New Singularity Essays

IEEE Spectrum has a series of new essays on the singularity from the likes of Vernor Vinge and Rodney Brooks (who have both been on this show in the last year).

My favourite quote so far comes from Vinge’s new essay “Signs of the Singularity“:

“The best answer to the question, “Will computers ever be as smart as humans?” is probably “Yes, but only briefly”.”

Four More Years Before Machines Surpass Humans

Hans Moravec has suggested that the human brain has a processing capacity of 10 quadrillion instructions per second (10 billion MIPS). In comparison, it was announced today that the fastest supercomputer in the world, called Roadrunner and devised and built by engineers and scientists at I.B.M. and Los Alamos National Laboratory, is capable of handling 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second.

In 2007, it was announced the previous fastest supercomputer, IBM’s Blue Gene /l, had been upgraded to achieve 478 TFLOPS sustained and 596 TFLOPS peak. So in less that 12 months, we’ve doubled (hey, I should create a law around that prediction).

So, if Moore’s Law holds out:

2009 – 2 QIPS

2010 – 4 QIPS

2011 – 8 QIPS

2012 – 16 QIPS – which puts it 6 QIPS above the suggested ability of a human brain.

Are you ready for that? Do you think the human race is ready for that?

We have NO IDEA what the consequences of that are. On one hand, it could be nothing. On the other hand, what if sentience is nothing more than massive computation?

Either way, here we are, a mere 4 years before a machine is likely to be built which will have a bigger brain than a human and we aren’t even discussing what that means for the human race.

Well, that’s not exactly true – Tyler’s Singularity Institute are discussing it, but where is the debate in mainstream media, in the government, in polite society?

It reminds me of a chat I had with Australian SF author Damien Broderick over dinner about ten years ago. I asked him when he thought these subjects would be discussed by the general populace. He replied “when it’s way too late to do anything about it”.

Teaching your kids to save money

Andre writes the “Lost Parent Diary” blog and he recently contacted me about a podcast I did where I mentioned how my twin boys started saving their pocket money to buy their own laptops when they were about five years old. He wrote it up into a blog post about teaching your kids to save money. He even turned it into a step-by-step guide!

Now I must admit, while we were helping Tay and Hunter save for their laptops, it didn’t seem like we were doing anything super special. I was impressed with is decision to save for a laptop at age five, but apart from that, we were just doing the basics of what I’m sure all parents do with their kids. But the way Andre has written it up makes it sound like we knew what we were doing. It’s all in the writing, I assure you.

I’m excited these days about helping them start their first business this year. We’ve been talking about it for a year or so now and it’s the next logical step.

I’m looking at starting a podcast about parenting at the moment actually. Anyone interested in hosting it should let me know.

Microsoft’s Ballmer on the Future of Media

Okay so – Steve’s crystal ball hasn’t been 100% accurate over the years – neither has BillG’s – but he’s also helped build Microsoft into the giant it is today, despite decades of predicitions of it’s imminent demise, so he must know something. And this is what he said recently about the future of media:

In the next 10 years, the whole world of media, communications and advertising are going to be turned upside down — my opinion.

Here are the premises I have. Number one, there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.

(source – Washington Post. Thanks for Bron for the link)

He also says that he prefers to watch “Lost” for free over the internet with ads in it rather than pay a buck for it on iTunes. And Steve is worth what – $4 Billion? Says a lot about content monetization strategies… or it could just be his desire not to line SteveJ’s pocket.

Science Needs A Celebrity Makeover

It in the last few days I’ve had two startling, and somewhat depressing, conversations.

In both instances, I had a debate with people I admire, for their intelligence and intellectual rigour, about the merit of the scientific method. In both cases, my opponents made claims which felt unscientific to me. When I challenged their thinking on the subject, it lead to a conversation which went something like this:

THEM: “I don’t think science is the only way to know the truth.”

ME: “ORLY? What alternative method do you propose?”

THEM: “Well I don’t have an alternative. I just think there are things that science doesn’t know.”

