Sunday, December 31, 2006

God in the Machine: What Robots Teach us About Humanity and God (Book Review)

Anne Foerst says we must grant personhood to humanoid robots. Is this an act of worship — or sheer hubris?

God in the Machine:
What Robots Teach us About Humanity and God
Anne Foerst.
New York. Dutton, 2004. 196 pages.
$24.95 paperback.

{ Audio this essay @ 4.5min @ 3.51MB } A 1976 El Camino was my first car, one that I drove all through high school and through my military service. I loved that car. Yet, when I entered it into a summer demolition derby, no one accused me of abuse or neglect — much less torture or murder — when my sputtering, flaming machine finally gave up the ghost.

If Anne Foerst were there, she might have leveled those accusations at me.

In her book titled God in the Machine, Foerst maintains that strong bonds can develop between humans and cars, computers, and other devices. Unfortunately, her focus on these bonds taints the bigger message of what robots can teach us about ourselves and about our relationship to God.

Foerst brings an interesting background to the discussion of robotics and religion — she apparently liked to sneak back and forth between studying Paul Tillich’s systematic theology at Harvard Divinity School and discussing the development of Cog, a famed robot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology robotics lab. By doing so, she discovered two incongruous cultures: At the divinity school, people were antitechnology and thought her quest to combine theology and artificial intelligence was unnecessary, she said. At MIT, people were suspicious of theologians. This experience helped Foerst develop her rectified view of technology-and-religion in God in the Machine.

The strongest section of the book deals with the Golem tradition from Jewish writings of the 13th and 16th centuries. Golems are helpful servants that can get out of hand if the intention of the human creator is not pure and worshipful of God. The Golem tradition teaches us that we are created creators, and that these artifices — like us — would enter into a system of sin and ambiguity.

The book also has its weaknesses that show the kind of category mistakes theologians can make when confronting advances in cognitive science and AI.

Take, as an example, the issues of bonding and community, which are pivotal concepts used throughout the book. A poignant stance on these can be found on the last page, where Foerst writes: “As we are communal and bond with nonhuman entities, these narratives will necessarily include some nonhuman critters.” Although she never explicitly defines what version of bonding is being invoked, she does think it depends more on emotional settings rather than on abstract human-like qualities.

The problem here is that people can emotionally bond with all sorts of entities that strain the notion of what can be considered part of the community and what cannot. For instance, an early AI program called Eliza had people becoming so dependent on it that the program’s author, famed MIT researcher Joseph Weizenbaum, eventually ended its use. Even Weizenbaum’s secretary would ask him to leave until she had finished sharing her intimate personal matters with the machine. Weizenbaum was rightly concerned by all this — and even more so when people accused him of violating their privacy when he considered recording all interaction with Eliza.

If there is one lesson to be taken from Foerst’s book, it is that we tend to humanize all things we bond with. When Foerst and other like-minded theologians can finally distinguish between what is human (or, more properly a "person") and what is not, they will be able to resolve the skeptics’ new mantra for AI’s relationship to religion: All that glitters is not God’s.

*This review appeared in the May 2006 issue of Science and Theology News.

**image: Peter Menzel Photography.


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21st cent. Benedict Arnold or Libertarian Hero? Police Officer Dares to Tell the Truth

I just recently ran across a very interesting article about Barry Cooper, a former Gladewater and Big Sandy, TX police officer who was once the best drug officer in West Texas, according to his former superiors. Cooper was an eight-year veteran of law enforcement and drug interdiction. Consider what his old supervisor said about him:

Tom Finley, now a private investigator in Midland, said he was Cooper's boss in the 1990s and said Cooper was the best drug interdiction officer he had ever known. "He was even better than he says he was [....] He had a knack for finding drugs and made more arrests, more seizures than all of the other agents combined. He was probably the best narcotics officer in the state and maybe the country during his time with the task force."[1]

So what's the issue? Cooper believes marijuana should be legalized and regulated by the government which he says will cause the crime rate to drop.

Marijuana makes you happy, then intoxicated, then sleepy [...] It doesn't make you crazy. [....] The 'gateway drug' label is a fallacy. If there was a gateway drug, it would be alcohol [....] When I was raiding houses and destroying families, my conscience was telling me it was wrong, but my need for power, fame and peer acceptance overshadowed my good conscience.[1]
Cooper aruges that Prohibition was a failed American experiment when the state tried to outlaw alcoholic beverages. Ultimately, that policy merely empowered criminals, and he thinks the same thing is now happening with prohibition of Marijuana.

