciting times with exciting possibilities. It is easy to be overwhelmed but these advances in technology should make it easier to embed them into our lives so that they fit with our natural instincts and ways of being. In the same way that the ipad is more intuitive than a pc, other technologies will adjust to us, so we don’t have to make so much effort or try to keep up with the change.


It’s a Fair Game – Cheltenham Science Festival 2011

I’m speaking at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival later today and for those of you that can’t make it, or those of you that are coming but want to have chance to think about the discussion in advance, here’s the first draft of my 10 min talk (apologies for any bad grammar or spelling – I said it was ‘rough’!):

It’s a Fair Game

Are the anti-doping rules and policies fair?

Well, in order to answer such a question we need think about what we mean by fair?

Does this mean; everyone is subjected to equal treatment?

A cursory glance suggests, yes, the rules are the same for everyone and therefore these rules and policies are fair.

However, you only have to dig a little bit deeper to realise that it isn’t quite as straightforward as we might like to think.

When sport is discussed the metaphor ‘level playing field’ commonly crops up. And this is founded on the idea that sport should be about testing the natural capacities of the athlete. And by ‘natural capacities’ we mean the raw God-given talent that we are born with, and the mental courage and tenacity to be dogged and determined in developing this talent in order to reach its potential.

And this is one of the odd things about our stance towards doping. One of the main arguments used in support of the anti-doping policies is that using these substances are a short cut to reaching, or even surpassing this natural potential. You are not only cheating the sport, you are cheating yourself.

And yet no-one says the same about sleeping in a hypoxic chamber which has a similar effect on the red blood cells and oxygen carrying capacity as living at altitude. No one says the same about wearing state of the art clothing or footwear (although the recent ban on polyurethane swimsuits is an interesting exception that we might want to discuss further later). No one says that intensive sessions with your sports psychologist are a short cut to success. All of these things are part and parcel of elite sport whereby a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing, between success and perceived failure. Yet if we follow this argument that is often used against doping to its logical conclusion, we would rule out training altogether. Let the winner be the one who manages to get out of bed having never spent a day in the gym or watching what she ate, yet who manages to cross the line first. But this is ridiculous. Just as we value an athlete’s natural capacity, we also value the sacrifices they make in reaching their potential.

So when we talk about fairness in sport – it’s a myth. The countries that win the majority of Olympic medals are not those that happen to have the best gene pool (if we think a genetic lottery should be the basis for fairness) but those that are able to invest millions into talent identification, facilities, equipment, training, medicine, nutrition… the list goes on and on. It is the exceptions to this myth that get highlighted as examples that if you’ve got the raw talent and determination to succeed then you’ll make it. I note that the writer, journalist and former athlete, Matthew Syed, is speaking after this event on these ideas, and if you haven’t read his book Bounce, I thoroughly recommend it.

So sport at the elite level certainly isn’t fair if when we use the term, we mean ‘fairness as equality’. There are countless millions that had they been born in the right country, and spotted at the right time could have a shot at success.

So perhaps we mean fairness in that we are free to determine our own paths. Fairness as liberty and autonomy one might say.

Yet this certainly isn’t the case in terms of doping. Another common argument given in support of anti-doping is that these substances are terribly harmful and we don’t want these poor athletes suffering from their ill-judged decisions.

Now my parents might say that I make ill-judged decisions – not least because I play sports that I probably shouldn’t. And certainly not now I’m well into my thirties. I’ve got a large scar on my forehead from being stamped on in a rugby match, chronic pains in my shoulder from repeated injury to a collarbone I broke quite badly, several broken fingers and if you notice me hobbling about today it’s because I went to a gymnastics session last night and went over on my ankle. I’d be very surprised if you could find any former athlete that doesn’t suffer from chronic pain as a direct result from participation in sport. Sport is a dangerous pursuit.

Yet when it comes to doping, there is a sudden desire to protect athletes from potential harm. I don’t wish to get too side-tracked on the argument against doping from harm because this isn’t really what this session is about, but Verner Moller in his recent book ‘The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping’ makes a very compelling argument that allowing doping, particularly in the world of cycling, might actually reduce the harm done to athletes in their rigorous pursuit of glory.

So fairness as liberty doesn’t seem to stand up either.

Perhaps fairness could be applied then in relation to the fair treatment of athletes as human beings.

