Thursday, 1 December 2016

Death in a box of cigarettes and the cost of my schooling

Woodbine Packet circa 1947
While I have never smoked, 70 years ago I would have been very familiar with packets of Woodbines - although I can't remember how much they cost. I was old enough to help my father in his tobacconist's shop and they were one of the most popular sales to our customers, many of who worked in a nearby railway engineering workshop. Sometime around this date I must have been diagnosed with "childhood bronchitis" - which I never grew out of  and which may have been due to secondary smoking, although I am now told it is asthma.

As a child a cough was nothing unusual - my grandfather coughed until he had a fall, and died of a chest infection in the days before antibiotics became widely available. My father had chest problems and smoking undoubtedly shortened his life. Many friends and relatives over the years have died prematurely as a result of smoking. Many tried, and failed, to give up their addiction to nicotine.

I never started. When we actually lived at the shop one to the taboos was taking the stock. Tobacco,and the sweets he also sold, were there to sell and not for our personal use. Later we moved away from the shop and I went to an unconventional school called Dartington Hall where the pupils made their own rules - except one of the rules is that we all had the same amount of pocket money which parents were not meant to top up.  There was no rule against smoking - so why the hell do it! In other schools you had to sneak behind the bicycle shed and have a quick "secret" drag and this made you feel you were doing something "grown up." But at Dartington there was no kudos from smoking. In four years I can only remember one occasion when anyone smoked in the common room - two girls came in smoking - and everyone laughed and grumbled about the smell. One teacher smoked Galois (a very strong French cigarette) in class - and when we complained he said we could smoke too. So the next lesson we all got something smelly to "smoke" - some had genuine cigarettes but I had some brown parcel string wrapped in paper. The air was thick when he entered the classroom and he never smoked in class again.

Postcard on ebay from circa 1910
By the time I reached university the campaign linking smoking with lung cancer was getting underway although the evidence was widely disputed by the Tobacco manufacturers, worried about their profits.  I recently came across this postcard from about 1910 and wondered how many people had realized the danger then. While surfing the web to try and get an answer I came across a recent figure that suggests that the current approximate cost-equivalent of a life in term's of the cigarette manufacturers is about $10,000. This provided me with a an opportunity to very roughly calculate how much my stay at Dartington cost in terms of whole-life equivalents.

Currently the top UK boarding schools charge about £30,000 per year and if I assume my father made a third of his income from tobacco (it could well have been higher) one is talking about at least one equivalent customer a year dying to fund my education.

So was my educationat Dartington worth it?  While I find the idea frightening I reassure myself that my father's customers (and my father, grandfather and many others) were addicted to nicotine and if my father had not sold tobacco someone else would have sold it. Whether I had gone to Dartington or not they would have died prematurely (often after years of discomfort) anyway.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

My "Evolution of Human Intelligence" model predicts the risk of considerable political instability

Over the last couple of months I have been working on a comprehensive document on my model of the evolution of intelligence, which has been delayed by domestic, health and other events but should be ready by the New Year. Trump's victory comes at the time I was drafting the section on what happened to make us "so much more intelligent" than animals and also explains some of the dangers of developing a "speed learning" brain on an animal brain foundation.

So how does my model explain the rise of Donald Trump. ...

Thursday, 29 September 2016

I find myself in a mobile medical box!

I have always been a workaholic with too many things in my rather disorganised in-tray, and as I have got older my ability to keep up with the flow of tasks has diminished. I decided I needed a break over the summer and try and forget the in-tray  for a bit = which is why there have been long gaps on this blog.

During September much of the time was involved with an Australian visitor who was due to return to Sydney in the evening. Everything was planned. Morning tea for the ladies at 8, with breakfast on the table, as I prepared a feast for lunch. Out for a walk in the woods at Ashridge at 10 followed by coffee in the Brownlow café, returning just before 12 to cook the already prepared food for the farewell feast at 1.30. A rest after the meal an d then taking our visitor to catch the coach to the airport.

As you may gather from the heading things didn't go to plan. After coffee we decided to take photographs and I suggested we move to a different part of the outdoor café to get better lighting and background.  I selected an empty table and my wife (who has mobility problems) found the seat a rather tight fit. and after the photo found she could not get up unaided.  I tried to lift her out of the chair and as she came up fell back with a crash, with her on of me. Putting my hand to the back of my head I found it covered with blood ...  Within seconds a café worker was on the scene and two other people helped my wife back to her feet. Minutes later two National Trust staff were in action with the site first aid box. On seeing the wound they called a Hertfordshire  ambulance and I was taken to Stoke Mandeville Hospital. I was treated swiftly and efficiently and as the wound was only superficial it was glued up and I was home in time to see our visitor onto the coach to Heathrow. All thoughts of the feast were abandoned - and at the time of writing we are thinking of who we might invite for a good meal later today.

So this blog serves as a thank you for all the people who helped.

Clearly at my age incidents such as this remind me that I could go "offline" at any moment - and I in planning the future I need to set priorities. I had discussed my research into the evolution of human intelligence with my visitor - and her parting words were that I should prepare something for publication soon - so I have decided that - now that my "holiday break" is over the top priority will be to follow up the ideas discussed in this blog.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Problem with Big Data based Machine Intelligence

I have rather neglected this blog recently, partly because of other distractions, including a stimulating FutureLearn course on the Hobbit (Home floresiensis), and partly because I am concentrating on writing up my ideas about the evolution of human intelligence. However I have just come across an article by Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis entitled "Eight (No Nine!) Things wrong with Big Data" which is well worth reading.

