Thursday, 1 November 2018

How far are ordinary people's imagination trapped by their experience

The British Psychological Society Research Bulletin this week has an article entitled New evidence that the "Chaotic Mind" of ADHD brings creative advantages based on a paper Thinking Outside the Box: Unconstrained Creative Generation in Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Students (some with ADHD) were asked to draw alien fruits that did not resemble any fruits that they knew - and the above was the result.
While the size and nature of the group tested may make generalizations about the average ADHD suffer unreliable my reaction is that the experiment confirms how difficult it is for the average person to think outside the box formed by their experiences.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

How Homeopathy can help reduce the plastic mountain

About 25 years ago I purchased a bottle of Harrogate Spa Water. 

When it was nearly empty I decided to test out the principles of homeopathy - which claims that the properties of something are preserved when you dilute it. so when the bottle was nearly empty I topped it up with tap water and put the bottle back in the fridge. If homeopathy is true the contents are still effectively Harrogate Spa Water - as it clearly still said on the label. 

Nearly every night since then I have taken the bottle from the fridge and poured a glass of cold Harrogate Spa Water for a final drink before I go to bed.- topping the bottle up every time it is nearly empty. 

So far the water has been diluted 10-fold on about a thousand occasions and I guess that not one of the original molecules of Harrogate Water remains in the bottle - but each night I still enjoy a lovely cool drink. By now not one atom of the original contents remain ... 

Perhaps I should write a review saying how wonderful Harrogate Spa Water is and how its excellence has lasted 25 years - and perhaps my review would be republished as a recommendation from a satisfied customer in an advert .

But wait. The label is starting to disintegrate. Perhaps the bottle is embarrassed and is trying to tell me that homeopathy does not work, and it no longer wants to be seen carrying a misleading "Harrogate Spa" label.  

But do I care what the bottle thinks about the effectiveness of homeopathy?  Of course not. By repeatedly diluting the original water I have avoided having to throw away 999 plastic bottles (and saved myself a lot of money).

So if you want to help save the planet may I suggest that everyone should start drinking homeopathic water - just buy one bottle and keep it topped up from the tap.

Captured by the Camera - Relaxing Ripples

Relaxing Ripples at College Lake
Home affairs have been rather busy recently, and to give a flavour of the problems just one of the distractions from posting here has been the need to try and get a stair lift installed by Christmas. In such circumstances one of my top priorities has been to spend some time relaxing at College Lake, or one of the many other rural spots a few minutes drive from home.

One of the pleasures this year has been that the resident pair of swans have succeeded in rearing two cygnets - when in previous years they have been unsuccessful - possibly due to predation by mink.

An Evolutionary Model of Human Intelligence

I have just posted a summary of a paper "An Evolutionary Model of Human Intelligence"  together with some notes on future research plans, which will normally be reported on my new blog - although key updates will be cross-reported here.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Will robots outsmart us? by the late Stephen Hawkins

There is a interesting article, "Will robots outsmart us?" in today's Sunday Times MagazineWhile I don't accept all Stephen's predictions I was most interested to read:
When an artificial intelligence (AI) becomes better than humans at AI design, so that it can recursively improve itself without human help, we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails. When that happens, we will need to ensure that the computers have goals aligned with ours.
Later he says:
In short, the advent of super-intelligent AI would be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. The real risk with AI isn’t malice, but competence. A super-intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours we’re in trouble. You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green-energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants. 
Of course we know what happened last time a super-intelligence came into existence. About half a million years ago the Earth was populated by a great variety of animals of a comparatively low intelligence. All the higher animals had brains that worked in roughly the same way, and how much they could learn was limited because everything they learnt was lost when they died. Then one species, which we call Homo sapiens, discovered a way to recursively increase its own intelligence. It was already good at making tools but for several million years the cost of trail and error learning had limited what it could do. But then it invented a tool to boost intelligence, which we call language.  Language not only made it possible to make better tools, but also it made it possible to recursively build a better language generation by generation. So some 5000 generations later the Earth is home to a super-intelligent species ...