I find this all very ironic. (Disclaimer: I'm a member of a Christian denomination that helped start the Prohibition movement.) The real gateway drug was rightly banned in America, but that ban nevertheless failed. But the fake gateway drug is currently banned, yet that ban seems to be failing also. What's of further intest is how Cooper readily acknowledges that "cocaine and crack should be eradicated from the earth because they are dangerous drugs."[1] So he's not an advocate of the full legalization of drugs, but only of drugs that, on his view, do not have malevolent consequences to society. However, and on my view, a quick survey of recent scientific literature[2], where the full effects of Marijuana are studied under controlled conditions, still shows that recreational use of this drug is a bad cognitive risk.

Yet I'm happy to report that in gloriful wisdom God has instead sent us caffene.[3]


[1] Kenneth Dean and Roy Maynard "Former Cop to Sell Video Showing Drug Users How to Avoid Police Detection" Tyler Morning Telegraph (Accessed 12/31/06)

[2] "The residual cognitive effects of heavy marijuana use in college students" et. al. Journal of the American Medical Association (Accesed 12/31/06)

[3] Susan O. Henry "Caffeine: And Now For the Good News!" (Accesed 12/31/06)


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Friday, December 29, 2006

Noise cancelling ATM memories

I was deep into a van ride heading towards Los Alamos a year or so ago when a friend of mine happend to have brought-out some noise cancelling headphones. They were a high end pair (he likes techie things), and so I was happy to give them a try, knowing that this would be a good test case for establishing what a consumer could expect from the technology.
I must admit, they worked astoundingly well. The road noise and about every other noise (except for the soft-background music he had playing) all but disappeared from what I could hear. His were clearly using some sort of alien technology. Here is a short blurb on how it actually works:
Active noise cancellation [is] complicated and involves some serious science. First, tiny microphones, one on each earpiece, detect ambient noise before it gets to your ears. Then the noise-cancellation circuitry, usually housed in an external module, essentially inverts the captured signal, turning the noise's sound wave upside down. Before you know it, the noise-cancellation system adds the sonic opposite of the external noise to whatever you're listening to, thereby eliminating most of the pollution and leaving you with just your music.[1]
I worked in the ATM industry as a "host" operator for a couple of years, and had to sit in a room filled with droning Tandem mainframes connected to everything from your mom's 7/11 to the mall and even to the treasury department. "Tandem was the first company to address the transaction processing (OLTP) market for online reservations and financial transfers by providing computers designed from the ground up for fault-tolerant operation. These computers are used in all the major banks, stock exchanges, credit card companies and ATM machines in the world."[2] And one more thing: Tandom blows -- air, that is. Sitting in that ever-buzzing, CPU fan-blown room drove me slightly insane, since I had to work 12 hour shifts. It sure would have been nice to have had such an item then. The only differentiation of sound was The Buzzer, which indicated the presence of drivers.

Nite-shift armored truck drivers were personal friends of mine. They really didn't have other friends, mind you; because, they were always weirded out about getting robbed by the greater Kansas City populous. But they had to enter two cypher-coded steel doors just to see me (or even three to actually shake my hand, which was rare), which seemed somehow to put them at ease; so, I was their little buddy-in-a-building-sized-safe. And I worked very hard to be likeable too. (The had guns; I had none.) Still, I suppose it's a rational policy to hire slightly paranoid armored truck drivers.


[1] "The sound of silence" C-Net Reviews (Accessed 12/29/2006)

[2] "Tandem Computers" (Accessed 12/29/2006)


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Friday, December 22, 2006

Nano tech: new tools for goofiness

Yes, it's a real fly with real glasses. And it is just such images that remind me why technology is a never ending source of worry. People are basically goofy and do goofy things with their tools. (I'm no exception.)

Actually there's a good reason why the company decided to put glasses on a fly:

Manufacturing firm Micreon GmbH submitted the insect's picture for the Bilder der Forschung (Photos of Science) 2005 competition. Selected images were on display last week in a Munich shopping center. Micreon, based in Hannover, Germany ... created the fly's eyewear using ultrafast laser micro-machining. The firm notes on its Web site that the process can create objects with high precision at scales of less than a thousandth of a millimeter. [1]

I wonder how the conversation got started at the board meeting. "Hey, Hans, I got this freaky good idea while staring at the windowsill at the Bratwurst house today during lunch..." The company claims they can create objects with high precision. I think I believe them.