ME: “Of course, there is plenty that science doesn’t know. But the list of things which *might* be true are infintesmal. Only a sub-set of those ideas can *actually* be true. If we don’t use the scientific method (hypothesis, testing, evidence, conclusions, consensus) to determine which of those ideas are *actually* true, what alternative method do you propose?”

Now at this point, people usually start dithering about “well, I don’t have an alternative, I just… well I… it just seems to me that science isn’t the only way… I… well…”.

I am appalled. I mean, I expect that kind of response from people addicted to mythological cults that train you to ignore facts – Christianity, Scientology, etc. But neither of the people I was talking to are religious in a traditional sense. Both are extremely articulate, deep thinkers, and self-confident about their own intellect and opinions. So, unlike when I get into these debates with cultists, I’m sure they didn’t feel threatened by my somewhat aggressive approach to the determination of ‘truth’.

And yet, for some reason which remains unclear to me, they subscribe to this meme that “science isn’t the only way”, even though they are completely unable to articulate an alternative.

How did we get here? How can it possibly be that at the dawn of the 21st century, there are people who are educated, intelligent, free from infection by mythological dogma, yet who still refuse to accept an evidence-based approach to determining fact from fiction?

It strikes me that science – that is, the scientific method – needs a celebrity makeover.

The human race needs a serious dose of education about what the scientific method entails and why it is – without any rational argument that I’m aware of – the superior process for determining what is true and what is false.

Perhaps we need a complete overhaul – we need to dramatically improve how science is taught in school, at university and how it is portrayed by the media. We need big budget Hollywood (and Bollywood) films made which portray science in a positive light, which re-iterate WHAT the scientific method is and WHY it is the best way we’ve come up with (so far) for determining the truth about how the universe works.

America – “The Land Of The Jailed”

So much for being “The Land Of The Free”: Human Rights Watch has just posted up the latest stats which show the USA incarcerates nearly 7 times the number of it’s citizens are other democracies such as the UK and Canada.

Statistics released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the US Department of Justice, show that as of June 30, 2007, approximately 2.3 million persons were incarcerated in US prisons and jails, an all-time high. This represents an incarceration rate of 762 per 100,000 US residents, the highest such rate in the world. By contrast, the United Kingdom’s incarceration rate is 152 per 100,000 residents; the rate in Canada is 108; and in France it is 91.

“The new incarceration figures confirm the United States as the world’s leading jailer,” said David Fathi, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “Americans should ask why the US locks up so many more people than do Canada, Britain, and other democracies.”

He goes on to say even though the majority of drug users in America are white, the majority of people imprisoned on drug charges are black.

“The ‘war on drugs’ has become a war on black Americans.”

So let’s see:

  • America jails more of it’s people than any other country in the world (including Cuba, Iraq, Russia and China)
  • America has more gun deaths per capita (by a huge margin) than any other country in the world.
  • America has more nuclear weapons than any other country in the world.
  • America has financed more terrorism and supported more dictators than any other country in the world in the last century.

The question in my mind is: Is America the most violent country in the world? And why, when they have it so good?

G’Day World Video – Peter Ellyard discusses “Designing 2050”

I had the pleasure once again today to catch up with Dr Peter Ellyard, Australia’s leading futurist, one of our most popular public speakers and, of course, author of the historic first book published by TPNTXT:

“Designing 2050: Pathways to sustainable prosperity on spaceship earth”.

The auction for two signed proof copies of the book can be found here. The auction ends 15-Jun-08 22:11:27 AEST.

You can buy a new copy of “Designing 2050”, either in paperback or ebook format, here.

Watch the video interview:

Exxon says one thing, does the opposite

From the “Just-Cuz-We-Say-We’re-Going-To-Do-Something-Doesn’t-Mean-We-Will” department:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that ExxonMobil has just announced “for the second consecutive year” that it is cutting funding to groups which promote skepticism about global warming. The groups that are supposedly being cut off include the Capital Research Center, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, Frontiers of Freedom Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, and the Institute for Energy Research. However, CSPI points out, “Each group continued to receive Exxon funding in 2007 after the company’s first announcement that it would discontinue the payments. Exxon did not immediately return calls seeking comment on how serious it was in following through on its plans.”