And are the goals of this species aligned with the the goals of the millions of other species? Of course not. Billions of animals are kept as slaves to be killed and eaten, while the homes of countless more have been, or are being, destroyed. 

If we invent a super-intelligent AI system why should it treat us with more respect than we have  shown for our animal relatives.

A new book "Brief Answers to the Big Questions," by Stephen Hawkins is published later this week
For the background to my observation see 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

How plans for a user-friendly computer were rubbished 50 years ago

In 1968 David Caminer and John Pinkerton (who were responsible for the world's first business computer, the LEO I, and who were directors of English Electric Computer) decided to fund research into a project to build inherently user-friendly computers and it was estimated that the market for such systems would be several hundred million pounds a year.
However, as a result of the government inspired merger to make the UK computer industry more competitive, ICL was created, and the project was closed down with no serious attempt to assess the successful research into CODIL which had already been carried out.

This was, of course, about 10 years before the first personal computers, and it is interesting to speculate what might have happened if the research had not been so rudely interrupted. Perhap the UK based idea would have been successful and the first personal computers would have been inherently friendly. This would have meant that there would have been no need for the hard to use MS-DOS operating system - and no one would have heard of Microsoft.

An account of what happened has been prepared for the archives of the LEO Computer Society
To see how the idea of a user-friendly computer originated read

In fact the research was restarted on an unfunded basis for a number of years and a recent reassessment suggests that the original proposal was actually modelling how the human brain works. For more inrormation see:

Friday, 31 August 2018

Are computers making too many decisions about us?


In today's Times Edward Lucus writes "Tech Giants must come clean with us - Too many decisions  about our careers, love-lives and credit-worthiness are being made by secretive online algorithms."

He is right to point out that the use of computers, particularly by very large of powerful companies, to make decisions which affect our lives needs watching - but on the online comments page I have pointed out that decisions made by humans may not be any more reliable. I wrote:
But are humans any more reliable? We all have biases and make generalizations which have little or no foundation in reality.
To give an example. Before I retired I worked in a university teaching Computer Science on a sandwich course basis - which meant that the department regularly had to find about 90 placements for students for "on the job" training with mainly local firms. Almost invariably the last 10 or 20 to be placed included a disproportionate number of students who either had foreign-sounding surnames or were not white anglo-saxon in appearance - irrespective of how well they were doing on the course.
One of my personal first year tutees, who had just failed an interview for a job working with a computer in a sales department with a small firm, asked me whether there might have been racial discrimination. What seems to have happened in the interview was that the computer manager realised that the student was no familiar with commercial English (for example the difference between "invoice" and "statement") - and probably assumed (wrongly) that as he looked foreign he did not understand English. While of course the manager might have been directly discriminating on the grounds of race it was far more likely that he had not realised how little the average 18 year old knew of commercial jargon, and jumped to an inappropriate conclusion.
A very different example, where I nearly acted on an inappropriate "racist" assumption. 50 years ago we lived in a small town where the population was almost exclusively white. We went to a family wedding in London, taking with us our 2 year old daughter. We took it for granted that on one side of the aisle nearly everyone would be of european origin - and on the other side nearly everyone would be of asian origin. As everyone was waiting for the bride (who was five minutes late) my daughter suddenly stood up in the pew and pointed towards the people on the other side of the aisle and shouted "Look Mummy, look." I looked to see where she was pointing to see what she had seen to make her get excited. All I could see was the crowd of asians and before I could grab her and put my hands over her mouth to stop her making a raciest comment she shouted out "There's Mary with baby Jesus." What was new and exciting to her was that she had never been in a Roman Catholic church before!
While I am concerned with "Black box" computers making decisions it is likely that those decisions reflect the biases of the programmers who designed the system OR are based on the statistical analysis of "Big Data" and are likely to be more reliable than a human. As I see it the problem is that the computer systems making the decisions are "black boxes" and cannot explain what it is doing in a way that those can understand.
(In any case, if someone make a racist comment to you - would you ask them why they said it - and would you really expect an honest reply in every case.)