[1] "Photo in the News: Housefly Gets Glasses Made With Lasers" National Geographic Website (Accessed 12/22/2006)


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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On the free, 72oz steak challenge

Dear. Mr. Supposed Philosopher:

{ Audio .mp3 this essay @ 2MB for 2.5minutes } I read about a place in Amarillo that will give you a free lunch, but only if you can consume a 72oz steak (along with all the fixins'). But I have heard it said, "there is no such thing as a free lunch." Given the existence of such a restaurant, what is your opinion on this saying now?

Hungry for Advice

Dear Sir Chew-n-spew, it turns out I have indeed been to this place, and was going to take the challenge, for I had at one time eaten a 50z steak dinner with all the fixin's on a bet (while in the Military some years earlier at a Round-barn restaurant in Colorado.) After all, I reasoned, I work but a few *feet* from old highway Route 66, so what better proof of my established Okie nature than to rise to such a legendary culinary challenge!

However, it also turns out that the Amarillo establishment in question makes one sit at a special table up front for all to ogle, and I was too shy about risking my already shaky dignity. Nevertheless, to at least prove my worth to the waiter, I ordered two 25oz steaks, a bowling-ball sized potato, a robust dinner salad; and then, of course, a full desert. I ate it all. Agog, the waiter asked, "Why didn't you take the challenge?!" I told him, "I don't want to be the object of dinner theater."

The details of that night are still clearly etched in my mind. I still remember paying the in-house, dining-room traveling fiddle band to play "Red River Valley" in honor of my late maternal Grandfather who, it was once revealed to me, used to regularly hum that very tune to himself while castrating hogs.

My Amarillo adventure came about as a result of getting several hundred dollars and an overnight stay at a close proximity hotel for giving but ONE speech at a local Amarillo Church. So, in effect, I lived like a rich man for one day, and issued a proof-of-concept to a waiter, that I could indeed have eaten the 72oz steak. This wondrous event occurred back in the mid-1990s. It is said that God sometimes sends us showers of blessing, but on that particular trip, on that particular evening, the Lord almighty was clearly offering to do a four-and-a-half pound meat miracle thru me. Perhaps I impeded the kingdom just a little bit that day by not cooperating with His timely Amarillo grace.


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Monday, December 18, 2006

Grading papers in the shadow of my own insanity

Moooweehahahaha! Hahahaha! Ahhhh hahahaha. [cough. cough.] I’ve been grading papers all day, and I mean ALL day. I’m now officially insane. I really loathe grading papers. Well duh! You’d think this makes no sense, something like a plumber saying he loathes getting his hands wet and dirty. The problem is, I have self-initiated ADD. When reading papers, I’d rather be doing anything else. Of course, this is exactly why I put the task off until the last minute. I’m always hoping I’ll be in the mood to grade a stack of long papers (as if that has ever happened.)

My method, which has always been successful, and which worked again today is as follows:

1. Go to coffee shop first thing in the morning. (Avoids any distractions, like the Internet.)
2. Get *totally* jacked on caffeine and sugar. (Pharmacologically increases reading speed!)
3. Grade papers until I note hunger. (Often greatly delayed by coffee with cream.)
4. Order food at said coffee shop. (Never dare to leave and accidently find pleasure.)
5. Goto 2 while any papers remain.
Note well that some papers are most excellent. But here is the strange thing: Given a 2-3K word paper, I think I can now tell (after more than a dozen years of reading such) an A-level thesis defense paper by reading the first full page, and then by reading, at random, a single additional page from that paper. Suppose this proves correct 90% of the time. Should I used the method? I don’t know whether I *should*, but I’m not going to run the experiment, because I know that I *would*.

There is a way, however, that other professors have recommended [1] to take away all of my chores of essay grading.

Get behind me ye doers of evil!


[image]Dan Henck, Artist Site.

[1] Daniel J. Solove, A Guide to Grading Exams, Concurring Opinions Blog (Accessed 12/14/2006)


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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chess: Best Human vs. Best Computer: The Chess Muse Stands Up

{ Audio .mp3 this essay @ 6.9MB for 7 minutes } I've noted, over the years, that I go through bouts of playing chess; and I've also noted that after a return from a long stay at the game, I'm always slightly worse. I'm older, alas, and it is to be expected that my mind will slow down. In fact, I've taken advantage of this fact in the past, though from the other side, where I've played near-retirement age professors in speed chess. I would often win when the chess clock was set at five minutes each, but they would start becoming the victors when I'd set ten minutes on each side. Naturally, I knew I had the advantage, but often they did not.