(Source: Integrity in Science Watch, June 2, 2008 via

It’s easy to companies to make a big splash, put out some advertising, put out a press release, but how often do they actually follow through? And who holds them responsible when they don’t? Perhaps we need more people like Stephen Mayne, who buy shares in these companies, and then rock up to their Annual General Meeting with a video camera to ask the hard questions.

Re-inventing Politics – The Cameron System

On Twitter this afternoon I made a crack about how the two-party system we have in Australia is, I believe, fundamentally broken. Someone asked me how I would improve it. This is what I came up with on the fly. This isn’t something I’ve given any thought to previously, so it’s probably full of holes as big as Barnesy’s mouth, but you know me, I’m a shoot-first, think-later kinda guy. I’m certain it isn’t even slightly original. It’s probably discussed in Politics 101 at university but as I didn’t go to university, I missed out.

Let’s scrap all of the political parties.

In fact, let’s scrap elections completely.

Why couldn’t it work like the jury system.

We set up an online Bill submission system. Citizens, businesses, lobby groups, etc, could all enter in their submissions for new laws they want enacted.

Public servants would then arrange for 50 or 100 citizens to be selected at random from the community, jury style, to hear the arguments for and against each submission. After they have heard the evidence and debated it in private, the jury will vote to see which submission deserve further investigation. Two small committees will then be established from the public service to examine the merits of each submission – one for and one against.

Once the committees have their presentations ready, another “jury” will be called to hear the respective arguments. They will hear the “for” argument and the “against” argument, just like hearing the prosecution and the defense in a legal case. Again, this “jury” will deliberate in private and then vote either for or agains the bill.

And so on and so forth.

And we treat being a member of one of these juries with the same seriousness and legal ramifications as we do being a member of a jury today. Tampering with a jury carries maximum penalties.

The benefits? Here are some off the top of my head.

  • even if we fly everyone to Canberra for the deliberations, it’s going to save the country millions of dollars a year. The 2004 Federal Election cost $120 million. I have no idea what it costs us every year to run the MPs, but it can’t be pretty. In my system, it would be legislated that the jurors would get leave from their employers at full pay while they were on jury duty. Small businesses (under $10 million in annual revenue) would be compensated for this expense.
  • we would get rid of professional politicians for good and all of the problems that this system entails. Lobby groups wouldn’t be able to buy off anyone, because juries would rotate constantly. Nobody gets to retire from politics and become a director of a mining company as a reward for Bills passed or get paid $US500,000 per speaking engagement.
  • we’d get rid of party politics. Hooray.
  • it won’t just be the wealthy members of society making the decisions. Federal backbenchers now get paid $127,000 pa plus benefits whereas half the households in Australia have a pre-tax income of less than $80,826. And that’s leaving out the politicians who are already insanely wealthy such as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

So – as always feel free to tell me where I’m wrong. You know I love a good debate.

(photo by tassie303)

GMAIL – Filtering many messages at once

Here’s something I learned this morning – how to quickly set up a Gmail filter to delete multiple annoying messages. This may not be news to most of you but as it was a new discovery for me, I thought I’d share it.

Find Annoying Messages – you know those ones that you find yourself deleting day after day after day from the same people? Some of them will be from mailing lists you signed up for when you decided you really were doing to take your diet seriously – this time, I mean it, I really, really mean it – until you re-discovered the delights of the Timus Tamus.

Check Annoying Messages – Of course you can open up the emails and click on the link to unsubscribe yourself from the mailing list, but this is much quicker. Until today I didn’t realize I could filter multiple messages at once.

The you tell Gmail you want to “Filter Messages Like These”:

Gmail creates an “OR” boolean filter which you can then tell it to delete.

So from then on, I hope, Gmail will automatically delete (or you could tell it to mark them as read and archive them, just in case you might want to read them later) all future emails from any of those addresses.

Okay… only 549 more messages to deal with this morning before I deserve an espresso….