The issue I have with the big data approach to machine intelligence is that it is tackling the problem in a very different way to the human brain,

If we think about the evolution of the brain it started very small and incrementally became bigger over millions of years. And for each animal, including humans, the brains start with knowing very nothing apart from some pre-programmed instincts and its knowledge increases incrementally through life. The economics of evolution involve optimising the use of resources to maximise survival which will set limits to the size of the brain and the amount of time spent learning. In effect small amounts of "data" is beautiful as long as there is enough to be cost effective in the battle for survival.

Big data applications involve using vast amounts of data which is already available in digital form, such as the case of the Google language translator which uses million of document texts in different languages (so the data collection cost per byte is extremely low) and applies powerful statistical processes of a kind which clearly are not inbuilt into the human brain.

Of course in many cases the big data approach is invaluable in that it can do things humans are not be capable of doing. The important thing to realise is that the techniques used in processing big data can tell us virtually nothing about how the human brain works.

 

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Where is AI going?


 "In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level, and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable."

The above quotation appears at the start of an article "Will AI's bubble pop?" in the New Scientist of 16th July by Sally Adge. The significance of the quote was that it was made by one of the founding fathers of Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minsky in 1970 - and it is quite clear that the prediction was wildly optimistic. The article goes on "When the chasm between Minsky's promise and reality sank in, the disappointment destroyed A.I. research for decades". One of the reasons given was that there was "a research monoculture focused on a technique called rule-based learning which tried to emulate basic human reasoning."

When, in the 1970's I was researching CODIL, a pattern-matching language that was based on observations about how clerks in a large commercial organisation thought about  sales contracts, almost all attempts to publish were blocked because the approach did not conform to the rule based monoculture, which was dominated by mathematicians implementing formal mathematical models.

As  a result of the article I have sent the following letter to the Editor of New Scientist, and if it is published I will add a comment below..

Re “Will AI’s bubble pop?” – News Scientist 16 July
A “blue sky” casualty of the AI monoculture of the 1970s described by Sally Adee (16 July. p16-7) was CODIL. This was a pattern recognizing language initially proposed in 1967 as a terminal interface for very large commercial systems. Later study showed CODIL could handle many very different tasks, such as solving New Scientist’s Tantalizers (21 August 1975, p438) and supporting an AI-based teaching package (New Scientist 24 Sept. 1987 p67). The “not invented here” reaction of the AI establishment contributed to the project’s demise.

I am currently reassessing the surviving research notes. In modern terminology CODIL was a highly recursive network language for exchanging messy real world information between the human user’s “neural net” and a “intelligent” robot assistant. CODIL’s versatility arose because it allowed tasks to dynamically morph from open-ended pattern recognition, via set processing to predefined rule-based operation. The experimental work concentrated on communication and decision making activities, but the inherent recursive architecture would support deep network learning.
It seems that CODIL mimicked human short term memory - an area where conventional AI has been singularly unsuccessful. In evolutionary terms the re-interpreted model suggests that early humans used an initially primitive language to transfer knowledge from one brain to another creating a cultural neural net now some 10,000 generations deep! A CODIL-like brain model would automatically show weaknesses such as confirmation bias and a tendency to believe the most charismatic leader without out questioning the accuracy of the information received.

Perhaps it is time to resurrect the project.

Having Trouble with Tantalizers?


During the 1970s I did a lot of work testing a heuristic problem solver called Tantalize - which was written in CODIL. The following news item was published in the New Scientist of 21 August 1975 and as I will be referencing this in the next blog post [insert link] I have decided to reproduce the original item.

For those who have trouble solving the Tantalizers that run each week in New Scientist, Dr Chris Reynolds of BruneI University has developed a computer programme.

How "Big Data" will try and put you into a Box

In 1967 I was involved in a design study which involved moving a magnetic tape based application onto direct access storage - and the file size was of the order of 100 megabytes - which was very "big data" fifty years ago. Things have changed and people are now talking of petabytes of data - and I decided to look into the current views on Big Data by logging into a FutureLean online course "Big Data: From Data to Decisions". The course is more about programming systems which use big data - which is not what I was looking for - but there has been some useful discussions on the impact of big data and how far it is can have the effect to feeding people's natural "confirmation bias" to selectively feed material which reinforces their views, and in effect make them more narrow-minded.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Trapped on Flores - Why did the Hobbit have such a small brain?

I have currently be doing a short online course Homo floresiensis uncovered, run by the University of Wollongong. This hominin was only about one metre high and had a disproportionally small brain. In terms of my own interest in the evolution of human intelligence  this raises the interesting question of whether a smaller brain means less intelligence.

Homo floresiensis
First some of the background. Flores is an island in the Indonesian chain east of Bali and the Wallace line which separates the Asian fauna and flora from the Australian fauna and flora. As such it lacked, (until Homo sapiens arrived about 50,000 years ago, on his was to Australia) any Asian carnivores, herbivores or primates - with the exception of a pigmy elephant, Stegodon. and the diminutive Homo floresiensis. The only native carnivore which could threaten the hominin was a Komodo dragon.