Recently, world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik was playing what many consider to be the best chess program ever, Deep Fritz 10. Four games were drawn (i.e. ended in a tie). One game was blundered away on a one-move checkmate; Kramnik lost. But the last game, the Fritz program won outright. What I find interesting, is that this last game (game 6) contained moves that the other grandmasters in the room could not understand, and which some of them even disparaged. Here is a quote from George Dvorsky's excellent article:

Fritz made moves during the tournament that left other grandmasters scratching their heads wondering how and why it did what it did. In many respects, the internal machinations of the computer is beyond human comprehension.[1]
I don't think this statement about "comprehension" is quite right, for the moves are computed by an algorithm whose goal was to quantifiy a position so as to determine which move is best (as determined by the program's metrics), when given certain input paramaters. The metrics were designed by a human, and the algorithm was implimented by a human.

Instead, it's probably better to claim that the computer's play is beyond the "intuition" of even the best grandmasters under human-standard tournmament conditions. Stephen Moss, writing for The Guardian, seemingly agrees: "Deep Fritz played some brilliantly counterintuitive moves in game six, and made some manoeuvres that were so ugly, they were beautiful."[2]

I'd argue they were beautiful in the sense that a very efficient math proof is beautiful -- the objective is achieved with a minimum of wasteful steps. However, the observed pattern of efficiency in achieving a win (or superior position) exhibited by computers does not have the kind of aesthetic appeal that has served grandmasters so well up to today. One can image, as computers continue to double in power every couple of years, the games might become what looks like an entangled mess, but which actually amounts to supremely efficient goal achievement.

But Moss goes on to draw a conclusion with which I cannot agree:

Computers are now so much better than humans [...] that man-v-machine matches have become pointless. Sponsors love them; manufacturers of chess programs love them; but chess players recognise them for what they are - sideshows, games of academic interest only. Deep Fritz is reckoned to calculate 10 million positions a second; the human brain simply can't calculate that fast or that far ahead.[...] Machines, programmed with books of opening theory and tables to allow them to calculate perfect endgames, can play chess better than humans. Checkmate. Now let humans get back to playing other humans in a thrilling struggle between fallible, organic entities.[2]
Monty Newborn, speaking at the 2nd World Computer Chess Championship in Toronto way back in 1977, made a controversial statement: "In the past Grandmasters came to our computer tournaments to laugh. Today they come to watch. Soon they will come to learn." One big lesson Grandmasters can learn is how their default intuitions are operating on the board, since their own moves and positional preferences are also being quantified under the computer's model. Thus, a grandmaster can learn certain weakness in his own psychology of board evaluation. A well-known chess teacher, Alexander Roshall, who is also the editor of a Russian chess magaine, claimed that just such a weakness was exposed for Kramnik in game two, where an odd tactical position arose that grandmasters generally just don't encounter:

[T]he mating pattern that occurred during the game, with the white queen protected by a knight on f8 [...] is extremely rare in chess. It is not one of the patterns that chess grandmasters automatically have in their repertoire. This was confirmed by a GM commentator in Bonn, who after Kramnik's move did not notice that it was a blunder and started discussing White's options – but not the mate in one. Alexander Roshal assured us that, had the white knight somehow moved to [a more commonly played square nearby the King] Kramnik would have seen the mate in micro-seconds, [as if the square] would have had a big red light blinking on it, Roshal said, because this kind of mate (or mating threat) occurs quite often in chess, and the mating pattern would be firmly anchored in his mind. With the knight in an unusual position the square remained dark and Kramnik simply did not see the danger.[3]
This kind of analysis shows, contrary to Moss, that human-machine matches are not pointless, and here are three reasons why: First, finding such blindspots in professional player strategy is an important reason to continue having human-computer tournaments. Second, having the computer analyze which players had (or have) the strongest attacks, deepest tactical intuitions, best endgame understanding, etc., would help justify which players in the history of the game were true stand-outs in their area of speciality. (This is a constant argument among followers of the game.) Third, there are always new search structures that can be tweaked, tested and evaluated (see Google video: The History of Computer Chess: An AI Perspective), and these might yeild identifiable "styles" of chess play, styles which might accurately map the styles of any past human player of note.

I like the picture which opens today's blog entry, as it shows a young woman, which I'll dub 'The Chess Muse', standing beside an empty chair. With the tournament victory of Deep Fritz 10 over the world champion, The Chess Muse has stood up. No doubt she plans to walk to the other side of the table, where there is a player who needs no chair.


[1] "The Future of Chess" George P. Dvorsky's Blog (Accessed 12/9/2006)

[2] Stephen Moss, "Man v machine (and guess who won)" The Guardian Unlimited (Accessed 12/8/2006)

[3]"How could Kramnik overlook the mate?" Chessbase news (Accessed 12/09/06)

see also: "Kramnik Biography" Vladimir Kramnik World Champion Official Web Site