Yet I am doubtful of this too for two reasons. First, such is the hysteria that surrounds doping, any athlete that is suspected of a doping offence is vilified, particularly in the media. It is almost akin to serious crimes (and I don’t want to have a Ken Clark moment here) so I’ll leave you to think of which crimes these might be. Even athletes that are cleared of doping offences are seen to have a shadow lurking behind them. Cynical comments abound that the athlete just got off on a technicality whereas they are, in fact, still guilty.

Second, I don’t know whether you are aware of the anti-doping ‘whereabouts rule’ which requires athletes to state where they will be at a particular hour every day of the year. The rationale behind this is that the anti-doping authorities don’t have to go hunting for an athlete if they wish to conduct a test. Miss three of these tests and you’re guilty of an anti-doping offence. Now, I don’t know where I’m going to be from one day to the next but you can imagine that there may be good reasons why an athlete, even with a strict schedule, might not be exactly where they said they would be for every day of the year. This rule has been criticised for going against both privacy rights and data protection laws. Moreover, a rule of this kind is not fair in its treatment of athletes. It is akin to having a tag or curfew order or having to report to a police station on a daily basis.

So the idea of a fair game isn’t as straightforward as it initially seems. Apart from the fact that fairness itself is quite a slippery term, the idea that the anti-doping rules are part of making sport fair, doesn’t seem to ring true.

Watson IBM computer wins Jeopardy

This week an IBM computer comprehensively defeated two former Jeopardy game show champions. Since Jeopardy is essentially a general knowledge competition, one might think that this feat isn’t particular impressive. After all, computers are able to reliably store millions of facts via databases; all a computer needs to do is access the piece of information via its memory. The difficulty with Jeopardy is the cryptic way that the questions are asked.  It would be impossible to program the computer with all the relevant information. Rather, the computer needs to understand what information it needs to access and ‘see’ connections between one piece of information and another. If a computer was able to draw out information contained within larger bodies of text, for example, it might have a chance. However, understanding natural language isn’t that simple.

Whilst I was an undergraduate studying Philosophy and Linguistics, I took a module in computational linguistics whereby we spent a whole semester programming a computer with natural language. After twelve weeks of entering determiners, pronouns, nouns and verbs, the limit of the computer’s language was to be able to to come up with a novel sentence such as ‘The cat laughed’. And it was probably able to come up with a handful of these type of sentences. It was a slow, boring slog with limited end results. But what it made me realise was that Alan Turing’s test (whereby a computer could fool a human into thinking it was human) was a long way off. Even if we, as humans, aren’t always perfect with our grammar, we can understand the difference between ‘The cat sat on the dog’, ‘The dog sat on the cat’ and ‘The dog was sat on by the cat’. Yet this is an immensely complex task for a computer. But now it seems as if a computer is able to understand language in a similar way; it is able to interpret questions and access the correct results.

So what does this hold for the future of artificial intelligence? There are some, such as Raymond Kurzweil, who argue that in the next 30-40 years superhuman (artificial) intelligence will spell the end for the human race as we understand it. When electronic technology has developed at an exponential rate over the last 100 years, it won’t be long before computers are able to understand, manipulate and construct the world in a (super)human way. Kurzweil predicts that by 2045, the computing power of artificially created devices will exceed the brainpower of all humans that have ever lived. That is quite a sobering thought and one that will have profound effects on our own existence. That doesn’t mean that computers will attempt to destroy the human race or enslave us as portrayed in science fiction films such as ‘Terminator’. It is more likely that we will start to amalgamate this technology into our own bodies.

The age of the cyborg will finally (after many false proclamations) have arrived.

Can science answer questions of ethics and morality?

I’ve just watched this TED talk by Sam Harris who argues that science can answer questions about what constitutes the good life. It’s a persuasive argument and one that I would have been very predisposed to as an undergraduate but I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s warning against scientism:

Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. (Wittgenstein, L. 1969. The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Blackwell. p18)

The problem I think is not that science can’t be a reasonable underpinning to how we make sense of our life (and I think it provides a much firmer foundation than religion for instance) but rather, we need to be on guard against forgetting to continually ask these questions. If we think that science can answer everything we risk falling into a dogmatic slumber where we forget the importance of reflecting on these questions in the first place. And that itself is part of what enables the good life.